Showrunners will always say that it doesn’t matter where talent comes from, as long as an actor is right for the part. But for more than a decade now, the actors that fit well into primetime series are coming from outside the United States in increasing numbers.
Some credit the Internet with giving casting directors a larger talent pool at their disposal. Others say Europeans are inundated with American culture from a young age, giving them the ability to mimic accents and social quirks. And nearly everyone agrees that Europe and Australia have stronger theater traditions that simply train actors more effectively.
“Britain has a huge tradition of acting. It’s incredibly respected there, so very well-trained actors quite often come out of there,” says Michelle Ashford, executive producer of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” “And because so much serious material now is coming from television, I don’t think it’s an accident that they’re gravitating toward it.”
“I find it very exciting, this idea that there are no borders anymore in terms of casting. The whole world is available to us,” adds Noah Hawley, executive producer of FX’s “Fargo.”
(Illustration by Shout for Variety Magazine)
Ashford’s show features Welshman Michael Sheen playing renowned American sex researcher Dr. Bill Masters and Hawley’s has Brit Martin Freeman playing an average American insurance salesman. The list of other European and Australian actors disguised with American accents is a long one. The Brits include Josh Bowman, ABC’s “Revenge”; Hugh Dancy, NBC’s “Hannibal”; Damian Lewis, Showtime’s “Homeland”; Freddie Highmore, A&E’s “Bates Motel”; Charlie Hunnam, FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”; Stephen Moyer, HBO’s “True Blood”; Andrew Lincoln and David Morrissey, AMC’s “The Walking Dead”; and Sam Palladio, ABC’s “Nashville.” Matthew Rhys of “The Americans” (FX) is also Welsh, while Simon Baker, CBS’ “The Mentalist,” and Alex O’Loughlin, CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O,” hail from Australia.
When “The Walking Dead” was looking for a lead, producer Gale Anne Hurd says she didn’t know the nationality of any of the actors reading for small-town sheriff Rick Grimes, a role that ultimately went to Lincoln. Casting directors Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas simply asked Hurd and producer Frank Darabont to watch an audition tape on their website.
“We went on, and there was Andy, and we were blown away,” Hurd recalls, adding that they had at least 100 actors read for the role prior to finding Lincoln. “We didn’t know where he was from. Then we got on the phone, and that’s when they told us that he was from the U.K. Frank gave him some direction, he retaped himself, and AMC said, ‘Let’s fly him over.’ ”
When “The Good Wife” producers Michelle and Robert King were looking for an actor to portray a devious political operator, they didn’t hesitate to cast Scotsman Alan Cumming for the part.
“In the roles I had seen him in, he had not played Scottish, so that was never in my head a stumbling block,” Michelle King says.
Cumming’s ability to balance comedy and drama, as well as his Shakespearian background, added to his appeal. “He’s constantly working with complicated language,” Robert King says. “The show has speeches (and) the wording can be complex and rambly. You’re always using more than two-syllable words, so there’s a lot of need for actors who have a good facility for language.”
“Hannibal’s” Dancy agrees that being skilled with language is a crucial part of the equation, no matter where an actor hails from.
“Some people have an ear for accents and some people don’t, and it doesn’t matter how much you’ve heard or how much you strive,” Dancy says.
Rhys, who has played a number of Americans in everything from ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” to a stage version of “The Graduate,” says getting the subtleties of the accent right is always the toughest part of taking on an American role.
“It’s not essentially about the purity of the sound or mimicking the exact sound, but there’s a cadence and a rhythm, which I think you have to tap into,” Rhys says. “It’s this sound that no dialect teacher can really help you with until you, well, live among them, as the aliens say.”
Hawley says Freeman definitely had the accent on his mind when he took the role in “Fargo.”
“He worked on that accent every day for the entire run,” Hawley says. “On the days that he was working, you did not hear a British accent out of him, and he never got lazy about it. It’s pretty flawless to my ear.”
Shooting on location in Calgary, coupled with Freeman’s British status, actually helped the actors get into character.
“Nobody had to act cold,” Hawley says. “And the fact that Martin was from England set him apart and set him outside, which is his character. It’s not Method, but it is a method.”
Dancy says he benefits from his character’s lack of a specific background, which could have led to an easily identifiable regional accent.
“With (my character) Will Graham, I feel like I had a slight get-out-of-jail-free card in that he’s, by definition, a guy who’s not located in one spot,” Dancy says. “He’s a very fluid individual, and that’s been reflective in his upbringing, so I didn’t have to hone in and say, ‘He comes from the suburbs of Boston.’”
Rhys also embraces his character’s murky origins. “‘Brothers & Sisters’ was a harder job in that I was meant to be a born-and-raised, corn-fed American, where the beauty of ‘The Americans’ is that I’m playing a foreigner pretending to be American.”
However, aside from the accent hurdle, knowing that a character is American can only take an actor to a certain point.
“If the best you can do to sum up a character is that he’s American, you haven’t thought very hard about it,” Dancy says.
Dancy is also quick to point out that although British actors do tend to be theatrically trained, they don’t all grow up playing Hamlet and Richard III. It’s perhaps the pace of theater work in general that makes them well-suited for TV.
“There’s (a) perception that we’ve all performed most of Shakespeare at one time or another and that we’re all classically trained. I’m not, but I don’t labor to disillusion anybody,” he says. “Maybe there’s a sense that a British actor is going to have the chops to carry a TV schedule, which can be fairly grueling.”
By extension, better training could help homegrown actors. While Hurd says the casting for “The Walking Dead” wasn’t bound by the actors’ origins, she admits the U.S. actors needs more access theatrical training.
“We don’t have the same acting-school traditions that the U.K. does, so a lot of people work with individual acting coaches, but it’s not the same kind of tradition. I wish it would be addressed in the future so that people here have the same access to training,” Hurd says.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is always about casting the right person. “When we’re looking at actors, where they happen to come from is really not something at the top of the list,” says Michelle King. “Once one knows that they do a credible American accent, it doesn’t matter whether they’re from Melbourne or Detroit.”