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Heroines of Cinema: The British Actress’s Guide to Hollywood

Heroines of Cinema: The British Actress’s Guide to Hollywood

Looking at the program for the London Film Festival, which launches this Thursday, it struck me how many of the gala films featured star turns from leading British actresses. There’s Carey Mulligan in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, Emma Thompson in “Saving Mr Banks”, Kate Winslet in “Labor Day”, Judi Dench as the eponymous “Philomena”, Tilda Swinton in “Only Lovers Left Alive” and Felicity Jones as “The Invisible Woman”. Between them, these women have accumulated 18 Oscar nominations and four wins (excluding Thompson’s screenwriting award). By contrast, among their British male counterparts with lead roles in gala films – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve Coogan, Tom Hiddleston and Ralph Fiennes – only Fiennes has previously been nominated by the Academy.

While it may be a coincidence to have quite such a cluster of high-profile roles for British women in mostly American productions, it is not a trend without precedent. From the careers of legends such as Vivienne Leigh and Greer Garson to the two year stretch in 1996-7 when seven of the ten Best Actress nominees were British, the cream of the UK’s female acting crop has long been a trusty export – indeed, last year was the first since 1990 not to see a British actress Oscar-nominated (and British / Australian Naomi Watts arguably kept the run intact). But are the scorched boulevards of Hollywood really such fertile territory for the delicate English rose? For every Kate Winslet there is a Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, after all.

Nonetheless, Jones, Mulligan, Winslet, Swinton, Thompson and Dench represent a fairly decent cross section of success at various career stages. In the spirit of complete irreverence, I thought it might be enlightening – or enlivening, at least – to use their experiences as a guide for British actresses hoping to make a splash across the pond. Of course, there are many more examples than I can catalogue, but let that be inspiration that there is no end of possibilities on offer if you get the formula right.

Star in a breakout British film

As mastered by: Judi Dench in “Mrs Brown”, Carey Mulligan in “An Education”.

How to do it: Let’s face it, nothing announces you to the American industry quite like an Oscar nomination. British films are often welcome at the Oscars, though watch out – many recent hits, from “Slumdog Millionaire” to “The King’s Speech”, have had little room for substantial female roles. More gallingly, several films with iconic British roles, such as seven-time nominee “Elizabeth” and Best Picture winner “Shakespeare in Love”, have had their British-accented heroines mastered by foreigners. Nonetheless, it is never too late to seize your moment. Kate Winslet may have bagged her first Oscar nomination aged 20, but it was a full two years later that Judi Dench did, at the age of 63, for “Mrs Brown”. Meanwhile Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who introduced herself to US audiences by becoming the first black British person to receive an Oscar nomination for Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies”, has had more exposure since in America than Britain, not least a starring role in hit series “Without a Trace”. The message is clear: get your face known in Hollywood, and it can pay off – literally…

Beat them at their own game – blockbuster edition

As mastered by: Kate Winslet in “Titanic”, Carey Mulligan in “The Great Gatsby”

How to do it: A mark of the success of Kate Winslet’s lead role in “Titanic” is the blatant rip-off that was attempted by the makers of “Pearl Harbor” in casting Brit Kate Beckinsale opposite Americans Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck in their sadly-less-successful romance / disaster mash-up. There are particular openings for British actors in period blockbusters, given the strange custom of using posh British accents for any number of time periods in world history. Gemma Arterton lucked out here as plummy Persian princess Tamina in “Prince of Persia”, but you do need to watch out for those bloody Australians, as Sienna Miller learned to her detriment when she was replaced as Maid Marion by Cate Blanchett in “Robin Hood”. Naturally, you want your blockbuster to be a hit – which is why Keira Knightley was better off turning up in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” than Naomie Harris, who only made it on board for the second, less acclaimed edition. An outright stinker can be a disastrous move, as can becoming a franchise whore. But if you can find that one big role, Winslet-style, that proves your international audience appeal, you may be ready for the real challenge…

Beat them at their own game – critics edition

As mastered by: Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin

How to do it: Stealing the big pay cheques from Hollywood’s finest is one thing, but what will really annoy them is playing an American character for an acclaimed director – and winning praise for it. One option is to do this as a relative ingenue – Rebecca Hall was new enough to audiences that many did not know that her Golden Globe-nominated turn in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as an American post-grad student was not an accurate reflection of her English roots. Years earlier, Tilda Swinton did similar things in “The Deep End”, and that jammy bitch Kate Winslet has perfected the art, having picked up three of her six Oscar nominations for playing Americans. By contrast, Dame Judi has remained the perfect ambassador for Britain, preserving her English vowels for all but one of her six Oscar nominations (her crabby Frenchwoman in “Chocolat” being the exception). But from Thandie Newton in “Crash” to Helena Bonham Carter in “Fight Club”, if you can pull off a convincing American role, the critics will eat it up. And if not…

Grab the money and run

As mastered by: Emma Thompson in “Junior”, Gemma Arterton in “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”

How to do it: Look, we can’t all be Kate fucking Winslet. And a girl’s gotta earn a living. While it may have been unedifying to see Cambridge graduate and award-winning screenwriter Emma Thompson trading barbs with a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Junior”, it is at least a helpful reminder that Hollywood’s leading men can be fond of a British woman by their side. Tom Cruise is a particular fan, as attested by the appearances of Thandie Newton in “Mission Impossible 2”, Rosamund Pike in “Jack Reacher”, Andrea Riseborough in “Oblivion” and rare Hollywood spotting Samantha Morton in “Minority Report”. Helena Bonham Carter was a surprise addition to the cast of “Terminator Salvation”, but presumably it didn’t harm her bank balance. However, you might want to think twice before cashing in. Kristin Scott Thomas may have flattered the vanities of Robert Redford in “The Horse Whisperer”, but judging by her subsequent career moves, it appears the experience led her to a clear conclusion…

Fuck Hollywood

As mastered by: Kristin Scott Thomas, Charlotte Rampling, Samantha Morton

How to do it: Not complicated, this one. In recent years, Scott Thomas has avoided studio productions, with – zut alors! – numerous French-speaking roles among others. Charlotte Rampling appears equally ambivalent about the lure of tinseltown, while Tilda Swinton, who surprised many by emerging from the left field to appear in films such as the Narnia series and “Benjamin Button”, has apparently since abandoned what she termed her period as a “Hollywood spy”. Similarly, while Samantha Morton will turn out for the occasional American auteur, you won’t catch her in anything approaching the budget scale of her foray for Spielberg. Other stars have opted for a one foot in, one foot out policy – spot Judi Dench in a Bond film, or Helen Mirren in a dismal action sequel, and you can be sure they’ll soon be atoning for their gains on the London stage. But if this is your approach, don’t expect Hollywood to work around you. Emily Watson may now feel appropriately maternal for studio executives, and thus merit high-profile mother roles in “War Horse” and “The Railway Man”. But an actual sex scene in a studio film since she turned forty? So far, only Charlie Kaufman has had the balls.

It can be a frustrating game if you aren’t at the top of the pile, as very few are. Which is why you may ultimately be better off reaching the conclusion that Kristin Scott Thomas revealed in an interview last year. “There’s a mutual agreement” she declared. “I don’t want them and they don’t want me”.

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer.
Follow him on Twitter.

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