By way of an introductory note, I’ve not seen everything these listed actors have been in. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve barely dented their career credits. I’m also aware that there are many great actors past and present that could easily qualify for this list and even surpass my chosen five. Also note that I do like other actors, but am more comfortable about declaring these ones favourites.
Now that that’s out of the way…. Here’s my list. (The productions I’ve seen them in are listed in parentheses.)
Honourable Mention: James McAvoy (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; X-Men: First Class; Penelope; X-Men: Days of Future Past)
I had a bit of a struggle with deciding if he or another actor would be #5 in my list, but I eventually chose the other for that spot. But that does not mean I discount James McAvoy’s talent! Within minutes of James McAvoy’s introduction as the faun Tumnus in the first Disney/Walden Narnia film, I knew the casting directors had made an excellent choice. He gave off a charming friendliness and naivety and balanced it out just a few minutes (of screentime) later with a burden of guilt and fear. In Penelope, he was a young man down on his luck and desperate for cash, but pretty likable and sensitive – a bit reminiscent of Tumnus, in some ways. As for the X-Men films, I’m not a fan, but I think McAvoy did well within his role all the same, moreso in First Class than Days of Future Past. Gentle but fiercely loyal (hmm, I’m sensing a trend), McAvoy’s Charles Xavier (aka “Professor X”) is a bright and hopeful young man (or, in the case of most of the second movie, a depressed druggie in need of a haircut and friends) with conviction and care for others. So from what I’ve seen, James McAvoy has earned his distinction on my list.
And my top five are…
5) Colin Morgan (Merlin)
I may have only ever seen this actor in one role (or three, if you count the old version of that character and an old female version), but considering there are five seasons’ worth of said character, I think I’ve seen a pretty decent range of what he can do. As the titular character of BBC’s Merlin, Colin is a relatable, lovable late-teens-to-mid-twenties, born-with-magic… manservant to Arthur of Camelot? Despite the many, many ways the show differs from the legends, a young Merlin with his many challenges and problems brings a new twist to the old stories. Colin made the role what it is with his bright smile, delivery of humour (assuming that well-timed punchlines aren’t attributed to excellent editing), endearing clumsiness, and conveyance of multiple emotions. Whether he’s crying over the loss of a loved one, struggling with an extremely tough situation, caring for another character, forming friendships, or being an absolute goofball, Merlin is a character that I loved right away. Kudos to Colin Morgan!
As if the complexity of the character of Loki wasn’t enough to distinguish Tom Hiddleston as a very talented actor indeed, I am even more impressed by the contrast of his performances as Loki of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as Major Nicholls in War Horse. Sure, Loki has a very human element to him that the audience can sympathize with, but Nicholls is very simply a good man and likable. Loki is the trickster, the conniver; Nicholls is the stalwart and compassionate soldier. Loki has a dark edge to him; Nicholls is gentle soul with a heart of gold. So on and so forth. Despite the contrast of these two very different characters, Hiddleston nails both of them beautifully.
3) Martin Freeman (Sherlock, The Hobbit trilogy)
From what I hear (and see), Martin Freeman is often type-cast into the role of unwilling adventurer. Do I care? Nope! Why? Because he’s so very good at it! As John Watson, he is a damaged ex-soldier itching for some kind of action… even if it’s with a very odd (to say the least) flatmate. And don’t even get me started on Bilbo Baggins! If there was one role Freeman was simply meant to play (“just as Bilbo was meant to find the Ring”?), it’s the little, fearful-yet-brave hobbit. Complete with oh-so-perfect hand gestures and well-timed facial movements, Freeman breathes life into Tolkien’s loyal and peace-loving hero. Despite how similar these two roles are, Freeman still ranks high on my list of favourite actors for portraying both of them in a way that I can relate to and be a big fan of.
2) Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace, Sherlock, War Horse, The Hobbit DoS and BotFA)
Before I go any further, I just want to say… I liked Benedict Cumberbatch before the bandwagon had blueprints. As William Pitt in Amazing Grace, I loved his mix of boyish impetuosity and serious intensity. Spinning nearly 180-degrees, his performance as Sherlock gives him that same seriousness, but throws in total childishness on occasion, boyish giddyness, biting sarcasm, … and just enough heart to keep him somewhat human. His role in War Horse was minor (and disguised with a mustache!), but I still liked him. As for the latter two Hobbit films, he’s mainly featured as two voices (though he did some screen-capture work as well), but boy, is it ever good! He’s positively menacing as the dragon Smaug, but even his work on Smaug didn’t give me the same reaction I had to his voicing the Necromancer. (Add to that the facts that Cumberbatch 1) suggested doing some of the Black Speech backward and 2) scared himself while recording the Necromancer.) So. Between being a boyish prime minister, a brilliant sociopath, a good soldier, and not one but two of Tolkien’s greatest antagonists, Cumberbatch very quickly rose to this spot on my list.
1) Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time, To End All Wars, and… um… Eragon… (excuse me while I gag and regret the decision to watch that movie))
Frankly, most of what I know of this guy’s acting ability comes from Once Upon a Time. And why shouldn’t it? His performance as Rumpelstiltskin / Mr. Gold is so… bipolar. As Rumple, he has a creepy, kid-like manner and yet still a darkness to him… and yet also a bit of normal person underneath it. As Mr. Gold, he’s quieter and more conniving, which is scarier in its own way, but also more human… and yet still darker in its own way. Sure, a lot of what I just said is thanks to the screenwriters, but the fact that Carlyle can pull off all these many sides of the character is impressive. In To End All Wars, he plays a prisoner-of-war under the brutal hand of the Japanese during WWII. He’s angry, he’s bitter, he’s wounded, he’s lost, he cracks. His character alongside all the others in that film made me think of what soldiers – past, present, and future – deal with. As for Eragon, well, I suppose Carlyle had some practice with the dark side of Rumpelstiltskin. In any case, he ranks as my top actor for his ability to (believably) pull off so many conflicting characteristics within a single character, whether it’s over a character-building arc or within a matter of seconds of screentime.