Movie stardom is widely considered to be the pinnacle of success as an actor. Most TV actors dream of leaving the small screen behind and leading movies. But TV roles present their own advantages. TV shows give their characters significantly more screen time than movies, so actors get to really embody these roles and explore their psychology and personality in depth.
In the age of “Peak TV,” television roles are more lucrative and sought-after than ever. In some cases, movie stars who can demand lead roles on the big screen like Matthew McConaughey and Julia Roberts have switched to TV roles.
10 Reese Witherspoon
In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Reese Witherspoon made her name starring in both straightforward crowd-pleasing Hollywood comedies like Legally Blonde and dark, subversive satires like Election. She later won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.
But in recent years, Witherspoon has left film acting behind in favor of TV roles. She starred alongside fellow movie stars in all her recent TV projects: Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies, Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show, and Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere.
9 Don Cheadle
After getting his breakout in the 1980s with roles in acclaimed movies like Hamburger Hill and Colors, Don Cheadle went on to appear in such critically lauded films as Hotel Rwanda, for which he received an Oscar nod, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
Cheadle is known for his recurring collaboration with director Steven Soderbergh on hit movies like Out of Sight, Traffic, and the Ocean’s trilogy. The actor has since starred in the Showtime comedies House of Lies and Black Monday, and is set to reprise his Marvel superhero role as War Machine in the Disney+ series Armor Wars.
8 Drew Barrymore
After getting her start as a child actor in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Drew Barrymore proved her abilities as a lead in Never Been Kissed. She starred alongside Adam Sandler in the romantic comedies The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, and Blended, and played on her own star power in the iconic opening scene of Scream.
Barrymore switched over to the small screen to play a suburbanite cannibal in Netflix’s criminally underrated dark comedy series Santa Clarita Diet. She also hosts the talk show The Drew Barrymore Show.
7 Anthony Hopkins
The legendary Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar with just 16 spine-chilling minutes of screen time as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. After years of acclaimed contributions to the film industry, Hopkins was knighted and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Hopkins has appeared in such highly regarded films as The Remains of the Day, Nixon, Amistad, The Two Popes, and The Father. He also played Dr. Robert Ford, the co-founder and director of the titular western-themed park, in the first two seasons of HBO’s lofty, existential adaptation of Westworld. This role earned Hopkins an Emmy nomination.
6 Emma Stone
Both a popular movie star and a prestigious thespian, Emma Stone won an Oscar for La La Land. Stone has appeared in both blockbuster fare like The Amazing Spider-Man movies and smaller, quirkier awards-baiting movies like Birdman and The Favourite.
The actor got her initial breakthrough alongside Jonah Hill in the R-rated comedy hit Superbad. A decade later, Stone reunited with Hill for the Netflix dark comedy miniseries Maniac.
5 Jane Fonda
One of the most prolific movie stars of all time, Jane Fonda has won several shelf-loads of awards: two Oscars, two BAFTAs, seven Golden Globes, an Emmy, the Honorary Palme d’Or, the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Cecil B. DeMille Award – the list goes on.
Fonda played major roles in such big-screen classics as Klute, Coming Home, and The China Syndrome before switching to the small screen to star alongside her 9 to 5 co-star Lily Tomlin in the Netflix sitcom Grace and Frankie.
4 Winona Ryder
One of the biggest movie stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Winona Ryder made her name playing comedic roles in Heathers and Beetlejuice before taking on a more challenging dramatic role in Girl, Interrupted.
Ryder’s star faded throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, but her career was revitalized in 2016 with the role of monster-slaying mom Joyce Byers in the hit ‘80s-set Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things.
3 Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett got her start on the big screen with roles in movies like Boyz n the Hood and Malcolm X. The screen legend first became a recognizable star with her impeccable performance as Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It. Bassett recently joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a sort of big-screen answer to serialized television – in the role of Black Panther’s mother.
For a few years now, Bassett has been a regular collaborator of TV producer Ryan Murphy, playing roles in American Horror Story and 9-1-1. Bassett’s work with Murphy has earned her a grand total of seven Emmy nominations.
2 Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey’s breakout role was that of a grown man who hangs out with teenagers in Dazed and Confused. Over the next few years, he settled into lead roles in critically panned romantic comedies. The actor revolutionized his career with challenging dramatic roles in Killer Joe, Mud, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – not to mention his turn in Dallas Buyers Club, which earned him a long-awaited Oscar. This period is dubbed the “McConaissance.”
Midway through the “McConaissance,” McConaughey transitioned to TV for the first season of True Detective. He gave a universally praised performance as the disturbed, existentialist lawman Rust Cohle.
1 Julia Roberts
The winner of an Oscar, a BAFTA, and three Golden Globes, Julia Roberts is one of the biggest box office draws. The actor first turned heads with early performances in Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias. She’s since starred in all kinds of movies: comedies like Notting Hill, thrillers like Sleeping with the Enemy, traditional blockbusters like Hook and Ocean’s Eleven, and true-life dramas like Erin Brockovich and Charlie Wilson’s War.
Roberts is known for starring alongside Richard Gere in hit romantic comedies like Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride. In recent years, Roberts has switched to streaming. She starred in the Amazon psychological thriller series Homecoming as a social worker who helps soldiers return to civilian life.
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