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The female factor

10 March 2008   |   Written by Gerard Gilbert

Suddenly, British actresses are all over US television. That’s because producers see a freshness and quality lacking in their American counterparts.

Sophia Myles
Moonlight

There will be jealous gritting of perfectly whitened and straightened teeth in Hollywood when they hear how easily Kate Winslet-doppelganger Sophia Myles came about the lead female role in the CBS vampire update Moonlight. “I didn’t even have to audition for the role,” claims the Londoner (left, with her co-star Alex O’Loughlin). “Joel Silver [the executive producer] called me up, said he’d seen my work and was very impressed, then invited me to join the show.” That work has included sharing a bed with Johnny Depp in the Jack the Ripper fantasy From Hell, playing the Irish princess in Tristan + Isolde and Lady Penelope in the big screen version of Thunderbirds. Her most high-profile role in the past couple of years, however, has been off-screen, as the girlfriend of Doctor Who actor David Tennant — a relationship that didn’t, alas, survive Myles’s filming commitments in the USA.
Moonlight continues on Living on Tuesdays

“The British are coming!”, Colin Welland boasted in 1981, holding aloft his Oscar for Chariots of Fire — and given the annual British pirate raids on the Academy Awards, Welland may well have been proved right. Our home-grown thespian takeover of American television, on the other hand, has been an altogether stealthier affair — more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in fact. It’s only now that the United States has woken up to the fact that these supposed all-American small-screen idols are interlopers — Brits masquerading as Yanks.

And this season British actresses have snapped up what must seem an unfair proportion of the plum roles, from former EastEnder Michelle Ryan as the Bionic Woman and Lena Headey as Sarah Connor in the spin-off Terminator TV series, to the former Brookside resident Anna Friel in ABC’s quirky breakout hit Pushing Daisies and Sophia Myles in the sassy CBS vampire drama Moonlight. Meanwhile, Saffron Burrows has waltzed into Boston Legal and Ricky Gervais’s Extras co-star, Scottish actress Ashley Jensen, is a fixture in Ugly Betty. Add to these Minnie Driver as a Bayou gypsy in The Riches, former brunette House of Eliott star Louise Lombard as a blonde detective in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Office’s Lucy Davis in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Joely Richardson in Nip/Tuck and Parminder Nagra in ER, and it’s blindingly obvious that there’s something going on here.

“There are some pretty amazing people whom nobody’s heard of in America,” says former BBC2 controller Jane Root, now head of the Discovery Channel in the US. “That’s what Hugh Laurie told people [in the United States]. You can find someone who has enormous experience and yet they feel completely fresh”.

Indeed, Laurie’s triumph as the eponymous maverick medical diagnostician in House opened American eyes to the potential of British actors, and vice versa. “I’ve had a lot of meetings with British actors who come in and say, ‘I want the Hugh Laurie career’ now,” claims the Fox network casting chief Marcia Shulman. And “pound for pound”, continues Shulman, British actors are better trained than their US counterparts. “We have a star culture… in Europe it’s a profession.”

Brits are better trained, less starry, less expensive (for now) than their equally experienced American counterparts, and more ready to shift to and fro between films and television. This is important, because while American TV can be a route into movies, American movie stars rarely do TV unless their dwindling careers force them to. Anyway, US television and British actresses form a mutual admiration club. Myles, who plays an internet reporter mixed up with vampires in modern-day Los Angeles in the People’s Choice Award-winning Moonlight, reckons the move west is no-brainer.

“There’s not really a film industry in England and the quality of American TV is so high,” she says. “Play a British accent and you are the butler or the baddie. Do American and you can take the world.”