This weekend marks the release of the second season of Bridgerton, the Netflix series about the rise of society journalism set against a backdrop of Georgian England. But the show also serves another, more obvious purpose: bringing Horny on Main to the masses. Season 1 turned lead actor Regé-Jean Page into an international sex symbol almost overnight—months before Page was cast as the smoldering Duke of Hastings, he was playing a dirigible pilot in Mortal Engines; after, he was hosting Saturday Night Live and generating buzz as the next James Bond.
Bridgerton may have been too successful for its own good, as Page announced last year that he won’t appear in future seasons. But the show is based on a series of books detailing the courtship of each of the numerous and eponymous Bridgerton siblings, so with the Duke and Daphne’s story line on the back burner, older brother Anthony steps into the limelight and sets out to find a wife.
This time around, Olly from Broadchurch (Jonathan Bailey) and Olivia from Sex Education (Simone Ashley) form the romantic center of the show. (Speaking of Sex Education, Season 1 of Bridgerton could’ve been about three and a half episodes long if Dr. Jean Milburn were the family matriarch, but I digress.) And if the show continues as expected, Bailey will almost assuredly make the leap into a select group of men who currently dominate Hollywood: Hot British Actors™ (HBAs).
The HBA is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s been part of the American cultural furniture since your grandparents were down bad (or whatever the postwar equivalent is) for Sean Connery and Richard Burton. But now these actors are everywhere—wielding affected American accents like a plumber wields a wrench. They’re hiding in plain sight, not just in our romantic dramas and superhero movies, but our network sitcoms and prime-time soaps as well. Paul Revere is rummaging through his saddlebags right now, trying to figure out how many lanterns to light for “by screen.”
It’s not like we Americans don’t have our own deep bench—our Drivers, Chalamets, Stanfields, Maleks, and so on. But we have Brits playing our superheroes, our crime lords, our presidents, even. (In the span of a few months, Kingsley Ben-Adir played Barack Obama and Malcolm X! Why even bother having American actors at that point!)
There seems to be some ineffable quality of Britishness that makes this group so exciting to American viewers. To know such a vast volume of actors requires a taxonomy, a classification that sorts each individual into groups based on persona, form, and purpose. Here’s another beloved British media personality, Sir David Attenborough, to describe how evolution led different branches of creatures to evolve over hundreds of millions of years:
[Attenborough Voice continues.]
… And so it is with the HBA. From ancient times, each collective has met a particular environmental purpose. Many individuals—one group. From the bombastic thespians of the RSC to the brooding Bales and Brit Packers, the HBA permeates the cinematic landscape. Each actor is marvelous in his own way, but each owes an evolutionary debt to those who came before. And so we embark on the difficult but important task of classifying Hot British Actors.
If the Queen issued a royal warrant to produce leading men, this is how they’d present. In addition to being a foundational archetype of HBA, this is also a foundational archetype of rom-com lead, sort of the European counterweight to the pre-Philadelphia Tom Hanks. Well-mannered but not urbane, handsome but not hot, funny but not comical. In an age when Brad Pitt was burgeoning into the hottest man in Hollywood, the Prototype was the more down-to-earth and attainable alternative.
That combination of awkwardness and impotent frustration transcends eras; Hugh Grant’s nervous stammering and bashfulness played just as well in Four Weddings and a Funeral as in Sense and Sensibility. Colin Firth played the same style of misanthropic weirdo in Pride and Prejudice and Fever Pitch. But those flaws are this type of actor’s charm—Grant and Firth had audiences shrieking “I can fix him!” before we ever had an idiom to suit the feeling.
Everything that’s come since from this group is in dialogue with the original mid-’90s love interest; Grant’s maturation into slightly caddish middle-aged men characters (Music and Lyrics, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the parts of Cloud Atlas when he’s not wearing face paint and eating Jim Sturgess) is a natural outgrowth of his rom-com glory days. So is Firth’s Hanks-like evolution into more esoteric and dramatic roles. Now the millennial and zoomer HBAs are all crafting their work for audiences who expect a Jane Austen–type romantic lead (or its 20th-century counterpart, Nick Hornby–type romantic lead). They must either fulfill, shape, or transcend those expectations.
The Prototype, v.2.1
You can see the evolution from the Grant generation to the current generation in Dev Patel’s career alone. When he came to worldwide attention in Slumdog Millionaire, he was just 18 years old and carried the familiar awkward physicality of someone who isn’t used to being as tall as he is now. And he kept that energy through the early 2010s—The Newsroom, Chappie—and looked like a potential successor to Grant’s glasses-chewing hot nerd.
Then he grew a phenomenal mustache and maybe the most beautiful head of hair ever pictured on television. Seeing Lion-spec Patel was like the moment in a horror movie when the hero realizes the zombies can run. It changed the game. British actors aren’t just odd and charming anymore—they’re hot now too. Robert Pattinson followed a similar trajectory, going from skinny, pale teen genre heartthrob to Batman-by–Davey Havok, and in between he showed in Tenet that he can be the coolest guy in a blockbuster that’s supposed to highlight a different actor as the action hero. (A phenomenon we call Hardying the DiCaprio.)
This generation of prototypical HBAs doesn’t just crack uncomfortable jokes in a rugby shirt or waltz around in Regency-era dress. They lift weights. They style their hair. They’re comfortable with automatic weapons. It’s a new and looming threat for American movie stars.
To American audiences, British people are the easiest kind of foreign. If you want to be whisked away by a debonair European man to a land of castles and kings and ancient cities, but can’t be bothered to learn a second language, the HBA is for you. I mean, who wants to go to Hungary and be surrounded by—what’s Hungary famous for anyway, paprikash and mathematics?—when you can say “chips” and “lorry” and act like that makes you Phileas Fogg?
It’s kind of lazy, to be honest, in the same way that studying abroad doesn’t count if you go to the U.K. But with that said, there is still something about a traditionally handsome man in tights, riding a white horse, and speaking with an RP accent. Or, to use the modern equivalent, a traditionally handsome man in a Savile Row suit, driving a Rolls-Royce.
Cool Square Guys Who Punch
The counterpoint to the Prince Charming is a relatively recent development, but one the Brits have taken to like a duck to water. Cool Square Guys Who Punch aren’t necessarily a fairy-tale ideal, but they’re fun and good at banter, they fill out a suit well, and they make interesting creative choices when they’re not headlining action franchises. This kind of HBA is almost most compelling before he fully self-actualizes, so you can see Bell or McAvoy in a superhero movie one weekend, then turn right around and catch him in a gritty low-budget indie film the next.
[Resume Attenborough Voice.]
The majestic creatures of Cumberbatch Island are proof that evolution need not proceed in only one direction. We might think of the HBA in terms of perfect hair, a warm smile, and the ability to provoke a riot just by saying, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” But the true nature of the HBA is deeper.
These men have what some in the film industry might call distinctive features, but nevertheless channel the magnetism, charisma, and je ne sais quoi of the traditional matinee idol. Best-known to all of you, no doubt, is the Original Cumberbatch, who first appeared some 15 years ago in the likes of Starter for 10 and Atonement. Since then, he’s won the undying loyalty of internet nerds through his work in Sherlock and Doctor Strange, tapping into a potent truth of modern fandom: Adoration, once won, is enduring. So too Matt Smith, one of the rarest and most controversial stars of Doctor Who. Regard the specific curvature of his chin, which easily distinguishes him from his predecessor, David Tennant.
These, surely, are HBAs for the self-styled thinking person. Where a Madden or a Henry Cavill is too obvious, some thirsty internet folks return to the qualities that made the Prototype so alluring: uniqueness, accessibility, specificity. An eye to behold every beauty.
It’s 1858, you’re the unmarried youngest daughter of a successful farmer in North Flumptyhamptonshire. After an argument with your mother, who tries her best but doesn’t really understand you, you go for a walk on the moor to clear your head. In your flustered state, you aren’t looking where you’re going and lose your footing, falling against a stone and bruising your delicate alabaster knee. The sun is dipping toward the horizon. You’re not sure you can hobble home before dark.
Then in the distance, you see a gaunt figure in a dark cloak approaching. His skin is stretched tight over the bones of his face, his eyes wide and curious. Who is he? Friend or foe? It starts to rain. The stranger approaches and doffs his hood. “Pardon me, miss,” he says. ”You seem to be in need of assistance.”
His voice and accent are unfamiliar, but you find him equal parts comforting and titillating. Wordlessly you offer your hand, and you feel a chill rise up your spine as he pulls you to your feet. Is it the rain, or is it something else?
The Golden Statue Boys
This is not a group of men we think of as Hot Guys first and foremost. Or even British Actors, for that matter. After Widows and Judas and the Black Messiah, Kaluuya could tell me he’s a Chicagoan now and I’d believe him. And is Day-Lewis, five years into his retirement, still even an actor?
These guys aren’t focused on their looks, either. (Well, Bale is, but only insofar as he insists on gaining or losing huge amounts of weight each time he takes a new role to prove how serious he is.) Imagine putting the HBA proposition to Bale or Day-Lewis directly—they’d probably yell in your face for insinuating they’re nothing more than eye candy. These are Serious Actors, craftsmen above all frivolities. Their faces and bodies aren’t objects, they’re tools in service of great art, goddammit.
But hot? Of course. Leaving alone that excellence is in and of itself an extremely attractive quality, I’ve seen The Last of the Mohicans. (Sweats profusely at the sight of deerskin or a violin.) Hell, Day-Lewis was still a silver fox as recently as 2017, when he was last in the public eye. Look at him on the red carpet for Lincoln or Phantom Thread and tell me you wouldn’t.
Guys (Mostly) Named Tom Who Do a Lot of Sci-Fi and Fantasy
The thing that makes Marvel’s Toms (Hiddleston and Holland) so successful is the extent to which they’re down to hang. What does that mean? Well, I didn’t use the word “needy,” but I’m mentioning that I considered using the word “needy.” As opposed to, say, Daniel Craig, who doesn’t talk much about his private life and seems content to disappear entirely when not playing with the vernacular of the American South, the Toms will go on your talk show; they will be photographed smooching their celebrity girlfriend; they will do a cameo appearance and give it their all. The Toms could not be more perfect for contemporary nerd culture. And while Boyega isn’t technically a Tom, his sci-fi bona fides (Attack the Block) and excitement over joining the Star Wars franchise (at least at first) make him a Tom in spirit.
Hardy, in the meantime, is the antipope of Thirsty Toms. He does superhero movies, so it’s not like he’s above chasing the big corporate dollar. But he always has a weird twist to his big performances: Bane’s mask or Venom’s whole, you know, vibe. Sure, the Oscar nominee and international sex symbol will play a recurring role in your cable drama, but only if he can wear a big beard and mumble all his lines. Hardy doesn’t seek the same kind of attention as the other Toms H., but it’s attention-seeking acting all the same.
The Power Heartthrob
WARNING: Baseball analogy incoming.
When it became common for the major American and Japanese baseball leagues to exchange players in the 1990s, it was clear that the two countries developed somewhat different types of pitchers. The American ideal is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, with a 95 mile-an-hour fastball and two secondary pitches, three tops. These pitchers are all from Texas and Southern California, they all have names that sound like a particularly dependable brand of sawhorse, and they all attack hitters with power.
Japanese baseball is different in many subtle ways—training, league structure, even ballpark architecture—and that adds up to a noticeable difference in style of play at the highest level. Their pitchers traditionally have larger repertoires, more movement on their pitches, and more eclectic windups. For instance, when Daisuke Matsuzaka came to the U.S. in 2007, the attention was not on his fastball velocity but on a mythical off-speed pitch called a “gyroball” that he may or may not have actually thrown.
Then in 2011, the Texas Rangers signed Japanese superstar Yu Darvish. Darvish is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, and came to the U.S. with an upper-90s fastball and traditional American hard-breaking secondary pitches. But he also possessed the stereotypical Japanese pitcher’s ability to command an arsenal of a dozen pitches or more of varying speeds and movement patterns. He was the synthesis of two competing branches, and the results were as exceptional as one might expect—Darvish was one of the best pitchers in MLB from the moment he set foot in the U.S.
In a similar fashion, the U.K. seems to have finally started to follow its own famous proverb: If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.
The dudes in this category are big, with bulky Fast and Furious–style muscle. They are the synthesis of the Jason Statham– or Vinnie Jones–style Cockney heavy and the clever, pretty Ewan McGregor– or Chiwetel Ejiofor–style well-rounded leading man. It’s a frightening development.
For crying out loud, Superman is now British. Superman, the most (literally) comically shredded, corn-fed midwestern superhero of them all, one of the most American (and by extension least subtle) characters in all of literature, is now played by a Brit. While doing press for Man of Steel, Cavill told a nice story about meeting his future costar Russell Crowe as a teenager while playing rugby in boarding school in Buckinghamshire.
Superman, the guy with biceps so big the world’s tailors can’t make him a suit jacket that fits him, played rugby in boarding school in Buckinghamshire. Thank God George Washington didn’t live to see this.