Once upon a time in Hollywood, actors flooded the movie scene from all over the world, many of whom became megastars overnight despite barely speaking English, and sometimes, not speaking it at all! ‘Twas the silent era, a time when looks and pantomime acting alone could make a great performance. With the coming of sound, the industry dynamic changed, and many foreign-born megastars (and some who were not…see also: Mary Pickford) found themselves without work. Actress Pola Negri became the wealthiest woman in film during the 1920s, only to see her career implode in the sound era, courtesy of her thick Polish accent.
The contemporary era of film, with popular art house cinemas and digital distribution has allowed foreign talents to get a shot at stardom in the US. Some, like Marion Cotillard or Antonio Banderas make it big, while others end up on lists like this one: actors forever to be thought of as foreign, thanks to their language barriers.
13. Stephen Chow
Chow hails from China, and has long enjoyed a prestigious career there. Thoughout the 1980s, he became a popular fixture on Chinese Televsion, before making a successful transition to film with The Final Combat in 1989. As a bonafide movie star, he continued his acting success before trying his hand a directing. From Beijing With Love scored wide acclaim, and his 2001 film Shaolin Soccer became an international success. With wider acclaim than ever before, Chow tried his hand at comedy, writing, directing and starring in Kung Fu Hustle, which earned awards around the world, and made Chow a star in the United States.
Unfortunately, his attempts to capitalize on his Hollywood stardom have proven less memorable: CJ7 met with mixed reviews, and Chow’s preference in working in Chinese language films has kept him from Hollywood stardom. Since the commercial disappointment of CJ7, Chow has stuck to writing, directing and producing rather than acting.
12. Giancarlo Giannini
In 1976, Italian thesp Giannini pulled off a rare and impressive feat: he scored a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his performance in the Italian language film Seven Beauties. Though he didn’t win, the nom captured international attention, and for a time, it looked as though Giannini would emerge as one of the world’s leading actors.
Though Gainnini’s American outings didn’t fare nearly as well. Relegated to supporting roles in English language films, he found better success at home dubbing Jack Nicholson into Italian, and becoming the official dubber of Al Pacino. He does still make the occasional Hollywood movie appearance, in films like Casino Royale and Hannibal. He’s also worked consistently in Italian films, boasting a long resume and becoming a favorite of legendary director Lina Wertmuller. Though a major star in his native Italy, Giannini remains only vaguely familiar to American audiences.
11. Chow Yun Fat
Chow is a rare case: known and respected in Hollywood, he nonetheless has faced considerable trouble finding success stateside. He began his career in Chinese television playing a gangster in The Bund. After several non-starter attempts to break into film, he captured the attention of director John Woo, who began a long and successful partnership with the actor. Chow appeared in the movies City on Fire, Hard Broiled and A Better Tomorrow to wide acclaim, showing off his action moves as well as his dramatic chops.
Attempts at Hollywood stardom proved less fruitful: Anna and the King, and The Corruptor both flopped at the box office. Chow’s greatest stardom came from collaboration with Ang Lee: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While a major hit worldwide, it did little to aid Chow in becoming a leading man and he continues to labor in typecast supporting roles, such as in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
10. Rodrigo Santoro
Brazilian hunk Santoro’s good looks helped him score roles on telenovelas in his native country. His success in television aided him in landing roles in Brazilian films Brainstorm and Behind the Sun to good notices, before landing the role of a transgendered prisoner in Carandiru. His performance garnered worldwide attention, enough to land him his first Hollywood role in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Roles in Love, Actually and I Love You Phillip Morris followed, before Santoro got his best American exposure yet: a recurring role on the popular television show Lost.
Though Santoro made another bid for movie stardom in the hit 300, his role as the king Xerxes rendered him almost totally unrecognizable! Plumb parts in films still have yet to materialize for Santoro, though he continues to find regular work in Hollywood. As such, he may yet achieve megastardom, so don’t count him out!
9. Jean Dujardin
For years, Jean Dujardin enjoyed grand success in France, often playing lothario and goofball type roles. Critics often cited him as France’s answer to George Clooney. But Dujardin enjoyed a meteoric rise in Hollywood when he nabbed a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Artist. There’s also a hint of cruel irony there: Dujardin, despite earning rave notices and sex symbol status, vanished from tinseltown soon after, and from the same menace that drove stars like Pola Negri into obscurity: sound.
The Artist, while technically a sound film, did not require Dujardin to speak on camera. He’s shied from Hollywood stardom since, appearing in only two American films: The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men. Forthright about his discomfort performing in English language films, he retreated to France, where he continues to work as a leading man. Dujardin has said, however, that should Hollywood come calling with another silent film project, he’d gladly sign on.
8. Isabelle Huppert
Huppert had long worked in French television and film before trying to crossover into Hollywood productions. Award nominations for the Cesar Award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival captured American attention, and in 1980, she made her bid for stateside success. Unfortunately, she’d captured a plumb role in Heaven’s Gate, the notorious 1980 disaster that bankrupted United Artists.
Huppert’s casting became a point of contention between UA executives and director Michael Cimino because of her poor command of English. The commercial bombing of Heaven’s Gate sent Huppert packing back to France, where she continued to work consistently and earn critical praise. She’s racked up more Cesar nominations than any other actress at 15 (!), and though a number of critics have cited her as the greatest actress alive, she’s made only occasional appearances in American films, and for the most part, remains unknown to audiences of Hollywood fare.
7. Elżbieta Czyżewska
That Sally Kirkland scored an Oscar nomination for the film Anna in 1987 was another strike of cruel irony: Kirkland played the role of a foreign actress who had never enjoyed success in America!
The film was based on the life of Polish actress Elżbieta Czyżewska, one of the biggest stars in the history of Polish cinema. Czyżewska’s marriage to an American reporter, and her open criticism of the political regime there forced her to flee the country. When she returned to appear in a film, she landed herself a prison stint for her earlier actions before facing deportation. Attempts to break into Hollywood films failed, and Czyżewska drifted into obscurity. She made something of a comeback when Anna brought her attention once more, and though major stardom continued to elude her, she found success acting on stage and in bit film roles. She died in 2010 a minor, if fascinating, figure in cinema.
6. Franka Potente
Potente became an overnight sensation playing the lead in the multi-narrative film Run Lola Run. Produced in Germany, it became an international success, and critics singled out Potente as a star in the making. Though fluent in English, her thick accent prevented her from gaining instant stardom in Hollywood. She worked for months to neutralize it before making her English debut in Blow, and scoring a hit as Matt Damon’s love interest in The Bourne Identity.
Despite consistent offers to work in English-language projects, Potente has veered toward lower-profile fare, taking parts on TV series like American Horror Story and The Shield, while contending that the physical requirements for women in Hollywood are too strict. Rather than conform, she’s much happier taking on smaller projects, and devoting time to her family. In 2016, she’ll return to the big screen in The Conjuring 2, suggesting that superstardom may not elude her forever.
5. Genevieve Bujold
Bujold originates from Canada, and as such, began her career in Canadian TV and film projects. Hailing from Quebec, she spoke native French, and initially confined herself to French language roles. After a few minor forays into English-speaking films, she had a major hit in 1969 with Anne of a Thousand Days opposite Richard Burton. Her performance earned rave critical notice, and she nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Despite a thick French-Canadian accent, she continued in Hollywood projects, and almost nabbed superstardom. A dispute with Universal Studios over her contract earned her a reputation as a difficult performer. The fallout from the contract lawsuit, coupled with her preference for speaking French, hindered her career in the U.S. She appeared in smaller and independent projects until the 1990s, when TV stardom beckoned: she won the part of Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, only to quit several days into filming. Since then, she’s returned to French-language Canadian films, all but turning her back on Hollywood.
4. Doona Bae
The daughter of an acclaimed South Korean stage actress, Doona acquiesced to modeling before stepping into the family profession. Her bravery to take on unglamorous roles that would require nudity attracted the attention of critics and directors alike, and she won strong reviews for her performances in Barking Dogs Never Bite and Plumb Blossom. In 2005, she starred in the horror film The Host, which became the highest-grossing movie in Korean history, and a worldwide hit. Bae won rave reviews, and attracted the attention of eccentric filmmakers the Wachowskis, who cast her in her English-language debut, Cloud Atlas.
Though she received near universal praise, Doona returned to Korean films rather than pursuing Hollywood stardom. The Wachowskis recruited her again, this time for the bomb Jupiter Ascending, which did little to help her career. Though she has teamed again with the Wachowskis for the TV series Sense8, major stardom has eluded her.
3. Joan Chen
Chen’s early film appearances invited comparisons to a young Elizabeth Taylor. Born in China, she was discovered by the wife of Mao Zedong and sent to drama school. She performed in her first two films to great acclaim, becoming China’s sweetheart. After studying film in the United States, she returned to acting with The Last Emperor, Bernardo Burtolucci’s epic about revolutionary China.
Unfortunately, subsequent American outings, like Tai-Pan, The Blood of Heroes and On Deadly Ground (opposite Steven Seagal!) didn’t endear her much to American audiences. After a brief stint on the popular TV show Twin Peaks, she directed the bomb Autumn In New York before returning to Chinese language projects. On occasion, she still takes part in Hollywood fare. Recent outings have included guest spots on Fringe and 24. Though an obscure actress stateside, she continues to thrive in Chinese language projects, even inviting favorable comparisons to Meryl Streep!
2. Roberto Benigni
Benigni caused a sensation at the 1998 Academy Awards with his chair-climbing antics when his film Life is Beautiful won Best Foreign Language Film. He also raised eyebrows when he won Best Actor over favored contenders Ian McKellen and Edward Norton. A longtime fixture of Italian cinema, Benigni wrote, directed and acted in a variety of comedy films to great acclaim.
Apart from Life Is Beautiful, his attempts at Hollywood stardom fizzled: audiences ignored Down By Law and Night on Earth, while an attempt to replace Peter Sellers in Son of the Pink Panther bombed hard. Following his Oscar wins, Benigni tried again for Hollywood stardom, this time with a live action version of Pinocchio, in which he played the title role. Blasted as weird and unfunny, Benigni’s performance as a child-puppet (he was about 50 at the time of filming) attracted particular disgust and ire. He returned to Italian films, and apart from a brief collaboration with Woody Allen, has shied away from English-speaking cinema since.
1. Audrey Tautou
Tautou became an overnight sensation when she scored the lead in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s romantic comedy Amelie. Prior to her breakout, Tautou had garnered strong critical notice in her native France, appearing in films like Happenstance and Venus Beauty Institute. In 2001, Amelie became the highest grossing French film ever in the U.S., Tautou’s performance and elegant looks positioned her for major stardom. Her first English-language outing, the British drama Dirty Pretty Things, continued to earn her strong acclaim, and Hollywood at last came calling.
Tautou landed the female lead in the much-anticipated movie version of The DaVinci Code opposite Tom Hanks. The film opened to middling reviews, however, and Tautou weathered criticism for her lack of chemistry with Hanks and an ineffectual performance. She quickly returned to French cinema and made an immediate comeback, giving acclaimed performances in Priceless, Coco Before Chanel and Delicacy, and has shown little interest in returning to Hollywood since.
Did we leave out any of your favorite would-be foreign stars? Let us know in the comments!