Ever since there have been movies, there have been movie stars – and becoming one of the world’s greatest actors involves being able to be many things at once. For one, you have to be able to act – to really inhabit a character’s deepest emotions, to step into their skin so that the words on the page come across as lived and felt. Plus, you have to be able to take that technical mastery and apply it across multiple genres, from quiet character dramas to epic action-packed blockbusters. And on top of that, you have to have that thing that can’t really be learned, or taught – a charisma, a command of the camera, an energy that enlivens even the most stellar script, and makes audiences flock to the multiplex in their droves.
For Empire’s February 2023 issue, we asked readers to vote for the best actors of all time – the silver-screen stars that always deliver, that have changed the game, and whose distinctive talents can never be replicated. Your votes were counted, totted up, and in the magazine – on sale Thursday 22 December, and available to order online here – we take a deep dive into the resulting list, speaking to the stars themselves, gathering tributes from the directors that worked with them, and much more. We spend a day at Nicolas Cage’s Las Vegas home for our cover story, get an acting masterclass from Tilda Swinton, have Ridley Scott waxing lyrical on the power of Joaquin Phoenix, Ang Lee paying tribute to Heath Ledger, Gina Prince-Bythewood hailing the talents of Viola Davis and much, more more.
While you’ll find those goodies exclusively in the pages of Empire magazine – or, available to read when you sign up to the Empire members site here – we can now reveal the full 50 Greatest Actors list below, as voted for by you. And the winners, in no particular order, are…
Notable roles: Alonzo Harris (Training Day), Malcolm X (Malcolm X), Private Silas Trip (Glory), Troy Maxson (Fences), John Creasy (Man On Fire), Frank Lucas (American Gangster), Robert McCall (The Equalizer, The Equalizer 2)
Oscars won: 2 (Glory, Training Day)
Iconic line: “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” (Training Day)
When it comes to an effortless ability to command the lens, look no further. Denzel Washington is a powerhouse who packs serious gravitas and considerable charisma, in a career that encompasses icons both real and fictional – with frequent detours into muscular action territory in his team-ups with Tony Scott and Antoine Fuqua.
Notable roles: Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump), Andrew Beckett (Philadelphia), Woody (Toy Story), Jim Lovell (Apollo 13), Captain Miller (Saving Private Ryan), Captain Phillips (Captain Phillips), Josh Baskin (Big)
Oscars won: 2 (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump)
Iconic line: “Houston, we have a problem.” (Apollo 13)
If you ever need to convey conviviality, Tom Hanks is your man – ever a reassuring presence on screen, even in films where death seems the likeliest outcome. From disaster movies, to sweeping historical epics, the spirit of American optimism can almost always be found in the work of Hanks; we all have a friend in him.
Notable roles: Rose Loomis (Niagara), Lorelei Lee (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Pola Debevoise (How to Marry a Millionaire), The Girl (The Seven Year Itch), Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Some Like It Hot), Roslyn Tabor (The Misfits)
Oscars won: 0
Iconic line: “I wanna be loved by you, alone… Boop-boop-a-doop!” (Some Like It Hot)
A true movie star, in every sense, Marilyn Monroe’s earth-shattering fame sometimes threatened to overshadow everything else – but beneath the ‘blonde bombshell’ sex symbol was the heart of a true artist, who was comfortable with her sexuality and femininity and used it to brilliant ends, in comedies and dramas.
Robert De Niro
Notable roles: Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Vito Corleone (The Godfather Part II), Jimmy The Gent (GoodFellas), Neil McCauley (Heat), Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Casino), Al Capone (The Untouchables), Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (The Irishman)
Oscars won: 2 (The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull)
Iconic line: “You talkin’ to me?” (Taxi Driver)
Perpetual muse of Martin Scorsese, cinema’s go-to gangster, and a consummate character actor – somehow, Robert De Niro always disappears into roles while also infusing each one with his own unmistakable persona, in a career spanning into its seventh decade.
Notable roles: Margo Channing (All About Eve), Julie Marsden (Jezebel), Leslie Crosby (The Letter), Charlotte Vale (Now, Voyager), Baby Jane Hudson (What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?), Mildred Rogers (Of Human Bondage)
Oscars won: 2 (Jezebel, Dangerous)
Iconic line: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” (All About Eve)
Seldom has an actor emanated so much force on-screen: Bette Davis was a cinematic cyclone, sweeping through scenes, leaving co-stars dazed and debris in her wake. She took on one complex role after another, not caring if the characters were unlikeable, and aced them all. Her work still bites today.
Notable roles: Nina Sayers (Black Swan), Jackie Kennedy (Jackie), Padmé Amidala (Star Wars: Episodes I-III), Mathilda (Lèon: The Professional), Lena (Annihilation), Jane Foster (The MCU), Celeste (Vox Lux), Evey (V For Vendetta)
Oscars won: 1 (Black Swan)
Iconic line: “I just want to be perfect.” (Black Swan)
Taking psychological scalpels to her characters and laying their souls bare, Natalie Portman emerged from riveting child performances and a pivotal role in Star Wars’ prequel trilogy to become a towering talent who frequently collaborates with boundary-pushing directors.
Notable roles: Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (The French Connection), Harry Caul (The Conversation), Buck Barrow (Bonnie And Clyde), Lex Luthor (Superman, Superman II, Superman IV), Sheriff Bill Daggett (Unforgiven), Royal Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums)
Oscars won: 2 (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
Iconic line: “I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder.” (The Conversation)
A stalwart of ‘70s cinema known for his versatility and toughness – Gene Hackman is a leading man with everyman looks who could slip between Oscar-winning dramas, wacky comedies, and rollicking B-movies.
Notable roles: The Joker (The Dark Knight), Ennis Del Mar (Brokeback Mountain), Patrick Verona (10 Things I Hate About You), William Thatcher (A Knight’s Tale), Ned Kelly (Ned Kelly), Skip (Lords of Dogtown).
Oscars won: 1 (The Dark Knight)
Iconic line: “You wanna know how I got these scars?” (The Dark Knight)
A stellar romantic lead who radiated warmth and benevolence became a knockout performer in his later years – Heath Ledger brought real heart to unspeakable heartache, and sheer animalistic ferocity to one of the defining cinematic villains of the 21st Century.
Notable roles: Alice Adams (Alice Adams), Susan Vance (Bringing Up Baby), Tracy Lord (The Philadelphia Story), Tess Harding (Woman Of The Year), Rose Sayer (The African Queen), Christina Drayton (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner)
Oscars won: 4 (Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Lion In Winter, On Golden Pond)
Iconic line: “Put me in your pocket, Mike.” (The Philadelphia Story)
Perhaps the most famous female star of Hollywood’s golden age, sometimes referred to as the ‘First Lady’ of cinema. Katharine Hepburn’s distinctive accent, incredible cheekbones, revolutionary taste for slacks over dresses, and knack for playing strong, independent, witty women made her an enduring icon.
Notable roles: Ethan Hunt (Mission: Impossible), Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick), Lt. Daniel Kaffee (A Few Good Men), Jerry Maguire (Jerry Maguire), Frank T.J. Mackey (Magnolia), Charlie Babbitt (Rain Man), Major William Cage (Edge Of Tomorrow)
Oscars won: 0 (3 nominations)
Iconic line: “I feel the need… The need for speed.” (Top Gun)
The all-American epitome of a Hollywood Movie Star, intensity and dedication have been the hallmarks of Tom Cruise’s career as ultimate contemporary A-lister: whether in his early, compelling character dramas, or his mind-boggling, adrenaline-pumping, stunt-tastic action flicks.
Read Empire’s list of Tom Cruise’s 10 Best Movies Ranked.
Notable roles: Jack Dawson (Titanic), Dom Cobb (Inception), Billy Costigan (The Departed), Jordan Belfort (The Wolf Of Wall Street), Hugh Glass (The Revenant), Rick Dalton (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), Romeo Montague (Romeo + Juliet)
Oscars won: 1 (The Revenant)
Iconic line: “I’m the king of the woooooorld!” (Titanic)
The definitive ‘90s teen heartthrob became an actor who’ll go to the ends of the earth (often literally) to get under his characters’ skin. The go-to guy for some of the world’s biggest directors (including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino), he’s effortless style meets undeniable substance.
Notable roles: Orlando (Orlando), Eva Khatchadourian (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Emma Recchi (I Am Love), Rosalind (The Souvenir, The Souvenir Part II), Karen Crowder (Michael Clayton), Lucy Mirando (Okja),The White Witch (The Chronicles Of Narnia)
Oscars won: 1 (Michael Clayton)
Iconic line: “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.” (Orlando)
With an ethereality bordering on the extra-terrestrial, few have the unpindownable presence of Tilda Swinton. A regular collaborator of arthouse and indie legends – from Bong Joon-ho and Luca Guadagnino, to Wes Anderson and Joanna Hogg – she’s a master at playing otherworldliness, archness, but also quietly shattering humanity.
Samuel L. Jackson
Most notable roles: Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Ordell (Jackie Brown), Major Marquis Warren (The Hateful Eight), Mace Windu (Star Wars: Episodes I-III), Nick Fury (The MCU), Frozone (The Incredibles, Incredibles 2), Ray Arnold (Jurassic Park)
Oscars won: Honorary award
Iconic line: “Say ‘What’ again. I dare you. I double dare you, motherfucker! Say ‘What’ one more goddamn time!” (Pulp Fiction)
When you absolutely, positively need to cast the coolest guy in the movie, accept no substitutes. Straddling several of the biggest franchises of all time while consistently delivering career-best work in his multiple-decade-spanning collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, he’s a cultural icon as much as an actor.
Notable roles: Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Yojimbo), Kikuchiyo (Seven Samurai), Taketoki Washizu (Throne Of Blood), Kingo Gondo (High And Low), Sanjuro Tsubaki (Sanjuro), Dr. Kyojô Niide (Red Beard), Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai Trilogy), Tajômaru (Rashomon)
Oscars won: 0
Iconic line: “Use your balls, if you’ve got any!” (Seven Samurai)
Akira Kurosawa’s right-hand man has a strong claim to the title of coolest man who ever lived. But while he was a ‘50s icon off-screen, he shapeshifted into roles as samurai or outlaws on screen, abandoning vanity for committed performance. A role model for action men everywhere.
Notable roles: H.I. McDunnough (Raising Arizona), Ronny Cammareri (Moonstruck), Sailor Ripley (Wild at Heart), Ben Sanderson (Leaving Las Vegas), Stanley Goodspeed (The Rock), Cameron Poe (Con Air), Castor Troy (Face/Off) Charlie/Donald Kaufman (Adaptation), Red Miller (Mandy), Rob Feld (Pig)
Oscars won: 1 (Leaving Las Vegas)
Iconic line: “Put the bunny back in the box.” (Con Air)
An acting style so unique, it could be its own genre. Nicolas Cage’s mystical, shamanastic-driven performances often involve a lot of shouting — but write him off at your peril. Despite being a major internet meme source, he remains an incredibly prolific and versatile actor, just as comfortable being an action hero as he is producing restrained turns in thoughtful indie dramas.
Notable roles: Rick Blaine (Casablanca), Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), Frank McCloud (Key Largo), Charlie Allnutt (The African Queen), Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Duke Mantee (The Petrified Forest), Harry Dawes (The Barefoot Contessa), Roy Earle (High Sierra), Harry ‘Steve’ Morgan (To Have And Have Not)
Oscars won: 1 (The African Queen)
Iconic line: “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” (Casablanca)
The thing about Bogart is that his “iconic line” is basically every line he ever said. His laconic, tough-guy energy gave every line a spin of cool defiance that screenwriters rose to match. He wasn’t the tallest, strongest, or most handsome, and at times he barely seemed to move – but you could never take your eyes off him.
Notable roles: Rose Maxson (Fences), Veronica (Widows), Ma Rainey (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Nanisca (The Woman King), Aibileen Clark (The Help), Mrs Miller (Doubt), Amanda Waller (The DCEU), Michelle Obama (The First Lady), Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder)
Oscars won: 1 (Fences)
Iconic line: “To be a warrior, you must kill your tears.” (The Woman King)
A performer who never fails to stir up the most intense of emotions – fear, empathy and awe, to name a few. As at home in comic-book blockbusters, compelling murder-mysteries and all-out action epics as she is in award-winning dramas and her regular collaborations with Denzel Washington.
Notable roles: Elizabeth I (Elizabeth), Meredith Logue (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Galadriel (The Lord Of The Rings), Katharine Hepburn (The Aviator), Jude (I’m Not There), Jasmine (Blue Jasmine), Carol Aird (Carol), Hela (Thor: Ragnarok), Dr. Lilith Ritter (Nightmare Alley), Lydia Tár (TÁR)
Oscars won: 2 (The Aviator, Blue Jasmine)
Iconic line: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” (The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring)
With an incomparable screen presence and range as wide as it gets, Cate Blanchett is unstoppable. She made her name playing iconic women from both history and fantasy, before getting under the skin of some of cinema’s most challenging characters. Plus, with cameos and comic-book villain roles under her belt, she’s not afraid to have some fun, too.
Notable roles: Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire), Terry Malloy (On The Waterfront), Vito Corleone (The Godfather), Colonel Kurtz (Apocalypse Now), Jor-El (Superman: The Movie)
Oscars won: 2 (On The Waterfront, The Godfather)
Iconic line: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” (The Godfather)
Among the most influential screen actors of all-time, Brando hit Hollywood like a hammer in the early 1950s – fundamentally changing the definition of “good” acting, and with it films themselves. Brando’s deeply-felt naturalism was magnetic, and his power undeniable. All his famous difficulty was worth it for the magic he created.
Notable roles: The entire D’Ascoyne family (Kind Hearts And Coronets), Colonel Nicholson (The Bridge On The River Kwai), Prince Faisal (Lawrence Of Arabia), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)
Oscars won: 1 (The Bridge On The River Kwai)
Iconic line: “Use the Force, Luke.” (Star Wars)
An unfussy, immensely talented actor of the British old school, Guinness was comfortable across the gamut from light comedy (The Man In The White Suit) to deadly serious drama (Kwai). He effortlessly developed from young matinee idol to established character actor to elder statesman. Even what he saw as a throwaway “wizard” role in a kids’ film in his 60s proved rather popular.
Notable roles: Jack Carter (Get Carter), Alfie Cartwright (Alfie), Peachy Carnehan (The Man Who Would Be King), Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File), Charlie Croker (The Italian Job), Ebenezer Scrooge (The Muppet Christmas Carol), Jasper Palmer (Children Of Men)
Oscars won: 2 (Hannah And Her Sisters, The Cider House Rules)
Iconic line: “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” (The Italian Job)
The genial gent from the East End wrote the book on acting, literally, publishing a tome packed with practical tips (“When speaking to an actor off-camera, look into one eye and stick with it”). But there’s nothing by-the-book about his performances – melancholy, hilarious, spiky or charming. Who else could hold their own against Sean Connery, Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog?
Notable roles: Yang Chien-Hua (Police Story 3: Supercop), Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Mameha (Memoirs Of A Geisha), Eleanor Young (Crazy Rich Asians), Evelyn Wang (Everything Everywhere All At Once)
Oscars won: 0
Iconic line: “Of all the places I could be, I just want to be here with you.” (Everything Everywhere All At Once)
Who else on Earth can pull off intense dramatic scenes and do acrobatic feats that steal the show from Jackie Chan? A true marvel, she’s finally getting her global dues this year thanks to a certain multiverse movie, but has been killing it for decades. Now in her 60s, it feels like she’s only just getting started.
Notable roles: Max Rockatansky (Mad Max: Fury Road), Bane (The Dark Knight Rises), Reggie/Ronnie Kray (Legend), Eames (Inception), Tommy Conlon (Warrior), Eddie Brock (Venom), Alfie Solomons (Peaky Blinders), Charles Bronson (Bronson)
Oscars won: 0 (1 nomination)
Iconic line: “It would be extremely painful… for you.” (The Dark Knight Rises)
While once defined by his MySpace page and his (supposed) resemblance to Patrick Stewart (Star Trek Nemesis), Tom Hardy has become one of the most distinctive performers of his generation. Respect him for his dual Krays, fear him for Charles Bronson, but love him for Peaky‘s inimitable Alfie Solomons.
Notable roles: Ninotchka (Ninotchka), Christina (Queen Christina), Gruinskaya (Grand Hotel), Felicitas (Flesh And The Devil), Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina), Anna Christie (Anna Christie), Elizabeth Dohna (The Saga of Gösta Berling)
Oscars won: 0 (3 nominations)
Iconic line: “I want to be alone” (Grand Hotel)
Garbo came to Hollywood already a star, and left a megastar. Specialising in powerful, remote women, Garbo could also be extremely funny (Ninotchka) and play a compelling romance (Camille). As the only person who didn’t take her stardom seriously, she played studio moguls at their own game and walked away on her own terms.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Notable roles: Scotty J (Boogie Nights), Phil Parma (Magnolia), Lester Bangs (Almost Famous), Lancaster Dodd (The Master), Allen (Happiness), Truman Capote (Capote), Caden Cotard (Synecdoche, New York), Freddie Miles (The Talented Mr Ripley), Owen Davian (Mission: Impossible: III)
Oscars won: 1 (Capote)
Iconic line: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” (Almost Famous)
Formidable whether he was playing insecure husks or intimidating villains, Hoffman had a presence like no one else, always adding supremely charismatic heft. And he had so much more to give: his premature death was a tragedy for cinema.
Notable roles: JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes (Chinatown), Randle ‘Mac’ McMurphy (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), Jack Torrance (The Shining), Jack Napier/The Joker (Batman), Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (A Few Good Men), Melvin Udall (As Good As It Gets)
Oscars won: 3 (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Terms Of Endearment, As Good As It Gets)
Iconic line: “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” (The Shining)
Despite all the imitators, there’s nobody quite like Jack – nobody with such devilish charm, such easy-going menace, such mischievous playfulness. Only ever providing towering performances, he never met a scene he couldn’t steal.
Notable roles: Joanna Kramer (Kramer Vs. Kramer), Sophie Zawistowski (Sophie’s Choice), Miranda Priestley (The Devil Wears Prada), Florence Foster Jenkins (Florence Foster Jenkins), Donna Sheridan (Mamma Mia!)
Oscars won: 3 (Kramer Vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, The Iron Lady)
Iconic line: “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking.” (The Devil Wears Prada)
So dedicated, she can perform ABBA like it’s Shakespeare. Nobody brings the emotion like Meryl Streep when it comes to heavyweight dramatic material – but she can also dial up the camp when she wants to, to spectacularly playful effect.
Notable roles: Batman (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Dicky Eklund (The Fighter), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Alfred Borden (The Prestige), Dick Cheney (Vice), Ken Miles (Ford v Ferrari), Trevor Reznik (The Machinist), Michael Burry (The Big Short), Jim (Empire Of The Sun)
Oscars won: 1 (The Fighter)
Iconic line: “I’m into murders and executions mostly.” (American Psycho).
Who knew the little boy from Empire Of The Sun would grow up to gleefully bury an axe in someone’s head while bopping along to ‘Hip To Be Square’? Capable of physical transformations that boggle the mind (The Machinist, Vice), Bale has more range than a Kia Picanto.
Notable roles: Alma Beers del Mar (Brokeback Mountain), Cindy (Blue Valentine), Marilyn Monroe (My Week With Marilyn), Randi (Manchester By The Sea), Mitzi Fabelman (The Fabelmans)
Oscars won: 0 (4 nominations)
Iconic line: “My heart was broken – cause it’s always gonna be broken, and I know yours is broken, too – but I don’t have to carry it.” (Manchester By The Sea)
Nobody does fragility like Michelle Williams, who plays damaged, broken and hurt characters with such heartbreaking sensitivity, you can never see the seams. It’s impossible to watch her performances and not collapse into a puddle of tears.
Notable roles: Hannibal Lecter (The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon), Frederick Treves (The Elephant Man), James Stevens (The Remains Of The Day), CS Lewis (Shadowlands), Odin (The MCU), Anthony (The Father)
Oscars won: 2 (The Silence Of The Lambs, The Father)
Iconic line: “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” (The Silence Of The Lambs)
Hopkins was 53 when he got the role of a lifetime, nabbing serial killer Hannibal Lecter when Gene Hackman passed. Since then, the Welsh titan has broken hearts in prestige dramas, hammed it up in Transformers, played popes, kings, gods and Hitchcocks. Undaunted by mighty challenges, he’s never not riveting – even when saying, “Duuuuude” to Mark Wahlberg in a giant-robot film.
Notable roles: Winston Churchill (Darkest Hour), George Smiley (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Dracula (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Drexl Spivey (True Romance), Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK), Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy), Jim Gordon (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Norman Stansfield (Lèon: The Professional), Jackson Lamb (Slow Horses), Sirius Black (Harry Potter), Zorg (The Fifth Element)
Oscars won: 1 (Darkest Hour)
Iconic line: “Eeeeeeeveryooooone!” (Lèon: The Professional)
Once notable primarily as a villain for hire, Oldman has become one of the most expressive, expansive actors around. Whether inspiringly articulating the British fighting spirit as Darkest Hour‘s Winston Churchill, or insolently farting at Kristen Scott Thomas as Slow Horses‘ Jackson Lamb, Oldman has elevated every role set before him.
Notable roles: Amy March (Little Women), Dani (Midsommar), Katherine (Lady Macbeth), Alice (Don’t Worry Darling), Lib Wright (The Wonder), Yelena Belova (The MCU), Saraya Knight (Fighting With My Family), Abbie Mortimer (The Falling)
Oscars won: 0 (1 nomination)
Iconic line: “I believe we have some power over who we love. It isn’t just something that happens to a person.” (Little Women)
Simply one of the very best of her generation. At just 26, she already has a number of mesmerising performances under her belt. From sun-bleached horror to period drama, familial wrestling sagas to dystopian nightmares, the endlessly-compelling Pugh never fails to bring a grounded empathy to her characters. She has decades ahead of her – but has already solidified her place in the pantheon.
Notable roles: Noah Cullen (The Defiant Ones), Homer Smith (Lillies In The Field), Virgil Tibbs (In The Heat Of The Night), John Wayde Prentice Jr (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), Buck (Buck And The Preacher)
Oscar wins: 1 (Lillies In The Field)
Iconic line: “They call me Mister Tibbs!” (In The Heat Of The Night)
A genuine trailblazer. After decades of racism in Hollywood, Sidney Poitier made it possible to be a Black movie star, in every sense. He was a gifted performer, a charismatic presence, and incredibly popular with audiences, who loved his gravitas, power, and grace.
Notable roles: Linda Partridge (Magnolia), Dr Alice Howland (Still Alice), Marian Wyman (Short Cuts), Amber Waves (Boogie Nights), Cathy Whitaker (Far From Heaven), Maude Lebowski (The Big Lebowski), Laura Brown (The Hours)
Oscars won: 1 (Still Alice)
Iconic line: “I come in here, you don’t know me, you don’t know who I am, what my life is… you have the balls, the indecency, to ask me a question about my life?” (Magnolia)
Melding prickly steeliness with trembling vulnerability, Julianne Moore vibrates with humanity. Whether her characters are coming undone, indulging in a massive cocaine binge, or ripping someone to shreds, she’s consistently fearless.
Shah Rukh Khan
Notable roles: Devdas Mukherji (Devdas), Rizwan Khan (My Name Is Khan), Rahul Khanna (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), Mohan Bhargava (Swades)
Oscars won: 0
Iconic line: “Every day life kills us a little. A bomb will kill you only once.” (Jab Tak Hai Jaan)
Ms. Marvel’s favourite movie star has a career that has now spanned four decades of near unbroken hits, and a fanbase of pretty much billions. You don’t do that without outrageous amounts of charisma and absolute mastery of your craft. Comfortable in almost every genre going, there’s pretty much nothing he can’t do.
Notable roles: Projectionist (Sherlock Jr.), Johnnie Gray (The General), William Canfield Jr. (Steamboat Bill Jr.), Buster (The Cameraman)
Oscars won: Honorary award
Iconic line: (In intertitles) “Be careful, or one of us will get hurt.” (Sherlock Jr.)
One of the most skilled, gifted silent comedians of all time. Ol’ Stony Face blended deadpan comedy (you will never see him raise so much as a smile) with fearless stunt work (he broke more than a few bones) and, most of all, an intrinsic understanding of his art form, and how to innovate within it.
Notable roles: Aileen Wuornos (Monster), Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road), Megyn Kelly (Bombshell), Mavis Gary (Young Adult), Meredith Vickers (Prometheus), Ravenna (Snow White And The Huntsman), Lorraine Broughton (Atomic Blonde), Cipher (The Fast Saga), Marlo (Tully)
Oscars won: 1 (Monster)
Iconic line: “Out here, everything hurts.” (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Already a commanding presence in her early work, the aftermath of her Oscar-winning performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos has brought Charlize Theron’s regal presence and powerful physicality to a smorgasbord of genres – action, fantasy, comedy, drama, real-life adaptations and more. A true queen of blockbusters and beyond.
Notable roles: Henry V (Henry V), Max DeWinter (Rebecca), Crassus (Spartacus), Dr Christian Szell (Marathon Man)
Oscars won: 1 (Hamlet)
Iconic line: “Once more unto the Breach! Dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead!” (Henry V)
Olivier’s name remains an easy answer to any “greatest actor” question. Considered a master even in his 20s for his stage work, Olivier romped through every challenge Shakespeare could provide and then went slumming it as a film star. Hollywood was never his focus – he was kept busy setting up the National Theatre – but even as a part-timer he burned up the screen.
Notable roles: Rose Dewitt Bukater (Titanic), Juliet Hulme (Heavenly Creatures), Marianne Dashwood (Sense And Sensibility), Clementine Kruczynski (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), Iris (The Holiday), Hanna Schmitz (The Reader), April Wheeler (Revolutionary Road), Mary Anning (Ammonite), Detective Mare Sheehan (Mare Of Easttown)
Oscars won: 1 (The Reader)
Iconic line: “Jack! Jaaack!” (Titanic)
An English rose whose love-struck Rose will live on forever. Kate Winslet is a dramatic force, turning her hand to all kinds of periods and genres with an inimitable sense of dignity and strength. Recent roles have seen her expand into award-winning television and reunite with director James Cameron – she’s not done pushing boundaries just yet.
Notable Roles: Raimunda (Volver), Maria Elena (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Janis (Parallel Mothers), Sofia Serrano (Vanilla Sky), Pelagia (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), Mirtha Jung (Blow), Hermana Rosa (All About My Mother)
Oscars won: 1 (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Iconic line: “You’re still searching for me in every woman” (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
She won an Oscar for her Hollywood roles, but few would deny that Penélope Cruz’s best work has been with director Pedro Almodóvar, and in her native Spanish. With him, she has run the gamut of grief, fury, desire and delight. She’s a force to be reckoned with, even in her simpler works.
Notable roles: Michael Corleone (The Godfather Trilogy), Tony Montana (Scarface), Serpico (Serpico), Ricky Roma (Glengarry Glen Ross), Frank Slade (Scent Of A Woman), Carlito (Carlito’s Way), Vincent Hanna (Heat), Lefty (Donnie Brasco), Lowell Bergman (The Insider), John Milton (The Devil’s Advocate), Jimmy Hoffa (The Irishman).
Oscars won: 1 (Scent Of A Woman)
Iconic line: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” (The Godfather Part II)
There are barely superlatives enough in the English language sufficient to describe Al Pacino’s contribution to the craft of acting. Capable of pathos, hang-dog charm, thunderous power and wildly over-the top absurdity, Pacino has made an indelible mark on more than a few of the greatest films of all time. Hoo-ah.
Notable roles: Marge Gunderson (Fargo), Mildred Hayes (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Fern (Nomadland), Lady Macbeth (The Tragedy Of Macbeth), Mrs. Bishop (Moonrise Kingdom)
Oscars won: 3 (Fargo, Three Billboards, Nomadland)
Iconic line: “I’m not homeless. I’m just house-less. Not the same thing, right?” (Nomadland)
A perpetual figure in the films of the Coens, the recent years of McDormand’s career have seen her wrangle complex leading roles – playing women deeply wronged by life’s cruelties. Away from the warmth and goodwill of Marge Gunderson, her talents for embodying fire-and-brimstone rage and the peace of radical acceptance are miraculous.
Notable roles: Commodus (Gladiator), Johnny Cash (Walk The Line), Merrill Hess (Signs), Freddie Quell (The Master), Theodore Twombly (Her), Arthur Fleck (Joker), Ray Elwood (Buffalo Soldiers), Jesus (Mary Magdelene)
Oscars won: 1 (Joker)
Iconic line: “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” (Joker)
A frighteningly powerful actor since he was a kid, Phoenix has become even more so over the past couple of decades as he’s become less conventional, more naturalistic, and increasingly enigmatic. To watch him is to not know what the hell is going to happen next. A true live wire.
Notable roles: Ilsa Lund (Casablanca), Alicia Huberman (Notorious), Joan (Joan Of Arc), Karen (Stromboli)
Oscars won: 3 (Murder On The Orient Express, Anastasia, Gaslight)
Iconic line: “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.” (Casablanca)
With cool Swedish beauty and a fiery intelligence, Ingrid Bergman refused to change to suit Hollywood’s expectations and became iconic in her idiosyncrasies. Hollywood tried to pigeonhole her as a nun, victim or saint, but her European work showed far more strength and passion, eventually bringing the studios around.
Notable roles: Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (The Shawshank Redemption), John Rawlins (Glory), Ned Logan (Unforgiven), William Somerset (Seven), Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Million Dollar Baby), Lucius Fox (The Dark Knight Trilogy)
Oscars won: 1 (Million Dollar Baby)
Iconic line: “I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” (The Shawshank Redemption)
Need someone to play a police detective? Or the President? Or God? Make damn sure you have Morgan Freeman on speed-dial. Nobody else conjures the same blend of authority, worldly wisdom and soulfulness, with a sonorous voice that has beguiled millions and a wry sparkle in his eye.
Notable roles: “Fast” Eddie Felson (The Hustler, The Color Of Money), Reggie Dunlop (Slap Shot), Frank Galvin (The Verdict), Hud Bannon (Hud), Henry Gondorff (The Sting), Luke Jackson (Cool Hand Luke), Butch Cassidy (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid), John Rooney (Road To Perdition)
Oscars won: 1 (The Color Of Money)
Iconic line: “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.” (The Color Of Money)
Cool, laconic, capable of eating way more hard-boiled eggs than you – Newman zings up every film like Newman’s own salad dressing zings up lettuce. A reliable, sturdy presence in big films – from The Towering Inferno to Cars – he picked surprisingly eccentric projects too, even adding pepper to the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy. He may have been The Hustler, but he rarely broke a sweat.
Notable roles: Queen Anne (The Favourite), Leda (The Lost Daughter), Hannah (Tyrannosaur), Hilary (Empire Of Light), Susan Edwards (Landscapers), Queen Elizabeth II (The Crown), Anne (The Father), Godmother (Fleabag), Angela Burr (The Night Manager), D.S. Ellie Miller (Broadchurch), Sophie Chapman (Peep Show)
Oscars won: 1 (The Favourite)
Iconic line: “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.” (The Favourite)
Few have a better and more varied back catalogue than Olivia Colman. Rising up through British TV comedies and iconic car insurance adverts, she’s gone on to become one of the most dependably excellent, effervescently charming people in the business, winning the world’s hearts with her Oscar acceptance speech for The Favourite in 2019. A true national treasure.
Notable roles: Johnny (My Beautiful Laundrette), Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), Christy Brown (My Left Foot), Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe (The Last Of The Mohicans), Newland Archer (The Age Of Innocence), Reynolds Woodcock (Phantom Thread), Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln), Bill The Butcher (Gangs Of New York)
Oscars won: 3 (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, Lincoln)
Iconic line: “I – drink – your – milkshake!” (There Will Be Blood)
Since taking on his first starring role in 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette, Day-Lewis has – every time – provided startling electricity, giving thunderous performances, his power matched by his tenderness. He is everything you could want from an actor.
Notable roles: Jeff Smith (Mr Smith Goes To Washington), Macaulay “Mike” Connor (The Philadelphia Story), George Bailey (It’s A Wonderful Life), LB Jeffries (Rear Window), John “Scottie” Ferguson (Vertigo), Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)
Oscars won: 1 (The Philadelphia Story)
Iconic line: “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” (It’s A Wonderful Life)
Initially known for his bumbling naturalism – regularly playing decent, charming, virtuous characters – Stewart’s later years saw him take on darker, more complex roles for Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. But in George Bailey, Stewart could do both lovable and ambiguous, experiencing a dark night of the soul with some twinkly-eyed charm.
Notable roles: Satine (Moulin Rouge), Alice Harford (Eyes Wide Shut), Grace Stewart (The Others), Virginia Woolf (The Hours), Millicent Clyde (Paddington), Rae Ingram (Dead Calm), Anna (Birth), Queen Atlanna (Aquaman), Celeste Wright (Big Little Lies)
Oscars won: 1 (The Hours)
Iconic line: “One day I’ll fly away / Leave all this to yesterday” (Moulin Rouge)
Oscillating between steely strength and icy fragility, there’s an ever-present undercurrent of power and precision to all of Kidman’s performances. Equally at home in Hollywood blockbusters and quieter dramatic fare, her range is undeniable – but she’s especially adept at playing women facing inevitable doom.
Dig deep into Empire’s Greatest Actors list with the new issue – featuring Ang Lee on Heath Ledger, Ridley Scott on Joaquin Phoenix, Baz Luhrmann on Nicole Kidman, James Mangold on Buster Keaton, an extended Q&A and acting masterclass with Tilda Swinton, and much, much more.