Film Favourite Friday : A brand new feature for The Monolith
Every week I, along with four other members of The Monolith team, will be looking at a specific element of film. This element may be plot based, revolve around a certain theme or character, or even come from specific cast or crew member. We will then be selecting our favourite example of this element in the history of cinema (and occasionally television and web series), and explaining what it is about this choice that makes it so BLOODY EFFING GOOD! Tune in on The Monolith Facebook every Monday to learn what our upcoming theme for the week will be and voice your own opinions!
This week to celebrate the release of Parker starring Jason Statham, I asked four members of The Monolith for their favourite examples of British actors and actresses portraying Americans. With nearly one hundred years of popular cinema to choose from, who would make the cut? Bangers an’ Mash, whatchout ya bloody idjut, for the luv uv crown und cream!
Many Americans could offer the excuse that the only reason they were “fooled” by Idris Elba’s portrayal of an American is because they’d never seen him in anything before seeing him as Stringer Bell in HBO’s acclaimed series, The Wire. Stringer is one of the best characters from a show chock full of fantastic characters, personifying the very point of the series with his complex mixture of thuggish moral code and business acumen. But in reality, Elba nailed everything about the Baltimore drug-dealer persona so well, even if you had seen him play a role with a British accent beforehand, you’d probably just assume THAT was him showing off his acting repertoire. (Dominic West actually deserves a nod for this feat as well, but Elba was just superior at adopting every last shred of Americanitude.)
Daniel Day Lewis is really kind of a no-brainer for this category. Not my style. So fuck that, I’m going with Gary Oldman. Way back in ‘91, Oldman began his campaign of fooling American audiences by portraying Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK. A few years later, he’s a severely demented white Rastafarian Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Fast forward another couple years, he knocks it out of the park again as evil DEA agent Stansfield in Léon: The Professional. We can just stop there, really. Oldman has continued skillfully playing American characters in the 20 years since, but there is no reason to rub it in.
Ok, imagine this: you’re a British Actress cast as a daughter of an escaped slave in the late 1800’s American South. Tough already, right? Ok, add to that the idea that your character is an adult, but is mentally like a child (it’s complicated), so you have to speak and behave like a child while maintaining an ineffable southernness, (believe it or not, one of the more difficult accents to pull off believably). Oh, and one more thing: you’re going to be sharing scenes with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. You know, the very duo who practically perfected the barely-post-slavery black life portrayal in The Color Purple. Impossible, right? Nope. Thandie Newton rose to that very task in 1998’s Beloved.
When trying to think of my favorite instances of British film actors playing the parts of Americans, one movie instantly sprung to mind: Black Hawk Down is about American soldiers, but manages to have an ensemble cast that features actors from across the English-speaking world. The UK is pretty well covered (except Ireland, I guess), with Welshman Ioan Gruffudd, Scottsmen Ewen Bremner and Ewan McGregor, and Englishmen Orlando Bloom, Matthew Marsden, Razaaq Adoti, Treva Etienne, Hugh Dancy, Jason Isaacs, and Tom Hardy.
The strength of the Brits’ overall presence in Black Hawk Down is less any given performance (although Ewan McGregor’s transformation into Grimes is quite memorable) than the unobtrusiveness of the group as a whole; for the most part, without advance knowledge of the actors’ nationalities, one would be hard pressed to sort the actual Americans from the pretenders. Any major film that attempts to accurately depict American service people and military operations will be closely scrutinized, fact-checked down to the closest details. Although it’s not necessary to achieve complete accuracy to craft a good film, telling a gripping war story at least requires enough verisimilitude to carry off the mood and atmosphere. Liam Neeson’s accent in Taken probably wouldn’t have cut it for some lieutenant in a serious American military flick. The fact that the Brits in Black Hawk Down manage to fit in with authentic ‘murkans like Tom Sizemore is a credit to all of their performances.
Laurie, Winslet, Garfield, Oh My!!!!
Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House, House: Legend has it that after one of producers of House viewed Laurie’s audition tape, he exclaimed, “See, this is what I want; an American guy.” A hilarious statement as Laurie is unquestionably English and was already well established on the other side of the (my) pond as an accomplished actor at the time of his audition for the American show. However, this speaks volumes to the effectiveness and brilliance Laurie brought to the disgruntled, drug addict doctor for the duration of the series’ run. Millions tuned in each week to see what devilishly witty (and many times, deliciously offensive) comments would slip off Laurie’s tongue, many completely unaware their star wasn’t batting for team USA. Laurie’s rugged handsome looks and uncanny ability to manipulate his facial expressions in reaction to the acting of those around them completely captured the troubled genius we all came to know and love, and now, miss, as the show has (sadly) ended. But, the beauty of Laurie’s performances is that they are so nuanced each subsequent viewing give us new dimensions of the character and plots of the show—perfect as the show lives on in syndication.
Kate Winslet as April Wheeler, Revolutionary Road: In America the image of the 50s housewife still holds powerful mythological meaning for those of us on both sides of the political coin. So when Sam Mendes began the project of adapting Richard Yates’ novel of the same name, he found no other actor more up for the challenge than his then-wife Kate Winslet (the two have since divorced). But, we wonder how does the English Winslet capture the harrowed and devastating affect of April Wheeler, a women dealing with the fallout of the American Dream? With terrifying precision and accuracy. Winslet, acting alongside her longtime friend and Titanic love, Leonardo DiCaprio, nails the part and not for a moment do we question her almost uncontrollable lust for a life outside the suburbs and her subsequent suffering and misery when this does not occur. Winslet’s portrayal of April uncomfortably forces us to confront the unspoken traumas of post-children relationships and how sacrifice must always be on the table, it’s one of my favorite performances by any actor in any film.
Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, The Social Network: Even though Garfield was born in the US, he was raised and came of age in England, first getting his big break on Dr. Who in 2007. The reason I include him in this list is because I feel that playing an actual person in a period film made a mere handful of years after the actual events occurred is a challenge for any actor and Garfield nails it. There is no question his performance is the more understated in comparison to Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of the cold and calculating Mark Zuckerberg or even Justin Timberlakes manic portrayal of Sean Parker (also good), yet he does not play the victim. He creates Eduardo with perseverance and grace, never letting the viewer believe Eduardo is not as sharp as Zuckerburg, just different. Garfield’s Saverin is loyal, hardworking, and ultimately victorious in the film, but not without his faults. He fails to see why Zuckerburg would be so hurt in his admission to a finals club and such sets the tone for their later falling out. It’s a multi toned and great performance I love, I’m glad it opened the door for him to be a larger player in Hollywood.
It’s becoming increasingly common in Hollywood for British actors to portray American actors, so much so that certain American outlets ask if British actors are taking over! So far all of my fellow writers have named great examples, Idris Elba is one of my favourite actors and his performance as Stringer Bell is one for the ages – did you know the creators of the show auditioned him six times before they discovered he was English? Every time “Bigdris” turned up to the auditions he was in Stringer Bell mode and never gave it up. On the sixth audition, they asked him where he was from and he just replied (in his normal accent) “London mate!” This stunned them and that was actually how he ended up winning the part.
I suppose in the vein of British actors playing complex American characters we should pay some respect to Damian Lewis, the man behind the starring role in recent tv hit Homeland. Lewis got his American start in Band Of Brothers, playing Captain Winters, and now he’s rocking it in Homeland. I’ve encountered many people who have been completely unaware of his true heritage as his performance and accent is truly flawless.
Special praise must be given to Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, who seem to put on a different voice for every character they play, all of them being faultless. Truly two master actors.
So finally, we come to my pick, and although I stressed to the team that it didn’t matter if anyone doubled up, with Idris Elba as Stringer Bell already claimed, I’m going to throw a curve ball. Idris Elba as Charles Miner in The U.S. adaptation of The Office. Having only starred in five episodes or so, most people will forget, or have never seen Elba’s performance, but it is as perfectly played as his role in The Wire. It is the perfect example of a talented actor pulling his weight in a small role to give it additional meat, and Elba executes his craft with precision.
After a series of problems occurring in upper management of Scranton-based paper company Dunder Mifflen, Charles Miner is brought in as hands on corporate presence in the office. He immediately clashes horns with Steve Carrel’s award winning Michael Scott, but for the first time since the very beginning of the show (and we are talking five series in here), we see a genuinely hostile presence. The format of the show prior to Elba’s introduction sees Scott able (for the most part) to get away with completely unbelievable feats of negligence, lethargy and tactlessness, and his bosses bend over backwards to ignore him. The comedy is derived from their awkwardness at his antics, but with Charles Miner this pattern is broken. Elba creates a character who is almost the polar opposite of Stringer Bell. Whereas Bell is an inherently bad man doing bad things, but in a manner that causes the audience to feel some level of admiration or even sympathy for him, Miner is a good man, doing his job professionally, who the audience come to loath simply by him being at odds with the regular cast. His performance is equally understated, seemingly effortless, whilst at the same time carrying a sense of strength and force that other characters in the corporate environment sorely lack. I urge any fans of Elba’s work as Stringer to watch the few episodes in which he appears in The Office, (beginning with Series 5 episode New Boss), whether they follow the series or not.
So that’s it for our first week, do you agree with our choices or do you have a favourite who is missing from the list? Hit the comments section and let us know your outrage! Check The Monolith Facebook page on Monday to learn what our list will concern next week! Cheers mate, I’ll meet you and the missus for a pint down at the Coach and Fevvers, then we can go footy and eat shitty food all day!