Australia’s 50 greatest actors (20 to 11): From Errol Flynn to Hugh Jackman and Jack Thompson

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Hugely talented, these actors are the best of the best.
Hugely talented, these actors are the best of the best. Credit: Illustration: Olivia Desianti

Here are The Nightly’s top 50 Australian actors — some are up-and-comers, some are legends. What they all have in common is their skill in making us making us cry, laugh and rage.

We’ll reveal 10 names each day, so come back throughout the week to see who took out the top spot.

20. ERROL FLYNN

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The original Australian swashbuckler, Errol Flynn was a legend of the golden age of Hollywood. He was renowned as much for his derring-do roles as Robin Hood and several pirates as he was for his debauched and off-screen dramas. Flynn’s reputation for partying hard led to several scandals and a posthumously published autobiography named My Wicked, Wicked Ways. But there was no denying he was Australia’s first international superstar of the screen, and one whose sex symbol status came from a rough-and-tumble masculinity that was very much of his time.

Must watch: The Adventures of Robin Hood (digital rental), Captain Blood (digital rental), Dodge City (digital rental)

Actor Errol Flynn (1909 - 1959) poses in costume as Sir Robin of Locksley, from the film, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood,' directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938. (Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)
Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Credit: Warner Bros./Getty Images

19. ANTHONY LAPAGLIA

After missing out on going to NIDA, Anthony LaPaglia made a beeline straight for the US, where he has consistently worked since the mid-1980s with gigs in the likes of Empire Records. Perhaps, at least for the Americans, his most memorable work there has been on TV, including in Without a Trace and on Frasier, as Daphne Moon’s ne’er-do-well brother Simon, for which he won an Emmy. But it’s his Australian films that have given him the most rewarding roles, such as an emotionally repressed cop and husband in Lantana and as a journalist in Balibo.

Must watch: Looking for Alibrandi (Netflix, iView), Lantana (digital rental), A Month of Sundays (digital rental)

Anthony LaPaglia in Balibo.
Anthony LaPaglia in Balibo. Credit: Unknown/supplied

18. HUGH JACKMAN

Hugh Jackman was always too tall to play Wolverine but over two decades, he remade that role in his image. It was never just a “comic book hero” but a complex portrayal of anguish and redemption – taken to the apex in the stunning neo-western film Logan. Of course, in between X-Men outings, Jackman’s charm, empathy and baritone voice led to commanding performances as the frustrated showman in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and failed presidential aspirant Gary Hart in The Front Runner.

Must watch: Logan (Disney), Prisoners (Foxtel), Bad Education (Binge, Foxtel)

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Hugh Jackman in a scene from "Logan." (Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox via AP)
Hugh Jackman in Wolverine in Logan. Credit: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

17. BRYAN BROWN

A stalwart of the Australian film industry, Bryan Brown always looks like he has a joke he’s dying to tell. That twinkle mixed in with his gifts for invoking sadness and joy, occasionally at the same time, is what makes his work so distinct. Whether that be as a soldier accused of war crimes in Breaker Morant, Tom Cruise’s troubled mentor in Cocktail, mob boss Pando in Two Hands and as the dying patriarch in a family full of dark secrets in Beautiful Kate.

Must watch: Breaker Morant (Netflix, Prime, SBS, Brollie), Cocktail (Disney) and Dirty Deeds (YouTube)

Bryan Brown.
Bryan Brown has been working for almost five decades. Credit: Supplied/RegionalHUB

16. CLAUDIA KARVAN

The most tragic moment on Australian TV in the 21st century was broadcast in January 2005. It was the eighth episode of Love My Way and eight-year-old Lou collapses and dies on a sunny day at the park. Claudia Karvan played Lou’s mum in the series she co-created and her howls of disbelief and the journey of grief that would follow cemented what Australians already knew: Karvan was a phenomenal actor whose easygoing but raw performances captured the humanity of her characters in the likes of Bump and Dating the Enemy.

Must watch: The Secret Life of Us (Netflix, Prime), Love My Way (Stan) and Spirited (Prime)

Love My Way - Claudia Karvan
Claudia Karvan as Frankie in Love My Way. Credit: Supplied

15. GUY PEARCE

When Neighbours wrapped up (for the first time) in mid-2022, Guy Pearce was the most high-profile returnee to Ramsay Street who stuck around for more than a minute. That speaks to Pearce’s generosity as an actor, in acknowledging the impact those early days had on a skillset with so much versatility, ranging from the openness of his performance in Priscilla to the tightly wound Ed Exley in LA Confidential. His globe-trotting career has led him to work with the likes of Ridley Scott, Shane Black and Kathryn Bigelow.

Must watch: Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Prime), Memento (Prime) and The Proposition (digital rental)

Guy Pearce in the movie Momento  (2000)
Guy Pearce in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Credit: Supplied

14. ROSE BYRNE

Rose Byrne’s early high-profile roles in Two Hands and crime thriller series Damages showcased an actor who knew her way around dramatic material. She could go toe-to-toe with Glenn Close and confront the horror of a dead fiancé in a bathtub. While there were plenty of great roles (Marie Antoinette, Sunshine) in between, it was Bridesmaids that let the rest of the world in on what we already knew: She is hilarious. She is able to be silly, sweet, ridiculous and flawed and make it look effortless. And still find the capacity to do Madea on stage with real-life partner Bobby Cannavale.

Must watch: Damages (7Plus), Spy (Disney, Foxtel) and Physical (Apple TV+)

Movie Peter Rabbit 2
Rose Byrne in Peter Rabbit 2. Credit: Supplied

13. NAOMI WATTS

Naomi Watts had already been working for a decade in Australia (including in Brides of Christ, Strange Planet and Home and Away) when she landed the role of an aspiring actor in David Lynch’s enigmatic dreamscape Mulholland Drive. The dual performance, both open-hearted and sinister, changed everything for Watts who found herself on the Hollywood A-list in big productions such as King Kong and Birdman. A prolific actor, Watts often picks demanding projects, such as the wrenching tsunami drama The Impossible and recently as socialite Babe Paley in Feud: Capote vs the Swans.

Must watch: Mulholland Drive (Prime, Binge, Foxtel, Stan), The Impossible (Netflix, Foxtel, Stan) and While We’re Young (Stan)

Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive.
Naomi Watts gained international attention in Mulholland Drive. Credit: Supplied

12. HUGO WEAVING

Hugo Weaving is known the world over for his roles in huge blockbusters, such as the menacing Agent Smith in The Matrix movies and the imperious Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. At one point, if Hollywood wanted a foil who had dignity and intensity, they called on Weaving. But it’s in his Australian performances where he is able to draw on a quieter power, whether that be a war photographer in Hearts and Bones or a widower learning to give himself to another again in Love Me.

Must watch: The Matrix (Prime, Foxtel, Stan), Proof (digital rental), The Lord of the Rings (Netflix, Prime, Binge, Foxtel, Stan)

Hugo Weaving in Hearts and Bones
Hugo Weaving in Hearts and Bones. Credit: Supplied

11. JACK THOMPSON

If there is someone who could embody the seemingly contradictory characteristics of ruggedness and gravitas, it’s Jack Thompson. And there is a duality in Thompson’s allure. He represents a traditional conception of the archetype of the Australian male, but his performances are laced with nuance and even in the 21st century, his characters feel contemporary, not a throwback. Few actors have managed to sustain a career across six decades and can still point to defining roles across each period that pulse with dynamism and talent.

Must watch: Breaker Morant (Netflix, Prime, SBS, Brollie), The Sum of Us (Stan) and Sunday Too Far Away (Prime, Brollie)

Jack Thompson is to be honoured at this years CinefestOz. 
01 August 2013
Jack Thompson. Credit: Rob Duncan/WA News

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