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10 Brilliant Movie Actors Who Are Also Great on TV

03 August 2016 | Features, People Lists | by Pedro Bento

great actors in movies and TV

(Robert Trachtenberg/NBC)

Many people say TV shows are like relationships, and films are like affairs or one night stands. It’s certainly possible to establish a bond with several filmmakers or actors, but this statement is logical and apprehensible. Television series create an intense and close nexus with fans, often replacing facts with beliefs.

The advent of TV series and its niche dimension has something very human and simultaneously ironic, and it’s very much like being a hipster. People think they are very different by liking or following a certain thing and they take that thing as theirs, but the truth is that precious artifact has the same kind of bond with millions and millions of people.

So, when everybody thinks they’re different, they happen to have a similar behavior. Being hipster is mainstream today. Following a TV show that seems to be very unknown and underrated is part of creating a huge audience. Unfortunately, nothing is exclusive today.

In terms of acting, an assurance remains: who has talent and capacity achieve to excel in both TV shows and films. The ability to shine in multiple formats and achieve success in different types of acting isn’t quite easy, but those who are really good can shine in a Chekhov or Ionesco play, in a Kurosawa or Malick movie or even in a silent film. Indistinguishably, they could turn into heroes in a comedy or crime TV show or working on a trash film.

In this list, we address attention to actors who proved to be good in both cinema and TV, and we establish some criteria to do it. Once the objective is to tease the readers to follow some future projects by those actors and there are multiple artists who could be included here.

For this list, we only considered men (maybe a list for female actors will be done soon), who are still alive and still in business. Furthermore, the actors must have at least one brilliant performance in a film and a TV show. To keep the results up to date, the TV show has to have no more than five years since its end, or be broadcast nowadays, or about to restart, like “Twin Peaks”.


10. Wagner Moura

Film: Elite Squad I & II

Elite Squad

Moura had very good performances in films like “Carandiru” and “Lower City”, but in “Elite Squad” he shined worldwide. His role as Lt. Colonel Nascimento was truly charismatic and transmitted the sensation that no one else would do a better job than him.

The “Elite Squad” saga can be seen as “City of God” from another perspective, unraveling the veil of a country full of violence and social problems. Thanks to this part, Moura got a role in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” and he’s now considered one of the main bulwarks of Brazilian cinema. At 40 years old, Moura can build a legacy in Latin colors.


TV Show: Narcos


There’s a big telenovela tradition in Brazil and, like Min-sik Choi (“Oldboy”, “I Saw the Devil”, “Lady Vengeance”) in South Korea, Wagner Moura is very popular in his country, not only because of films, but also because of telenovelas.

Starting his career in smaller Brazilian film productions, Moura showed his versatility in telenovelas. In “Narcos”, Moura does an exquisite job as Pablo Escobar and proved himself internationally.

For the role, he went to a Colombian university to learn Spanish and, in order to look like Escobar, he gained 40 pounds. Everybody was astonished with the “Escobar dude” and the only complaint was Moura’s accent, which isn’t very Colombian.


9. Benedict Cumberbatch

Film: The Imitation Game


Cumberbatch’s career is still short and his ample success has been recent, although it can’t be dissociated from his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Imitation Game”.

His strong performances in “Third Star” and in TV movies (the aforementioned and “Hawking”) garnered him notice, but people were still expecting a superlative and brilliant performance in a leading role, and Cumberbatch did it.

Mathematician Alan Turing was a very complex character and had lots of mannerisms to embody, but Cumberbatch nailed it and worked as the film’s engine. A couple of years have passed since its release, and the film still feels very fresh. Perhaps one day we will talk about it as a cult film, remembering Cumberbatch as a young but very skilled actor.


TV Show: Sherlock


Being quite popular and praised as a very multifaceted actor – he’s worked in radio, theater, cinema and TV – Benedict Cumberbatch is strictly connected with television. First, because he started in TV shows and has a long history there with “The Last Enemy” as a high point.

Second, some of his best performances still are with “Stuart: A Life Backwards” and “Van Gogh: Painted with Words”, two TV movies. However, “Sherlock” is still the apogee of his career and quite possibly his most challenging role.

The secret for success was Cumberbatch’s combination of the classical character with a modern tone, without spoiling the original character’s spirit, something that Robert Downey Jr. didn’t achieve in his film, “Sherlock Holmes”.


8. Kyle MacLachlan

Film: Blue Velvet


In terms of greatness, MacLachlan was like a balloon deflating or a teenager losing his virginity: fast and furious, but the action ended too quickly. Hitchhiking onto David Lynch’s success, MacLachlan ascended to Olympus in five years with “Twin Peaks” and “Blue Velvet”, never reaching the same level later in his career.

“Blue Velvet” has the same vibe as Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” or “Me and You” with the innocence lost. MacLachlan is one of the main characters and does a very good job, but, even in his best effort, he is a little obfuscated by Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini, who are simply terrific.


TV Show: Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks show

Kyle MacLachlan’s trace through TV series is voluminous. “Portlandia”, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” and “Believe” are examples of that, and we can add his assiduous presence in “Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives” in a different category that didn’t help favor his image.

In “Twin Peaks”, MacLachlan wrote his name in television history, stealing the entire show with a very charismatic role. His protagonist has a dark past beside him, but is very lush and clever, has an incredible sense of humor, and easily creates empathy.

Agent Cooper ends up being one of the greatest characters captured on TV and, in all honesty, MacLachlan was lucky to have this opportunity of immortalization.


7. Paul Giamatti

Film: Sideways


As a supporting actor most of the time, Giamatti got his best performances in lesser-known films. As a secondary actor, he was very good in “The Illusionist” and “Cinderella Man”, the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination.

As a protagonist, his performances are way better, but less recognized. “Barney’s Version” isn’t a film I would recommend to a friend, but shows a good Giamatti.

In “American Splendor”, Giamatti is superb, the film is very original and peculiar, but its range was not so big. “Sideways” is a masterpiece and presents Giamatti at his finest. Above everything, the film proves that with better roles, Giamatti would be more recognized as the excellent actor he truly is.


TV Show: Billions

In this image released by Showtime, Paul Giamatti portrays Chuck Rhoades in "Billions," premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.(Jeff Neumann/Showtime via AP)

Paul Giamatti is a very prolific movie actor, but it’s on television where he’s had 100 percent success until today. As an integral part, he was present in two TV series – “John Adams” and “Billions” – and he nailed it in both.

As a film divided into seven episodes, “John Adams” couldn’t be considered his best performance in a TV series, so we will go with “Billions”, which, while not very popular, is a show that deserves praise.

Giamatti is credited as an actor who cannot give a bad performance and he totally corroborates that. After one season, this may be considered Giamatti at his highest form, which may sound a little disrespectful since he’s made dozens of films.


6. Cillian Murphy

Film: The Wind That Shakes the Barley

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

“Batman Begins” surely showed his greater range and the ubiquitous role he played, and in “Red Eye” and “Breakfast on Pluto” he also shows talent, but in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, his qualities are more prominent.

The film isn’t just another IRA chapter and goes straight to the heart, not just because of a gripping plot, but mainly because it’s insightful and artistically filmed. Murphy performs his most dramatic role and the Irish actor fits very well in the genre.

Winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the film will never be lost in time’s mist and neither will the actor. Confirmed to appear in “Dunkirk”, Christopher Nolan’s new World War II project, Murphy has a new opportunity to shine again.


TV Show: Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders

Cillian Murphy started his career gradually and steadily with smaller roles and participation in short films. He wasn’t an instant success, but got important credits in relevant films like “28 Days Later” and “On the Edge”. His progress in cinema was natural, never jumping steps, and he achieved magnificence with a bunch of roles and not with a single performance.

He had no experience on TV, but quickly convinced in “Peaky Blinders” as Thomas Shelby. His amazing embodiment of the English gangster wasn’t a surprise for those who follow his career (the physical aspect helps a lot), but he deserves all compliments he may get.



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  • Daniel_Plainview

    Of course film actors are great at tv series, most of them nail it. Instead i dare you to find tv actors who don’t suck or are meh at films.

    • Caio

      Sarah Paulson, better known for AHS and ACS, was great on both 12 Years a Slave and Carol, even though they’re small parts.

      Previously mentioned here, Bryan Cranston is actually better known for TV roles (both Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle), but is great at movies like Trumbo and The Infiltrator.

      Taraji P. Henson was Oscar nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and yet has been a staple on TV since The Division, with parts in Boston Legal, Person of Interest and Empire.

      7-time Emmy winner Allison Janney is amazing in last year’s Tallulah, and also Juno.

      Keri Russell is brilliant in Waitress but is better known for TV roles like Felicity and The Americans.

      Also the coutless SNL cast-members who went on to have nice cinematic careers.

      • ray gudel

        Like Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler? Lol

  • Xanian

    Heavily oriented towards the recent TV series. Really hard to disagree with the entries on the list though. Everyone of them is astonishing on TV.

  • lauramoreaux

    Bryan Cranston

    • frank mango

      yea and what movie is he brilliant in ? i mean where he actually carried the movie ?

      • AmazingAmy

        agree….he starred in many great films like drive and argo….but i only remembered ryan gosling and freaking crazy albert brooks in former while ben affleck and alan arkin are who truly carried the latter one.

        • lauramoreaux


  • docksidelee

    Naturally, Kevin Spacey comes to mind with his impressive filmography and now his work on “House of Cards”..

    • ray gudel

      Yea, but I don’t agree with the writer calling horrible bosses a misstep. The first one was decent and he was excellent in it.

  • AmazingAmy

    You forgot steve carrell ( film : foxcatcher tv : office ), helen mirren, maggie smith, viola davis,, idris elba,…….

  • Harsha Raman

    Initially I was very reluctant to watch Peaky Blinders because of Cillian Murphy. I did not particularly like his creepy turn of characters in Nolan movies. But the show forced me to change my impression of the guy. He is indeed a fine actor.