Get us in your inbox

Search
Ben Kingsley in Shutter Island

50 Great British actors: the list

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

Advertising

To honour UK acting talent – men and women, past and present – we've compiled a list of the greatest British actors to ever have lit up the silver screen. We’ve included youngsters like Jack O’Connell alongside established legends like Dame Judi Dench. And don't forget to try and spot some of these tremendous talents in our list of the 100 Best Movies of All Time

RECOMMENDED:

🇬🇧 The 100 best British films
😂 The 100 best comedy movies
💥 The 101 best action movies
❤️ The 100 best romantic movies
👨‍👩‍👦 The 50 best family movies

50 Great British actors: A-D

Christian Bale
Richard Foreman

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
Nick Briggs

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

Advertising
Kate Beckinsale

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

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

Advertising
Michael Caine

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

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’
Advertising
John Cleese

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

Sacha Baron Cohen

All actors hide behind their characters – but Sacha Baron Cohen does so in public, dragging his creations down from the screen and onto the streets in bold, hilarious docu-comedies like ‘Ali G Indahouse’ and ‘Borat’. 

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films:Ali G Indahouse’, ‘Borat’, ‘Grimsby

Advertising
Sean Connery

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

Charles Dance

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

Advertising
Judi Dench
Laurie Sparham

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

Danny Dyer

Danny Dyer

The ultimate cheeky chappie, Danny Dyer has made far more bad movies than good ones – but he’s always a pleasure to watch. Best known now for his regular appearances in TV’s ‘EastEnders’, Dyer brings an effortless, plucky charm to every role.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films: ‘Outlaw’, ‘Human Traffic’, ‘The Football Factory

50 Great British actors: E-H

Idris Elba

Idris Elba

Actor, superstar DJ and celebrity petrolhead – Big ‘Dris can do it all. Smashing onto our screens as Baltimore drug kingpin Stringer Bell in TV’s ‘The Wire’, Elba has a run of blockbuster supporting roles behind him (‘Prometheus’, ‘Pacific Rim’), and scored a richly deserved Golden Globe nomination for his powerful central turn in ‘Mandela’.

Years active: 1990s to now

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

Colin Firth

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

Advertising
Martin Freeman
Mark Pokorny

Martin Freeman

Finding fame as cuddly nice-guy-next-door Tim in TV’s ‘The Office’, Martin Freeman has been playing thoroughly decent heroes ever since in the likes of ‘Nativity!’, ‘Sherlock’ and ‘The Hobbit’. We reckon it’s only a matter of time before he finds an excuse to unleash his inner psycho.

Years active: 1990s to now

Key films: ‘The World's End’, ‘Nativity!’, ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Advertising
Sir John Gielgud

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’

Hugh Grant
1996-98 AccuSoft Inc

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

Advertising
Alec Guinness

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’

Tom Hardy

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

Advertising
Naomie Harris
Content Media

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

Tom Hiddleston

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 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

Advertising
Anthony Hopkins

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

Bob Hoskins

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
Best British actors: Alex Brenner

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
20th Century Fox

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

Advertising
Keira Knightley
Laurie Sparham

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

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

Advertising
Jude Law
Stephen Goldblatt

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

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

Advertising
Sir Ian McKellen

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

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

Advertising
Liam Neeson
20th Century Fox

Liam Neeson

Belfast-born Liam Neeson has perhaps the oddest CV in British cinema: for decades a serious, committed and highly regarded screen actor, in the 2000s he made a sudden left-turn into shoot-’em-up action flicks, became a massive multiplex star and hasn’t looked back since.

Years active: 1970s to now

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

Thandie Newton

Thandie 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 Thandie Newton has talent to burn.

Years active: 1990s to now

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

Advertising
David Niven

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

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

Advertising
Gary Oldman

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

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

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

Advertising
Miranda Richardson

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

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’ 

Advertising
Jason Statham

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

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

Advertising
Tilda Swinton

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

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

Advertising
Emma Thompson

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

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

Advertising
Rachel Weisz

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

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’

Advertising
Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet

From her giddy, feisty film debut at 19 in Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures’, it was clear that Kate Winslet was a talent to be reckoned with. The record-shattering ‘Titanic’ made her a huge star, but she’s continued to push herself with tough roles in the likes of ‘Revolutionary Road’ and TV’s ‘Mildred Pierce’.

Years active: 1990s to now

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

Recommended

    More on Time In

      You may also like
        Advertising