It used to be that TV stars wanted to be in the movies: greater exposure, meatier roles, more prestige. It was like a promotion. It was also in the movies that writers and actors could be more experimental and daring, telling stories that TV audiences (and network censors) weren’t ready for.
But everything has changed. Hollywood needs to make exponentially more money on each of its investments, and foreign markets are often key to that, meaning that blockbusters are everybody’s holy grail and the more innovative, character-driven movies are a harder sell. There are still intelligent, actor-friendly movies being made and seen all over the world, but movie stars have realized that TV is the place to be. Networks and cable channels are taking more chances, premium cable outlets like HBO and Showtime have changed the game, and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are breaking new ground all the time.
Woody Allen made his first TV series ever for Amazon Prime. John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr. starred in American Crime Story for FX. Series have featured silver screen stars like Glenn Close, Sharon Stone, and James Caan. Actors flow freely between the two platforms, just as happy to score an ongoing role they can sink their teeth into as they are to get onto the big screen. Here are 15 Actors Who Made The Switch To TV — some while you weren’t even looking.
15. Meryl Streep
When you think Meryl Streep, you think movie star. She’s been in over 50 movies, been nominated for 20Oscars (and won three of them), and can slip into any character from any country or time period in existence flawlessly, whether it’s contemporary or otherworldly. The opposite of overrated, she’s often considered the greatest actress of our time.
One of her breakthrough roles came in 1978 in the TV miniseries Holocaust, and that’s the format she’s returning to. In her first TV role since 2012 (when she guest starred on the Showtime series Web Therapy), she’ll be starring in the J.J. Abrams-produced The Nix, based on the novel by Nathan Hill. While they haven’t been tied to a specific network yet, playwright/screenwriter John Logan, creator of Penny Dreadful, will be the showrunner and executive producer. (He’s also known for writing the worst Star Trek movie ever, Star Trek: Nemesis, but he’s had enough hits and prestige projects to be forgiven.)
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Streep will be getting $825,000 per episode for her work; good thing she’s worth every penny.
14. Jim Broadbent
The new season of Game of Thrones premieres on HBO on July 16, and has a new addition to the cast: Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent.
He’s known for everything from artsy films like The Sense of an Ending to the Harry Potter movies, contemporary fare like Bridget Jones’ Baby to the historical BBC minseries War and Peace. He’s been in the Paddington movies and co-starred in The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep; the man gets around.
He has told interviewers that his role on Game of Thrones will put him in scenes with Sam Tarley (John Bradley), which makes it likely that he’ll be a Maester that Sam will start training with. Speculation from fans of the books are more specific, suggesting he’ll be Maester Marwyn, but nobody knows for sure. His scenes were all shot in a studio in Belfast, which means he won’t be hanging out with Jon Snow or Daenerys anytime soon, but there’s still one more season after this one, so anything is possible.
13. Christina Ricci
Christina Ricci rose to fame as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family movies as a kid, then started making a splash in films like The Ice Storm and Casper and ultimately more independent flicks like Buffalo ’66 and The Opposite of Sex. Throughout her movie career, she’s mixed up box office hits with edgy indie fare, but as of late, she’s turned to TV to show off her talents.
While her starring vehicle Pan Am was cancelled after one season, she returned to the small screen three years later for the miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles on Lifetime (after a successful made-for-TV movie), and her newest project is Z: The Beginning of Everything, where she’s playing Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as serving as executive producer. She stars alongside Oscar-nominated David Strathairn in the Amazon-produced period drama based on the New York Times bestseller “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald“ by Therese Anne Fowler. The show premiered on January 27, and you can see the trailer here.
12. Anthony Hopkins
Anthony Hopkins does not own a TV.
At least this is what he said at a Television Critics Association event last year, adding, “I have my own Mickey Mouse theories that we have alienated ourselves in the world watching television all the time.” (He, does, however admit to being a huge fan of Breaking Bad.)
But this Oscar-winning legend, considered (like Streep) to be one of the greatest actors of our time, has never been a series regular before. He broke tradition last year with the HBO series Westworld, based on the 1973 film, when he became Robert Ford, the founder/creative director of Westworld. He did it because of HBO’s “great reputation,” and while he doesn’t watch the show himself, he’s likely to appear in the second season, which won’t air until next year.
He’s a draw not just for audiences, but for his fellow cast members. Said Evan Rachel Wood, “Of course, we all know Anthony Hopkins is one of the greatest performers of our time, but seeing him in person and seeing those subtleties and seeing them change every take was just like watching Da Vinci paint.”
11. Laurence Fishburne
Mention Laurence Fishburne, and most people immediately think of The Matrix. Boyz n the Hood, Apocalypse Now, or his Oscar-nominated performance as Ike Turner in What’s Love got to Do with It. He started his career as a child star, first getting notice in Cornbread, Earl and Me, but has played a huge range of characters from Shakespeare’s Othello to iconic newspaper editor Perry White in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
But Fishburne has been on TV for a lot longer than most people realize. Hardcore fans remember him as Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but years later, he put him some TV time as Raymond Langston on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He was Jack Crawford on Hannibal, and is a recurring character, Pops, on Black-ish. And last month, he played Nelson Mandela on the three-part BET mini-series Madiba. Pretty impressive for an actor who auditioned to play Michael Evans on Good Times but didn’t get the part.
10. Kevin Bacon
Kevin Bacon got a small role in Animal House in 1978, but superstardom didn’t come immediately, and he found himself waiting tables and doing a soap opera after that. But he persisted, and ended up with a lengthy, memorable, and ongoing career in movies after that. There’s a reason for the “six degrees of separation” game around him, as he’s been in an astonishing number of movies. His biggest movies include A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, A Few Good Men, Mystic River, Sleepers, Frost/Nixon, The River Wild, and Patriots Day, but a few years ago, he headed back to the small screen to try his hand at a TV series.
In 2013, he took the starring role of Ryan Hardy in The Following on Fox. The show was about a former FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer, and ran for three seasons. His newest TV project is Story of a Girl, a Lifetime TV-movie directed by his wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick.
9. Naomi Watts
David Lynch’s auditions are famous for being conversations instead of try-outs. Actors say they’re usually brought in just to talk, and not to read lines, and then Lynch determines if he’d like to work with them or not. (Woody Allen has a similar method, although his conversations rarely run longer than two minutes.) So when Naomi Watts came in to talk about what would become her breakthrough film Mulholland Drive, as she told Seth Meyers, she was “disarmed” and “charmed,” by the way the director made time to sit and talk with her.
That movie helped launch her film career in the U.S., and she went on to appear in I Heart Huckabees, The Ring, 21 Grams, Fair Game, and Birdman, among many others, But now she has two TV projects on the horizon: Gypsy, a new psychological thriller premiering on Netflix later this year, and she reunited with Lynch to shoot an episode of the Twin Peaks reboot premiering on May 21. Counting the days!
8. Christian Slater
Christian Slater had been working steadily in TV movies since 1981, but hadn’t really broken through until he made a big splash in the 1988 cult movie Heathers. He beat Brad Pitt, among other actors, for the role, and comparisons to Jack Nicholson came frequently. That movie got him roles in Pump Up The Volume and Young Guns II, along with movies like Gleaming the Cube, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, True Romance, Interview with the Vampire, Broken Arrow, Very Bad Things, among others.
He had some rough years in there: a few arrests, a few smaller parts in movies, but found his next career boost on television. He had a few failed series, a few guest roles, and then in in 2015 came Mr. Robot. The show, which airs on USA, is a commercial hit, critical darling, and cult TV show. It won a Golden Globe for Best Television Drama Series, star Rami Malek won an Emmy for Best Lead Actor, and has won or been nominated for multiple others. Slater is back on the map as a current, relevant actor, and Mr. Robot begins its third season this October.
7. Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle made a huge name for himself as an actor in movies like The Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven (and its sequels), Rosewood, and Hotel Rwanda. Then in 2015, he co-wrote, produced and directed Miles Ahead in his own words about the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, foregoing the traditional approach to a biopic by skipping to different time periods and back, aiming for “impressionistic” rather than straightforward. And in addition to his more serious, thoughtful fare, he’s appeared in two Iron Man movies, one Avengers movie, and Captain America: Civil War.
But Cheadle has always been able to bounce back and forth between the big screen and the small one, and for four years, he was the star of Showtime’s House of Lies, and directed three episodes as well. The role scored him three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor and won him a Golden Globe.
6. Nicole Kidman
Oscar-nominated this year for Lion, Nicole Kidman is a movie star who effortlessly switches between prestige projects like Lion, Moulin Rouge, and The Hours to popular, less heady flicks like Paddington, Days of Thunder, and Batman Forever. She’s done almost every genre there is in the movies, and is at the point in her career where she can take what interests her and cast the rest aside.
So what interested in her TV? A book passed along to her by friend (and fellow Oscar-winner) Reese Witherspoon called “Big Little Lies.” They teamed up with veteran TV producer/show creator David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Picket Fences, The Practice) to produce a dark comedy miniseries for HBO, in which they both star. Witherspoon was the driving force behind it, recognizing that movies aren’t always the best place to find good female roles to play. “I thought women have bigger stories to tell and if no one is going to develop this material on TV, then I’ll do it myself,” she said, making it an easy choice for Kidman to join her on the small screen.
5. Julia Roberts
Talk about A-list! Julia Roberts is a movie star in in the old school sense of the word. She’s an Oscar winner who floats between blockbusters and passion projects, holds her own against the biggest stars around, causes a splash wherever she goes, and stops the paparazzi in their tracks whether she’s on the red carpet or walking her dog.
She’s done guest roles on TV from time to time, from Law & Order (when she was dating one of its stars, Benjamin Bratt) to TV movies like The Normal Heart on HBO, but for the first time ever, she’s going to star in a TV series. It’ll be a limited run, both to tell the story properly and to leave room for making movies in her future, and is based on Maria Semple’s book “Today Will Be Different.” Roberts’ production company will produce the show, and there’s no network attached to it yet, but that’s only a matter of time and negotiations.
4. Angela Bassett
When Bryan Fuller was still at the helm of Star Trek: Discovery, he tweeted that he’d love to see Angela Bassett as a starship captain, but to most people, she’s a a movie star, whether she’s Tina Turner, Betty Shabazz, or Ramonda in the upcoming (2018) flick Black Panther.
But Fuller wasn’t that far off, as Bassett has been making her mark in TV just as much as she does in the movies. As a fan of American Horror Story, she reached out show creator Ryan Murphy to ask if there was a role for her, and he already had one in mind. She’s in good company there with fellow movie stars Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates (along with music superstar Lady Gaga), and in 2016, directed her first episode, making her the first woman in the show’s six years to do so. She’d already directed a Whitney Houston biopic for Lifetime the year before, and Murphy reported that she knocked “it out of the park in every way.”
3. Amy Adams
Amy Adams been nominated for five Oscars, and like many of the stars on this list, she effortlessly moves between “serious” movies and blockbuster fare, from Julie & Julia and American Hustle to Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
This has been a particularly big year for her. One of the few women to star in a sci-fi film, she was in Arrival, a prestige pic that scored eight Oscar nominations, and she already has five nominations of her own. (Her most recent one was for American Hustle.) Later this year, she’ll reprise her role as Lois Lane in Justice League, but she’s also got a TV project in the works. Best-selling author Gillian Flynn’s novel “Sharp Objects” is being turned into an eight-episode series, and Adams is going to star in it. They just started shooting this month with director Jean-Marc Vallée, who also directed Big Little Lies with Nicole Kidman and the movies Wild and Dallas Buyers Club. Marti Noxon, co-creator of the hit show UnReal, is the showrunner.
2. Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti had a good career going as a character actor and support in a bunch of successful movies, but his breakout roles in American Splendour and Sideways made him a star.
While he’s still doing movies regularly, with one (The Catcher Was a Spy) currently filming and another (Private Life) in pre-production, he’s also continuing to star in the Showtime series Billions, with Homeland first season vet Damian Lewis. He says the appeal of doing the show isn’t just that they shoot in New Yk, often near where he lives in Brooklyn, but that TV tastes have been changing, making more room for a wider variety of shows. “Because there is so much space and competition, I think people just have become more open and willing to go to places. There are more oddball shows,” he said in an interview last month.
He’s not just acting in TV, but producing too. He’s currently an executive producer on Outsiders, now in its second season on WGN. He’ll also be executive producing Lodge 49, a series bought by AMC with a preliminary order for ten episodes, starring Black Mirror actor Wyatt Russell.
1. Scarlett Johansson
Hail, Caesar!. Avengers movies. The Jungle Book. Iron Man 2. Lucy. Her. Sing. Scarlett Johansson has at least three movies in various stages of production, and Ghost in the Shell comes out on March 31. She may dabble in Saturday Night Live, but she’s mostly a movie star, combining her sex appeal with acting chops and working with high-profile directors like Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, and Joss Whedon.
Making a move to TV may seem like an odd choice, but as a star, she’s in a position to choose projects that interest her and offer up a contrast to her big screen roles. She’ll be executive producing and starring in The Custom of the Country, a TV movie based on the 1913 book by Edith Wharton. It’ll be her first major TV gig ever. The book may not be as famous as Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, but Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, whose show was intriguing enough to attract both Paul Giamatti and Shirley Maclean to guest star, cites it as an inspiration.
We know there are dozens more movie stars working on TV projects right now, so tell us who we missed in the comments.
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