Top 10 British Actresses
*Originally published by Molli in January of 2020, Updated by Emma in June of 2021
The Brits have given us some of the best actresses of all time, in my opinion! There must be something in the water there. From dramas, to action movies, to romantic comedies, the women I’ll be telling you about below have done it all!
No matter what kind of movies you’re into, you’ve likely heard of the 10 actresses I’ve selected for this list. Not only are they famous in their home country, they are well known around the world.
Keep reading for my top 10 British actresses!
1. Judi Dench
That’s Dame Judi Dench, actually! In 1970, Dench was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and in 1988, as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Both are very important honors in the United Kingdom, and are why Dench is referred to as “Dame.”
Dench has been performing since 1957, and has since went on to be nominated fo 7 Academy Awards and has won 6 British Academy Film Awards. She’s also won 2 Gold Globes Awards, a Tony Award and 2 Screen Actors Guild Awards.
In addition to movies and television, Dench has spent much of her career on stage. Notably, she starred in many plays by Shakespeare.
In film, her most famous roles would have to be her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, M in GoldenEye, the James Bond movie and Armande Voizin in Chocolat.
My favorite role: Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love
2. Maggie Smith
At the risk of repeating myself…that’s Dame Maggie Smith, to you! That’s right, Smith, like Dench, is referred to as “Dame.” She was also appointed as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1970, and was then raised to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire status in 1990. The Brits are really serious about their awards!
Smith is one of my personal favorites! She has been in the biz for over 65 years, and has performed on stage, in film and on television. She is incredibly talented and is one of Britain’s most well known actresses.
She has been awarded 2 Academy Awards: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. She is only 1 of 6 actresses in history to be awarded both! You probably recognize her from her role as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter series. Or, perhaps as Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey!
No matter what role Smith plays, she does it exceptionally well. She is definitely on my list of people I’d like to meet!
My favorite role: Lady Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey
3. Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter is another one of my personal favorites! Okay, so I guess everyone on this list is one of my personal favorites but…you get the idea! If you’re a fan of Tim Burton, you have definitely heard of Bonham Carter, as she starred in many of his films and was also married to him for 13 years.
She has been nominated for numerous awards, including 2 Academy Awards, 8 Golden Globe Awards, and she has won a BAFTA Award!
She has had a very varied career, playing darker roles like Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter. But, she has also played in more dramatic roles such as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech.
That being said, Bonham Carter is definitely associated with creepy, macabre and quite frankly crazy characters, and she plays them extremely well! I especially love her as the Red Queen in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. There’s just something about her acting style and look that really meshes with these characters!
My favorite role: The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland
4. Emily Blunt
Fans of The Devil Wears Prada will recognize Emily Blunt as the snarky Emily that worked alongside the main character Andy. While this is definitely one of my favorite roles Blunt has played, she has also starred in many other movies and plays!
Blunt made her debut on stage in 2001. Then then went on to act in several series and television movies before she had her breakthrough role in The Devil Wears Prada. She then earned starring roles in movies such as The Young Victoria and The Girl on the Train.
Blunt has been awarded a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and has been nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She won her Screen Actors Guild Award thanks to the recent Mary Poppins reboot, Mary Poppins Returns.
My favorite role: Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train
5. Kate Winslet
Kate Winslet is a very well known British actress, and you may recognize her from everyone’s favorite historical drama, Titanic. In addition to this blockbuster, Winslet has starred in other popular movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Revolutionary Road and The Reader.
Over the course of her successful career, Winslet has won Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards. She has also been awarded several BAFTA Awards, and has won 3 British Academy Film Awards! Like so few female actors, Winslet has actually been recognized for her talents.
One of my favorite projects Winslet has worked on is the mini-series called Mildred Pierce. It tells the story of a single mother (played by Winslet) during the Great Depression who is trying to make ends meet for herself and her daughter.
My favorite role: April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road
6. Emma Watson
Emma Watson rose to fame with her portrayal of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series! Any other major fans out there?! As a huge Harry Potter reader, I was so happy with how Watson personified Hermione. Watson also starred in other movies such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Beauty and the Beast.
In addition to being a talented actress, Watson is an activist. She was appointed UN Women Goodwill ambassador in 2014, and works alongside the UN to work towards gender equality. Specifically, through the program she helped to launch called HeForShe.
I also love Watson for her interest in books and reading! She runs an Instagram page called Our Shared Shelf, which is a book club that focuses on intersectional feminism. It’s right up my alley!
She also plays Meg March in the recent film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which happens to be one of my favorite books. Watson just seems to have a way with some of my favorite fictional characters!
My favorite role: Meg March in Little Women
7. Helen Mirren
Another Dame on my list, everyone! Introducing, Dame Helen Mirren. Like Dench and Smith, Mirren was awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire honor in 2003.
Mirren is an acclaimed British actress who is one of the few people in the world to have earned what it called the Triple Crown of Acting. This means that she has won an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a Tony Award in acting.
You probably recognize Mirren from her roles in The Queen, The Madness of King George and Hitchcock. In addition to the other awards I’ve mentioned, Mirren has also won a Golden Globe and several BAFTA Awards!
My favorite role: Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen
8. Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan has played in several historical and period dramas, which just happen to be my favorite genres of movies in general. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve included her on my list!
Mulligan’s first major film role was as Kitty Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. She also played Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Three of my favorite books!
But, she doesn’t only do historical dramas. She also played in Drive and Shame, dramas all the same, but definitely a different style than the others I’ve mentioned.
My favorite role: Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd
9. Julie Andrews
The last Dame on my list is Dame Julie Andrews! She too was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Andrews has also won an Academy Award, several Golden Globe Awards, several Grammy Awards, two Emmy Awards and many more!
She starred in the original Mary Poppins movie, The Sound of Music, and The Princess Diaries. I love all of these movies! Andrews isn’t just an actress, she is a really talented singer as well.
In recent years, Andrew has voiced various animated characters, such as Queen Lillian in the Shrek series and Marlena is the Despicable Me series.
My favorite role: Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music
10. Keira Knightley
Keira Knightley stars in my favorite movie of all time, Atonement, so naturally she had to appear on my list! I already mentioned that I love period dramas, and Knightley is no stranger to the genre. In addition to Atonement, she also starred in Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Colette.
You probably also recognise her from the blockbuster series Pirates of the Caribbean as Elizabeth Swann! She also starred in Bend it Like Beckham as Jules Paxton.
She has won various awards, and has been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards.
My favorite role: Cecilia Tallis in Atonement
11. Rachel Weisz
Weisz began her acting career in the early 1990s on the stage, TV shows, and film sets, making a name for herself in the film Death Machine in 1994. This actress has won an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and British Academy Film Award. She has starred in numerous films in recent years, such as Constantine, The Foundation, The Lovely Bones, and a Streetcar Named Desire.
My favorite role: Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire
12. Emma Watson
A film star who began her prolific acting career at a young age in the famous Harry Potter series, Emma Watson has been named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine due to her recent activism and women’s rights work. Born in Paris and raised in England, Watson has starred in movies like The Tale of Desperaux, Harry Potter series, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Beauty and the Beast.
My favorite role: Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series
13. Tilda Swinton
Swinton is well-known for her diverse roles in independent films, big-name movies, and TV shows. With the uncanny ability to transform into various roles during her career, Swinton has been nominated for numerous awards, such as the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, BAFTA Awards, and British Academy Scotland Awards.
First beginning her career in 1984, she has had important roles in movies like Constantine, The Deep End, Julia, and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
My favorite role: Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin
14. Kate Beckinsale
Kate Beckinsale is an English actress and model who rose to prominence after her debut role in Much Ado About Nothing. Starring in small-scale films like Brokedown Palace and Pearl Harbor, she later received worldwide acclaim for her part in the comedy film Love & Friendship.
My favorite role: Lady Susan Vernon in Love & Friendship
15. Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan is an English actress who has won a Critics’ Choice Award and nominations for Golden Globe Awards, Academy Awards, and a Tony Award in the past. Mulligan debuted during a play at the Royal Court Theatre, with her film debut just one year later for her role in Pride & Prejudice.
After her debut role, she had a breakthrough following her starring part in An Education in 2009 where she won the BAFTA Award. Once she rose to prominence following this role, she starred in movies like Inside Llewyn Davis, The Great Gatsby, and Netflix’s series Collateral.
My favorite role: Daisy in The Great Gatsby
16. Brenda Blethyn
Brenda is well-known for her numerous television and movie roles throughout the years, having begun her career in her late 20s. At now 75-years-old, she has won numerous awards throughout her time as an actress, such as one BAFTA, one Golden Globe, and two Academy Award nominations.
My favorite role: Vera Stanhope in the crime drama series, Vera
17. Julie Andrews
Julie Andrews, now 85-years-old, is an actress, single, and author whose career has spanned almost eight decades – which is almost her entire life! She has won nearly every acting award there is to win, along with being made a Disney Legend in 1991 and made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II.
My favorite role: Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins
18. Emilia Clarke
Emilia Clarke is an English actress who first appeared on television in Doctors in 2009, with her appearance allowing her to be named one of the “UK Stars of Tomorrow”. She made her breakthrough by scoring a critical role in the infamous television series Game of Thrones from 2011 to 2019.
My favorite role: Daenerys in Game of Thrones
19. Hayley Atwell
Hayley is a British-American actress who has appeared in many film and stage productions throughout the years, earning a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress due to her work in The Pillars of the Earth.
She rose to fame for her roles in the Marvel Universe films, along with her powerful acting parts on stage in plays like A View from the Bridge and The Pride.
My favorite role: Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger
20. Julie Walters
Julie Walters is an English actress and author who has won numerous awards, like two International Emmy Awards, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and four British Academy Television Awards. After rising to fame back in 1983, Walters has made numerous appearances in a variety of films, such as the Harry Potter series, Driving Lessons, Mamma Mia, and Paddington.
My favorite role: Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter series
I hope you’ve enjoyed this British actress appreciation post! I’m sure you’ve heard of many, if not all, of the women I’ve mentioned, but I hope you’ve learned a little bit more about them! In any case, you’ve got a bunch of great movie suggestions out of it.
If you want to learn about famous Brits in general, I definitely recommend you check out our walking tours the next time you visit London!