Acting is a powerful tool. With enough skill and dedication, actors can become someone else and convince everyone watching in the theater that they are someone else. Actors can become a presidents, lawyers, or even wizards. Enough time passes, and viewers no longer see an actor and instead see a character.
This idea is especially true for actors from other countries when they play American characters. Viewers become so transfixed with the character that they forget the nationality of the corresponding actor. Some foreign actors have become so good at their jobs that they are hired to play American icons, both fictional and historical. Due to how masterful some of these performances are, certain actors have become associated with their respective American roles. With how many actors from around the world have played American roles, this article will look at ten thespians from other countries who have played iconic American fictional characters or real-life historical figures.
Christian Bale as Batman (The Dark Knight Trilogy)
Batman is arguably one of the most iconic comic book characters in the world and especially in the United States. The bat-themed vigilante, who masquerades as billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, has appeared in many different movies and TV shows ever since his first comic book appearance way back in 1939. One such interpretation is Christopher Nolan’s prolific Dark Knight trilogy, which started in 2005 with Batman Begins before continuing in 2008 with The Dark Knight and ending in 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises.
Most people may not know, however, that Christian Bale, the actor who portrayed Bruce Wayne in this trilogy, isn’t actually American. The 46-year-old Academy Award winner was born in Wales to English parents. Speaking with IMDb in 2000, Bale explained, "I was born in Wales but I’m not Welsh — I’m English." The thought that the actor portraying Bruce Wayne isn’t American probably didn’t cross people’s minds back in 2005 because of how well Bale portrayed him.
Tom Holland as Spider-Man (MCU)
The character of Spider-Man is as American as he is iconic. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced the wallcrawler in 1962 as a young man from Queens who is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains both super strength and agility. The 2016 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film Captain America: Civil War makes clear that Peter is from Queens with an establishing shot with large text that says "Queens" before cutting to the first shot of him.
The actor portraying Peter in the MCU, Tom Holland, was not born in Queens and was instead born in Great Britain. Although his New York accent is rather convincing, Holland told the BBC about how he had to redo a scene from Spider-Man: Homecoming after realizing that he let his British accent slip. Hopefully, Holland has mastered his American accent well enough to score more American roles in the future.
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn (DCEU)
Harley Quinn’s iconic Northeastern accent makes her American. The Joker sidekick and love interest first appeared in the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series episode "Joker’s Favor" before she became a pop culture sensation. Her first live-action appearance was not until 2016 with Suicide Squad.While that movie was critically maligned, many reviews did praise Margot Robbie for her portrayal of Harley Quinn, so much so that she headlined her own spin-off Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Although Robbie has played many other American characters throughout her career, the actress was born on the other side of the world from America in a little place called Australia. In fact, Robbie explained to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood writer/director Quentin Tarantino how her Australian accent was too Australian for Australian television. "I am a Queenslander, and my accent was so Australian that Neighbours hired a dialect coach to make me sound less Australian." You can’t get more Australian than that!
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
Gone with the Wind may be a problematic film, but that shouldn’t take away from the great performances, specifically Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. The manipulative yet enduring Southern belle captured the hearts of American audiences ever since the film was released in 1939. Funnily enough, the actress who played Scarlett is not American but rather British.
Leigh’s nationality almost kept her from being cast. While casting Scarlett, producer David O. Selznick initially dismissed Leigh as Scarlett because he thought she was "too British," but his brother, who just so happened to be Leigh’s American theatrical agent, convinced him otherwise. Legend has it that Myron Selznick took Leigh to the Atlanta set (which was under construction) and sarcastically addressed his brother, "Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara!" Leigh’s casting proves that an actor does not have to be American to play an American.
Henry Cavill as Superman (DCEU)
Ever since his comic book creation in 1938, Superman has always stood for truth, justice and the American way. Keeping with this tradition, Superman in movies and TV shows has always been portrayed by an American. That changed when a British actor was cast as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), a role that he would subsequently reprise for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
Of course, not everyone was happy that a British actor was playing an iconically American superhero. In an interview during the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend, TNT commentator Kenny Smith asked Cavill if his nationality influenced how he played Superman, to which Cavill responded, "Well, Superman… he’s universal. He’s just a guy who loves the human race and wants to do the best thing for everyone. There’s no real differences that I pull from any national sort of belief in Superman. Superman’s just a guy." Cavill’s statement perfectly encapsulates the universality of Superman.
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong (First Man)
The American people have considered Neil Armstrong a hero ever since he landed on the Moon in 1969 and became the first man to walk on it. It would make sense that an American actor would play him in the inevitable biopic, but that was not the case when Damien Chazelle, the director of Whiplash and La La Land, cast Canadian actor Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong.
In an interview with The New York Times, Chazelle was asked about casting a Canadian as Neil Armstrong. He explained, "The short answer is, for reasons that are hard to describe, there almost never was a moment where I didn’t see Ryan in this role. When I met with him about it, that was actually our first time meeting — we hadn’t worked on "La La Land" yet. But all during "La La Land," Neil, and Ryan as Neil, were in the back of my mind." Once again, nationality should not stand in the way of portraying American icons, especially if the actor is right for the part.
David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. (Selma)
It’s hard to say anything about Martin Luther King Jr. that hasn’t already been said. The man was an American hero for advancing the civil rights movement through nonviolence and civil disobedience. In fact, the only major biopic about MLK Jr. to date does not cover his whole life but rather an event that he lead: the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Unbeknownst to most people, the actor portraying MLK Jr., David Oyelowo, is not American and is instead British. According to Oyelowo, however, the fact that he’s not American helped him better play the role. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Oyelowo explained, "Being born and bred in the U.K. gave me the advantage of not having grown up, as many Americans have, with Dr. King as an icon, a holiday, or as a leader who made a speech that they had to learn in school. I have felt less burdened about depicting him as a result of that, although my admiration for him is seismic." Casting Oyelowo as MLK Jr. was probably for the best, since he successfully captured the essence of who MLK Jr. was.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln)
Abraham Lincoln is another historical figure who needs no introduction. The man ended slavery, after all. Of all the onscreen portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, none are as prolific as that of British-Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis is known for his constant devotion to and research of his roles, and Abe Lincoln is no exception. Per The New York Times, Day-Lewis used Lincoln’s voice between takes and even when the camera wasn’t rolling, to the point where director Steven Spielberg couldn’t remember if he used his Lincoln voice during their private conversations. Jared Harris, who plays Ulysses S. Grant in the film, recalled how he was one of the many British actors and crew members who were asked not to speak in a British accent as well, as that would throw off Day-Lewis’ American accent, so Harris also spoke in his American accent. Day-Lewis was so committed to his character that he made his co-stars commit to their characters as well.
Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs)
For any American who owns an Apple product, Steve Jobs is an instantly recognizable name. The man helped revolutionize many technological mediums, including (but not limited to) computers, MP3 players, and smartphones. Although Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender does not bear a strong resemblance to the real-life Steve Jobs, his performance in the 2015 film Steve Jobs absolutely captured the spirit of who he was, especially in comparison to Ashton Kutcher, who had a stronger resemblance but didn’t give as good of a performance.
In an interview with Variety, Fassbender explained how director Danny Boyle helped him capture that spirit: "Even though I looked nothing like him, he said, ‘That doesn’t matter to me, I don’t want to go down the road of imitation I want you to concentrate on his essence.’" Without Fassbender, who knows if we would have received the same terrific Oscar-nominated performance?
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly (Mrs. America)
Although she was a controversial figure, Phyllis Schlafly did mean something to many Americans, specifically American women who just wanted to be housewives. In the FX miniseries Mrs. America, Australian actress Cate Blanchett portrayed Schlafly as relatable without sidestepping her questionable beliefs.
Even as an Australian, Blanchett still understands Schlafly’s impact on American politics. In an interview with Collider, Blanchett explained, "She’s such a polarizing figure and quite contradictory, but it’s undeniable that she was a contemporary woman who really changed the course of the American political landscape, and I think she did that by shifting the language. She really did move the notion of anti-abortion, which then became pro-life, as the central platform of the Republican party, and conflated that with being pro-American and pro-family, and characterized the feminist movement as being anti-family." It’s not everyday that an actor from another country adequately comprehends American politics.