Once upon a time in Hollywood, there was the belief that a movie star was regarded with more prestige than a television actor. Being in movies was considered the most impressive feat for any actor to achieve. As such, it was rare that an acclaimed movie star would star in TV productions, and if they did, it often came with the judgment that the shift towards television signaled a possible decline in their movie career.
Now, however, the lines are, rightfully, more blurred. Actors are enjoying success across all types of media, and TV, in particular, has seen a surge of movie stars taking part — to critical acclaim, too — in small-screen roles. In 2017, Observer wrote about why movie stars have made the move to TV. Indeed, the miniseries has become the most popular TV show format in recent years, and many movie stars, like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, have found success in these types of productions.
Streaming services such as Netflix, HBO, and Amazon have boosted TV series to the same level of consumption, and many actors have made the switch to TV and received some of the best appraisals of their careers by doing so. Here are fifteen movie actors who also found success in TV series.
Update January 7, 2024: This article has been updated with even more actors who found great success starring in television series.
15 Dakota Fanning in The Alienist
Dakota Fanning rose to prominence as young child star when she performed the role of Lucy Dawson in the drama film, I Am Sam. She would then enjoy a massively successful career as a child actor with roles in movies like Man on Fire and War of the Worlds. Her success in movies continued into her adult life, with films like The Runaways, Oceans 8, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Fanning transitioned into TV for her role in The Alienist, which centers around a team investigating a child murderer. She starred alongside Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans, with the show receiving fanfare for its acting and atmosphere. Fanning’s performance, in particular, was well received by both fans and critics, proving the actors’ versatility in the TV space. Stream The Alienist on Max.
14 Meryl Streep In Angels in America
Meryl Streep is a Hollywood legend, and her name needs absolutely no introduction. She has garnered countless awards throughout her career, including 21 Academy Award nominations (for which she won 3). She has also received 32 Golden Globe nominations, which has resulted in eight wins. Some of her most applauded roles include movies like Sophie’s Choice, for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress, and the same would be said for her role in Kramer vs. Kramer.
Streep is genuinely an actor who can adapt to every medium, and she first took on the feat of TV acting when she starred in the HBO miniseries Angels in America and once more returned for a role in the massively successful Big Little Lies opposite Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and an ensemble cast of women characters. Streep’s successful transition to TV seemed inevitable, and these roles indeed show that the actor is still as iconic today as she was during the early years of her career. Stream Angels in America on Max.
13 Jude Law in The Young Pope
Jude Law is an actor of many accolades, having been nominated twice for an Academy Award and four Golden Globes. He gained critical success for starring in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and his success continued with huge blockbusters like Sherlock Holmes, The Holiday, and Contagion.
Moving into the TV, Law took on the role of Pope Pius XIII in The Young Pope and then continued this role through the sequel series The New Pope. Law’s nuanced performance that picked up on the subtleties of his character’s internal conflicts would win a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television, proving the move to be a career highlight. Stream The Young Pope on Max.
12 Penélope Cruz in American Crime Story
Penélope Cruz was already an Oscar winner when she made the leap to television. She was featured in successful and critically applauded films such as Volver, Pain and Glory, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The latter won Cruz her first Oscar in 2009, winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.
Taking on the role of Donatella Versace in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Penélope Cruzcommanded the screen and was noted as one of the strongest points of the entire series. IndieWire published a piece called Cruz a “global star” and a “great character actress.” Cruz undeniably made an impact, and her performance is still considered among the best of the anthology series, which has been running since 2016. Stream American Crime Story on Hulu.
11 Anthony Hopkins in Westworld
Anthony Hopkins is an actor who probably everyone nows from at least somewhere, starring in over 100 films with many iconic roles. Roles like Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs and Professor Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Odin in the MCU have made the British actor a cultural icon. Hopkins is also a two-time Oscar winner out of six nominations. The veteran actor also has the unique privilege of being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993 for his contributions to the arts.
While Hopkins starred in TV series and made-for-TV movies at the start of his career, most of his work would come via film. As such, his inclusion in the 2016 adaptation of Westworld was a welcome surprise to many. Playing the role of Dr. Robert Ford, Hopkins brought his refined skill to the part, making for a memorable inclusion to the already impressive cast. Buy West World on Apple TV.
10 Jessica Lange in American Horror Story
Jessica Lange is a force in cinema, and she became a household name for her acclaimed performances in films such as Tootsie, Frances, and Blue Sky. For Blue Sky, she won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role and picked up Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her part in Tootsie.
Lange would experience a resurgence in popularity when she started to collaborate with Ryan Murphy on television, starring in the hugely successful American Horror Story series, which saw her awarded several Emmy Awards. She would become a staple of the show, appearing in the first four seasons for a total of 52 episodes, appearing as Constance Langdon, Sister Jude, Fiona Goode, and Elsa Mars. Stream American Horror Story on Prime.
9 Orlando Bloom in Carnival Row
Orlando Bloom achieved massive levels of success through the 2000s and 2010s with both his role as Legolas in The Lord of the Rings series and as Will Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Bloom continues to see success on the screen, recently playing alongside David Harbour in Gran Turismo.
He transitioned to TV when he joined the neo-noir fantasy series Carnival Row in the leading role opposite Cara Delevingne. The series was well-received, lasting two seasons and gaining a decent fanbase. Bloom’s performance was praised for its maturity and nuance, which many fans saw as an evolution for the actor, with others saying it was his best performance to date. Stream Carnival Row on Prime Video.
8 Amy Adams in Sharp Objects
Amy Adams had made a name for herself well before she ventured into the field of TV acting. Her debut film, Drop Dead Gorgeous, garnered a large following, bringing her to the forefront of many cinemagoers’ minds. This would be followed up with memorable roles in Enchanted, American Hustle, The Fighter, The Muppets, Man of Steel, and Arrival, just to name a few. Her filmography is vast and is considered by many to be one of the best actors working today.
Adams was already a multi-Oscar-nominated actress when she took the lead role as Camille Preaker in HBO Limited’s series Sharp Objects. The show would be nominated for 8 Emmy Awards, including Adams’ performance getting a nod with a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. Her performance was praised for its honest portrayal of a complex, troubled character that called for emotional depth and sensitivity. Stream Sharp Objects on Max.
7 William H. Macy in Shameless
William H. Macy has been a consistent presence in Hollywood, having amassed over 100 credits since his debut in 1978. Major career highlights include Fargo and Boogie Nights, where he excelled at capturing downtrodden characters. Despite this, throughout his career, Macy would only see one Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Fargo. Still, Macy may be the best example of this list of an actor who excelled in TV in a way that overshadowed his career in movies.
The series about a scrappy Chicago family would prove to be one of the most beloved modern-day TV series, lasting 11 seasons and 134 episodes. We are talking about the phenomenon that became Shameless. This is the career-defining role of Macy and one of his most beloved characters of all time, and it would give Macy his first coveted award for excellence in TV, picking up an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Stream Shameless on Netflix.
6 Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies
Nicole Kidman is a globally recognized actor, thanks to her diverse career, which had her appear in hit Hollywood films like Moulin Rouge and The Hours, the latter of which won Kidman her first Oscar in 2003 for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In addition, Kidman has managed to become an indie darling, working with uncompromising filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Park Chan-wook in Dogville and Stoker, respectively.
This made her transition to TV unsurprising and welcome. Kidman has starred in two TV series, notably Big Little Lies, alongside other standouts like Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon. Kidman would follow this up with a starring role in the series Nine Perfect Strangers in 2021. Nicole Kidman would win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her role as Celeste Wright in Big Little Lies. Stream Big Little Lies on Max.
5 Winona Ryder In Stranger Things
Winona Ryder became a darling of the 80s and 90s thanks to cult hits like Heathers and Beetlejuice as well as critically acclaimed roles in Edward Scissorhands, The Age of Innocence, and Little Women, both of which saw her getting nominated for, but not winning, an Oscar. The 2000s onward did not see as many notable roles, as her career took a bit of a hit following a shoplifting scandal. Thankfully that has been put behind her and she has been getting more work, including the upcoming Beetlejuice 2, which is happening thanks to her popularity on a hit television series.
Stranger Things was undoubtedly welcome for fans of the iconic actor who won over so many in the 80s and 90s. She was the perfect fit for the nostalgia-soaked show as Joyce Byers. The show, winning 12 Primetime Emmy Awards over its five seasons, has undoubtedly kept Winona Ryder in the public light favorably. Stream Stranger Things on Netflix.
4 Julia Roberts in Homecoming
Julia Roberts is a hugely successful actress who gained widespread recognition when she appeared in the 1990s classic rom-com Pretty Woman. She then went on to star in hugely successful films such as Erin Brockovich, Hook, and Ocean’s Eleven. Erin Brockovich would earn the actor her first Oscar, picking up Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2001.
Roberts made the jump to TV when she starred in the Amazon Prime series Homecoming in 2018. The two-time Emmy-nominated show would prove to be an ideal highlight of the actor’s talents. She received excellent reviews for her performance, proving her star power is also huge on the small screen. The Guardian praised her performance saying that Roberts’ difficult role was well-handled, and her scenes with Stephan James were highlighted for their humanizing effect. Watch Homecoming on Prime Video.
3 Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders
Cillian Murphy is an accomplished British actor who came onto the scene when he starred in the global hit zombie horror movie 28 Days Later. He would stay a steady presence in the industry, with his rendition of the DC villain Scarecrow being one of the best to grace the screen. Murphy is still moving forward in the industry, with his role in Oppenheimer positioning the actor to potentially win his first Oscar.
The show Peaky Blinders brought a lot of iconic British and American actors into the fold, making it one of the biggest and most successful British television shows ever made. Murphy brought his flair to the compelling and multifaceted Shelby, having a cool calm to the character to help him navigate through a seedy underworld. Seeing him act alongside other standouts like Tom Hardy and Adrien Brody, who had minor roles in the series, also helped bolster the part’s iconic status. Stream Peaky Blinders on Netflix.
2 Drew Barrymore in Santa Clarita Diet
Hollywood royalty, born to John Drew Barrymore and Jaid Barrymore, Drew Barrymore has become a cultural darling for her outspoken and upbeat persona on and off the screen. Notably, the actor has become a staple of the romantic comedy genre with roles in films like Never Been Kissed, and Ever After: A Cinderella Story. Moreover, Barrymore ‘grew up’ with many film fans, with her early roles as a child actor in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and Firestarter acting as an early introduction to the performer.
While The Drew Barrymore Show has made her a modern TV staple, her first big transition to the medium came in the dark, cannibal comedy Santa Clarita Diet. Barrymore was the perfect fit for the comedy, playing a newly formed zombie craving flesh yet aware of the absurdity and horror of the predicament. The show would not win any awards but gained a welcome cult following, with three seasons on Netflix cementing Barrymore as a star of TV. Stream Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix.
1 Matthew McConaughey in True Detective
While picking up his first Oscar in 2014 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey has been a consistent force in the industry since his breakout role in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. The actor has also starred in other acclaimed films such as Mud and Interstellar, and his persona outside the screen has also earned him a devout fan following.
The sentiment of Hollywood actors seeing success in TV can be applied to the majority of the cast of True Detective, including Woody Harrelson, who starred alongside McConaughey in the first season. Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, Collin Farrell, and Jodie Foster made notable appearances on the show. However, Matthew McConaughey stands out as one of the first prominent Hollywood actors to show the viability of transitioning to TV and not lessening the viability of a film career; it only further bolstered the actor’s profile. Stream True Detective on Max.