The film business isn’t always the easiest to navigate. While both actors and actresses have it considerably easier than most of us mere mortals, attaining and maintaining success in Hollywood can be a tricky thing, especially if you’re a woman, and even more if you’ve reached a certain age, like most of the actresses on this list.
They’ve all had success at one point or another, but for a variety of reasons remained on the Hollywood B-list, getting parts that didn’t measure up to their considerable talents. That’s where TV came in – the sheer variety of parts available in Peak TV, and the quality of the writing, was what drew them in.
We considered including people like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, tremendously and deservedly praised for their roles in HBO’s Big Little Lies, but two Academy Award winners can hardly be called “underestimated”. Other great actresses like Keri Russell (The Americans), Aubrey Plaza (Legion) and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) were eliminated because their natural habitat seems to be the TV screen, where they got their breakout hit.
1. Robin Wright, House of Cards
Remember when Robin Wright was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, back in the late 80s-early 90s? She was The Princess Bride herself, and Forrest Gump’s soul mate – but then along came her convoluted marriage with Sean Penn, and Wright’s output became less and less recognized, even though she was blossoming into one of our finest actresses.
After her divorce in 2010, she slowly but surely went back to the spotlight, but the game-changer was her role as Claire Underwood in Netflix’s smash-hit House of Cards, starting in 2013. Playing against Kevin Spacey can be a challenge even for the greatest of performers, but Wright faces it with extraordinary elegance and subtlety. She’s not just complicit with her husband’s corruption and violence – she’s his equal partner in it.
As the seasons went on, Claire became a character that’s as fascinating and fundamental to House of Cards as Frank, and that’s a testament to a brilliant performer.
2. Eva Green, Penny Dreadful
It makes no sense that Eva Green never got an Emmy nomination for her work as Vanessa Ives in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, a John Logan-created dark fantasy extravaganza, a thinking man’s Van Helsing. She did manage to get a Golden Globe nod, but that’s hardly enough for this actress, who has proven herself a force to be reckoned with multiple times in her movie career.
As the haunted Miss Ives in Penny Dreadful, Green’s performance is devastatingly physical and emotionally taxing. It’s almost exhausting to watch her as she paints a beautiful, depressing portrait of a woman in constant fight with the darkness inside herself.
Going up against Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett or even the great Patti LuPone, Green is always the most spellbinding performer onscreen, finding an equal only in Rory Kinnear, another tremendously underestimated actor who delivers a supremely sensitive performance as the series’ version of the Frankenstein monster.
3. Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel
While Vera Farmiga has an Oscar nomination on her resume (for Up in the Air), she’s constantly getting mediocre roles that don’t measure up to her tremendous talent for both drama and comedy. As Norma Bates in the Psycho pseudo-prequel Bates Motel, however, she can let her instincts take over, and the result is a beautiful train wreck of a performance that has single-handedly swayed the series toward her particular brand of manic tragedy.
Because of Farmiga, Bates Motel has transformed from an insecure high-school psychosexual drama into one of TV’s most interesting, entertaining and affecting growing up stories. It took some time, but even the very talented Freddie Highmore caught on to the change and has been delivering a devastating performance as Norman, measuring up against his brilliant scene-partner in almost every way.
As sensitive and amazing as Highmore is in the series, however, it’s Farmiga that gives it the “almost-kitsch” feel to the proceedings, making it a harrowing, but outrageously fun ride.
4. Michelle Monaghan, True Detective/The Path
Hollywood never really delivered on the promise to make Michelle Monaghan the next big thing. She had a few memorable appearances in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Gone Baby Gone (2007), but never really became a big star. There was always something a little different about Monaghan, a quiet sensibility and an ability to play everyday women despite her stunning beauty.
In True Detective, as Woody Harrelson long-suffering wife, she turned in a subtle but unforgettable performance, but it was as one of the leads of Hulu’s The Path that her talent really blossomed. Playing opposite Aaron Paul and Hugh Dancy, she delivers a performance that’s viscerally physical and delicately emotional, navigating the series fundamental theme of belief and hypocrisy with extraordinary ability.
She’s the heart and soul of the series, and it was about time someone let her be as good as she could be.
5. Taraji P. Henson, Empire
Taraji P. Henson got her break when Hustle & Flow became an Oscar-nominated hit, and only three years later, she would become an Academy Award nominee herself for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – and yet, the market seemed closed for a 40-year-old black actress of her extraordinary abilities.
After a few seasons in Person of Interest, delivering a memorable performance as policewoman Joss Carter, she finally got the role she was born to play: Cookie Lyon, Empire’s bad b*tch in chief. The Fox hit got her exposure and two Emmy nods, serving as a stepping stone for bigger, better film roles – such as Katherine Johnson in last year’s Hidden Figures.
She’s brilliant as Cookie, a carefully constructed, powerful character with a presence and personality that shines through Henson’s intense, stylish performance.