Olivier. McKellen. Hopkins. Day-Lewis. Bean. It’s no secret that some of the greatest thespians of all-time hail from across the pond. These are actors who have terrified as serial killers, enthralled as adventurers, and captivated audiences as some of the most important individuals in history. (And yes, that means sometimes playing Americans better than actual Americans.)
The next wave of performers coming straight outta the United Kingdom have a metric ton in common with their forebears: commanding stage presence, magnetic personalities, easy on the eyes. But they’re also more woke, less serious, and way, way more diverse than any generation that came before.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly where their careers will lead —you’ll for sure see them fronting superhero franchises, thanking the Academy, maybe even stepping into the brushed Oxfords of Bond — one thing is for certain: all of these guys are about to become household names.
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British indie filmmaking got thirty-year-old Callum Turner hooked on acting. “A Room for Romeo Brass really affected me,” Turner says of the gritty 2000 coming-of-age flick. “And I felt the same about every Al Pacino movie, and every Robert De Niro movie, and every Daniel Day Lewis movie.” After a break- through role in the latest Fantastic Beasts installment, Turner’s next gig is the right-person-wrong-time romance The Last Letter from Your Lover, opposite Shailene Woodley. But despite growing success, homegrown cinema hasn’t lost its spark for the 30-year-old. “Look, British cinema is so special because it’s magical,” Turner says with a wink. “Pure, pure magic.” Also see him in: Emma, in which he plays Frank Churchill.
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Need an actor who can master any accent? Call up Josh O’Connor. He spoke with aristocratic menace in The Riot Club, delivered a rural Yorkshire growl in God’s Own Country, and nailed the posh diction of Prince Charles on The Crown. “Accents for me are one of the first steps of building a character,” says O’Connor with his natural faint Gloucestershire inflection that lent itself to his latest part of Mr. Elton in this year’s Emma. “Of all the roles I’ve had thus far, I imagine him living in quite a nice countryside vicarage. Buckingham Palace isn’t really my thing.” Also see him in: Romeo & Juliet, in which he will play Romeo, at National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre this summer.
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Earl Cave (yes, offspring of Nick), is a nineteen-year-old bundle of nervous energy who impressed on the dark comedy The End of the F***ing World and in this year’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Despite a famous father, Cave’s ascent hasn’t been easy — his very first film role ended up on the cutting room floor, “with a very severe bump” he adds. But of Kelly Gang’s tale of poverty and crime, the son of the great Bad Seed is sunnily realistic: “The whole idea of a gang is fun until you’re faced with mortal doom. Then, well, it just kinda sucks to be honest.”
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“I was a very introverted person who wanted nothing to do with the stage,” Malachi Kirby admits. “Acting just presented itself over and over again as an opportunity, so I just took it.” Lucky for us, shyness hasn’t deterred a career that’s clocked projects ranging from British soaps to Small Axe, a Steve McQueen–directed six-part BBC anthology about London’s West Indian community. “It’s probably the most important job I’ve ever done,” says Kirby. “Shedding light on stories that haven’t been told, and haven’t been told accurately, is always going to be important.”
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His role in Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women came on the back of two projects that made James Norton big back home: the grim Yorkshire police drama Happy Valley and the Kremlin crime series McMafia. The latter kept the actor especially humble when, “an actual ex-mobster’s wife turned to me and said, ‘oh my god, you’re that vicar from English TV!’” But in conversation, he still seems a little starstruck especially when talking about Gerwig (“so unique and talented”) and describing his time on the set of Little Women. “Someone brought Meryl Streep and I cups of tea with our names on it—I took a photo of it when she wasn’t looking.”
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Viveik Kalra is intent on telling stories of the underrepresented. His portrayal of a teen growing up working class and Pakistani in 1980s London in Blinded by the Light earned a standing ovation at Sundance. “It feels like the film industry is changing, hopefully for the better,” he says. “People are more open-minded in terms of what they want to see onscreen, and groups of people are speaking up to say that they want to be seen.” Still, he’s in awe of epics like his next film, Voyagers. “Bigger-budget stuff is an art form, because you have to imagine the surreal. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do.”
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Joe Cole was once told that “it’s never crowded on the extra mile.” The thirty-one-year-old took that advice, eschewed university for the National Youth Theatre, and worked hard on the road less traveled. “Initially, I wrote a TV show with Matt Lucas from Little Britain. It was never made, so the less said about that the better,” he laughs. He had a “fantastic baptism” in 2015’s punk rock Nazi slasher Green Room alongside the late Anton Yelchin, of whom Cole speaks fondly and eventually found his way onto Peaky Blinders, sharing scenes with heavyweights like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. This year, he’ll finally step into a leading role, on the TV series Gangs of London.
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“I’m a massive Shakespeare nerd,” confesses Nikesh Patel. “As a kid, I didn’t have much confidence, but university let me pick up the acting bug with a production of Othello.” A love of the Bard didn’t quite prep him for auditioning on stilts in front of Kenneth Branagh for an adaptation of the YA novel, Artemis Fowl. “The whole audition I just thought, Don’t fall over, which was actually a bit freeing.” The balancing act turned out to be a success and Patel secured the part of a law enforcing centaur in the film which is essentially a mix of CSI and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Isaac Hempstead Wright
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“I’m the king, so at least it ended well for me,” twenty-year-old Isaac Hempstead Wright says of his time as Bran the Broken on Game of Thrones. But where do you go after being crowned ruler of Westeros? “I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. “In five years, I think the loss will really start to hurt.” For now, the king looks skyward, as Hemp- stead Wright tackles a role in Voyagers, a sci-fi thriller he describes as “Lord of the Flies but in space where everything starts to go a little crazy.”
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By his own admission, Jack Lowden has two left feet. “My younger brother is a ballet dancer, but I was encouraged to narrate shows to keep me away from actually dancing,” he says. “And that led me to acting.” Which, fortunately, the soft-spoken Scot was much better at, scoring buzz-worthy roles opposite Tom Hardy in 2017’s Dunkirk and Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan in 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots. Next up, Lowden stars opposite hardy again in Fonzo where he plays FBI foil to Hardy’s syphilis ridden Al Capone. Also see him in: Small Axe, the Steve McQueen series that Malachi Kirby also stars in.
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His character’s gruesome death in Midsommar (don’t Google “blood eagle” on a full stomach) didn’t shock Archie Madekwe but the ac- id-pagan horror flick’s big laughs did. “I wasn’t aware we were making this black comedy until I went to the cinema and audiences were cracking up.” Madekwe, who got his start in the UK’s only state-funded performing arts academy, the BRIT school, is still not a huge fan of shroom-fueled paganism, “Scandi death cults? No day of the week thanks.” You might also recognize him from his portrayal of a young man born with special abilities alongside Esquire cover star Jason Momoa on the Apple TV+ series See. Also see him in: Voyagers, alongside Isaac Hempstead Wright and Viveik Kalra.
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Damson Idris does serious seriously well. Proof? See him as a kidnapped intern in the “Smithereens” episode of Black Mirror or the lead in Farming, which sees a West African Yorubá child fall into the circles of white supremacy. But he’s perhaps best known for his turn as Franklin Saint, a South Central L. A. drug dealer, on FX’s Snowfall. “Americans were shocked I wasn’t actually American,” Idris says. “But don’t worry, I’m still London through and through.” Also see him in: Outside the Wire, a sci-fi action film in which he stars opposite Anthony Mackie.
This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Esquire.