20 of the Greatest British Actors Working Today
America might have kicked off the movie industry but the Brits aren’t that far behind. The British film industry began around the same time as America, but it took a little longer before it started to make an impact worldwide. The 1940s are generally considered the “Golden Age” of British cinema, as this is when many of the greatest British actors and actresses rose to fame, with the likes of Sean Connery, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Audrey Hepburn, and Cary Grant coming out of that time.
The British new wave kicked off in the 50s, with the 60s and 70s seeing many American production companies supporting and financing British movies. But by the time the 80s rolled around, the British film industry was on the ropes, with just 31 movies made during the decade. Things changed in the 90s as a new breed of independent filmmakers and actors helped rejuvenate the industry. This, coupled with a heap of tax incentives offered for American productions breathed new life into the industry. This success has continued with the turn of the century as more and more fresh talent has had a major hand in turning the British film industry into one of the best in the world.
To celebrate all the great actors who have helped transform the British film industry over the past 30 years, here are our top picks for the best Brit actors of modern times.
20 of the Greatest British Actors Working Today
1. Gary Oldman
Although Gary Oldman has been acting for over 40 years, he has been integral in putting the British film industry on the map. He got his start walking the boards of London’s West End before landing the role of Siv Vicious in the autobiographical film Sid and Nancy. He was singled out for his role in football hooligan flick The Firm before making his mark in America in movies like JFK, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, True Romance, Air Force One, and European cult classic Léon: The Professional.
Often playing a bad guy, Oldman found a whole new fan base when he appeared as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. Having won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and three British Academy Film Awards, Oldman remains one of Britain’s most versatile actors whose most recent role, and possibly last, as Jackson Lamb in the spy series Slow Horses, is one of his greatest.
2. Christian Bale
Although his breakout role is generally considered to be in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 Empire of the Sun when he was just 13, it wasn’t until 2000s American Psycho that people really took notice of Christian Bale. The Welsh actor’s performance as the psychopath Patrick Bateman is chilling and quickly saw Bale cast in a wide range of flicks, including dragon adventure Reign of Fire, psychological thriller The Machinist, and sci-fi action movie Equilibrium.
After Christopher Nolan cast him as Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy, Bale rocketed to superstardom and has since established himself as not only one of the great British actors but one of the greatest actors full stop. Some of his best movies have come in the past decade, including Ford v Ferrari, The Big Short, and Vice.
3. Daniel Craig
There’s more to Daniel Craig than James Bond. While he made his name playing 007 in five movies, Craig’s career is much more than the British secret agent. Similar to Gary Oldman, Craig started his career on the stage before making his film debut in the drama The Power of One in 1992. The 90s weren’t great for Craig, but things changed in the early 00s, with the Brit having memorable roles in Road to Perdition, Layer Cake, and Munich before Bond flick Casino Royale took him to the next level.
After embodying Bond for 15 years, Craig now has a new character making waves, Southern Detective Benoit Blanc, who pops up in Knives Out and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
4. Tom Hiddleston
If you get cast in a Marvel movie it’s safe to say you’ve made it. Tom Hiddleston has done just that after being cast as Thor’s brother Loki in Thor and then going on to appear in several of The Avengers movies and his own TV series on Disney+.
Before the Marvel movies, Hiddleston only had a couple of credits to his name, but since his breakout role as Loki (and his starring role in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse that came out the same year as Thor), Hiddleston has been in high demand.
As well as appearing in the blockbuster Kong: Skull Island and Hank Williams autobiographical film I Saw the Light, Hiddleston has narrated several TV shows and lent his voice to a variety of animated movies and series.
5. David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo has been acting for over 25 years but it took until 2014s Selma for the Brit to get the recognition he deserved. He plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the historical drama and won multiple awards for his performance. Since then Oyelowo has chosen some interesting projects, such as sports bio Queen of Katwe, science fiction movie The Cloverfield Paradox, and comedy mystery See How They Run.
6. Tom Hardy
Londoner Tom Hardy is much loved by film fans. His movie debut was in Ridley Scott’s 2001 war flick Black Hawk Down and his television debut was the same year in the World War II series Band of Brothers. Not a bad way to introduce yourself to the world.
The following few years saw Hardy crop up in a Star Trek movie and Guy Ritchie’s gangster flick RocknRolla, but it was his turn as infamous prisoner Charles Bronson in the biographical movie Bronson that helped his career take off.
Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road, Warrior, and Venom are just some of the blockbuster movies Hardy has appeared in over the past decade. Hardy has also had an impact on the small screen as Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders and as James Delaney in the historical drama Taboo.
7. Idris Elba
American’s still can’t believe Idris Elba is British after his star performance as drug dealer Stringer Bell in the acclaimed crime series The Wire. While the role helped him break out, it still took several more years before Elba was recognized for his talents. Roles in RocknRolla, The Losers, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Thor, coupled with his critically acclaimed starring role in the British detective series Luthor, saw Elba finally get the plaudits he deserved.
The past decade has been quite successful for the London geezer, who has not only featured in box-office hits Star Trek Beyond, Thor: Ragnarok, and Fast & Furious: Hobbs and Shaw, but also starred in several documentaries, performed as a DJ at night clubs around the world, and released singles, albums, and extended plays, including 2022s Cordi Elba with Aussie act Lime Cordiale.
8. Benedict Cumberbatch
Whether performing in stage shows, movies, or on television, Benedict Cumberbatch never fails to deliver. The London actor has a long list of credits that includes theater plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Frankenstein, feature films Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, 12 Years a Slave, The Imitation Game, and The Power of the Dog, television shows Sherlock, Patrick Melrose, and The Last Enemy, and radio plays such as Cabin Pressure, Blake’s 7: The Early Years, and the Rumpole series.
As well as being a great actor, Cumberbatch comes across as a nice guy, which is always a bonus. While yet to win an Academy Award (he has been nominated twice), Cumberbatch has been presented with two BAFTAS and a Primetime Emmy Award.
9. Sean Bean
A stalwart of British cinema, Sean Bean has had several iconic roles throughout his long and illustrious career. After finding success playing Richard Sharpe in the ITV series Sharpe, Bean has gone on to play rouge British agent Alex Trevelyan in GoldenEye, Boromir from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and Mr. Wilford in Snowpiercer.
Bean gained a reputation for playing characters that often suffered on-screen deaths and said he would refuse to read scripts where his character died in 2019. He continues to work in both Hollywood and at home in the United Kingdom and has also narrated several video games.
10. Daniel Kaluuya
Black British actors are on the rise as evidenced by Daniel Kaluuya’s climb to the top of the acting hill. His first job was in the television movie Shoot the Messenger before he scored the role of Posh Kenneth on Skins, where he would also help out with the writing of the first two seasons.
Several small movie roles followed, including Reggie Wayne in Sicario, before Jordan Peele cast him in the psychological horror Get Out. The movie blew up and Kaluuya got some juicy roles, including W’Kabi in Black Panther, Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and Otis Jr. “OJ” Haywood in Nope.
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11. James McAvoy
The Scottish actor James McAvoy is another with an interesting filmography that includes the romantic comedy Wimbledon, the historical drama The Last King of Scotland, the romantic war drama Atonement, the M. Night Shyamalan thriller Split, surprise action hit Atomic Blonde, and three X-Men films. He’s also popped up in TV shows Shameless, State of Play, and Sandman.
12. Aaron Taylor Johnson
English actor Aaron Taylor Johnson scored his first role at age six, but it took him almost two decades before he finally made his mark in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Playing the ordinary teenager who decides to be a superhero brought Johnson to the attention of many and really got Johnson’s career underway.
Savages, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Tenet, and Bullet Train are the pick of his movies, with Johnson also confirmed to play Kraven the Hunter in an adaptation of the comic.
13. Daniel Day Lewis
Some say this man is the greatest actor of the past 30 years, and it’s a hard argument to disagree with. Daniel Day Lewis only has 21 films to his name in a career spanning almost 50 years, but every role has seen the actor universally praised. My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father, The Crucible, and There Will Be Blood are all tremendous movies showcasing his incredible abilities.
Day Lewis has won three Oscars, four BAFTAS, two Golden Globes, and three Screen Actor Guild Awards in a glittering career that ended with 2017s Phantom Thread. Taking method acting to the extreme, there are few as talented as Day Lewis.
14. Andrew Lincoln
It’s crazy to think it took The Walking Dead before Andrew Lincoln was lauded for his acting talents. An accomplished English actor who had much success in television shows This Life, Teachers, and Afterlife, it was policeman turned zombie killer Rick Grimes that took Lincoln to the next level. His American accent was so good that many people didn’t realize he was British.
Lincoln won the Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television in 2015 and 2017 for his portrayal of Grimes, but after nine seasons on the acclaimed series, he called it quits. Since then he’s been pretty quiet when it comes to acting, although the Love Actually star is set to reprise the role of Grimes in a spin-off series.
15. Henry Cavill
The best Superman since Christopher Reeve is also one of the great British actors of modern times. As well as being super charming, Henry Cavill is an absolute dreamboat with abs for days. He has movie star looks that make him picture-perfect as Superman, while his performance as Geralt of Rivia in the Netflix fantasy series The Witcher is very close to the original character from the books.
As well as those two franchises, Cavill has made an impact in action spy movies The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, stolen the screen as Charles Brandon in The Tudors, and provided adequate support as Sherlock Holmes in the Enola Holmes series of Netflix movies.
16. Robert Pattinson
Who would have thought Robert Pattinson would graduate from teen vampire to crime-fighting bat in the space of a decade? The elusive Brit got the role of a lifetime when cast as Edward Cullen in the Twilight franchise. The series of films catapulted Pattinson into the limelight, something he loathes, but that didn’t deter him from acting.
Pattinson’s non-Twilight roles have been interesting to say the least. He seems like an actor who wants to work with directors who challenge the norm and make him really look within himself to find the essence of the characters he plays. Some of his best roles have come in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, the Safdie brother’s Good Time, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and Matt Reeves’s The Batman. Pattinson is certainly one of Britain’s great actors of the modern age.
17. Tom Holland
How good is Tom Holland? Still in his mid-20s, he’s arguably the future of movies. He’s an actor who always shines, no matter how shit the movie he is starring in turns out (Cherry anyone?). Not only has he made Spider-Man his own in a trilogy of fantastic superhero movies (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Spider-Man: No Way Home), but he’s starred in video game adaptation Uncharted, underrated adventure flick The Lost City of Z, and several animated movies. And let’s not forget the former Billy Elliot is also dating Zendaya, making him the envy of men around the world.
18. Daniel Radcliffe
Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe could have gone the way of so many child actors, but similar to fellow Englishman Robert Pattinson, he’s managed to transition his career from child star to serious adult actor. His filmography is littered with a wide range of movies, which is no surprise considering he played a boy wizard for a decade.
Since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 hit screens in 2011, Radcliffe has done his best work in movies like Swiss Army Man (where he plays a corpse), Escape From Pretoria, The Woman in Black, and The Lost City. Arguably his biggest post-Potter-role is as musician Weird Al Yankovich in the parody biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. The movie is as funny and strange as one of Weird Al’s songs and well worth a watch.
Still in his early 30s, expect a lot more from Radcliffe in the coming years as he cements himself as one of the great English actors.
19. Ben Whishaw
Most people only know of Ben Whishaw from his appearance as Q in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. Turns out he’s been putting in the work for years and has built up quite the filmography. Swapping between theatre (Hamlet, The Crucible, Julius Ceaser), film (Layer Cake, Cloud Atlas, Paddington), and television (The Hour, London Spy, Fargo), Whishaw has been very active both in the UK and across the sea.
Whishaw is currently receiving critical acclaim for his role as a junior doctor in the comedy-drama This Is Going to Hurt and is on the up in the acting world.
20. John Boyega
Attack on the Block got Londoner John Boyega first noticed by critics. The film about alien invaders trying to take over a council estate in inner London was a fantastic showcase of a then 19-year-old Boyega. He’s since gone on to have a starring role in the latest Star Wars trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker), appeared in Pacific Rim: Uprising, and worked alongside Viola Davis in the action movie The Woman King.
Boyega has also had an impact on the small screen, appearing in 24: Live Another Day, the animated series Major Lazer, and Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe. The future is bright for Boyega.
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