'This Life' actor stars in American zombie blockbuster

Hot on the heels of Hugh Laurie, Andrew Lincoln puts on accent to star in the next TV hit in the US
  • @emilydugan

The next big thing to hit American TV will star a British actor, the latest in a long line of home-grown talent to land plum US roles.

Andrew Lincoln, best known as Egg from the BBC series This Life, will tonight make his debut in The Walking Dead, as a Kentucky-based policeman Rick Grimes, who wakes up in hospital to find that the world around him has fragmented into a post-apocalyptic dystopia, populated by flesh-eating zombies.

Even though it has yet to broadcast an episode, the show already has cult status after the pilot was leaked online. It has also attracted rave previews from papers including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Based on Robert Kirkman's graphic novels of the same name, the series tells the story of the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. It will be broadcast in the UK on the FX channel from 5 November.

Lincoln is just the latest of a slew of Brits who have been putting their American counterparts out of work. Hugh Laurie has won millions of fans for his starring role as the cantankerous New Jersey doctor in the award-winning series House, while Stephen Moyer has become a US heart-throb after playing a 173-year old vampire in True Blood.

The phenomenon of US television mining British talent is now widespread, from Damian Lewis starring in Band of Brothers to Tim Roth in Lie to Me and Joseph Fiennes in FlashForward, but industry experts are divided as to why.

Some believe it all boils down to economics: British actors are less likely to expect megabucks. Briton Dominic West, who, along with Idris Elba, learnt a Baltimore drawl for the drama The Wire, is one of these.

"American actors of the same standard are paid a lot more and tend to be in Hollywood, so hiring English ones means they can get actors of equivalent standard for cheap," said West, who played the series' antihero Detective Jimmy McNulty.

The answer could also lie in the ease with which Britons can pick up an American accent, since so much of our television is imported from the States. "We grow up with American accents on TV and movies, and my whole childhood was spent watching American shows," West said. "I got my accent watching Dallas and Starsky and Hutch, but Americans wouldn't have been watching Z Cars."

Barbara Berkery, a voice and accent coach whose list of star pupils includes Gwyneth Paltrow and Renée Zellweger, disagrees, however. "I haven't found that Americans find doing a British accent any harder than a British person doing an American accent," she said. "I think it's that Britain doesn't have the volume of work that you have in the States, so people go to America because we make less and less drama for TV here."

US casting agents may also be motivated by the perceived pedigree of British actors. Helen Wheatley, a television historian at Warwick University, said: "People sometimes see the British as representing a hallmark in acting, which means they can be seen to bring a certain prestige. That could also explain why relatively unknown British actors in the states are taking such big roles."

Dr Wheatley also believes that the decision to cast British leads could be about attracting bigger audiences in the UK. "It's easier to sell a programme back to the country an actor has come from, so using a high-profile English actor is an obvious way to sell to UK audiences."

Stars who have found a voice across the pond

Hugh Laurie is one of the most notable successes among British actors dusting off their best Yank accents to take top parts in US dramas. His Golden Globe-winning performances in House have made him one of the highest paid actors on TV.

John Barrowman followed suit, taking the sought-after role of a murderous visitor in the series Desperate Housewives; while Stephen Moyer and Anna Friel have had lead roles in True Blood and Pushing Daisies.

Damian Lewis is making a habit of beating Americans to the best parts in their own series: first putting on a Pennsylvanian drawl in the award-winning Band of Brothers; and then going on to star in the NBC crime drama Life.

Ashley Jensen translated her Extras success into American, becoming Ugly Betty's best friend, while Joseph Fiennes starred as FBI agent Mark Benford in the sci-fi series FlashForward.