Television has always had great actors who occasionally acted in movies, or actors who managed to be equally known for television as well as movies (such as Martin Sheen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiefer Sutherland, James Spader, etc). But then there are actors who were a major movie star or at least well known for their movie careers who suddenly ended up doing television. Even if they remained being known mostly for their movie careers, they still ruled on TV and gained themselves new fans. Most of them happened in our decade.
Previously, it was usually HBO that had that prestige, but even then it wasn’t this often. Right now, American television is having its golden age, and even British television sees some of those surprise appearances (shoutout to Hugh Grant’s brilliant work in “A Very English Scandal”). There are many great performances, which makes it hard to pick only 10, so look out for honorable mentions section. Here are the 10 of them that stands out.
10. Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright – House of Cards
Kevin Spacey was a well-known stage actor, and then he managed to get bigger and better roles in movies until he made his final breakthrough in 1995 with two hit films. As for Robin Wright, she mostly had a solid career with a lot of great performances to her name, and some all-time classics like “The Princess Bride” and “Forrest Gump.” “House of Cards” was an opportunity for them to show their skills on television.
The series is an adaptation of the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same title and is based on the novel of the same title by Michael Dobbs. The series pilot was directed by David Fincher, and several other well-known directors like Joel Schumacher and James Foley handled several other episodes, and all of this helped give the show a cinematic look. This ruthless couple who always seeks more power got a lot of attention.
Even if Frank and Claire Underwood have been criticized from time to time for being repetitive and one-dimensional, the performances won their audiences’ hearts, and both actors, particularly Spacey, gained a new generation of fans for their work, and their awards success may have inspired even some other actors going on TV.
Spacey was fired from the show after sexual misconduct allegations and Wright carried the whole thing on her shoulders in its final season. Even though many of the fans were angry, the show still managed to get critical acclaim. Also, two other well-known movie actors, Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, added extra star power to the series in the last season.
9. Mads Mikkelsen – Hannibal
Hannibal Lecter is not only the screen’s most arguably famous serial killer, but is also a mentally challenging role. And for a character whom many movie fans have strongly associated with Anthony Hopkins’ classic performance, it was obvious why there were doubts whether the TV series would be successful. But Mads Mikkelsen – probably the most famous Danish movie actor alive, who’s a major movie star in Denmark but more like a “character actor” in American cinema – did totally distinctive work that helped the show become this acclaimed and beloved.
Mikkelsen is an actor with a kind of a cold aura; it helps him to find subtle details in his characters to make them intimidating and mysterious. He even managed to do that in “Casino Royale,” for example. He doesn’t look creepy in the way Hopkins did in “The Silence of the Lambs”; he looks more like a curious intellectual. He keeps you guessing and he sometimes comes off like a vampire.
No surprise as his physical appearance would be perfect for a Gothic horror. He’s more careful, more sly, and also manipulative. No matter whether you prefer him or Hopkins or any other performance, one should admit that Mikkelsen has done a great job here and it’s no wonder it introduced him to a new fanbase who still maintain the hope for revival of the show.
8. Al Pacino and Meryl Streep – Angels in America
Directed by the great Mike Nichols, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tony Kushner, “Angels in America” is a beautiful adaptation. Nichols also gathered a magnificent cast featuring the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Patrick Wilson.
It’s probably one of the best casts that’s ever appeared on television; not only are these all great actors, but they get a plenty of great moments to shine. It was especially interesting to see two of the greatest American actors of all time – Pacino and Streep – appearing on television. Both won well-deserved Emmys for their performances. Still being one of the most prominent stories told about AIDS, Pacino plays Roy Cohn, and it is a textured portrait of corrosive power and self-deception.
Pacino is no stranger to those roles; I mean, he played Tony Montana. As for Streep, she plays an angel, an aged rabbi, a Mormon mother, and during her scenes with Pacino, she became Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost whom Cohn sent to her execution.
Movie fans had to wait until this miniseries was released to see these two legends together, and it was more than a worth the wait. They both are excellent, thrilling, electrifying, and mesmerizing to watch. And they’re of course not the only ones mentioned – the series has a brilliant cast and is full of great performances in general.
7. Jude Law – The Young Pope
When you hear the title, chances are you’re thinking you’re going to get a show about some kind of progressive and liberal or any kind of revolutionary Pope, because as the title suggests, he’s young. The show starts in a way that makes you think that, but no, you’re thinking wrong.
Paolo Sorrentino has something else in his mind for his TV show, but he doesn’t want you to know what his lead character – the disruptive Pope Pius XIII, portrayed by the always reliable Jude Law – thinks. He gives you hints here and there but he doesn’t let you to understand everything about him; he trusts his audience to fill in the blanks and Law’s rich, textured performance helps a lot.
As expected, Catholic press in both Italy and abroad criticized the show, but the TV critics mostly liked it, and everybody gave a special shoutout to Law. He’d been on fire between 1999 and 2004, so he was everywhere – his talent in film was earning him awards and critical acclaim while the entertainment magazines were more interested in his looks and personal life.
Law has managed to avoid unnecessary showbiz attention since then, and even though he’s not as everywhere as he used to be back in the day, he still has a great career and picks mostly interesting projects. However, his performance in “The Young Pope” was probably his best in the last few years, giving him a very complex character to play and giving us a very fun and very interesting character to watch.
6. Steve Buscemi – Boardwalk Empire
Steve Buscemi has done television before – he appeared in “The Sopranos” and several other shows, and he’s also currently doing a comedy show – but to his audience, he will always be known best for being a movie actor. He had mostly been a character actor in Hollywood films – you’d seen him films from Tarantino or the Coen brothers, which opened doors for him to do supporting parts in studio films like “Con Air” and “Armageddon,” and you saw him getting to play eccentric cameos in Adam Sandler movies.
In indie cinema, he occasionally got to be a leading actor; there’s the very underrated “In the Soup” and his excellent work in “Living in Oblivion.” So those who had seen him in those films as well as others knew that he’s capable of being a lead actor, and as for being ruthless, corrupt, and dark? We knew that as well, as we had seen him in “Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead.”
But still in spite of it all, Buscemi manages to surprise us with Nucky Thompson, a corrupt and powerful politician who leads a double life as a gangster. Mostly because ever since Martin Scorsese-directed pilot, the show never stopped exploring him more and more, and even in lesser seasons, Buscemi still got great moments to shine and different sides of his character to explore.
The performance is still somewhat underrated, and it deserves to get more mention when the great performances in crime dramas are mentioned. The rest of the cast were excellent as well, with honorable mentions going to Kelly McDonald, Michael Pitt, and Michael Shannon. Though, seriously, everybody was great.