Ten Iconic American Roles. Nine Foreign Actors.

by Joseph McKeown


America is the land of diversity (well, to some degree) as well as opportunity (go American dream), and immigrants come to the US to work in many different industries and professions, which is something we know because, well, this is an immigration law firm. The American film and television industry is no exception to hiring and employing foreign workers. Beginning with Charlie Chaplin (British) and Cary Grant (also British), Hollywood continues to employ many foreign actors in "American" roles. I still remember when I first heard Detective Jimmy McNulty (played by the British Dominic West) speak with his posh British accent. (For comparison, here's a scene from The Wire).

We're not, of course, the first to notice the foreign invasion of talent. NPR discussed this and also the equally serious and important media journal TV Guide. And while the AV Club doesn't like it, we actually do. It's good to have diversity. It's good sometimes to have an "outsider" perspective on things. And since the Oscars are this weekend and we are in a cinematic state of mind, we thought we'd take some time to admire the talent of these foreign actors (as Amy Poehler did during the recent Golden Globes) tackling that damn American accent and playing particularly famous or iconic American roles.

Daniel Day-Lewis
British national Daniel Day-Lewis played the granddaddy of all iconic American roles: Abraham Lincoln, one of our most cherished and respected American presidents. Day-Lewis reportedly was "apprehensive" about playing this role as he felt it should have gone to an American.  He said: "'I was very aware of the responsibility involved as I didn’t want to be the person who desecrated the memory of the most loved president America has ever known...It seemed like an outlandish idea to take someone who grew up in southeast London and make him President of the United States.'" Despite his trepidation, it turned out pretty well. He won his third Best Actor Academy Award, setting a record.

Of course, this wasn't the first time he's played an American. He also played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, which character was based on William Poole, a bare-knuckle boxer and leader of the New York City gang Bowery Boys as well as the Know Nothing political movement. Day-Lewis also played Hawkeye (his character was also called Natty Bumppo, which definitely doesn't sound as cool) in Last of the Mohicans, which incidentally is the first R-rated movie my parents allowed me to see. I only mention Last of the Mohicans so I can link to one of the best scenes from pretty much any movie ever.

David Oyelowo
It's difficult to think of a more important and influential leader of the twentieth century than Martin Luther King, Jr. In Selma, David Oyelowo, a classically-trained stage actor and British national, played this iconic man to great acclaim (not however, by the Academy Awards, what's up with that?). Born in Oxford, England to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo graduated from the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and felt that "God told him he was destined to play King." The original director of Selma reportedly chose Oyelowo so he wouldn't bring any baggage or preconceptions that an American might bring to this iconic role.

Carmen Ejogo
Co-starring with fellow Brit Oyelowo (and for that matter with another fellow Brit Tom Wilkinson who played President Lyndon B. Johnson), the talented Carmen Ejogo played Coretta Scott King, who with her husband was an active participant in the American civil rights movement. After her husband’s untimely death, Ms. King continued to be an influential activist, author, and advocate not only for African-American rights but also in the women’s and LGBT movements. Ejogo was born in London, England, to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. Ejogo has played Coretta Scott King twice, the first time in the HBO movie Boycott.

Charlize Theron
South African-born Charlize Theron (she speaks Afrikaans but apparently has mostly lost her South African accent) dressed down to play one of America’s most notorious serial killers in Monster, for which she won an Academy Award. In Monster, Theron played Aileen Wuornos, who the media hyped as the first female serial killer (which isn't quite true). Aileen Wuornos did admit to killing seven men, including a missionary. Her last words before she was put to death were: "'I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock and I'll be back like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all. I'll be back.'"

Christian Bale
Pennsylvania-born Michael Keaton may have said, “I'm batman” but Welsh actor Christian Bale has played him three times to Mr. Keaton's two. (I'm firmly on the side of Mr. Keaton's Batman, but that's not the point of this post). Bale was born in Wales to a circus performer mother and pilot father, and he credited his family's nomadic lifestyle as an influence in his decision to become an actor. Bale was the first non-American actor to play Batman/Bruce Wayne. Also fun fact about Bale: when he plays an American role, he gives all press interviews in an American accent, so as not to confuse people. Thank you, Mr. Bale, because accents are confusing. Have you heard Dr. House talk?

Heath Ledger
Australian Heath Ledger may have stolen our hearts (okay, mine) in 10 Things I Hate About You, but he scared us back to reality with his role as the terrifying Joker alongside fellow foreigner Christian Bale. Born in Perth, Australia, he played the "hunky" roles but also took on dark, daring, and dramatic roles. As the Joker (for which he won an Oscar), he not only mastered the American accent but created a memorable and complex character.

Anthony Hopkins
He may be famous for playing a certain American cannibal (whom we suppose is iconic in his own right), but he also memorably played two American presidents: Richard Nixon in Nixon and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. While his accents have never been quite wholly American, he received Oscar nominations for both performances, and there's no denying the absolute intensity and charisma he brings to the characters. Born in Wales to parents of half Welsh and half English descent, he has reportedly said: "'The Welsh people have a talent for acting that one does not find in the English. The English lack heart."'

Henry Cavill
Superman is about as American as you can get (his motto is: "Truth, Justice, the American Way." But British actor Cavill stepped in to play this role first in Man of Steel and now also again in the yet-to-be-released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (with Batman played by American Ben Affleck). Born on the Bailiwick of Jersey, a British Crown Dependency in the Channel Islands, Cavill revealed his secret to mastering the American accent: "Drill, drill, drill, drill, practice, practice, practice." Go American way! (Also: here's a video of him working out).  

Anita Ekberg
In Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita, Swedish actress Anita Ekberg (who died earlier this year) plays an American superstar traveling to Italy to shoot a movie. Ekberg is the stereotypical American abroad in many ways—pretty, blond, and seductive—with a perfect if somewhat 1930s Hollywood American accent. In one of the most famous cinematic scenes in history, she jumps into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and a reluctant Marcello Mastroianni follows.  

So there it is. Nine foreign actors. Ten iconic American roles. But fellow Americans, not to worry—while we seem to have a harder time mastering accents (Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly and Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves come to mind) and we don't generally speak any foreign languages (we admit it, we're lazy), nevertheless some of our actors are going to work abroad as well. And then there's the American export that we're really proud of: Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary. She nailed it.