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Harry Potter Kept A Quarter Of The U.K.’s Top Actors Paid

Harry Potter is of the most consequential cultural phenomena in the history of pop culture. It catapulted several 12-year-olds into international stardom.1 It made an indelible mark on the history of the international box office by proving that franchises could be longer than trilogies and still be highly rated international box-office smashes. It launched a franchise — the stock-juicing, legacy-setting, empire-building fuel that keeps a studio relevant these days — for Warner Brothers. It is singlehandedly responsible for people across the Eastern Seaboard saying, “Let’s go to Orlando’s Islands of Adventure.” It paid dozens of British actors’ rents for a decade.

Now we get the Potter spinoff series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” You’ve got Eddie Redmayne — the rich man’s Thomas Middleditch — with Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell, who found a way to get paid when not serving as Martin McDonagh’s muse. The prequel shows the American side of the wizarding world in the pre-war fascist days of the early 20th century.

Will “Beasts” make Redmayne one of the most bankable actors in the game? It’s a strong possibility. I’m a sucker for rankings of all kinds, and the list of top-grossing actors2 of all time is fascinating. It’s topped by cameo king Stan Lee, legend and Marvel Cinematic Universe anchor Samuel L. Jackson, and a number of action stars, voice-over journeymen and the kind of folks that hacks just call “Hollywood Royalty.”

The thing about this chart that is compelling is how much franchises juice the rankings. Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving are legendary, but they’re on the list thanks to the many J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations, not “Carol” or “Hacksaw Ridge.” Ian McKellen is there because he was Gandalf and Magneto, not Mr. Holmes. And it appears Bill Hader has never turned down a voice-over job in his life.

One number jumps out on that ranking because four actors share it: $7.7 billion, or more specifically $7,727,156,777. That’s how much all the Harry Potter films made worldwide. Want to be one of the top 50 worldwide grossing actors of all time? Be in all eight Harry Potter movies. Specifically, be James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley), Josh Herdman (Gregory Goyle), and Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), who have never been in another movie in The Numbers database. All of those people can say they’ve been in films that have made more money than Will Smith’s at the box office.

When you subtract Harry Potter, though, the top-100 grossing performers of all time look very different. Actors such as Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Maggie Smith drop out of the top 100. Indeed, it appears that 31 of the top 100 grossing actors of all time are there thanks to the fact that they appeared in a Harry Potter film. Warwick Davis, who was both Professor Flitwick and Griphook in the Potter movies, and in an earlier era was also an Ewok in “Return of the Jedi,” drops far down the board. Gary Oldman is the only performer to remain on the list absent his Harry Potter appearances. Besides that changeling of a man, the “Harry Potter” actor who comes closest to the top is John Cleese, who appeared as Nearly Headless Nick but was also in the “Shrek” franchise.

Regardless of what it did to the charts that box office obsessives check, the Harry Potter franchise did something substantially more important: It kept Britain paid. I mean, who hasn’t been in a Harry Potter movie? I pulled every British film since 19953 from the box-office site The Numbers, and everyone credited in those films. I counted the number of times an actor performed in a film from the U.K., and I checked whether or not they had appeared in a Harry Potter film. Among all actors who have appeared in more than three U.K. films, 13 percent appeared in a Harry Potter film. Among those who appeared in four or more, it’s 17 percent. But if you want to look strictly at the performers who are staples of the screen, a full 25 percent of performers who appeared in five or more U.K. films have been in Harry Potter movies.

The actors in the Potter films have been anchors of British cinema. Robbie Coltrane — the portly Russian gangster in “Goldeneye,” the voice of the father in “Brave” and the lead in something called “The Pope Must Die” — was Hagrid. Julie Walters was Molly Weasley, but also appeared in “Brooklyn” and “Mamma Mia.” British staples such as Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney) are in the Potter films. Yes, all of those people were also in “Love Actually,” the only good movie.

Still, who are the greats who have never visited Hogwarts?

1 Judi Dench 20
2 Emily Watson 15
2 Sean Connery 15
4 Colin Firth 14
4 Mark Strong 14
6 Ben Kingsley 13
6 Bob Hoskins 13
6 Desmond Llewelyn 13
6 Liam Neeson 13
6 Lois Maxwell 13
6 Ray Winstone 13
12 Celia Imrie 12
12 Eddie Marsan 12
12 Hugh Grant 12
12 Kristin Scott Thomas 12
12 Rosamund Pike 12
12 Tom Hollander 12
18 John Malkovich 11
18 Jude Law 11
18 Michael Caine 11
18 Simon Pegg 11
18 Tom Wilkinson 11
The most prolific U.K. film actors who weren’t in the Potter films

Source: The Numbers

The actors who’ve appeared in the most U.K. movies without touching Potter are Dame Judi Dench, Emily Watson, Sean Connery and Colin Firth. If you’re a producer of the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise as its story heads into the WWII-era and you’d like to add a galleon of credibility to your operation, nothing says “gravitas” quite like making Judi Dench your Wizard Winston Churchill, is all I’m saying. Because you’re already guaranteed to push Redmayne to the top of the heap.

CORRECTION (Nov. 11, 4:33 p.m.): An earlier version of a table in this article mistakenly listed Rhys Ifans as an actor who has never appeared in a Harry Potter film. Ifans appeared in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.”


  1. Rupert Grint was not one of them.

  2. Not adjusting for inflation.

  3. That is, any film whose nation of origin in the database was the United Kingdom.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.