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Photograph: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/2021

50 Great British actors: the list

Explore our list of 50 Great British actors, from screen villains to action heroes and leading ladies

Tom Huddleston
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Tom Huddleston
Contributor
Phil de Semlyen
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Acting is not a British invention, but it might as well be. If you close your eyes and imagine an archetypal actor, you’re probably going to hear a Shakespeare soliloquy recited in the King’s English with a haughty accent. Beyond the stereotype, Blighty has legitimately produced some of the greatest actors the world has ever seen. Here are our picks for the greatest British acting talent of all-time, from Judi Dench to Jack O’Connell, with everyone from Dudley Moore to Keira Knightley in between. 

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50 Great British actors: A-D

Christian Bale

A child star at 13 in Steven Spielberg’s soaring war story ‘Empire of the Sun’, Christian Bale’s career seemed to be petering out before he was perfectly cast as the preening, murderous anti-hero of ‘American Psycho’. The lead role in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy has made him a huge international star.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:Empire of the Sun’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘Batman Begins

Sean Bean

Need someone to pop their clogs midway through your megabudget fantasy adventure? Call Sean Bean! Whether it’s dying in a hail of arrows in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, by an executioner’s blade in ‘Game of Thrones’ or clinging to life as a half-man, half-honeybee mutant in ‘Jupiter Ascending’, Sheffield’s finest never disappoints.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘Caravaggio

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Kate Beckinsale

Already a veteran of several period dramas, Kate Beckinsale was the beneficiary of a post-‘Titanic’ Winslet effect when director Michael Bay chose her as the female lead in his sprawling action epic ‘Pearl Harbor’. She’s since confirmed her kick-ass credentials in the hugely popular ‘Underworld’ series.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:Underworld’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Pearl Harbor

Dirk Bogarde

Impossible to pin down, Dirk Bogarde played everything from dashing romantic leads in the hugely popular, comically risqué Doctor series to the scheming working-class valet in ‘The Servant’. As the conflicted barrister in ‘Victim’, he became the first major British actor to play a gay character on screen.

Years active: 1940s to 1980s

Key films: ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘Doctor in the House’, ‘Victim’, ‘The Servant

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Michael Caine

Arguably London’s most famous son, Bermondsey-born Caine’s career exploded in the ’60s when he became the face of working-class Britain in the likes of ‘Zulu’ and ‘Alfie’. In his middle years, he seemed to swerve towards cheeky-chappie self-parody, before his work with director Christopher Nolan secured a remarkable late-in-life comeback.

Years active: 1950s to now

Key films:Zulu’, ‘Get Carter’, ‘The Dark Knight

Robert Carlyle

He’s played the nice-guy hero in everything from ‘The Full Monty’ to TV’s ‘Hamish MacBeth’ – but we suspect that Carlyle will forever be remembered as the terrifying, untethered Glaswegian psycho Begbie in ‘Trainspotting’.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:The Full Monty’, ‘Trainspotting’
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John Cleese

The best legs in the business. No, not Betty Grable, but ex-Monty Python legend and unlikely sex symbol John Cleese. He’s still best known for his work with the UK’s finest comedy troupe, but let’s not overlook his gloriously pent-up leading turn in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’.

Years active: 1960s to now

Key films: ‘Monty Python's The Meaning of Life’, ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, ‘A Fish Called Wanda

Sacha Baron Cohen

With high-cringe docu-comedies like Borat and Bruno – not to mention Da Ali G Show, which began on Channel 4 in the UK before moving to HBO in the states – Cohen turned pranksterism into art, disappearing into utterly ridiculous characters yet committing to them so fully he’s managed to fool everyone from Donald Trump to Rudy Giuliani. (Okay, not the highest of bars there, but still: impressive.) But in films like Hugo and The Trial of the Chicago 7, he’s proven that his acting chops translate to more traditional features. If he’d stuck with Bohemian Rhapsody, he’d have an Oscar by now. No worries, though: he’ll probably get one soon enough.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:Borat’, 'Bruno', ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7

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Olivia Colman

It’s depressingly rare for an actress to find a bounty of great roles in their forties. Happily, Olivia Colman has had just that. From her fabulously capricious, gouty queen in ‘The Favourite’, to an altogether more reserved monarch in ‘The Crown’, to her gut-punch dementia drama ‘The Father’ and motherhood memoir ‘The Lost Daughter’, the roles keep getting better – and so does she. The awards will keep coming too, which is fine by us. Her acceptance speeches are magnificent.   

Years active:
 2000 to now

Key films: ‘Tyrannosaur’, ‘The Favourite’, ‘The Lost Daughter’

Sean Connery

From Glasgow milkman to one of the biggest British actors in the known universe, Sean Connery succeeded through sheer determination and bolshiness. Still the fans’ favourite James Bond, he exuded predatory sexiness in the role – but balanced such flashy blockbusters with ‘serious’ performances in the likes of ‘The Hill’ and Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’.

Years active: 1950s to 2010s

Key films: ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Dr No’, ‘Marnie’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

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Benedict Cumberbatch

There are few actors who can communicate genius-level abstraction with as much believability as Benedict Cumberbatch. The Londoner has IQ-ed up everything from the BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ and ‘The Current War’ to ‘The Imitiation Game’ and ‘Doctor Strange’. But his range extends far beyond playing brainboxes, as his visceral turn in Jane Campion’s ‘The Power of the Dog’ amply demonstrates. He’s magnetic as the dissolute ‘Patrick Melrose’ in Showtime’s limited series, too. Like Sherlock himself, there’s not much he can’t wrap his head around.

Years active:
 2002 to now

Key films: ‘The Imitation Game’, ‘Doctor Strange’, ‘The Power of the Dog’, 

Charles Dance

Too often typecast as the frosty, austere villain in the likes of ‘Last Action Hero’, ‘The Imitation Game’ and TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’, former RSC star Charles Dance proved he could also play the wounded nice-guy in the underrated ‘Alien 3’.

Years active: 1970s to now

Key films: ‘Ali G Indahouse’, ‘Alien 3’, ‘The Last Action Hero’, ‘Gosford Park

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Judi Dench

A committed stage and screen performer for over three decades before she finally scored her first Oscar nomination as Queen Victoria in ‘Mrs Brown’, Judi Dench is now a world-famous national treasure, thanks in large part to her role as MI6 chief M in the recent James Bond films.

Years active: 1950s to now

Key films:Philomena’, ‘Mrs Brown’, ‘Skyfall

50 Great British actors: E-H

Idris Elba

The London-born thesp (and sometime DJ) made his international breakthrough with a decidedly un-British role: as Baltimore drug lord Stringer Bell on HBO’s epochal crime drama ‘The Wire’. Since then, he’s personified calm authority on screen, whether fighting kaiju in ‘Pacific Rim’, portraying Nelson Mandela (and earning a Golden Globe nomination) in ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ or representing the other side of the law as DCI John Luther in another acclaimed series, ‘Luther’. He’s also the only person on this list to also have their name appear on a Coachella line-up poster. He really can do it all – and he would have made a great James Bond if they’d gotten around to casting him earlier. 


Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’, ‘Pacific Rim

Colin Firth

He looks like your archetypal thespian toff, but there’s a subtle warmth and charm to Colin Firth that many of his contemporaries lack. Who else could have made the remote pre-war monarch George VI not just approachable, but downright cuddly – without losing his royal cool.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:Bridget Jones’s Diary’, ‘A Single Man’, ‘The King’s Speech

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Sir John Gielgud

One of Britain’s most iconic Shakespearean actors, John Gielgud never quite seemed at home on the big screen. Nonetheless, his rambling, ever-fascinating screen career ranged from the disastrous ‘erotic epic’ ‘Caligula’ to prestigious supporting roles in hits like ‘Arthur’ and ‘Gandhi’.

Years active: 1920s to 1990s

Key films: ‘Arthur’, ‘Gandhi’, ‘Caligula’

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Hugh Grant

A hardworking actor for many years, Hugh Grant found unprecedented fame as the floppy-haired hero of mega-hit ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ – then almost threw it all away in a parked car on Sunset Boulevard. Still, fiery performances in ‘Cloud Atlas’ – and during the press hacking enquiry – show he’s still got fire in his belly.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Notting Hill’, ‘Cloud Atlas

Alec Guinness

Arguably the greatest of all British screen actors, Alec Guinness exploded onto the screen playing eight different members of the aristocratic Dashwood family in the satirical ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’. But he always resented the fact that his best-known role was as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.

Years active: 1930s to 1990s

Key films: ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Star Wars’

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Tom Hardy

The UK’s roughest, toughest, gruffest new acting export has proven his worth both as an action man (‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’) and as a serious dramatic actor (‘Inception’, ‘Warrior’). The less said about his ‘comedy’ effort ‘This Means War’, though, the better...

Years active: 2000s to now

Key films: ‘RocknRolla’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Bronson’, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road

Naomie Harris

So much more than just the new Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris’s three-decade career has seen her battling zombies in ‘28 Days Later’, steering speedboats in ‘Miami Vice’ and putting in a thunderous turn as crusading wife Winnie in 2013’s revolutionary biopic ‘Mandela’.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’, ‘28 Days Later’, ‘Skyfall

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Tom Hiddleston

It’s hard to remember a speedier rise to fame than Tom Hiddleston’s: from his microbudget British debut ‘Unrelated’ to the lead villain in Marvel blockbuster ‘Thor’ in just four years. It’s been a fast track onto the Hollywood A-list that happily hasn’t taken him too far from the West End stage or passion projects like Ben Wheatley’s stiletto-sharp ‘High-Rise’. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a damn fine actor, and a thoroughly nice chap to boot.

Years active: 2000s to now

Key films: ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, ‘Avengers Assemble’, ‘Archipelago’, ‘High Rise’, ‘Loki’

Anthony Hopkins

The son of a Port Talbot baker, Anthony Hopkins’s career has moved from the Shakespearean stage to serious cinematic drama to the hammiest Hollywood blockbusters. But he’ll forever be remembered at the teeth-sucking psychopath Hannibal Lecter in the Oscar-winning ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.

Years active: 1960s to now

Key films:The Silence of the Lambs’, ‘The Lion in Winter’, ‘The Elephant Man

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Bob Hoskins

A lifelong grafter who found unexpected fame as the private-dick anti-hero of cartoon smash ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, Hoskins never forgot his roots and continued to appear in tiny indie movies like Shane Meadows’s magical ‘A Room For Romeo Brass’ until his untimely death in 2014.

Years active: 1970s to 2010s

Key films: ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, ‘A Room for Romeo Brass’, ‘The Long Good Friday

50 Great British actors: I-O

Jeremy Irons

A classically trained British actor who rose to fame in ITV’s stately ‘Brideshead Revisited’, Jeremy Irons is one of an elite band of actors to win the ‘triple crown’: an Oscar (for ‘Reversal of Fortune’), an Emmy (for the TV miniseries ‘Elizabeth I’) and a Tony (for Broadway smash ‘The Good Thing’).

Years active: 1970s to now

Key films: ‘Eragon’, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘Die Hard With a Vengeance

Sir Ben Kingsley

Born Krishna Bhanji in 1940s Yorkshire, Ben Kingsley became a figurehead of serious, highbrow British cinema in the wake of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ – which made his swearing, sneering turn as the terrifying gangster Don Logan in ‘Sexy Beast’ all the more startling.

Years active: 1960s to now

Key films:Gandhi’, ‘Schindler’s List, ‘Sexy Beast

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Keira Knightley

Breaking through with ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ at the tender age of 17, Keira Knightley found fame with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies before she turned 20. But she hasn’t rested on her laurels, taking tricky, confrontational roles in the likes of ‘A Dangerous Method’ and ‘The Imitation Game’.

Years active: early 2000s to now

Key films: ‘King Arthur’, ‘Bend it Like Beckham’, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’, ‘The Imitation Game

Angela Lansbury

Anyone who thinks of Angela Lansbury as just the fusty old biddy of TV’s ‘Murder She Wrote’ should check out her scheming, petrifying turn as the treacherous matriarch in cold-war thriller ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ – proof of her remarkable range.

Years active: 1940s to now

Key films: ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’, ‘National Velvet’, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, ‘Nanny McPhee

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Jude Law

Dismissed as a pretty boy early in his career, Jude Law has time and again proven his acting chops, whether it’s as the frosty American aristocrat in ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, the gruff Glaswegian submarine captain in ‘Black Sea’ or just having a ball as Dr Watson in Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ flicks.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films: ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, ‘Cold Mountain

Malcolm McDowell

The sneering face of youthful rebellion in anti-establishment classics like ‘If...’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Malcolm McDowell settled too easily into villain-for-hire roles – though appearances in TV’s ‘Our Friends in the North’ and superior British crime flick ‘Gangster No 1’ proved he was still a dominating screen presence.

Years active: 1960s to now

Key films: ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘If...’, ‘Gangster No 1

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Sir Ian McKellen

A breathtaking Shakespearean actor, a lifelong gay-rights campaigner and a true rags-to-riches success story, Burnley-born Ian McKellen seemed to gain a new lease of life when he was cast as the kindly wizard Gandalf in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.

Years active: 1960s to now

Key films: ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘Richard III’, ‘X-Men

Dudley Moore

‘Cuddly’ Dudley Moore kicked off his career as a Cambridge satirist alongside performing partner Peter Cook. But he found fame in the ’70s and ’80s with a string of good-natured Hollywood comedies hinging on his unexpected short-guy sex appeal.

Years active: 1960s to 1990s

Key films: ‘Arthur’, ‘Bedazzled’, ‘10

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Liam Neeson

What a long, strange trip it’s been for the Oscar-winning Belfast native. Initially establishing himself as a serious-minded stage actor with an Arthurian presence – one of his first major screen roles was as Gawain in John Boorman’s Excalibur – over the last decade he’s effectively become the British Bruce Willis, appearing in a seemingly unending stream of shoot-’em-up action flicks where he plays a stoical dad with a certain set of skills who takes justice into his own hands. And y’know what? He’s damn good at that too.  

Years active: 1970s to now

Key films: ‘Batman Begins’, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Taken

Thandiwe Newton

With a wildly diverse CV ranging from TV roles (‘ER’, ‘Rogue’) to Hollywood mega-blockbusters (‘Mission: Impossible 2’, ‘2012’) to hefty, serious dramas (‘Crash’, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’), London-born Thandiwe Newton has talent to burn.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films: ‘Mission: Impossible 2’, ‘Flirting’, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun

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David Niven

One of the most dashing British actors of the post-war period, David Niven’s pencil moustache and debonair dress sense have become legendary. But he always had a nod and a wink for the audience too, especially in self-parodying roles like the jewel thief in ‘The Pink Panther’.

Years active: 1930s to 1980s

Key films: ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, ‘The Pink Panther

Jack O'Connell

The leading light of a fresh pack of current young British actors, Jack O’Connell proved his mettle with ferociously committed performances in hard-hitting homegrown dramas ‘Starred Up’ and ‘’71’.

Years active: 2000s to now

Key films:Starred Up’, ‘’71’, ‘Unbroken

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Gary Oldman

One of a gang of young British actors who rose to prominence in the post-punk years, Gary Oldman got his break playing Sex Pistols legend Sid Vicious. Three decades later he’s still a force to be reckoned with, even in nice-guy roles in the Batman and Harry Potter franchises. The excoriating ‘Nil By Mouth’ proved he was a fine director, too.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:Dracula’, ‘Sid & Nancy’, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

50 Great British actors: P-Z

Simon Pegg

The ultimate fanboy pinup, Simon Pegg’s rise to stardom has been stratospheric, from nerd- friendly genre-mash ‘Spaced’ on TV via rom-zom-com classic ‘Shaun of the Dead’ to writing and co-starring in the upcoming ‘Star Trek 3’. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’, ‘Star Trek

Oliver Reed

It’s sad that Oliver Reed is now best remembered as a hopeless alcoholic gruesomely appearing on TV chat shows. In his day, Reed was nothing less than a powerhouse, his performances in the likes of ‘Women in Love’ and ‘The Devils’ bringing a new, raw intensity to British acting.

Years active: 1950s to 1990s

Key films: ‘Oliver!’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Women in Love’, ‘The Devils

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Miranda Richardson

One of the most versatile British actors, Miranda Richardson may be best known for her irrepressible, psychotic Queenie in TV’s ‘Blackadder’, but her impressive film CV ranges from the doomed anti-heroine of capital punishment drama ‘Dance with a Stranger’ to the Labour MP Barbara Castle in ‘Made in Dagenham’.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films: ‘Dance With a Stranger’, ‘Damage’, ‘The Crying Game

Peter Sellers

An actor and comedian famed for his unique ability to disappear into his roles, Peter Sellers may have been sidetracked by increasingly unrewarding turns as Inspector Clouseau in the ‘Pink Panther’ series. But his triple-header performance in atomic satire ‘Dr Strangelove’ remains one of the all-time pinnacles of screen acting.

Years active: 1950s to 1970s

Key films:The Pink Panther’, ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘Dr Strangelove: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’ 

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Jason Statham

Ah, The Stath. Equally adored and mocked for his one-facial-expression action-man antics in the likes of ‘The Transporter’ and ‘Crank’, the Mockney bruiser has turned it around with memorable roles in ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Fast & Furious 7’, and he even tries his hand at comedy in 2015's ‘Spy’.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:The Transporter’, ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, ‘Fast & Furious 7

Patrick Stewart

A veteran of countless stage and screen productions, the original sexy baldie Patrick Stewart had a late breakthrough at age 47 when he captained the USS Enterprise in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. He now juggles ‘X-Men’ appearances with a global campaign for women’s rights.

Years active: 1960s to now

Key films:X-Men: Days of Future Past’, ‘Dune’, ‘Star Trek: First Contact

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Tilda Swinton

Perhaps the most unpredictable and challenging British actors of them all, Tilda Swinton shattered expectations when she played the male lead in Sally Potter’s time-hopping ‘Orlando’. That fierce, determined sense of experimentation can be felt in every film she makes, from tiny avant-garde indies to major Hollywood blockbusters.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films: ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, ‘Orlando’, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, ‘I Am Love

Elizabeth Taylor

One of the all-time icons of British cinema, Elizabeth Taylor’s rollercoaster private life often threatened to overshadow her skill as a performer. But take a look back at her breakthrough roles in fiery 1950s classics like ‘Giant’ and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, and her remarkable talent shines through.

Years active: 1940s to 1990s

Key films: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, ‘National Velvet’, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Emma Thompson

Starting out as a Cambridge comic alongside the likes of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson became part of the acting elite following buttoned-down roles in ‘The Remains of the Day’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ – for which she also won a screenwriting Oscar.

Years active: 1980s to now

Key films:The Remains of the Day’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Nanny McPhee

Julie Walters

How many performers score an Oscar nomination – and a Bafta win – for their very first big-screen role? ‘Educating Rita’ made Julie Walters a star, but she’s just as much at home in goofy TV comedy roles alongside her old pal Victoria Wood.

Years active: 1970s to now

Key films: ‘One Chance’, ‘Educating Rita’, ‘Billy Elliot’, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

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Rachel Weisz

Proof that it’s possible to have a spectacular acting career without feeding the scandal machine, Rachel Weisz has quietly but steadily become one of this country’s most challenging and in-demand British actors. 

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:About a Boy’, ‘Stealing Beauty’, ‘The Constant Gardener’

Tom Wilkinson

Another fine British actor who made a late-in-life breakthrough, Tom Wilkinson was best known as a TV bit-player until he scored an unexpected Oscar nomination for moody American indie ‘In the Bedroom’ at the age of 53. Roles in everything from ‘Batman Begins’ to ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ have kept him squarely in the public eye.

Years active: 1970s to now

Key films:The Full Monty’, ‘In the Bedroom’, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

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Kate Winslet

When your international breakthrough is co-starring in literally the biggest movie ever, it’s usually only downhill from there. But Winslet wisely countered the career-overwhelming enormity of ‘Titanic’ by deliberately going small: re-establishing herself as a period piece staple (she’d previously won a BAFTA for 1995’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’); challenging herself with roles in the likes of ‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘The Reader’, for which she earned an Oscar; and only occasionally appearing in other blockbusters, like theAvatar’ sequels. Her greatest achievement, though, may be her turn as a tough, troubled small-town American police detective in the HBO miniseries ‘Mare of Easttown’ – an astonishing performance she completely disappears into, not with make-up but a very specific regional Pennsylvania accent. 

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films: ‘Titanic’, ‘Heavenly Creatures’, ‘Revolutionary Road

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