The Decline of the American Actor

Why the under-40 generation of leading men in the U.S. is struggling—and what to do about it

Andy Friedman

Is it time for American actors to take a hard look in the mirror? Earlier this year Michael Douglas mused darkly to a magazine interviewer, “I think we have a little crisis going on amongst our young actors at this point,” and Spike Lee, commenting on the “invasion” of black British actors, had some pithy observations on the subject, too: “You want talented people,” he said, and British actors’ “training is very proper, whereas some of these other brothers and sisters, you know, they come in here, and they don’t got that training.” Douglas and Lee, just like the rest of us who go to the movies, are a tad puzzled about why so many good American roles have been going to English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Australian, and Canadian actors. The phenomenon may have reached its unignorable peak in last year’s docudrama Selma: the parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Governor George Wallace, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were all played by Brits.

Film audiences, of course, have long since accustomed themselves to seeing nonnative speakers of American—Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, Clive Owen, and their international ilk—confidently impersonating Yanks on the silver screen. Now the migrant thespians are starting to dominate stateside TV, too. On any given night of channel surfing or Netflix browsing in the past few seasons, you’re likely to have happened upon an English actor or two playing a 100 percent born-and-bred American: Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey, and Lennie James on The Walking Dead, Hugh Dancy on Hannibal, Charlie Cox on Daredevil, Freddie Highmore and Olivia Cooke on Bates Motel, Damian Lewis and Rupert Friend on Homeland, Eddie Marsan on Ray Donovan, Janet McTeer on Battle Creek, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson on The Affair, or Hugh Laurie on House. You might also have come across the odd Welshman (Michael Sheen on Masters of Sex), Scot (Alan Cumming on The Good Wife), Irishman (Colin Farrell on True Detective), Canadian (Taylor Kitsch on Friday Night Lights), or Australian (Robert Taylor on Longmire), each of them with an eerily undetectable accent. Crisis or not, this is getting embarrassing.

It’s undeniable that non-American actors are a lot more comfortable with American accents than their predecessors were a generation or two ago. Listen, for example, to Laurence Olivier—who was a gifted mimic—struggling to sound like a Midwestern businessman in The Betsy (1978); he does not pronounce those flat vowels trippingly on the tongue. For Olivier’s generation, the function of an English actor in an American movie was generally to lend a touch of class to studio costume dramas. (In the early talkies, almost everyone onscreen affected a kind of theatrical diction that sounded vaguely British anyway.) Lord Larry and his contemporaries and their immediate successors were, for the most part, perfectly content to sound like the Englishmen they were, except when, as was frequently the case, they were playing Nazis. They just didn’t get much practice talking American.

That’s all changed. The Brits have now become so good at imitating Americans that there’s hardly an American role you can’t imagine them in. If The Godfather were to be made today, you might see Daniel Day-Lewis as Don Corleone, surrounded by, say, Tom Hiddleston as Michael, Rory Kinnear as Sonny, Ben Whishaw as Fredo, Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom Hagen, Keira Knightley as Connie, and Romola Garai as Kay. What’s worse, it isn’t nearly so easy to dream up a fantasy cast of American actors that would be as strong.

In the Godfather we actually have, Marlon Brando, the greatest Method actor of them all, presided over a kind of coming-out party for younger Americans whom he had inspired, and who had trained more or less as he had, with rigorous teachers such as Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg. The wedding that opens the movie seems in retrospect like a class picture, a snapshot of a moment when everyone could feel a native, purely American tradition of acting coming into being, passing from the first heroic generation to the next—and, presumably, on and on, for as long as there were characters to be played. The sense of the continuity of creative endeavor felt, for about a minute and a half in the 1970s, real and palpable. It was possible to imagine that, like their British counterparts, Americans were going to learn from their artistic forebears, build on what they’d done, and keep building and building. But things don’t always work like that in America. Especially in the arts.

The training that Spike Lee referred to no longer has the sort of allure for young American actors that it did in the days of Brando and Dean and Clift and, later, De Niro and Pacino. Sweating out improvisations and emotional-memory exercises at the Actors Studio or the Neighborhood Playhouse doesn’t seem the best way to get noticed anymore. The actors of the current generation mostly started going before the camera as kids, and got their training on the job: in commercials, then on TV shows, and then, for the lucky and/or unusually talented, in movies. Leonardo DiCaprio (who turned 40 last November) came up that way. So did Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Keri Russell, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, Michael B. Jordan—practically every young American actor you want to see has the same story.

Learning on the job isn’t a bad way to become an actor: pretty much everybody in the early days of the movies took that route, and some of them turned out fine. (In fact, quite a few impeccably trained British actors could barely hold the screen next to their untutored but movie-savvier American co-stars: watch what Bette Davis does to Leslie Howard—who was no slouch—in Of Human Bondage.) There’s nothing magical about acting schools, which in any event didn’t really exist in this country until after World War II. The British send their actors to school for the sound reason that playing Shakespeare well takes a ton of technique, and Shakespearean actors are what English theatrical culture is designed to produce. American culture is in the business of making stars, which is more a matter of finding people who are able to be themselves—or some likable, reasonably plausible version of themselves—onscreen. Everything else, the Bard included, is gravy.

And that’s okay too, up to a point. There’s a lovely moment at the end of My Week With Marilyn (2011) when Kenneth Branagh, as Olivier, watches Michelle Williams, as Marilyn Monroe, in the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, which Olivier directed. With a bemused look on his face, he mutters, “She’s quite wonderful. No training, no craft to speak of, no guile, just pure instinct. She’s astonishing.” Throughout the movie, poor Marilyn has been trying to satisfy both her director, with his brisk English-thespian professionalism—hit your mark, do something amusing, and get on with it—and her Actors Studio coach, Paula Strasberg (Lee’s wife), who’s always murmuring Methody instructions in her beleaguered ear. Olivier is right: Monroe knows nothing about acting, except what’s in her very impressive bones, and it’s enough.

Williams knows more than that, but she had to pick up her technique the hard way, toiling for six seasons as mixed-up Jen Lindley in the dreary high-school soap opera Dawson’s Creek. Keri Russell, currently giving a performance of extraordinary complexity on the weekly spy drama The Americans, learned her considerable craft in a similar setting, as the title character of the (less dreary) college soap Felicity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt made his first appearance onscreen at the age of 7, and spent most of his teenage years playing straight man to John Lithgow on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun. The educations of American actors are a little chancy.

Skillful and ambitious young actors will always make their way somehow—they’ll use every job, no matter how dopey, to continue exploring the possibilities of their weird art, so they’ll be ready when the meatier roles start to come. Because television is, overall, much better than it was when Williams and Russell and Gordon-Levitt were starting out, the on-the-job training of the raw youths who want to be actors should be better, too. Having the opportunity to play a complex, well-written character week after week, season after season, is a gift-wrapped invitation to learn, and if this apparent golden age of TV lasts a few more years, young American actors, present and future, might have all the schooling they need.

The question, as American 20-somethings in every field understand, is: What happens after graduation? Not many members of the remarkable young cast of Friday Night Lights have had parts as good since, and with every passing year you get the melancholy feeling that most of them never will. (The exception, so far, is Michael B. Jordan, who landed a big, challenging role in the 2013 indie drama Fruitvale Station and aced it.)

For English actors, there’s always the stage: at any given time there’s going to be somebody, somewhere, putting on Shakespeare—or Chekhov or Ibsen or Strindberg or Osborne or Stoppard—and even if it means hauling your weary carcass out to some godforsaken provincial repertory theater, it’s a chance to act. It nourishes the soul. American actors have fewer opportunities (and incentives) to explore the classical repertory when they’re young, which is when the experience would do them the most good. Established stars like Denzel Washington will take a turn on the stage every now and then, when the spirit moves them, but they’ve already had their share of great roles—they know what they can do. You wonder, though, about someone like Caitlin FitzGerald, whose subtle, delicate acting as Bill Masters’s wife, Libby, in Masters of Sex was the only good reason to watch that series’ misbegotten second season. She seems ideal for Chekhov—she’d kill as Nina in The Seagull—but will she ever get the chance?

A handful of younger American actors, mostly women, have been able to stretch themselves in parts like that onscreen. Jessica Chastain took on the demanding title role in Liv Ullmann’s film of Strindberg’s Miss Julie last year, and although I don’t think her performance is a complete success, it’s a brave attempt: you feel she’s pushing past the technique that’s served her in the past, and going places, emotionally, she’s never been before. (Strindberg’s psychosexual grudge matches will do that to an actor.) Maybe the most spectacular recent example of a young American movie and television actor tackling a classical part is Amy Acker’s radiant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon’s nimble, and very faithful, 2012 movie of one of Shakespeare’s sprightliest comedies. Acker was always a welcome presence on TV shows such as Angel and Alias; in her current series gig, as the blithely lethal hacker known as Root on Person of Interest, she displays the ability to alternate a near-sociopathic sangfroid with unexpected bursts of genuine passion—and she has the best walk on television, besides. But her facility with the tricky verse of Shakespearean comedy is a real surprise; she’s at least as formidable a Beatrice as Emma Thompson was in Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado, and Acker is, I think, more touching and finally more believable.

And it’s not as if a wealth of good, nonclassical parts are being written for younger Americans in the movies either. In the fertile moviemaking environment of the 1970s, De Niro and Pacino and Gene Hackman and Jeff Bridges didn’t need the theater and its deep repertory in order to satisfy their creative urges and grow as artists. Actors can’t do what they do in isolation, as writers and painters and composers can. The theatrical arts are collaborative, both in the microcosm of an individual production and in the macrocosm of the culture that does, or does not, sustain them. It’s fair to say that American culture isn’t providing a high level of sustenance right now, and actors—like so many others in the every-man-for-himself climate of 2015—have to figure out, on their own, ways to get what they need. The question is whether they can muster the imagination, and the stamina, to maintain their technique (and their spirits) while dealing with the sort of material available to them in this movie culture: cop dramas, superhero adventures, rom-coms and bro comedies, the occasional earnest, glacially paced indie. It’s not impossible, but it can be a heavy lift.

In Olivier Assayas’s recent Clouds of Sils Maria, a European actress of a certain age, played by Juliette Binoche, and her American personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart, have a sort of running debate on just that topic. After watching a superhero movie set on a spaceship, they argue over drinks. Stewart’s character defends the performance of the actress playing the lead mutant, and Binoche’s character laughs out loud at the very mention of superpowers, brusquely dismissing the idea that anything of value could be achieved in that kind of genre entertainment. Feeling exasperated, and a little humiliated by her boss’s contempt for something she enjoyed, the assistant finally asks, quietly, “Are you telling me there’s nothing there worth playing?” The actress is flummoxed for a moment, before regaining her bearing. (You can see her lose, and then recover, her sense of herself.)

The assistant’s question is a fair one, even a crucial one. That the character who poses it is played by the same actress who portrays Bella in the Twilight movies adds a bit of extra zing: Stewart, while beset by vampires and werewolves and other fantastic creatures, must have asked it of herself a time or two. She did, against the odds, find something to play in those stupid pictures. And she’s managed, somehow, to develop a highly original, and thoroughly unactorly, style that enables her to hold her own, and more, with the likes of Juliette Binoche—who by Stewart’s age (25) had already had major roles in films by André Téchiné, Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax, and Philip Kaufman. Stewart’s path has been rockier.

The male actors of her generation may travel an even tougher road. I suspect that when Michael Douglas spoke of that “little crisis going on,” he was mostly thinking about the men. The fact is, the women are fine. (Their problems will begin when they hit 50.) If you’re a producer or director looking for an actress under 40 and can’t find one you like among Williams, Russell, Chastain, Acker, Stewart, FitzGerald, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Elisabeth Moss, Dakota Fanning, Shailene Woodley, Rosario Dawson, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, and Zoe Saldana, you’re being, I’d say, way too picky.

Some of these women, it’s true, haven’t yet had their defining roles, and many, like Stewart, have had to labor in pretty unpromising genre material. To make recognizable human beings out of the stock figures played by, say, Saldana in the revenge thriller Colombiana and Stone in the teen comedy Easy A is no small task. These actresses have the resources to pull it off. Perhaps, as the conventional wisdom goes, women mature earlier than men do: for whatever reason, American actresses seem to be growing up faster than their male counterparts. In just about every TV series in which there’s a young son and a young daughter—Mad Men, Homeland, The Americans, Ray Donovan—the girl’s story line is stronger and deeper than the boy’s, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The girl’s a better actor.

No crisis among the women, then. The men are another, sadder story. The ranks of interesting under-40 American actors have begun to look dangerously thin, now that DiCaprio and Joaquin Phoenix have crossed the boundary. (It’s important to keep in mind here that Ryan Gosling is Canadian.) Maybe because movies have gotten so expensive to make, and it’s men who bear the burden of carrying the many action franchises, the guys look a little tense, uncertain of what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s always a pleasure to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt, even in big dumb pictures like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Looper, but as an actor he’s been spinning his wheels for a while; he seemed a lot happier when he was playing more-challenging roles in smaller-scale films like The Lookout and Uncertainty in the middle and late 2000s. Being movie-star charming is too easy for an actor as smart as Gordon-Levitt; boredom looms.

It’s not just him, of course. What’s becoming difficult to ignore in current American leading men is a general absence of joy in their vocation. When James Franco tries to get serious, as he does with some frequency, he’s kind of alarming to watch; his recent modus operandi has been to adapt a great American novel for the screen, miscast himself, and doggedly muddle through. Jesse Eisenberg seems to take only roles that require him to look bummed all the time. They appear to have forgotten that acting is play, a game of let’s-pretend. It starts with a child imagining himself as somebody else, trying on different roles, making faces in the mirror. When one or more other kids are present, impromptu scenarios are cooked up and parts are assigned, with the goal, always, of bringing into being something that would not otherwise have existed in the ordinary run of life—something more colorful, more vivid, something thrilling.

It’s a keen and peculiar pleasure, and one that, in the livelier young minds, can grow into a desire to keep organizing the world that way, understanding by pretending. If they’re driven enough to try to do this for a living—to become actors, and dedicate themselves to searching for truth in make-believe characters—they have to find a way to retain at least a portion of their original delight in the let’s-pretend game. In acting classes, play takes the disciplined form of directed improvisations. Those who haven’t been to acting school aren’t always comfortable making things up when the cameras are rolling, and it shows: there’s not much spontaneity in their readings or gestures, none of the pleasant illusion of life just happening that is, or should be, the aim of their art. (On the sets of big-budget movies, spontaneity isn’t highly prized, so nobody objects.)

Acting at its highest level is very, very difficult, but at the end of it there has to be, for the actor, an internal silly grin of satisfaction, whether the role is Captain Kirk or Captain Ahab. Most of the American actors fronting heavyweight Hollywood franchises these days, all those guys named Chris, do not have the air of men who are enjoying what they do. One of the Chrises—Evans, who plays Captain America—recently told Variety that he’s planning to quit acting when his Marvel contract is up. The thrill, it seems, is gone.

This is perhaps another area where non-American actors, Brits especially, have a significant advantage. Their relatively more detached, more technical approach to the imitation game of theater helps them maintain their sense of play. They know, too, that if all else fails, they can recapture that spirit by sinking their irregular teeth into a nice, juicy villainous part like, say, Richard III (or a Nazi). American actors on their way up have historically been reluctant to play bad guys, which can be a terrific palate cleanser for performers who have lost their taste for the craft. For a while, roughly between Brando’s brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and De Niro’s bestial Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), younger Americans seemed to have gotten over their fear of damaging their images by playing unsympathetic roles, but that’s less common now. When an amiable-seeming chap like Bradley Cooper shows a “dark side” to add a bit of spice to a bland character, it rarely feels terribly consequential—no more than a token acknowledgment that everybody’s a little compromised these days. It’s unusual for a strong young actor to begin his career playing an out-and-out baddie, as Ben Foster did in 3:10 to Yuma (2007). Most American actors wait until they’re past their leading-man prime to go full dastard.

That’s a mistake. For an actor, the joy of slipping into a bad guy’s skin can be intense, a satisfaction like no other. When Richard III is doing his devious worst, or when the music-hall performer Archie Rice is displaying the gloomiest depths of his grubby soul in The Entertainer, the gleam in Olivier’s eye is blinding. Brando gets that rapt look, too, when he’s taunting defenseless Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, or whipping his horse in frustration in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). And God knows De Niro’s got it as the seething, paranoid Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), posing in front of a mirror and rehearsing what he’ll say, and do, to his legions of enemies.

Maybe that’s what younger American actors need to do: go back to the source of their childlike pleasure in impersonation—back to making faces in the mirror. Mirrors have featured in some of the most indelible scenes in American film: not just De Niro’s classic, improvised “You talking to me?” sequence in Taxi Driver, but also his chillingly flat recitation in Raging Bull of Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront (which was partly improvised as well). Brando himself has a killer scene in Reflections in a Golden Eye, in which his character, a vain, sexually repressed Army officer, painstakingly applies cold cream to his aging face, looking melancholy and hopeful all at once. It’s his most purely inspired acting moment between On the Waterfront (1954) and Last Tango in Paris (1972), a film that is, in essence, two hours of America’s finest actor examining, and sometimes recoiling from, his own reflection.

In one of last year’s best performances by a young American, Chadwick Boseman, in Get On Up, played the soul singer James Brown as a man looking at himself constantly, calculating his every move, his self-awareness so all-encompassing that it blots out everything, and everyone, else. It’s terrifying, exhilarating acting: Boseman has that Olivier-like glint in his eye throughout. The mirror is good to Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, too. At one point in that bewildering picture, Tatum’s character—an Olympic wrestler with, let’s say, limited powers of self-expression—reacts to a setback by smashing a mirror with his cannonball-like head, and Tatum, for perhaps the first time in his career, has the look of an actor who feels he’s done something, created a scene that people will remember. It’s the sort of moment that, nowadays, sometimes supplies the breakthrough for slow-developing young American actors such as Tatum: a sudden outburst of rage, a release of pent-up frustrations. It feels good. Whether he’ll be able to sustain that heady feeling—or find roles that will allow him to—is anybody’s guess.

Jake Gyllenhaal has an even better mirror-smashing scene in Dan Gilroy’s bracingly cynical Nightcrawler. He plays a ruthless young go-getter named Louis Bloom who, after an early life of petty thievery, drifts into the unsavory job of providing video footage of accidents and violent crimes to local TV stations. He has the drive and the depraved indifference needed for success in this high-energy, low-ethics profession, but the course isn’t as smooth as he’d like it to be. After another camera crew beats him to an especially grisly crash site, Bloom takes out his disappointment on his bathroom mirror, first screaming at his reflection, then shaking the mirror until it breaks. The scene is scarier than Tatum’s, in part because Gyllenhaal distorts his face so expressively. He dropped a lot of weight for this role, to make himself look gaunt, hungry. The effect is to exaggerate his already rather dramatic facial features: the hyperthyroid eyes bug out even more than usual, and the downturned mouth suggests, at times, a sinister sad-clown mask. When he screams, he looks like a monster.

Louis Bloom is a monster, of a particularly American, aspirational sort, and Gyllenhaal, whose work in the past few years has been varied and consistently exciting, seems very happy to be playing him. Gyllenhaal has been developing his technique and expanding his range with every role since Brian Taylor in the L.A.-cop movie End of Watch (2012), in which his squad-car improvisations with Michael Peña seemed to free up something in his acting. He has the tools and the confidence now for Bloom, this magnetic, Richard III–size villain. A year before Nightcrawler, he warmed up with Denis Villeneuve’s bizarre doppelgänger movie Enemy, in which one of the two characters he plays—the evil one—is a third-rate actor. Some of that character’s smiling cunning works its way into Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the glibly amoral Bloom, and there’s a mirror scene to boot. In Enemy, the mirror survives. It’s just a tool, used as an actor would use it, to try out readings and expressions—in this case, for the line “Did you fuck my wife?,” with which he hopes to unnerve his meek double. He flashes a huge grin when he’s got it right. In Nightcrawler, Bloom speaks almost all of his lines as if he’d rehearsed them with that kind of obsessive care, and the effect is deeply unsettling. I can’t think of another young American actor who would dare to play this monster this way. And for once, I can’t think of a British actor who would, either.