What tempts Hollywood stars to risk it all on the British stage?

From Kevin Spacey to Keira Knightley, famous film stars all want to prove themselves in the theatre world. Libby Purves asks what's got them hooked...

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Which is classier on an actor’s mantelpiece – an Olivier or an Oscar? The Oscar is big money, global audiences, Los Angeles sunshine and sycophancy. The Olivier is long, tiring runs of live performances, seven times a week through London drizzle and traffic jams; enduring sleepy matinee coach parties who don’t laugh, risking the humiliation of empty seats and the barbed prose of theatre critics. And instead of a luxurious Winnebago, a dressing room in a repulsive shade of mustard, up five sets of grimy narrow stone stairs. But still they come.

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The road from the British stage to the Hollywood Hall of Fame sees two-way traffic. Among this year’s Olivier nominees alone are Gillian Anderson, James McAvoy, Gemma Arterton, Mark Strong, Kristin Scott Thomas and – from the pop world – the Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. And hardly a month passes without some top movie name opening on stage. Sometimes they’re Brits who have conquered the film world and come back to walk the good old planks: Michael Sheen, James McAvoy and Mark Strong move between the two worlds with experienced ease. Gemma Arterton could drift about doing movies but has been working her socks off by candlelight in the tiny Wanamaker theatre, and singing in Made in Dagenham.

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Kristin Scott Thomas became a gruelling, passionate, scruff-crazy Elektra at the Old Vic, before announcing a few weeks ago in Radio Times that she’s “fed up with being asked to do the same thing, playing cold wicked bitches” and is turning her back on the world of film, where it’s all about “status and who has a bigger caravan”, to focus on the stage. Damian Lewis, all Homeland glitz, opens this month at Wyndham’s Theatre in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.