A recent and growing trend has taken hold of the Hollywood community. It seems that big time movie stars no longer look down on television as being an unworthy place to find work. In fact, as Hollywood churns out ever more formulaic and trite copies of every safe blockbuster and Oscar bait drama that was ever remotely successful in a desperate bid to appeal to a misunderstood audience, television is quickly becoming the place to find good writing, original stories, and complex characters in unique situations. While this has long been true in the case of British film and television, with the quality and acclaim of each medium on par with the other, the separation and shift in the US film and television industries is much more pronounced. With the exciting news of some upcoming television shows and their big name stars, its time to look at some movie stars who took to the small screen and rocked it hard.
6. Robert Downey, Jr. – Ally McBeal (1997)
While Downey, Jr. may not have been the big name he is today, at the time of his guest role on the quirky sitcom Ally McBeal he was certainly known as a man of movies – among other things. Before his charismatic and complex performance as lawyer and Ally McBeal love interest Larry Paul, Downey, Jr. had starred as the romantic lead in a string of RomComs as well as taking on starring roles in an eclectic mix of critically acclaimed independent films, and supporting roles in big budget mainstream movies. While his performance on Ally McBeal was critically acclaimed and earned him a Golden Globe, he was abruptly fired from the show after two drug arrests. We all know there’s a happy ending, of course, with Downey, Jr. earning his way back into the good graces of Hollywood and basically casting himself as Iron Man. While he’s currently the highest paid actor in Hollywood, perhaps we’ll see him take to the small screen again when he’s finished making (or not making?) Iron Man 4.
5. Al Pacino and Meryl Streep – Angels in America (2003)
This highly acclaimed television mini-series based on the play by Tony Kushner is simply awesome – and I really almost mean in the literal, proper sense of the word. I am awed by its emotional depth, its soul crushing tragedy, its ability to affect and inspire, the humanity of the characters, and by the incredible performances of the actors who portray them. Al Pacino plays the controversial Roy Cohn, a man of power and influence who must hide his sexuality and AIDS diagnosis in order to maintain his social position. He is brash, callus, arrogant, and a fighter to the very end. Angels also stars Meryl Streep as multiple characters, all of which are genuine and well acted, but the most striking and unexpected perhaps being her role as The Rabbi. While this is by no means her most powerful and affecting role, she is unrecognizable and damn convincing.
4. James Spader – The Blacklist (2013)
Spader is no stranger to television, any more than he is a stranger to film and theater. He’s a man of many talents with a love of many mediums. While he’s always been partial to interesting roles in independent films, his performances in many of these are extremely well known and highly acclaimed. Before The Blacklist, Spader starred in a long running TV series alongside William Shatner in the legal dramedy Boston Legal. Now he’s playing a complex and ruthless criminal on the NBC drama The Blacklist. He is, without a doubt, the best part of the show and so far the only conceivable reason to watch it. Maybe it will hit its stride this season, who knows. And while Spader may not be the typical movie star, he is playing Ultron in the upcoming Avengers movie, so I’d say that counts as much as anything else when defining that sort of thing.
3. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson – True Detective (2014)
This is the great big obvious one and kind of the game changer as far as big names on television goes. While Harrelson has done his fair share of television acting, with a recurring guest role on Will & Grace of all things, he is mainly a film actor – and often sought after for high budget fare at that. McConaughey was the kicker for this project. He had always kind of been a big name, even if he insisted on making the same romantic comedy over and over again, and was known for his lackluster but lucrative career. Somehow along the way he suddenly started picking critically acclaimed, interesting projects – in which he was actually quite good. He won an Oscar for best actor and then did the unthinkable; he starred in a television series. But it was the most buzzed, most talked about TV series of the year and became one of the leading examples of the kind of quality, complexity, and creative flexibility that television offers over mainstream film. While AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad opened our eyes to the power of television, it takes one Hollywood star to test the waters. I think everyone will be jumping in soon enough.
2. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch – The Hollow Crown (2012/2016)
The Hollow Crown is a British mini-series which adapts Shakespeare’s historical plays and presents them chronologically, tracking the reign of kings and their successors. The first series boasts an impressive list of names – basically British actor currently working – including Jeremy Irons, John Hurt, Hugh Bonneville, Ben Whishaw, and Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston is obviously a favorite with the ladies these days and making quite a name for himself in the Marvel universe as Loki. The upcoming season of The Hollow Crown has already cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III. Cumberbatch is also a hit with the ladies, and despite appearing in blockbusters like The Hobbit and Star Trek Into Darkness, gladly turns back to British television for some really juicy roles. It’s a good thing he hasn’t become too big for the small screen, otherwise we wouldn’t have another season of Sherlock to look forward to.
1. Tom Hiddleston – The Night Manager
I know, Tom Hiddleston again. But his casting in this adaptation of a John Le Carre spy thriller opposite Hugh Laurie is kind of big news this week, and definitely a headline I enjoyed reading. It’s probably no secret that I am a fan of British film and television, and not only do I love a good John Le Carre thriller, but Hugh Laurie is one of my favorite performers. Having Laurie and Hiddleston play opposite each other seems like dream casting to me, and both are equally capable of playing to the dark, subtle, and complex tones of a Le Carre story. Its early days yet, with the project and its casting only just announced, so we’re pretty light on details here. Lets just say I’ll be keeping my eye on the headlines until The Night Manager finally airs on the BBC.