VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
They may not have been born in the good ol' U-S-of-A, but these actors brought some of America's famous personalities to life in the most extraordinary ways. For this list, we're looking at memorable performances by actors who were not born in the United States, playing highly recognizable American historical figures - not fictional, so portrayals like Tom Holland's Peter Parker are out. We're also sticking to film because television performances deserve a list by themselves.Who do you believe is the most iconic American played by a non American actor? Let us know in the comments!
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Special thanks to our user Brave Gannicus for suggesting this idea!
Script written by Andrew Lemieux
Top 10 Iconic Americans Played by Non American Actors
They may not have been born in the good ol’ U-S-of-A, but these actors brought some of America’s famous personalities to life in the most extraordinary ways. For this list, we’re looking at memorable performances by actors who were not born in the United States, playing highly recognizable American historical figures - not fictional, so portrayals like Tom Holland’s Peter Parker are out. We’re also sticking to film because television performances deserve a list by themselves. Who do you believe is the most iconic American played by a non American actor? Let us know in the comments!
#10: Margot Robbie
“I, Tonya” (2017)
The attack on U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan that preceded the 1994 Winter Olympics was all over the news that year. Arranged by the ex-husband of fellow American and figure skater Tonya Harding, the incident entangled Kerrigan’s rival in controversy at the time; yet when Margot Robbie read the film’s screenplay, she didn’t even know it was a true story! Admittedly, the Australian actress was only 4 when the scandal went down. Despite it being a very “American” story and character, she successfully pitched herself as the lead and signed on to co-produce the movie. Robbie’s ability to balance strength with humor and tragic elements would go on to earn her portrayal of Tonya notable praise as well as a number of award nominations.
#9: Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (2013)
From one wizard to another, the incomparable Alan Rickman serves up a presidential performance in Lee Daniels’ 2013 film “The Butler.” The film primarily revolves around Cecil Gaines – an African-American butler at the White House played by Forest Whitaker, as well as the presidents he served – and Rickman appears as Ronald Reagan. Though the English actor is typically known for more villainous roles, Rickman shows a softer side as the aging Reagan, whose tender, playful personality is highlighted to great effect. While the film, and specifically the depiction of President Reagan, was criticized, Rickman showed once again that he could captivate our minds and melt our hearts with even the simplest of performances.
#8: Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg
“Kill Your Darlings” (2013)
Daniel Radcliffe escaped the “Harry Potter” pigeonhole, and all he needed to do was play an iconic American. In this gripping historical drama, the English actor plays Allen Ginsberg, one of the leading figures of the 1960s counterculture movement. Radcliffe leads us through Ginsberg’s early years, when the poet becomes involved with other prolific writers like Jack Kerouac, while also experimenting with his sexuality as a young Columbia freshman. With a spot-on American accent that takes his performance to another level of believability, Radcliffe’s anxious Ginsberg develops a more passionate and charismatic side. While his performance as Harry Potter is iconic, we now know that Daniel Radcliffe can bring magic to any role he plays.
#7: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams
“I Saw the Light” (2015)
London-born Tom Hiddleston makes an unexpectedly delightful turn from the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s villainous Loki, to the charming Alabama folk singer Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.” We already knew Hiddleston was incredibly charming, as evidenced by his F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris.” But he takes it to another level here by showing off his singing chops, beautifully emulating Williams’ iconic crooning voice. Hiddleston also portrays Williams’ darker side, detailing his troubles with alcoholism and drug abuse. While the film itself garnered mixed reviews at best, Hiddleston’s turn as the King of Country Music received praise from some members of Williams’ own family.
#6: David Bowie as Andy Warhol
David Bowie could do it all: while we all know him as a legendary musician, he was no slouch in front of a camera either. For example, in “Basquiat,” Bowie portrays pop artist Andy Warhol, acting as mentor and friend to young Brooklyn graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The chameleonic Bowie infuses some of his own mystique into the flamboyant painter, disguising his recognizable English accent with an American one. To add extra authenticity, Bowie had in fact met Warhol before his death, and was allowed to borrow Andy’s wig, glasses and jacket for the film. The result? Critics hailed his performance as unique, genuine and comedic – a departure from previous Warhol impersonations.
#5: Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs
“Steve Jobs” (2015)
Steve Jobs is such a familiar face that you have to really focus on the finer points of his personality to nail the performance. And German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender’s take on Apple’s founder isn’t exactly what we were expecting – at least not visually. But, instead of getting the look just right, Fassbender’s performance centers on Jobs’ intellectual force, which, furthered by Danny Boyle’s direction, allows him to embody the presence of the real-life Steve Jobs. Fassbender’s Oscar-nominated work just goes to show that sometimes, you don’t have to be American or even look like Steve Jobs to get his genius across… Lookin’ at you, Ashton Kutcher.
#4: Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn
“The Aviator” (2004)
Australian actress Cate Blanchett has been known to immerse herself in characters, especially historical figures. Take her performance as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There,” for example. Another such instance is Blanchett’s brilliant portrayal of American actress Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” Blanchett, a native of Melbourne, Australia, puts on her finest mid-Atlantic accent to play the Hollywood star. Without over-saturating the performance with caricature, Blanchett’s Hepburn shrewdly sizes up Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes, but turns on a dime with a show of tenderness toward the troubled aviator. Blanchett’s captivating performance won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, marking the first time an actor has won an Oscar for playing another Oscar winner.
#3: Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong
“First Man” (2018)
Neil Armstrong was one of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s most famous astronauts. Thanks to Apollo 11, he became not only the first American, but also the first person to walk on the Moon in 1969. The spaceflight allowed the U.S. to “win” the so-called Space Race to the Moon, and led to the winding down of the competition between America and the Soviet Union. And yet, the big screen adaptation of Armstrong’s life leading up to this mission was brought to life with a Canadian actor cast as Neil. Fortunately, Ryan Gosling was deemed as one of the film’s high points, with one critic even saying that his performance “could hardly have been bettered.”
#2: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.
David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is electric, moving us to both tears and applause; listening to his “Give us the vote” speech, it’s like we’re watching the real MLK. You’d be forgiven for not realizing that Oyelowo is British, as he perfectly changes his voice to emulate the famous orator. There are actually many Brits portraying iconic Americans in this film, with Coretta Scott King, President Lyndon Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace all portrayed by England natives, but Oyelowo delivers one of the most impeccable performances as the great Civil Rights leader ever put to film. It’s a crime he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
Before we unveil our number one pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
“12 Years a Slave” (2013)
Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey
Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon
Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy
Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty
“All the Money in the World” (2017)
#1: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Sir Daniel Day-Lewis makes us believe that he’s truly living the lives of the characters he plays, and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is no exception. A noted method actor, the London born-and-raised Day-Lewis notoriously does extensive research and remains in character throughout a film’s production. In a political drama that runs two-and-a-half hours, that’s no mean feat, but as Lincoln he’s got us hanging on his every word, as his character tries to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. For his efforts, Day-Lewis won his third Academy Award in the Best Actor category, cementing his place in history as an actor whose legacy “shall not perish from the earth.”