While European actors have long been mainstays on American television, recent years have seen American stars gaining traction as the leads in international productions. Sandra Oh’s award-winning turn in “Killing Eve,” Carrie Anne Moss in “Wisting,” Anna Paquin in “Flack” and Rob Lowe in “Wild Bill” are just a few examples of familiar Hollywood faces popping up on screens around Europe.
Their inclusion raises profile domestically, but crucially, it also helps to bolster the content internationally and secure the sales that help finance the shows.
This year, there is a new crop of well-known North American actors making an appearance in European projects: BBC series “World on Fire,” which stars Oscar winner Helen Hunt, premiered in the U.K. last September and will have its American debut on PBS this April. Meanwhile, Finnish fish-out-of-water comedy “Californian Commando,” starring American YouTube sensation Kian Lawley, is looking for its international home after premiering domestically in February, and Studiocanal-distributed German-Canadian post-World War II drama “Shadowplay,” headed up by Michael C. Hall and Taylor Kitsch, will air on premium cable networks throughout Europe in late fall.
“World on Fire,” a WWII drama performed in four languages, is a bold move for the BBC and series co-producer PBS Masterpiece. To open itself up to audiences that may still be wary of subtitled content, the cast includes such familiar faces as “Game of Thrones” star Sean Bean and Helen Hunt, among an ensemble of lesser known actors.
“Getting Helen Hunt on board quite simply was a massive coup. She’s an incredible actress, and she does have that weight of being a recognized talent,” says executive producer Helen Ziegler, who also produced BBC’s “The ABC Murders” starring John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot in 2018.
“That body of work brings with (it) a reputation and hopefully an excitement for your audience both here, in America and hopefully in other countries as well.”
When breaking into the U.S. market with an international show, there is a consensus that a name recognized in the American mainstream helps, whether it is a well known creator or familiar face at the helm. “It’s easier for the publicity teams,” says Susanne Simpson, executive producer of Masterpiece. “When we go out to promote the show, someone like Helen Hunt garners attention immediately.”
The same applied to last year’s “Les Misérables,” starring Lily Collins, and Elizabeth McGovern in “Downton Abbey,” when it first premiered.
While the press loves to feature better-known domestic talent, the Masterpiece audience, however, doesn’t seem to base viewing habits on actors’ origins, says Simpson. “We really like to get attention from the press, but we find that our audiences are happy as long as the acting talent is of a high caliber.”
“Shadowplay,” a historical thriller about an American police officer who arrives in Berlin in 1946 to help create a police force in the chaotic aftermath of the war, while trying find his brother-in-hiding who is killing ex-Nazis, is another series helmed by American and Canadian talent.
The series is co-produced by Canadian Bron Studios and Studiocanal’s Tandem Productions, in co-production with ZDF.
“One of the things that both Tandem and Bron felt was (important) was to anchor the show in some big names that would be recognizable, so that when we go back to the U.S. market, we’re able to take advantage of their recognition,” says David Davoli, chief content officer of Bron Studios. “That helps when you’re having that dialogue with your buyers.”
But it’s not just the U.S. market that is interested in leveraging big-name talent.
“Our European buyers got excited over certain names and they certainly loved the fact that we were casting the show that way,” says Davoli. “Some names didn’t resonate with them and we went back with other names that we all collectively agreed to as a co-production group. The European partners were just as interested in this level of cast as we were.”
While the success of an international show in the U.S. has previously been more of a rare phenomenon than the norm, streaming platforms have made the cultural exchange a lot easier.
“Transparent” star Amy Landecker, who next appears in the U.K. adaptation of Anais Nin’s “Little Birds” —which also stars fellow Americans Matt Lauria and David Costabile — says the tone of the Sky Atlantic series differs from American productions but is not worried that the content won’t travel.
“There is a humor and sexuality to this piece, a certain vibe and tone that just inherently feels different,” she says. “That said, because of streaming, we are all watching each other’s content and getting comfortable with those differences.”
In the case of the Red Arrow Studios International-distributed “Californian Commando,” a comedy about a Los Angeles native who is forced to do his compulsory military service in his mother’s native Finland, both the distributor and producer believe the show will appeal to millennials worldwide despite its culture-specific theme and a language spoken by just five million.
“Younger people don’t think that something is Finnish or Swedish or American — it’s just content,” says Mikko Pöllä, co-founder of Fire Monkey Productions, which produced “Californian Commando” for Finnish cabler Elisa Viihde. “The question that we were asked every now and then when we were developing was, is this for a Finnish or international audience? It’s really hard for me to decide because I don’t think it would look any different.”
With recognizable names opening the doors to TV markets around the world, one of the added benefits is the ability to showcase the high standard of productions to come out of Europe.
“There are a lot of American series with deep pockets producing out of the U.S., but we’re showing that we can produce big international production with the means we have on this side of the pond,” says “Shadowplay” producer and CEO of Tandem Productions Rola Bauer. “I think it’s the time for that.”