From stalwarts of the New York stage to up-and-coming British favourites, it’s time to reveal our latest selection of The 20 Best Actors Working Today. This is as objective as possible — I have excluded some personal favourites like Alec Baldwin, Jeff Daniels, Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey who I feel it’s simply untrue to call the best actors working in the hopes of giving this list a seriousness of intent. Therefore, I present to you now, this year’s list…
1. Michael Stuhlbarg
Most likely to be seen as…. Any number of things. Stuhlbarg is the most chameleonic actor alive, and can play any number of characters, from neurotic physics professor Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man to the caring patriarch of Call Me By Your Name. But Hollywood’s biggest projects seem to want to pigeonhole him as a nervous scientist. They should stop.
Best collaborator: The Coen Brothers, without a doubt. A Serious Man is an all-time American classic that made the genius move of casting Stuhlbarg as its lead (the only time this has really happened). The Coens need to bring him back for something equally zany, but entirely different.
2. Carrie Coon
Most likely to be seen as… A middle-aged mother with a secret. Coon, though only two years older than Alison Brie, passes for older and has capitalised on this to play a number of complicated, brilliant, no-nonsense women in projects like The Leftovers, The Nest and the third season of Fargo.
Best collaborator: Although her strongest work has been with Damon Lindelof, it’s her brief appearance in David Fincher’s Gone Girl that has the most promise for future roles. A Fincher heroine (perhaps a detective) would be the ideal role for Coon in either a feature or episodic project.
3. Frances McDormand
Most likely to be seen as… Something of an elder counterpart to Carrie Coon, McDormand is known for her feisty, anti-establishment, independent female leads. She received her second Oscar for playing something of a self-parody in the tiresome Three Billboards, but she is never bad.
Best collaborator: The Coens (one of whom she is married to) and Lisa Cholodenko are up there, while her new project — Nomadland — promises another exciting female collaborator in Chloe Zhao.
4. Ann Dowd
Most likely to be seen as… The headmistress/governor/mother superior from hell. Dowd strikes an intimidating figure and gaze despite a much softer, warmer off-screen persona (exhibit A: her charming Emmys speech). She can also convey a tsunami of feeling with one scowl.
Best collaborator: It has to be Lindelof. As cult leader Patti Levin in The Leftovers, Dowd was given an extraordinary dramatic ball-pit to play in and I suspect Lindelof could strike gold twice with Dowd.
5. Adam Driver
Most likely to be seen as… Your manic artist dreamboy.
Best collaborator: The most obvious answer here is the first couple of the indie dramedy — Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach — who have given Driver some of his most thrilling roles, including in Frances Ha and last year’s Marriage Story. But ultimately, it kinda has to be Lena Dunham, with whom Driver constructed a magnanimous and beautiful portrait of a quasi-psycho creative on HBO’s Girls.
6. Mahershala Ali
Most likely to be seen as… Vampire assassin poet revolutionary.
Best collaborator: It would be a delight to see Ali team up with Barry Jenkins, who’s Moonlight won him his first Oscar, again for something that isn’t The Lion King 2. Otherwise, honestly, it would be great if he worked with Robert Rodriguez on an Alita: Battle Angel sequel.
7. Saoirse Ronan
Most likely to be seen as… The emotionally torn heroine of a Greta Gerwig masterpiece.
Best collaborator: Ronan, frankly, did not achieve greatness until she began working with Gerwig, and has delivered two performances in Lady Bird and Little Women that put the first decade of her career to shame. I would happily see her work with nobody else (okay, maybe Wes Anderson at a stretch) for the rest of her career.
8. Bob Odenkirk
Most likely to be seen as… Bumbling scumbag with a good heart and surprising wits.
Best collaborator: Jimmy McGill on Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul shows has been the role of a lifetime for Odenkirk. But another strong answer is his longtime comedy partner David Cross. The men appeared together in Spielberg’s The Post in 2017, suggesting the potential for a pivot towards a shared dramatic career.
9. Adam Sandler
Most likely to be seen as… Some variation of himself, probably with a hot young wife, in Hawaii for no discernible reason.
Best collaborator: It’s worth mentioning that Sandler’s self-produced comedies are largely pretty good and unfairly harshly judged in the media. But Paul Thomas Anderson is the correct answer here. Judd Apatow and The Safdie Brothers two strong runners-up. Apatow in particular found a grey area of shame in Sandler’s personality in Funny People that nobody else has latched onto. There’s potential for more from that wheelhouse.
10. Richard Jenkins
Most likely to be seen as… A curmudgeonly retiree offering sage wisdom to a young colleague.
Best collaborator: Although he’s moved away from high high-energy comedies, Adam McKay brought something truly hysterical out of Jenkins in 2008’s Step Brothers. “You wrecked my fucking boat, you goon!”
11. Jeremy Strong
Most likely to be seen as… A cocaine addict of some kind, probably sporting an eccentric hat or haircut.
Best collaborator: Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner of HBO’s Succession, has found a darkness in Strong’s weird energy that other filmmakers (Aaron Sorkin, for one) have been less successful latching onto.
12. Chris Cooper
Most likely to be seen as… A grumbling grandpa
Best collaborator: Sam Mendes and Spike Jonze gave Cooper his two showiest, and subsequently Oscar nominated, roles in American Beauty and Adaptation, but he gave such a beautiful performance in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, one wonders what she could write for him in the future.
13. Carey Mulligan
Most likely to be seen as… Almost anything. Mulligan refuses to be typecast, having played schoolgirls, suffragettes, cops, mothers and cabaret singers with incredible presence.
Best collaborator: Without a doubt, Steve McQueen in 2011’s Shame. Hopefully the director, now coming off the success of Small Axe, finds room for Mulligan in a future project.
14. Haley Lu Richardson
Most likely to be seen as… A young woman with bigger ambitions than where she’s at.
Best collaborator: Koganada, director of 2017’s stunning Columbus in which Richardson plays an architecture-obsessed library assistant, allowed her to inhabit a phenomenally sparkling character, and she will appear in his second feature opposite Colin Farrell.
15. Ben Mendelsohn
Most likely to be seen as… Someone who’s going to use blunt force to teach you something important.
Best collaborator: Mendelsohn is good in everything, even rubbish like Captain Marvel and Darkest Hour, but he’s quite remarkable in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up. MacKenzie’s turn into directing modern westerns seems a good fit for Mendelsohn’s particular gravitas.
16. Rory Kinnear
Most likely to be seen as… A disgraced British politician.
Best collaborator: Kinnear has his father’s bluster as well as a hint of deceptiveness, which Russell T Davies locked into on his BBC series Years and Years. But frankly he’s good in the Bond movies and pretty much everything else. An major American role is surely on the horizon.
17. Jude Law
Most likely to be seen as… A man hiding something behind his ridiculously perfect handsomeness.
Best collaborator: Law’s career as character actor was reborn thanks to his work with Paolo Sorrentino on The Young Pope. Sorrentino’s Italian absurdism is a perfect fit for the rugged but slightly ironic smarm Law captures so well.
18. Regina King
Most likely to be seen as… A woman with no fear.
Best collaborator: Damon Lindelof gave her great parts on The Leftovers and Watchmen, but her Oscar winning performance in If Beale Street Could Talk was everything you want from a supporting actress and, like, Mahershala Ali, one suspects Barry Jenkins isn’t done with her talents yet.
19. Brad Pitt
Most likely to be seen as… someone who looks and sounds a lot like Brad Pitt, the most famous man in America.
Best collaborator: Fincher. It has to be. Although Tarantino has gotten some good mileage out of his lighter side, it’s his roles in films like Se7en that sustain the perception of his ability in the public consciousness.
20. Robert Pattinson
Most likely to be seen as… A millennial maniac who probably was a vampire in a past life.
Best collaborator: The world is crying out for the Safdie Brothers to put Pattinson (star of their breakout Good Time) and Adam Driver in the same room and see what sparks fly. But he’s been great for Chris Nolan, David Cronenberg, Robert Eggers and — though few will admit it — in the Twilight movies too.