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Top Ten Period Actors and Actresses

Many of Britain's most talented actors such as Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Kenneth Branagh have established careers almost based entirely on roles in period dramas. Similarly, many of Hollywood's favorite stars have anchored their careers by starring in acclaimed historical movies. Perhaps actors prove their legitimacy as serious thespians by starring in historical movies. For better or worse, there remains the idea that only the genuinely talented are able to tackle a Shakespeare adaptation. Or perhaps actors, like the rest of us, simply relish the opportunity to lose themselves for a moment in another time. Without further adieu, we present our Top Ten list of actors and actresses, arranged alphabetically by last name, who have graced the silver screen with their presence in period films:


Helena Bonham Carter

Perhaps the reigning queen of period dramas, Helena Bonham Carter's long career includes numerous works set in many historical eras. On being handed period role after role, Bonham Carter jokes: "I'm a genre unto myself. If a period film opens and I'm not in it, the critics write, 'And the Helena Bonham Carter role is played by...' Period movies are my destiny. I should get a few ribs taken out, because I'll be in a corset for the rest of my life." The actress' talents are also demonstrated in her varied roles, including an enlightened ape in the 2001 blockbuster, "Planet of the Apes", and a disabled woman in "The Theory of Flight." Bonham Carter comes from one of England's most prominent and storied families: Her great-grandfather is Lord Herbert Henry Asquith, a liberal Prime Minister of England, her grandmother is Lady Violet Bonham Carter, a celebrated politician, orator, and member of the House of Lords, and her grand-uncle is famed screenwriter/director Anthony Asquith. Incidentally, Bonham Carter's cousin, Crispin, has followed her lead by starring in a number of period dramas, including "Victoria and Albert" (2001), "Wuthering Heights" (1999), "Basil" (1999), "Pride and Prejudice" (1995) and "Howards End" (1992) (with his famous cousin). As for her personal life, Bonham Carter is romantically linked to actor Kenneth Branagh, whom she met while filming "Frankenstein" together in 1994. Helena Bonham Carter's period filmography includes:

Corpse Bride (2005)
Henry VIII (2003)
Carnivale (1999) (Animated feature)
The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999) (Compilation of comedic sketches)
Merlin (1998)
The Petticoat Expeditions (1997) (Documentary)
The Wings of the Dove (1997)
The Great War (1996)
Twelfth Night (1996)
Frankenstein (1994)
Howards End (1992)
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991)
Hamlet (1990)
Maurice (1987)
A Hazard of Hearts (1987)
A Room with a View (1986)
Lady Jane (1986)


Kenneth Branagh

A talented actor, producer, director, and screenwriter, Kenneth Branagh's career encompasses numerous Shakespearean adaptations, period dramas, historical documentaries, and even animated features set in various time periods. The actor was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1960. At the age of twenty-three, Branagh joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he took on starring roles in "Henry V" and "Romeo and Juliet." After finding the Company too large and impersonal for his tastes, he formed his own Renaissance Theatre Company, which now counts Prince Charles as one of its royal patrons. At the age of twenty-nine, Branagh directed and starred in the film version of "Henry V," which costarred his then-wife, Emma Thompson. The film brought him Best Actor and Best Director Academy Award nominations. The pair also starred in the romantic thriller, "Dead Again" in 1991 and "Much Ado About Nothing" (written and directed by Branagh) in 1993. Despite a successful career together, Branagh and Thompson announced their plans to divorce in 1995, when Thompson became romantically entangled with her "Sense and Sensibility" costar, Greg Wise. Since then, Branagh had also been linked romantically to Helena Bonham Carter, but is currently married to Lindsay Brunnock. Kenneth Branagh's period filmography includes:

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Shackleton (2001)
Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001) (Documentary)
The Ballad of Big Al (2000) (Documentary)
Big Al Uncovered (2000) (Documentary)
Great Composers (1999) (Documentary)
The Road to El Dorado (2000) (Animated feature)
The Periwig Maker (1999) (Animated short)
Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) (Documentary)
Wild Wild West (1999)
The Dance of Shiva (1998) (Short)
Proposition, The (1998)
Hamlet (1996)
Looking for Richard (1996)
Othello (1995)
Frankenstein (1994)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Discovering Hamlet (1990)
Henry V (1989)
Ghosts (1986)
Coming Through (1985)


Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis was born in 1957 in London, England, and was the second child of Cecil Day-Lewis, a poet laureate of England, and actress Jill Balcon. As a teenager, Day-Lewis studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic School, and made his film debut in 1971 in "Sunday Bloody Sunday." For ten years after that role, Day-Lewis appeared only on stage with the Bristol Old Vic and Royal Shakespeare Companies. In 1982, he landed his first adult role, a small part in "Ghandi." Two years later, he was awarded his first major role in "The Bounty," starring a young Mel Gibson. Since then, the actor has distinguished himself in a number of dramatic roles including his Academy Award nominated performances, "My Left Foot" (1990) (which the actor won in the Best Actor category) and "In the Name of the Father" (1993). Daniel Day-Lewis' period filmography includes:

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Gangs of New York (2001)
The Crucible (1996)
The Age of Innocence (1993)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
A Room with a View" (1986)
The Bounty (1984)
How Many Miles to Babylon (1982)


Colin Firth

For better or worse, Colin Firth remains the quintessential Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," even despite roles in such acclaimed pieces as Elizabethan drama, "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient", set in the 1940s. Born in 1960, in Hampshire, England into an academic and religious family (his parents were professors and his grandparents Methodist missionaries), a young Firth studied drama at the London Drama Centre and announced at age fourteen that we would become an actor. His first professional role was as Bennet in the West End production of "Another Country." From this performance, he was chosen to play the character of Judd in the movie of the play, and has since taken a variety of character parts in both film and television. Although Firth has shied away from being identified with his Regency counterpart, he can't seem to help taking roles in period movies. He has a son from his former relationship with actress Meg Tilly ("Valmont" co-star), and is now married to Livia Giuggioli, with whom he has a son, Luca. Colin Firth's period filmography includes:

The Colossus (2007)
The Little White Horse (2007)
The Last Legion (2007)
Nanny McPhee (2005)
Girl With the Pearl Earring (2003)
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
The Turn of the Screw (1999)
Blackadder Back and Forth (1999)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Nostromo (1996)
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
The Advocate (1993)
Valmont (1989)
The Secret Garden (1987)
Lost Empires (1986)
Camille (1984)


Ewan Mcgregor

Perhaps best known for his role in the "Star Wars" movies as the Jedi master, Obi Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor has distinguished himself as an actor whose roles are varied, to say the least. Born in 1971 in Crieff, Scotland, the young actor joined the Perth Repertory Theatre at the age of sixteen. His parents encouraged him to pursue his acting goals, and McGregor studied drama for a year at Kirkcaldly in Fife, then enrolled at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Shortly before graduation, McGregor left to take a role in a British television series, "Lipstick on Your Collar." In 1996, McGregor starred as a heroin addict in "Trainspotting," a film which brought him public attention in both Europe and America. He is now considered one of the most critically acclaimed actors of his generation, yet shies away from starring in standard Hollywood fare. McGregor is married to French production designer, Eve Mavrakis, with whom he has two daughters, Clara Mathilde and Esther Rose. Along with several of Britain's young elite -- Jonny Lee Miller, Sean Pertwee, Jude Law and Sadie Frost -- McGregor formed a production company called Natural Nylon to produce innovative films that do not conform to Hollywood standards. Our favorite roles include McGregor's turn as the charming Frank Churchill in the 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow; and as the idealistic young playwright, Christian, in the musical "Moulin Rouge." McGregor's stellar performance in the latter, glitzy Baz Luhrmann production was only surpassed by his emotional delivery of Elton John's ballad, "Your Song," to Nicole Kidman's courtesan. Although Ewan's period filmography is not as lengthy as some of our other Top Ten actors, we believe that this is one actor whose talent will propel him to star in many more to come. Ewan McGregor's period filmography includes:

Miss Potter (2006)
Borgia (2003)
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Nora (2000)
The Serpent's Kiss (1997)
Emma (1996)
Scarlet & Black (1993)


Jeremy Northam

Jeremy Northam has delivered convincing performances in a variety of roles, from the conniving high-tech hit man opposite Sandra Bullock in "The Net," to the honorable Mr. Knightley opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in "Emma." Born in 1961 in Cambridge, England, Northam is the youngest of four children, his father being a Professor of Literature at Cambridge University and his mother, an pottery artist. Northam attended London University, where he majored in English, and with a love of literature, soon enrolled in the Old Vic Theatre School to receive professional dramatic training. In 1989, when star Daniel Day-Lewis suffered a nervous breakdown on stage during a production of "Hamlet," Northam, his understudy, stepped in and gained fame on the English stage. He soon was awarded roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and won the prestigious Olivier Award for his stage work. His first real break in film came in 1995's cyber-thriller, "The Net." Jeremy Northam's period filmography includes:

The Tudors (2007)
Possession (2002)
Gosford Park (2001)
The Golden Bowl (2000)
The Winslow Boy (1999)
An Ideal Husband (1999)
Amistad (1997)
Emma (1996)
Carrington (1995)
Wuthering Heights (1992)


Jane Seymour

British actress Jane Seymour is perhaps one of the only actresses who is genuinely more comfortable in period roles than as modern-day characters. Born in 1951, the actress was first introduced to American audiences in "Live and Let Die," the first James Bond film to star Roger Moore but has starred in numerous made-for-television period movies since then. Her "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman", which debuted in 1993, received widespread popularity and praise as a family-friendly television series. The actress' personal life is as dramatic as the costume movies and mini-soaps in which she has starred. Seymour has been married four times, and now lives with her latest husband, James Keach (also an actor). Seymour herself is enamored with historical living, and resides with her husband and children in a stately, 1000-year-old castle known as St. Catherine's Court, in Bath, England. Jane Seymour's period filmography includes:

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Heart Within (2001)
Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble (2000)
The Quest for Camelot (1998)
Heidi (1993)
La Revolution Francaise (1989)
Jack the Ripper (1988)
The Woman He Loved (1988)
The Phantom of the Opera (1983)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982)
Somewhere in Time (1980)
The Awakening Land (1978)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
Captains and the Kings (1976)
The Story of David (1976)
Our Mutual Friend (1976)
The Strauss Family (1972)
Young Winston (1972)
The Onedin Line (1971)


Emma Thompson

Born into a theatrical family in 1959, Emma Thompson is considered one of Britain's top actors of all time. While studying English literature at Cambridge University, she became one of the few women to join the Footlights Acting Club, whose distinguished alumni include John Cleese and Eric Idle. Thompson also began writing, directing, and producing for Cambridge's first all-female revue, "Woman's Hour." After graduating from Cambridge, Thompson joined with two other Footlights alumni to write and perform in a television series, "Al Fresco." In 1985, she landed her first major role in the musical, "Me and My Girl." The next year, she won a lead role in the drama, "Fortunes of War," during which time she fell in love with (and later married) her co-star, Kenneth Branagh. The couple later acted in four other feature films together, but divorced in 1995. The actress is currently married to her "Sense and Sensibility" co-star, Greg Wise. Together they have one daughter, Gaia Romilly Wise. Thompson's older sister, Sophie Thompson, and mother, Phyllida Law, are both actresses, while her father, Eric Thompson, is a stage director. Emma Thompson's period filmography includes:

Nanny McPhee (2005)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Carrington (1995)
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Howards End (1992)
Impromptu (1991)
Henry V (1989)
The Winslow Boy (1988)


Justine Waddell

This up-and-coming British actress has already distinguished herself as a literary heroine, whether in her role as the sweet Molly Gibson in Elizabeth Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters", the tragic Tess Durbyfield in Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbevilles", or the stone-hearted Estella in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1976, Waddell is part Scottish and South African. She moved to London with her family when she was eleven. She graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in Sociology and Politics, and spent much of college life acting in stage and television productions. Her first professional acting job was a small role in the film, "Anna Karenina," and since then has tackled many film adaptations of literary classics. Justine Waddell's period filmography includes:

Wives and Daughters (1999)
Mansfield Park (1999)
Great Expectations (1999)
Tess of the D'Urbevilles (1998)
The Woman in White (1997)
The Moth (1997)
Anna Karenina (1997)


Kate Winslet

Known affectionately as "Corset Kate" for her reprising role in costume dramas, Kate Winslet is best known for her Academy Award nominated performances as Rose Dewitt Bukater in 1997's "Titanic" and Marianne Dashwood in the 1995 "Sense and Sensibility" adaptation. Born in 1975 in Reading, England, Winslet's first acting role was in a cereal commercial at the age of eleven. She followed the lead of her family by taking acting lessons and pursuing a career on stage (her parents are stage actors, her maternal grandparents managed a repertory theatre, and her late uncle Robert Bridges acted in several West End productions). In 1991, after graduating from a performing arts high school, Winslet took a handful of stage roles, and then landed small roles on British television sitcoms. At the age of seventeen, Winslet took her first role in a feature film, "Heavenly Creatures," in which she played a fantasy-prone New Zealand schoolgirl caught up in a deadly friendship. Winslet followed up the art-house production by playing a princess in the Disney family feature, "A Kid in King Arthur's Court." She then landed the plum role of the hopelessly romantic Marianne Dashwood in "Sense and Sensibility," a part which gained her widespread critical acclaim. Kate Winslet's period filmography includes:

Finding Neverland (2003)
Therese Raquin (2002)
A Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
Quills (2000)
Titanic (1997)
Jude (1996)
Hamlet (1996)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995)