40 Actors Who Trod The Boards (and What The Critics Said About Them)

You only get one chance to get it right in the theatre, so which stars stepped away from the comfort of the film set and stepped out onto the stage?

1. Benedict Cumberbatch

The Sherlock star has appeared on stage numerous times since 2001, beginning his stage career with multiple Shakespeare roles. He has regularly received plaudits for his work in the theatre, including acting nominations for the 2010 production of Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance, and winning several awards for the dual role he shared with Jonny Lee Miller in the Danny Boyle directed Frankenstein, where both actors were required to burst out of a membrane in their birthday suits. Paul Taylor of The Independent said that Cumberbatch emphasised “the intellectual edge” of the role of both Frankenstein and his monster.

2. Keira Knightley

Knightley has appeared in the West End twice: alongside Damien Lewis in Moliere’s The Misanthrope in 2009, and The Children’s Hour with Elisabeth Moss in 2011. Reviews were mixed the first time round, with Quentin Letts writing that “she has all the charisma of a servicable goldfish,” and Paul Callan stated that “her lack of stage experience is sometimes painfully evident.” However, Charles Spencer described her as “unmissable”. By the time she appeared on stage again, he stated that she had “impressively won her theatrical spurs”.

3. Orlando Bloom

Having appeared in David Storey’s In Celebration in London several years ago, Bloom is now appearing in one of the title roles of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. Unfortunately, he hasn’t made a great impression, being variously described by critics as “excruciatingly dull” and “emotionally unvaried”. The Wall Street Journal even stated that “he gives the impression of squeezing expression out of a tube instead of finding it in his lines”.

4. Madonna

Madonna’s appearance in the 2002 play Up For Grabs was panned by critics. Michael Billington called her “a dogged trier lacking in technique or mystery” and Mark Shenton called her “palpably uneasy”.

5. Rupert Grint

Making his stage debut in a revival of Jez Butterworth’s 1997 play Mojo, the Harry Potter star more than held his own in a cast of experienced theatre actors. The Mirror commented on his “great comic timing and delivery”, and The Stage said he demonstrated his “growing maturity as a performer”.

6. Sienna Miller

Miller is no stranger to the stage, having appeared in After Miss Julie on Broadway in 2009, as well as taking on roles in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. Michael Billington, in a review of As You Like It, wrote that “Miller may be a celebrity but she can also act”. Unfortunately, Terry Teachout did not feel the same about her work in After Miss Julie, saying, “All she does is stalk round the stage striking vampy poses…she has no more business playing a classic stage role than I have posing for the cover of Vogue”. She redeemed herself somewhat in Flare Path, described as “genuinely heart-tugging” by Paul Taylor.

7. Dominic West

The Wire star has had numerous stage roles, from Shakespeare to My Fair Lady. In his musical theatre debut as Henry Higgins, he received a warm response from critics - aside from Quentin Letts, who wrote that he was “not the world’s greatest singer, and oddly nervous”. However, his recent role in Jez Butterworth’s The River won him acclaim. As well as gutting and cooking a fish on stage, Michael Billington said that his portrayal had “an air of rugged masculinity that conceals a profound sadness, insecurity and sense of loss”.

8. Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman made her stage debut in David Hare’s The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998. Reviews were mixed, and attention was dominated by the brief appearance of Kidman’s bare bottom, which Charles Spencer infamously described as “pure theatrical viagra”.

9. Jude Law

Law has an impressive body of theatrical work to his name, including a 2009 portrayal of Hamlet. He received mixed reviews, variously described as “one of the angriest Hamlets ever” by Maxwell Cooter, and “immaculate” by Benedict Nightingale. He is currently appearing in the title role of Henry V, in Michael Grandage’s star-laden series of plays. For this, he fared better: Charles Spencer describes it as “one of the richest and most detailed performances of Henry V that I have ever seen.”

10. Daniel Craig

In 1993, Daniel Craig performed in the London debut of Tony Kushner’s classic play Angels in America. He has since gone on to appear alongside Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain, and with his wife Rachel Weisz in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. An experienced actor, he received positive notices for his performance alongside Jackman. However, the production became more infamous for Jackman calling out a member of the audience for a ringing mobile phone.

11. Billie Piper

Piper has appeared on stage three times: Treats in 2007 (where she met husband Laurence Fox), Reasons To Be Pretty in 2011 and The Effect in 2012. After her pop star past, her enthusiasm for acting on stage was met with some cynicism. However, she’s proven her ability, and after her performance in The Effect, Michael Coveney wrote that “Piper gets better every time I see her”.

12. Cillian Murphy

Murphy, star of 28 Days Later, has appeared on stage several times, most recently in the one-man show Misterman. Maddy Costa wrote that Murphy “dauntlessly occupied” the National Theatre’s Lyttleton stage, and Charles Spencer described it as a “hypnotic, virtuosic performance”.

13. Gemma Arterton

Arterton made her stage debut in the RSC’s Love’s Labour Lost before she had even graduated from drama school. She went on to make her West End debut in the comedy The Little Dog Laughed alongside Rupert Friend and Tamsin Grieg, and then starred in Ibsen’s The Master Builder with Stephen Dillane in 2010. She is currently performing the title role in The Duchess of Malfi in the inaugural production of the RSC’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and receiving wide critical acclaim. The Independent describe her as “luminous” and the Metro write that she is “deliciously horrible”.

14. Rachel Weisz

Weisz has played numerous roles on stage since her West End debut in Noel Coward’s Design For Living in 1994. As well as the lead role in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (a role she reprised in the later screen adaptation), Weisz received numerous awards for her role as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in in 2009. Kate Kellaway described her portrayal as “wonderfully nuanced, full of surprises”.

15. Scarlett Johansson

Johansson won a Tony award for her performance in A View From A Bridge in 2010, but she didn’t do as well the second time round - critics were less kind about her work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Joe Dziemianowicz describing it as “alarmingly one-note”.

16. Daniel Radcliffe

Radcliffe was keen to confound expectations with his first stage role, throwing off his wizarding cape with aplomb - quite literally, as his role in Equus required him to strip off on stage. He admitted to having waxed his bum in preparation for the exposing role, but the pain was worth it when Radcliffe received glowing reviews and the play received a Broadway transfer; The New York Times described his work as “sensitive and intelligent”. He then went on to star in Broadway musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, charming critics once again. He has just finished a run of The Cripple of Inishmaan in London, which will transfer to Broadway; Michael Billington described Radcliffe as demonstrating a “precious gift”.

17. Cate Blanchett

Blanchett has appeared in numerous roles in Australian theatre, and she is an Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company; most recently, she appeared in Big and Small, which transferred to London. Euan Ferguson described her as having a “balletic athleticism” in the role, and Tim Auld stated that she is “the real deal as a theatre actress”.

18. Damian Lewis

The Homeland star began his career with the RSC, before going on to become a fixture in the world of film and TV. He recently starred alongside Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope, receiving mixed reviews. Jeremy Austin claims he portrays the character as “somewhat of a pathetic figure”, but Michael Billington suggested he had “the right mix of righteous anger and comic absurdity”.

19. James McAvoy

McAvoy has starred in two plays directed by Jamie Lloyd: Three Days of Rain in 2009, and Macbeth in 2013. Nicholas de Jongh wrote of his West End debut, “What a gift for pathos James McAvoy has!”, but Charles Spencer was less impressed, writing that he was “pretty dodgy throughout”. McAvoy was much acclaimed for a daring, physical performance in Macbeth last year, described by Paul Taylor as “gripping” and Michael Billington wrote that he was “exciting to watch”.

20. Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal made his stage debut in London in a 2002 production of This Is Our Youth, stating, “Every actor I look up to has done theatre work, so I knew I had to give it a try.” He went on to star in a Broadway production of Nick Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet in 2012, and the New York Daily News wrote that he “shows off sturdy stage chops”.

21. Julia Stiles

Stiles has had made several appearances on stage, including The Vagina Monologues and Twelfth Night. She appeared alongside Aaron Eckhart in David Mamet’s Oleanna, about a student who accuses her teacher of sexual harrassment, and received positive notices from critics.

22. Samuel L. Jackson

Jackson appeared on stage numerous times at the start of his career, and returned to the boards in 2011. He played Martin Luther King in the play The Mountaintop, starring alongside Angela Bassett. The New York Times were sceptical writing, “Despite an engagingly low-key performance by Mr. Jackson, it never provides the organic details and insights that would make Martin Luther King live anew.”

23. Tom Hiddleston

Hiddleston’s theatre credits are mainly Shakespearean, and he is currently appearing in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. His performance has been well received: Michael Billington wrote that Hiddleston is “a fine Coriolanus”, who “conveys the hero’s complexity”, whilst Charles Spencer agreed that he delivered a “powerhouse performance”.

24. Kim Cattrall

Cattrall has a vast number of theatre credits to her name, most recently Private Lives, Antony and Cleopatra, and Sweet Bird of Youth (complete with questionable wig - see above). She was praised for her performance in Private Lives, but had a “sporadically wayward accent”, whilst in Sweet Bird of Youth Tim Walker wrote that “she hasn’t any of the fading grandeur that the part requires”.

25. Ewan McGregor

McGregor made his stage debut in Little Malcolm and His Struggles Against the Eunuchs in 1998. He went on to appear as Sky Masterson in a much-transferred production of Guys and Dolls, alongside Jane Krakowski, Douglas Hodge and Jenna McRussell. Unfortunately, critics didn’t find his performance much cop, despite his singing role in Moulin Rouge. Quentin Letts wrote “a new larynx for the movie man, please”, and Charles Spencer described him as “eerily blank and sexless”. It’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s stayed away from the stage after he was given another roasting for his 2007 portrayal of Iago in Othello. Charles Spencer described him as “by far the weakest link”, continuing that “There is no glee or panache to this performance, no light and shade in McGregor’s workaday, slightly Scottish delivery.”

26. Laura Linney

Linney has an extensive CV of Broadway appearances, most recently Time Stands Still, co-starring Alicia Silverstone. In a performance described by the New York Times as “tough but gently shaded”, Linney played a war photographer who has returned home from Iraq after being hit by a roadside bomb.

27. Matt Smith

Doctor Who star did the opposite of what anyone expected after he hung up his bowtie: he took up role of murderous Patrick Bateman in an all-singing all-dancing adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Having already starred in The History Boys and Polly Stenham’s That Face, Michael Billington described his performance as Bateman as “beautifully defined” , although The Arts Desk admitted that he wasn’t much of a singing, writing “let’s just say one wouldn’t pay to see his Billy Bigelow.”

28. Chiwetel Eijofor

The 12 Years A Slave star has received awards for his roles on stage: Blue/Orange in 2000 and Othello in 2007. Universally praised, Michael Billington wrote that “Ejiofor puts himself into the front rank of modern Othellos”.

29. Katie Holmes

Katie Holmes’ work on Broadway has gone down like a lead balloon; David Rooney wrote that “she lacks the technique to match her co-stars’ depths” when she starred alongside Patrick Wilson in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. In 2013, she starred in Theresa Rebeck’s Dead Accounts, but it was forced to close early due to poor ticket sales - although many critics commented that Holmes’ performance was an improvement on her work in All My Sons.

30. Christina Applegate

Applegate has performed on Broadway on multiple occasions, including the leading role in the musical Sweet Charity. Whilst appearing, Applegate broke her foot and it looked likely that the production would close before opening night. However, she persuaded the producers to change their minds, and completed the run - although now states that she may not dance again. Reviews were kind, but not without their criticisms, with the New York Times writing, “While she executes her steps with care and precision, dance is not a transcendent form of self-expression for Ms. Applegate. And let’s face it, neither is song. “

31. Clive Owen

Owen portrayed both roles in Patrick Marber’s Closer: on stage, he played Dan, whilst in the film he was cast as Larry. He also appeared in the highly praised A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 2001.

32. Denzel Washington

Washington returned to the stage after several years in 2010, when he took the leading role opposite Viola Davis in August Wilson’s Fences. The New York Times wrote that he has a “fluid naturalness” in the role, and he is likely to return to the stage this year in a production of A Raisin in the Sun.

33. Paul Rudd

Rudd has appeared in a number of Broadway productions, including Three Days of Rain, co-starring Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper, and The Shape of Things, a role he went on to reprise in the film adaptation. Variety described him as “an accomplished stage actor with plenty to work with” for his work in Three Days of Rain, and Oliver Burkeman suggested that Roberts was thoroughly outshone by Rudd’s performance.

34. Will Ferrell

Ferrell made his Broadway debut in his own comedy, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush. The show broke box office records, but Alexis Soloski suggested it was “definitely not innovative”.

35. Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts’ Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain, alongside Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper, was met with disapproval from critics. The Boston Globe wrote that “Roberts, a cinematic ball of fire, wanders around the stage in the first act as if she’s looking for the Prozac.”

36. Joanne Froggatt

The Downton Abbey star performed in an Old Vic production of All About My Mother in 2007, playing the same role as Penelope Cruz in the 1999 film. She went on to take the leading role in John Donnelly’s The Knowledge in 2011, where her performance was enjoyed by critics. Paul Taylor wrote that, “Joanne Froggatt beautifully brings out her character’s flaky mix of idealism, emotional vulnerability and opportunistic calculation.”

37. Anna Friel

Having performed in the Broadway cast of Closer alongside Natasha Richardson and Rupert Graves, Friel went on to take on the challenge of playing the role of Holly Golightly, made famous by Audrey Hepburn. The production was beset with controversies, from patrons vomiting from the balconies to tabloid rumours about a romance between Friel and her co-star Joseph Cross (whilst she was still together with Harry Potter star David Thewlis). Reviewers were generally happy with Friel’s performance - none more so than Charles Spencer, who reported, “This is the sexiest performance I have seen on stage since Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room.”

38. Eddie Redmayne

Redmayne won an Olivier for his role in Red at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010, but his performance as Richard II was seen as less convincing by the critics. Michael Billington suggested, “My feeling is that he has the temperament but not yet the technique to play the king.”

39. Michael Sheen

Sheen worked mainly in the theatre in the 1990s, receiving awards nominations for his performances in Amadeus and Don’t Look Back in Anger. In 2011, he starred and directed The Passion for National Theatre Wales, a 72-hour play in his hometown of Port Talbot. Recently, he famously portrayed broadcaster David Frost in the play Frost/Nixon, which he went on to play again in the film adaptation. The Financial Times described him to be “as viscerally exciting an actor as any in Britain today.”

40. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks made his Broadway debut in the late Nora Ephron’s play, Lucky Man. Whilst the play was generally panned by critics, Hanks was praised for his performance, with Variety writing that “although he hasn’t trod the boards in years, the affable movie star takes to the stage like a fish to water”.

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