Australia’s 50 greatest actors (30 to 21): From Deborah Mailman to Simon Baker and Eric Bana

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: 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.


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No character is in control in political thriller Total Control, but Deborah Mailman is in full command of her character Alex, a community leader thrown into the snakepit of federal government. In Mailman’s hands, Alex is a woman trying to outsmart plots and foes while maintaining her own humanity. It’s a difficult role to embody and only Mailman could bring it to life as she does, and as she has in myriad films and TV shows across a career that ranges from harrowing dramas to slice-of-life comedies and everything in between including the high-concept series Cleverman.

Must watch: The Secret Life of Us (Netflix, Prime), Bran Nue Dae (Netflix, Foxtel) and Total Control (iView, Acorn TV, AMC+)

Drama: Total Control starring Deborah Mailman
Deborah Mailman in Total Control. Credit: John Platt


The Newcastle-born Viswanathan started her career on Australian screens but in 2018 decamped to the US where she has been killing it with lead roles in the likes of Blockers, a raucous comedy with John Cena and Leslie Mann, or opposite Hugh Jackman in Bad Education. She also starred in the Daniel Radcliffe comedy series Miracle Workers for four seasons and just booked a role in a Marvel movie. An understated Australian success story – many locals probably don’t even know she’s one of them – Viswanathan’s meteoric rise points to her outsized talent.

Must watch: Blockers (Netflix, Foxtel), Hala (Apple TV+), Miracle Workers (Stan)

Geraldine Viswanathan in The Beanie Bubble
Geraldine Viswanathan in American movie The Beanie Bubble. Credit: Apple


Up until about 15 years ago, Ewen Leslie was primarily known as a dramatic force in theatre, starring in challenging productions including The War of the Roses opposite Cate Blanchett – not counting, of course, his long run on ABC series Ship to Shore as a child actor. While he has returned to tread the boards, it’s his superb screen work that has made him a household name, with villainous intensity in the likes of The Cry and Sweet Country to well-meaning men caught in trying circumstances in series such as Top of the Lake and Prosper.

Must watch: Dead Europe (Netflix), The Daughter (Stan) and The Cry (Netflix, Stan, iView)

Ewen Leslie as Dion Quinn in Prosper.
Ewen Leslie in Australian drama Prosper. Credit: Lisa Tomasetti/TheWest


Americans and Brits mostly know her as Miss Phryne Fisher but we know her as Essie Davis, an actor whose range extends far beyond the twinkling charms of the well-heeled amateur detective – not that we don’t also love Phryne. Haunted by inner and literal demons in the Babadook, Davis’ intense performance placed fear in everyone’s hearts, while as the frustrated Anouk in The Slap, she gave voice to so many women’s very real resentments. There’s also her fruitful collaboration with husband Justin Kurzel, and her scene-stealing roles in his films including True History of the Kelly Gang and Nitram.

Must watch: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Netflix, iView), The Babadook (Prime, Paramount+, Brollie), Lambs of God (Binge)

Essie Davis in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears.
Essie Davis played Phryne Fisher in three seasons of television and a movie. Credit: Methode


As a young gun actor, Joel Edgerton often played the friend or sidekick in the likes of The Secret Life of Us and Erskineville Kings, but now he’s matured into roles with more substance and characters with patience and grit including in the American civil rights drama Loving, or as a slave catcher in Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary but overlooked series Underground Railroad. And when you look at the list of filmmakers who want to work with Edgerton (Paul Schrader, David Lowery, Jeff Nichols), it’s clear they can see in him an actor with gravitas and emotional empathy.

Must watch: Warrior (Netflix, Stan), The Underground Railroad (Prime), The Stranger (Netflix)

Felony. Joel Edgerton as Malcolm Toohey. For West Weekend. Not our copyright.
Joel Edgerton is an actor and filmmaker. Credit: Mark Rogers


Sarah Snook grabbed the world’s attention in Succession, as the morally compromised Shiv Roy, all armour and wiles on the outside but desperately unhappy on the inside, fighting for her father’s love and against all the expectations placed against her as the only daughter of four siblings poised for power. But even before that, she had already made an impression as the sweet Trudy in The Dressmaker and opposite Ethan Hawke in a gender-bender role in the sci-fi film Predestination.

Must watch: Succession (Binge, Foxtel), Predestination (digital rental), Not Suitable for Children (digital rental)

This image released by HBO shows Sarah Snook in a scene from "Succession" (HBO via AP)
Sarah Snook gained international acclaim for her role in Succession. Credit: David M. Russell/AP


Naturalistic and softly spoken, Odessa Young makes a big impression without being imposing. There is a calm sadness to her performance in Mothering Sunday, but with the hints of a roiling passion not far below. Still a teenager, she won an AACTA for her role in Simon Stone’s The Daughter, standing out from an ensemble cast of more experienced thespians, and ever since, has chosen interesting projects both at home and internationally, particularly as a young wife exploring her newly awakened intimacy in gothic biopic Shirley, opposite Elisabeth Moss.

Must watch: Mothering Sunday (SBS, Foxtel), The Daughter (Stan) and Shirley (digital rental)

Odessa Young in The Stand
Odessa Young in The Stand, a streaming adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Credit: Supplied


Simon Baker’s legion of American fans may not know he got his start as a matinee idol on soaps E Street and Home and Away, but the shiny lights of Hollywood soon proved too alluring. After a successful career in the US as the lead in TV shows The Guardian and the high-rating The Mentalist, Baker did the unexpected for someone in his position, he came home and directed a passion project, Breath, and stretched his dramatic muscles in a series of acclaimed indie films featuring some of the best work of his career, including High Ground, Blaze and Limbo.

Must watch: High Ground (SBS), Limbo (iView), Breath (iView, Netflix)

Simon Baker.
Simon Baker returned home to Australia after years on American TV. Credit: SBS/TheWest


When Jacki Weaver smiled in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom, a dramatisation of the Melbourne gangland murders, you couldn’t trust her. The sweeter Smurf seemed, the more dangerous she was. Animal Kingdom led to an Oscar nomination and a skyrocketing international career in the likes of The Five-Year Engagement, Silver Linings Playbook and Bird Box, but Weaver had already a long career at home on TV and in film, starting with the Ozploitation films of the 1970s. Weaver’s power has always been her daring you to underestimate her.

Must watch: Animal Kingdom (Stan, SBS), Silver Linings Playbook (Netflix, Stan, SBS) and Caddie (digital rental)

Jacki Weaver speaks on stage during the "Gracepoint" panel at the The FOX 2014 Summer TCA held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, July 20, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Jacki Weaver has been nominated for two Oscars. Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP


Many only noticed Eric Bana after he came to the attention of Hollywood filmmakers thanks to big blockbusters including ancient war epic Troy and Steven Spielberg’s political thriller Munich. And, oh yeah, he was a Marvel superhero in Ang Lee’s Hulk. But those with longer memories will recall that before Bana’s career-changing, savage and also enigmatic performance in Chopper, he was a sketch comedian. Those years on Full Frontal and The Eric Bana Show Live laid the foundations for Bana’s incredible timing and commitment.

Must watch: Romulus, My Father (digital rental), Chopper (Stan) and Munich (Stan)

The Dry starring Eric Bana
Eric Bana started off as a sketch star before jumping to the big screen. Credit: Roadshow


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