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British, Australian actors are acting like Americans in Hollywood movies

Posted September 11

Watching the film “Genius,” which played in theaters in June and was released on DVD this week, it occurred to me this distinctly American story about distinctive Americans is packed primarily with British and Australian actors.

How peculiar.

We’ve come to expect Roman and Hebrew characters in biblical and historical epics to speak with proper British accents. That’s been going on since sound came to movies, and it’s still the norm — check out the current “Ben-Hur” or 2014’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

But in a film such as “Genius,” the decision to use so many British and Australian actors is, well, flummoxing.

Granted they adopt American accents, but still.

This is not meant to denigrate the A-list cast of “Genius,” but English actor Jude Law seems an odd choice to play North Carolina-born Thomas Wolfe, and the same can be said for his fellow Englishman Colin Firth as New Yorker Maxwell Perkins.

Really, if you’re looking for someone to play Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, would your casting instincts take you across the pond to Dominic West, another Englishman, for Hemingway, or the British-Australian actor Guy Pearce for Fitzgerald?

In addition, London-born Vanessa Kirby plays Alabama-born Zelda Fitzgerald and Australian actress Nicole Kidman is Wolfe’s paramour, Aline Bernstein, a New Yorker.

In fact, the only American among the major players in “Genius” is New York actress Laura Linney as Perkins’ wife Louise, a New Jerseyite.

Of course, all this may have something to do with the fact that the first-time filmmaker who helmed “Genius” is Michael Grandage, a veteran British theater director.

Personally, I have no foxhound in this fight — I enjoyed “Genius” a bit more than the critics (the film has a below-average rating at the aggregate-review website Rotten Tomatoes), and I thought the actors acquitted themselves well enough (although Law could have dialed back the fiery Southern bluster of Wolfe just a tad).

There are so many British stars playing American characters these days, maybe it’s a non-issue.

This isn’t something that pings on the politically incorrect radar the same way as Angelina Jolie darkening her skin to play Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” or Johnny Depp playing American Indian Tonto in “The Lone Ranger.”

No one seems to care or even notice when actors of other nationalities play Americans. Today it’s reached some kind of zenith with the tremendous influx of British and Australian actors rising in the Hollywood ranks.

In addition to “Genius,” other recent examples of British actors playing real-life Americans in Hollywood movies include Daniel Day-Lewis as our 16th president in “Lincoln,” David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in “Selma,” Will Poulter as Jim Bridger in “The Revenant,” Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville in “In the Heart of the Sea,” Naomi Watts as both Valerie Plame in “Fair Game” and Helen Gandy in “J. Edgar,” and in “Steve Jobs,” Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman and Michael Fassbender as the title character.

On the fictional front, there’s Gerard Butler as a U.S. Secret Service agent in “Olympus Has Fallen” and its sequel “London Has Fallen,” Alfred Molina as a Los Angeles district attorney in “The Secret in Their Eyes,” Henry Cavill as the titular “Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” Tom Holland as Spider-Man in “Captain America: Civil War,” and so many more.

This is not a new phenomenon, either. We’ve always had British actors starring as American characters in U.S. films, from Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard in “Gone With the Wind” to Christian Bale as “The Dark Knight.”

They come along with everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Cary Grant to Bob Hope to Angela Lansbury to Liam Neeson — Hollywood stars that have become so popular, we forgot they were British-born (or in Neeson’s case, Irish-born).

As for Australians, Errol Flynn was a Hollywood star in the 1930s and ’40s, and Rod Taylor fared well in the ’60s and ’70s. In the 1980s, Mel Gibson (born in America but moved to Australia at age 12) led a contingent of actors that came over in droves.

In this century, there has been an even greater influx of Australians rising to Hollywood’s cream of the crop — Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Joel Edgerton, Anthony LaPaglia, and brothers Chris and Liam Hemsworth, among others. (Maybe Naomi Watts should also be on this list of Australians as she was born in England but moved to Australia at age 14.)

There are plenty of talented American actors who may feel the scales are tipped toward foreigners these days, and it seems an awful lot of the best make their way to television rather than movies.

The irony in all this is you never see American actors affecting British accents in U.S. movies.

Well, OK, not never — Texas-born Renee Zellweger has her third “Bridget Jones” film opening in a couple of weeks.

However, when filmmakers are looking for someone to play a British character in a movie, I suspect they don’t have to cast a wide net outside of Hollywood.

Maybe they need to think that way about casting American roles, too.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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