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Which Movie Star Fared Best on TV? Julia Roberts in Homecoming and More Small-Screen Debuts

Nicole Kidman, Benicio Del Toro, Elizabeth Olsen, Sean Penn, and more A-listers are trying their hand at TV and streaming series, but some have had better luck than others.

by | November 14, 2018 | Comments

Julia Roberts in Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

(Photo by © Amazon)

Julia Roberts’ turn in the mind-bending Amazon series Homecoming marked the A-list actress’ debut as a series lead. She’s not the only big-screen actor drawn to the TV and streaming boom in serialized entertainment: Benicio Del Toro makes his debut in the Ben Stiller–directed Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora, and Avengers: Infinity War star Elizabeth Olsen is getting raves as a grieving widow in Facebook Watch’s Sorry for Your Loss.

Upcoming projects include Helen Mirren’s Catherine the Great miniseries, Jennifer Connelly in FX’s Snowpiercer, Henry Cavill in Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher, Russell Crowe in Showtime’s Roger Ailes miniseries, and Chris Pine’s TNT drama collaboration with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, I Am the Night. Even three-time Oscar winner (out of 21 nominations) Meryl Streep joins Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in the upcoming second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies. And that’s just the shortlist.

Below, find Rotten Tomatoes’ accounting of the best small-screen debuts for A-list movie stars from the past few years, ranked by season 1 Tomatometer scores (that is, the season on which they  made their TV or streaming debut). A note: Many actors got their start on TV, and while we included stars with a few guest parts on their resume, anyone with a significant number of TV credits (or a series regular or recurring role on a show, no matter how short-lived) got cut.


Julia Roberts, Homecoming: Season 1 (2018) 98%

Famous For: Pretty Woman (1990) 65%Notting Hill (1999) 83%, Erin Brockovich (2000) 85%

How She Fared on TV: While the Oscar winner has filmed a few one-off TV guest spots (a 1999 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and the two-part former series finale of Murphy Brown) and starred in Ryan Murphy’s HBO movie The Normal Heart, Roberts’ starring role in Sam Esmail’s podcast-turned-streaming drama Homecoming, Certified Fresh with a 99% Tomatometer score, is her first true venture as a lead in a series. Critics agree that Homecoming is “an impressive small-screen debut for the actress, balancing a haunting mystery with a frenetic sensibility that grips and doesn’t let go.”


Winona Ryder, Stranger Things: Season 1 (2016) 97%

Famous For: Beetlejuice (1988) 85%, Heathers (1989) 93%, Black Swan (2010) 85%

How She Fared on TV: The ’80s superstar first dipped her toe into TV with the Oscar Isaac–starring HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, but made a splash as the grieving mother of a missing son in Netflix’s nostalgia-heavy phenomenon Stranger Things. Both seasons of the horror series are Certified Fresh at 96% and 94%, respectively, but the first garnered fan and critical attention with a performance that the Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl described as “continually inventive in her grief” and Vulture’s Jen Cheney described as “grounded and convincing in Joyce’s moments of anger and quiet resolve.”


Elizabeth Olsen, Sorry For Your Loss: Season 1 (2018) 94%

Famous For: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) 90%, Kill Your Darlings (2013) 76%, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) 85%

How She Fared on TV: The actress’ feature film debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, was Certified Fresh with a 90% Tomatometer score, and she’s now a critical success in her TV debut as well. The Facebook Watch series — yes, Facebook — was Certified Fresh at 95%, with Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic saying that Olsen “anchors the story with her extraordinary portrayal of Leigh, a writer and barre instructor in Los Angeles whose husband has unexpectedly died.” Olsen is an executive producer of the series, which premiered in September 2018, and was actively involved in its development.


Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies: Season 1 (2017) 93%

Famous For: Election (1999) 92%, Walk the Line (2005) 82%, Wild (2014) 88%

How She Fared on TV: With her production company, Hello Sunshine, Witherspoon shepherded her TV debut Big Little Lies through the development process to the small screen. The first season featured the actress’ performance as a Type-A mom in “a precise turn with sharp, informed decisions made time and time again, in a role perfectly built for Witherspoon’s talent,” wrote Indiewire’s Ben Travers. She’ll next star in the series’ second season, as well as in Apple’s first TV series, a morning-show drama alongside Jennifer Aniston.


Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Honorable Woman: Season 1 () 91%

Famous For: Secretary (2002) 77%The Dark Knight (2008) 94%, Crazy Heart (2009) 90%

How She Fared on TV: Gyllenhaal’s first TV outing, 2014 miniseries The Honorable Woman, was Certified Fresh with the Critics Consensus that she gave an “enthralling performance.” In HBO’s The Deuce, both seasons of which are Certified Fresh at 93% and 99% respectively, critics say she carries the series in “a tour de force performance.”


Penelope Cruz, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018) 89%

Famous For: All About My Mother (1999) 98%, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) 81%

How She Fared on TV: Cruz got real-life friend Donatella Versace’s blessing to portray her in the second season of FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Playing the slain fashion designer’s grieving sister, Cruz’s small role was overshadowed by a career-defining performance for star Darren Criss, who went on to win an Emmy for his role. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called Cruz “simply fearsome” and “no caricature” as the designer. Her version of Versace is “ruthless in her resolve to keep the House of Versace alive as an aesthetic.”


Laura Dern, Enlightened 87%

Famous For: Blue Velvet (1986) 94%, Jurassic Park (1993) 92%, Wild (2014) 88%

How She Fared on TV: One of the first major stars to jump to TV in the peak TV era, Dern starred in the before-its-time HBO series Enlightened as a woman who returns to her life after a public breakdown and time at a mental-health retreat. Both seasons of the canceled-too-soon series were Certified Fresh. “I was blown away by how Dern is able to keep Amy on this knife’s edge between maniacal optimism and seething anger, and there’s no telling which direction she might go at any moment. It’s exhilarating to watch,” wrote Meredith Blake of The AV Club.


Matthew McConaughey, True Detective: Season 1 (2014) 87%

Famous For: Dazed and Confused (1993) 92%Dallas Buyers Club (2013) 92%, Interstellar (2014) 72%

How He Fared on TV: The first season of the anthology series starred McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana detectives investigating a murder over a 17-year span. NPR’s Eric Deggans said the series, which debuted the same year the actor won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, “has the feel of an indie film spread over eight episodes starring two of the best character actors in the business.” Season 2 of the series — which again mined the film community, starred Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, and Rachel McAdams — did not live up to the first.


Cillian Murphy, Peaky Blinders: Season 1 (2013) 87%

Famous For: 28 Days Later (2002) 87%, The Dark Knight (2008) 94%, Sunshine (2007) 77%

How He Fared on TV: Murphy, whose only other TV credit is the 2001 miniseries The Way We Live Now, takes the lead as a crime boss hoping to move up in the world, in this 1919-set period drama that streams on Netflix in the United States. Chris Barton of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “This BBC effort set in post-WWI Birmingham, Britain, has more direct pleasures than the departed Boardwalk Empire thanks in part to a fresh, hellish setting and the reliable chill of Cillian Murphy, whose icy stare pairs well with the show’s grim Nick Cave soundtrack.”


Zooey Deschanel, New Girl: Season 1 (2011) 87%

Famous For: Almost Famous (2000) 89%, Elf (2003) 85%, (500) Days of Summer (2009) 85%

How She Fared on TV: Though she appeared in a few episodes of Weeds in 2006 and an episode of her sister’s series Bones in 2009, Deschanel didn’t fully commit to a lead role on TV until 2011’s New Girl. This is the performance that brought the world the adjective “adorkable,” and the first season was Certified Fresh at 86%. Critics Consensus is that “Deschanel ‘s offbeat style gets a worthy showcase in New Girl, and while It can get awfully cutesy at times, the show benefits from witty writing and a strong supporting cast.”


Benicio Del Toro, Season 1: Miniseries (2018) 90%

Famous For: Traffic (2000) 92%, Sicario (2015) 92%, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) 91%

How He Fared on TV: Aside from just a couple of one-off roles in the late ’80s and early ’90s on shows like Miami Vice and Tales from the Crypt, Del Toro has made his career in the movies. The Oscar winner (for 2000’s Traffic) stars in the Ben Stiller–directed Showtime miniseries Escape at Dannemora, about a real-life 2015 prison break. Carlos Valladares of the San Francisco Chronicle said the series, which debuts November 18, “proves yet again that the miniseries is the site of the most engaging long-form storytelling in television today.”


Paul Giamatti, John Adams: Miniseries (2008) 81%

Famous For: Sideways (2004) 97%, Cinderella Man (2005) 80%, Private Life (2018) 93%

How He Fared on TV: After starring in HBO’s John Adams miniseries (and a guest role on Downton Abbey and the memorable 12 Angry Men spoof on Inside Amy Schumer), Giamatti returned with his first true series in Showtime’s Billions, the first and third seasons of which are both Certified Fresh. Regarding Giamatti’s portrayal of the founding father, Tom Shales of the Washington Post wrote, “Nearly throughout, Giamatti’s performance is captivating, often poignantly so.”


Jude Law, The Young Pope: Miniseries (2016) 80%

Famous For: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) 83%, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) 75%Sherlock Holmes (2009) 69%

How He Fared on TV: Though Law’s TV debut encouraged plenty of bad jokes — you’ll never believe just how young this pope is! — the actor’s performance as the American-born, cigarette-smoking, Cherry Coke Zero-drinking pontificate (previously known as Lenny Belardo) earned plenty of praise. RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico lauded Law’s “magnetic lead performance” and Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen wrote, “I’m transfixed by the sumptuous visual storytelling of creator and director Paolo Sorrentino and mesmerized by Law.”


Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Murder House: Murder House (2011) 72%

Famous For: Tootsie (1982) 90%Cape Fear (1991) 74%, Big Fish (2003) 76%

How She Fared on TV: Ryan Murphy recruited the two-time Oscar winner (and six-time nominee) for his horror anthology American Horror Story, for which she won a Golden Globe and two Emmys. While the actress, who debuted on the small screen alongside Drew Barrymore in HBO TV movie Grey Gardens, left the series after four seasons, she returned in the latest, Apocalypse, and worked with Murphy again as Joan Crawford in the creator’s anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan. Lange’s first four seasons of AHS and Feud were all Certified Fresh, with Salon’s Melanie McFarland saying of Feud, “Lange and Sarandon hold the center with stunning likenesses of the legends they’re portraying, but the actresses also bring their inspirations down to Earth, tempering their decadent rages and vengeful spats with a gutting sense of loneliness that tempers its lightness in solemnity.”


Nicole Kidman, Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017) 72%

Famous For: Moulin Rouge (2001) 76%, The Hours (2002) 79%, Boy Erased (2018) 80%

How She Fared on TV: Kidman won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her portrayal of ritzy California mom Celeste in HBO’s Big Little Lies, but her TV series debut came alongside Elisabeth Moss in the second season of Sundance Channel’s Top of the Lake. The Sydney-set series featured Kidman as the recently separated mother of a troubled teen girl. Slate’s Willa Paskin called Kidman “resplendent,” though the season itself got mixed reviews. Kidman also appeared alongside Clive Owen in the 2012 HBO movie Hemingway & Gellhorn.


Anna Faris, Mom: Season 1 (2013) 70%

Famous For: Scary Movie (2000) 52%, Lost in Translation (2003) 95%, The House Bunny (2008) 43%

How She Fared on TV: Aside from short stints on Friends and Entourage, Mom was Faris’ first leading role on TV. While costar Allison Janney has gotten most of the praise (and the award-season hardware), Andy Greenwald’s Grantland review noted that the “perfectly cast” Faris “kills from the opening scene,” and that the series was “the first multi-cam comedy to crack me up in a decade.”


Sean Penn, The First: Season 1 (2018) 66%

Famous For: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) 78%, Dead Man Walking (1995) 95%, Milk (2008) 93%

How He Fared on TV: The two-time Oscar winner (and five-time nominee) has filmed (or voice recorded) cameos on comedies including Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, Friends, and The Larry Sanders Show (and, fun fact, was on two episodes of Little House on the Prairie as a kid). But his true TV commitment came in 2018 as an astronaut in the Hulu series about the first manned mission to Mars. While the series itself got mixed reviews, its Critics Consensus was that Penn “gives an intensely poignant performance as the driven but conflicted Tom Hagerty” in the slow-moving first season. He’ll next hit the small screen as the star of an HBO miniseries about seventh U.S. President Andrew Jackson.


Vince Vaughn, True Detective: Season 2 (2015) 62%

Famous For: Swingers (1996) 87%Wedding Crashers (2005) 76%, Four Christmases (2008) 25%

How He Fared on TV: Though Vaughn appeared in cameos in Sex and the City and Mr. Show (and appeared in a few bit TV parts in the earliest days of his career), his true TV debut came in the second season of HBO’s True Detective. The season didn’t garner the same acclaim as the first, with critics split on the season as a whole but praising its performances. Chuck Barney of the San Jose Mercury News wrote,“All of the lead actors dig deeply into their roles, with Farrell playing the wary, weary burnout to perfection, and Vaughn shifting into full-throttle intensity.”


Jane Fonda, The Newsroom

Famous For: Barbarella (1968) 74%, 9 to 5 (1980) 83%On Golden Pond (1981) 93%

How She Fared on TV: Aaron Sorkin brought Fonda to the small screen with his TV news drama The Newsroom, in which she played the strong-willed owner of cable news network ACN. But the real critical acclaim for her TV work comes with Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, where, alongside Lily Tomlin, she plays the jilted wife of a husband who leaves her for the man with whom he’s been having an affair for decades. The first season got mixed reactions as a whole, but critics credited its “stellar cast” with bringing the series an “undeniable appeal.”


Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom

Famous For: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) 92%, Dumb & Dumber (1994) 68%, The Martian (2015) 91%

How He Fared on TV: Now a small-screen veteran, with Hulu’s 9/11 drama Looming Tower and Netflix’s Western miniseries Godless under his belt (both Certified Fresh, by the way), Daniels first made the jump to the small screen with Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Critics were mixed on the series, saying it had “good intentions and benefits from moments of stellar dialogue and a talented cast.”


Woody Allen, Crisis in Six Scenes: Miniseries (2016) 18%

Famous For: Annie Hall (1977) 96%Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 91%, Blue Jasmine (2013) 91%

How He Fared on TV: Critics were not kind to the controversial writer and director’s TV debut, the 2016 Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes. Among the scathing reviews were Dana Schwartz of the Observer’s critique that, “Woody Allen setting a new show in the sixties feels a little desperate, like he’s trying to physically yank back his glory days.” Wrote Sonia Saraiya of Variety, “it is hard to see the 80-year-old auteur as charming in the harsh light of the present.”

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