Why you should care
Because everyone wants to predict the winners.
Abraham Lincoln: played by an English actor. Martin Luther King Jr.: also English. Batman (The Dark Knight installments): an American? Nope, English. They’re invading! And they’re winning the awards too.
Nearly one-quarter of all Best Actor Oscars and about one-fifth of Best Actress have gone to Brits.
In fact, in Oscar history, only 19 American states are represented from among the winners of 86 best actor awards. While U.K. actors hit a dry spell for more than a decade after Anthony Hopkins’ award-winning Silence of the Lambs performance (notable because Hopkins had only 16 minutes of screen time), they’ve bounced back to take control of the Best Actor category four of the past eight years, with Method master Daniel Day-Lewis triumphing twice (for There Will Be Blood and Lincoln). Ben Zauzmer, the Nate Silver of Academy Award predictions, says actors from the other side of the pond — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland— are overperforming.
Some industry veterans, like casting director Lucinda Syson, ascribe English popularity to acting abilities, in part because of backgrounds in the theater, where actors are trained well and distinctiveness is supported. (Syson says Scandinavia might well be the next source of the Hollywood talent pool — think Alicia Vikander.) There’s also the relative cheapness — “Initially, [British actors] were certainly less expensive,” Syson says — and even the Top 10 on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid actors in 2015 is free of U.K. natives. Yet another element is the lowered barriers to casting from other countries. Actors are able to send links and clips, auditioning without being in the room, at least initially. An 11-hour flight doesn’t impede screen dreams quite the same way anymore.
Plus, there are certain perks that go beyond a compelling accent. In Zauzmer’s calculations, the British Academy Film Awards are a good indicator of Oscar success. Now, think hard for a moment about who’s favored to win those trophies. U.K. actors often have double representation — agents in the U.K. and the U.S. who are “competing against each other,” Syson says. In this scenario, the client often stands to gain.
But before you start betting the house on Eddie Redmayne (or maybe the German-Irish Michael Fassbender) winning this year’s Best Actor Oscar, there’s the issue of sample size. With only 86 years of data, the numbers would look extremely different if, say, three-time winner Day-Lewis had forgone acting. And it’s hard to prove a connection between Britishness and winning; there might well be a false correlation. To determine bias in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the real question is, are British actors winning for performances that aren’t as good as those of their non-Brit fellow nominees? But that, Zauzmer says, is “impossible to say from a mathematical side.”