People don’t become famous from theatre. There are exceptions, of course, but before Lin-Manuel when was the last time a prominent stage actor hosted SNL? Movie stars often do plays. Successful theatre actors often go on to do movies. But it’s no surprise that even an actor who is well-known by New York theatre geeks and by the community at large will not be largely recognizable until someone in East Jesus can see them as easily as a wealthy donor from the Upper East Side. This is not a good system, but it’s the one we have. So, here are 13 wonderful stage actors we’d love to see become famous as soon as possible. Probably by joining the Avengers in some capacity.
NOTE: I would never imply that just because these people aren’t traditional celebrities does not mean they aren’t wildly successful. All have at least one Tony nomination under their belt.
Let’s start with the basics. Mark Rylance is right on the edge of becoming a seriously well known film actor, and to his many fans, this is incredibly frustrating. In the past year, he literally won an Oscar and most Americans seem to have no idea who he is. In this coming year he will star in giant new movies from Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, which will undoubtedly help. What seems to be holding Rylance back in this regard is his own chameleonic skill. Looking at his stage major roles—Boeing Boeing, Jerusalem, and Richard III/Twelfth Night (in which he played Richard and Olivia, respectively) and his film credits—Bridge of Spies and The BFG (in which he played, you know, a giant)—you’d be forgiven for thinking that each role was played by a different man. Give him one more Time 100 list honor and let’s see if that does the trick.
Like the rest of his Juilliard ilk, Steven Boyer works, all the time (he was in Listen Up Philip. That’s a great movie!). But currently his best known credit is the unlikely Broadway success Hand to God, which transferred from the Ensemble Studio Theatre and secured Tony nominations for most of its cast, including Boyer. Hand to God, which featured one of the more delightfully weird premises in recent memory, had a lot of things going for it, and a lot of talented people working to pull it off. But there’s no minimizing it. If had Boyer not been able to pull off his joint role as Jason (a quiet boy from Texas) and Tyrone (the satanic entity possessing his hand puppet), then that would have been it. Instead, it was a dizzying, terrifying, hilarious performance that proved sometimes the most impressive thing on a Broadway stage isn’t pyrotechnics. It’s just virtuosity.
This is partially your own fault for not living in Chicago. Deanna Dunagan has been a Windy City mainstay for years and years through Steppenwolf, until she helped create the role of Violet Weston in August: Osage County, and then she was performing all over the world. Tracy Lett’s hit drama avoided “family play” cliches in many ways, but mostly we just hadn’t seen a matriarch quite as towering and terrifying as Violet Weston before. I guess I understand why they went with Meryl Streep for the film adaptation, but considering that no one seemed to like that movie anyway, did they have to? Was a wall-to-wall cast of movie stars really necessary? Is that why an adaptation of a play cost almost 40 million dollars? They would have been better off sticking with the original cast that made August what it is in the first place, and Dunagan should have been front and center.
This is another one that shouldn’t be necessary. Brian d’Arcy James has been known as one of Broadway’s most dynamic actors forever at this point, appearing in wide-ranging shows like The Wild Party, Sweet Smell of Success, Something Rotten, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I mean, the guy was f**king Shrek, for Christ’s sake. But his breakout role came last year as Matt Carroll, the mustached member of the Spotlight team. d’Arcy James was as essential to that film’s perfect on-screen chemistry as any of the A-listers there. In fact, I’d argue that he stole the movie. Spotlight’s feature-length exercise in tension finally breaks when Carroll slams the printed story on the doorstep of a known pedophile—people erupted into applause when I saw that in theaters. But for whatever reason, they had to bump one of the four main characters off the poster to make way for John Slattery, who was great but was only in the movie for like two seconds. Let’s hope his upcoming appearance in the J.D. Salinger movie changes things.
Man, Stew doesn’t seem to give a shit whether you think he’s famous or not. That’s why Stew is the coolest. He also seems to stick to performing in his own shows, which is understandable. But for anyone who saw or heard him narrate his own semi-autobiographical musical Passing Strange, he’s simply fantastic. Honestly, who cares if Stew becomes a famous actor at any point—he’d be even better suited to topping charts left and right with his signature blend of… Well, of everything. He’s Stew, that’s the point. Still, there are few others working in musical theatre today who successfully at a rock concert element to their shows, which is something literally everyone is trying their hardest to do.
Even if you’ve never heard Sherie Rene Scott sing, you’ve probably heard her work. She’s the co-founder of Sh-K-Boom Records, which puts out most OBC recordings worth listening to, as well as solo albums from Broadway performers. In addition to that, she’s a celebrated performer herself, originating Cathy Off-Broadway in The Last Five Years and appearing in a personal favorite of mine, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In both, she displays the kind of overflowing wit and charm we look for in the great leading ladies, and timing on par with any noted character actress. Then she goes out and writes a semi-biographical musical of her own. What must she do?! Still, Record label owner/Broadway actress might just be the best dual career ever.
Stephen Kunken is long overdue for a leading role of his own. He’s been a clutch supporting player in plays from Frost/Nixon to Rock N’ Roll to his Tony-nominated turn as CFO Andy Fastow in Enron. He’s currently on Billions, and got a bit part in Cafe Society, but he’s the kind of guy who should be taking the lead in Woody Allen movies instead. In fact, just give him all the roles Allen is currently giving to Emma Stone. I’m not kidding, I think it would be a better fit. He has the kind of wonderfully anxious energy that helped out Ben Shenkman and Justin Kirk in the early 2000s, just without the massive HBO miniseries to back it up. But some HBO miniseries will come along, and I hope they find a place for Stephen Kunken.
The 2015 Steppenwolf transfer Airline Highway did not seem to make much of an impression on Broadway, despite a universally great ensemble. That cast’s clear stand out was K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Na Na. Lisa D’Amour’s script sagged and slowed down in places but Freeman never did. He bolstered the entire play the way he bolstered the New Orleans inhabitants of the Hummingbird Motel. His Tony nomination for the part cemented the feeling that we need to just find K. Todd Freeman a better script and let him run wild. That hasn’t happened on stage yet, but I have high hopes that his current role on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will change that.
Reed Birney’s inclusion on this list will be sacrilege to many New York theatre fans, and/or House of Cards fans, I’m sure. His recent role in The Humans has increased his profile quite a bit, though he seems to prefer meatier off-broadway roles to film and television (someone please find a way to film his Vanya, though). But I’ll quote Birney himself, in his Tony acceptance speech for The Humans: “I’ve been an actor for almost 42 years… 35 of them were pretty bad. That’s a lot of them. I just couldn’t get anything going. The last eight have been great…” Then he goes on to say that what made it always a pleasure were the people he worked with, and wrapped it up by saying “I love sharing the planet with all of you.” Good God, if anybody deserves those Tom Hanks roles/reputation, it’s him.
Irish actress Sarah Greene hasn’t gotten much play here in the states beyond her role on Penny Dreadful, but if her performance in the Broadway production of The Cripple of Inishmaan is any indication, she deserves all the success of another Tony-nominated featured actress from a Martin McDonagh play: Alison Pill. McDonagh, who continues to make excellent movies that give work to unrecognized actors like Zeljko Ivanek, should just go ahead and put Greene in his upcoming Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and preferably in a larger role than Greene took on in McDonagh’s brothers The Guard.
Like Deanna Dunagan, Celia Keenan-Bolger’s most recent film role is an M. Night Shyamalan film that isn’t Split. She deserves better. Since Keenan-Bolger burst onto the scene in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, she—along with her siblings—have had a pretty successful go of it, culminating in her appearances on Broadway in both The Glass Menagerie and The Cherry Orchard. Unfortunately, those performances are likely to be buried, if only because Glass Menagerie is returning to Broadway again this year for some reason, and The Cherry Orchard was unfairly maligned in the Times. Getting her a role in a non-revival should be the priority, and from there she can basically do anything.
I don’t think any of us have forgotten the electric Tony performance from the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I had not seen the show, but based on Lena Hall’s brooding performance as Yitzhak, there was no question she deserved that Tony for Featured Actress in a Musical. That performance was so transformative that I did not recognize Hall during her cough memorable sex scene with Lena Dunham on Girls, which was disturbing and hilarious at once, and makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more from her. I doubt Dunham is currently sorting though the one-off Girls guest stars who should take a larger role in whatever she does next, but if and when she does, Hall should be at the top of the list.
Christopher Fitzgerald can star in as many delightful Broadway musicals as he wants (Young Frankenstein and Waitress earned him a Tony nomination each), but to me he will always be Bud, the hapless composer from the Off-Broadway cult hit Gutenberg! The Musical!. Gutenberg’s writer, Anthony King, was the Artistic Director of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre in New York and currently writes on everything from Search Party, to Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, to Broad City. What is Christopher Fitzgerald doing casually dropping in on Elementary when he could be stealing scenes somewhere… funnier? (I know that’s not how it works, but a guy can dream).