Protect American Acting Jobs … From Marauding Brits!

David Oyelowo, center, as Martin Luther King Jr. in 'Selma' by Ava DuVernay.

Source James Nachtwey/Paramount Pictures

Why you should care

Because being globally employable is as nice as it sounds.

It’s rare that I agree with actor Samuel L. Jackson on much of anything. But there have been occasions. When he advised Spike Lee to maybe try and make a good film after Lee threw shade at a Tarantino flick Jackson was in, and then again in 2017 when Jackson, irked by the number of roles in American flicks that were going to Brits, said so. These were not British roles in American films. These were Brits acting like Americans in American films.

In the ensuing outrage, Jackson, who had specifically pegged Black British actors, felt called on to clarify. He didn’t mean to slight Idris Elba, who famously played a Baltimore gangster in The Wire and called Jackson’s comments “stupid.” Or David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s 2013 film Selma. Or even Daniel Kaluuya, whose star turn in 2017’s award-winning Get Out greased the skids for his appearance in 2018’s award-winning Black Panther.

“… [A]ll the British actors that have come here have all done great jobs and have a great facility for adapting to the language and to the cultural mores,” Jackson said to Variety in a 2017 interview. “But we don’t get to do that that often. They don’t ask us to come over and adapt to the British accent. And most times when we come over we got a work visa and somebody calls me two days before and tells me, ‘You know you gotta go home in two days?’”

While there seemed to be a certain amount of schoolyard Schadenfreude going on, what stuck with me was the holy hell that award-winning actor Don Cheadle caught for his cockney accent in Ocean’s 11. So much holy hell that Cheadle felt a need to apologize for it. That, to my mind, appeased the forces that are totally OK with Brits scoring American gigs with only slippery holds on American accents, while also being totally OK with only Brits scoring British acting gigs with British accents.

It is a weird American social insecurity that has studies showing that we find the British accent more credible even if it’s talking total shite.

That’s a curious kind of math that has British actors getting everything while the favor is scantly returned for Americans looking across the Atlantic. And not just British theatrical actors — British TV talking heads, talk show hosts and more. In fact, when you start seeing it, you can’t unsee it, and it’s aggressively noticeable when you go to the U.K. and see the dearth of reciprocity with regard to American faces and voices on TV commercials, shows and films. Americans know Brits like James Corden, John Oliver and Cat Deeley, but where are the American personalities leading British nighttime talk shows and contests? 

Sure, part of it is a weird American social insecurity that has studies showing that we find the British accent more credible even if it’s spouting total shite. But that just explains why Brits find work here; it doesn’t explain why Americans can’t get work there. And yet it sort of does.

 

“Do you have any HAMBURGERS?!?” The speaker — part-time journalist and full-time musician Kevin Martin, a Brit who works under the name The Bug — was doing his best American accent. It was loud, trended to the stupid side and suddenly felt very truthful. I mean, this is probably what we do sound like. But that’d be when we’re asking for hamburgers and, like he later added, “COKE-A-COLA!” 

Regardless, there still should be plenty of roles on U.K. television for stupid Americans. Must those stupid Americans also be played by Brits? As a stupid American, I would like it known that I’m much more than capable of playing a stupid American as my work in the worst movie of 1987 attests. So if it hadn’t been clear before now,  we’re not asking for a handout; we’re asking for a hand.

Like the ones that have been given to the Americans who have actually managed to score a British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or BAFTA, award. That’s like the Oscar but sexier because, well, it’s British. BAFTAs have been given to Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Rockwell, France McDormand, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Casey Affleck, Mickey Rourke and … even … hmmm … Samuel L. Jackson.

John Wayne could play Genghis Khan. C. Thomas Howell played a Black man. Would it kill the U.K. film industry to hire more Americans?

OK. While it might seem that the vast profusion of Americans winning BAFTAs undercuts the point I’m working toward, the point remains that giving American celebrities awards for appearing in American movies is not at all the same as giving American actors awards for all of the great work they’ve done in British films, as Americans or as Americans playing Brits.

Case in point: The award-winning, Juilliard-schooled American actor Andre Braugher even spent time at the Royal Academy and, despite having a professional career that stretches back to the late 1980s, has played zero Brits in any kind of British film. The closest he came? Playing Henry V in Henry V at a Shakespeare in the Park Festival in New York City’s Central Park, a turn for which he won an Obie Award.

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Andre Braugher attends the after-party for the opening night of Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park in New York City.

And then, a text from a lawyer friend of mine, Chris Duncan, whom I’ve been regaling with tales of Brit-film protectionism. “You know I’ve thought you were kind of crazy for this whole thing. In sort of a Don Quixote way,” he said from his practice in Denver. “Until THIS” — he was referring to the recent news announcement that Australian actor Chris Hemsworth is playing that great American mensch and professional wrestler Hulk Hogan!

Look, if John Wayne can portray Genghis Khan, C. Thomas Howell a Black man and Dustin Hoffman a woman, would it kill the U.K. film industry to hire more Americans? Specifically, more Americans named Eugene S. Robinson? 

No. No, it would not.

“I know loads of brilliant American actors here who don’t get enough work as all the American roles in the West End are taken by British actors doing terrible-to-OK American accents,” says Lydia Parker, New York transplant and London-based director of the Over Here Theatre Company.

“The only American actors I’ve known here who have success are those who put on British accents in auditions and pretend to be British. They never think of casting American actors in American roles. It drives me crazy.”

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