Steeped in folklore and supernatural tales, Ireland has produced both its share of great writers and great stories, but it has also produced a generation of celebrated Irish film actors and actresses who have brought such stories to life.
As a writer and actor who is fan of all things Ireland – and not just around a certain holiday in March – I’ve noticed that it’s easy for Irish performers to sometimes get overshadowed by their neighbors in the UK. But it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize quality when I see it.
When we talk about genre films, we refer to horror, action, sci-fi, fantasy, and whatever blend of those you can imagine.
In other words, these are not your run-of-the-mill dramatic or historical pieces. They are bold and fun and make us cheer, scream, and cry with the best of them, but through a pop-bubblegum lens.
That said, here are ten extraordinary performances by the best Irish movie stars in genre films, in no particular order.
Top 10 Performances by Actors and Actresses of Irish Descent in Genre Films
1. Cillian Murphy as Jim in 28 Days Later (2002)
As a relative newcomer when this film came out, Cillian holds his own with veterans Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston to deliver a powerful performance of an everyman who wakes from a coma to find his world utterly destroyed by a rogue virus that drives the infected insane with unchecked rage.
2. Stephen Rea as Finch in V for Vendetta (2005)
In a film that boasts Hugo Weaving in a scene-stealing role as the titular and enigmatic V, John Hurt as a deliciously over-the-top dictator, and Natalie Portman as a vulnerable yet fierce protagonist, it’s easy to overlook Stephen Rea’s police detective caught in the middle and trying to piece the story together.
But it’s exactly this inner conflict that gives him gravity and makes us root for him to ultimately make the right choice by the film’s end.
3. Gabriel Byrne as The Devil in End of Days (1999)
It’s not easy to outshine Arnold, especially when he delivers a fantastic performance as a grief-stricken alcoholic police detective in a great dramatic turn, but Byrne does just that, giving us a take on the Devil we haven’t quite seen before.
Managing to be both playful and utterly menacing, you don’t know what he’ll do next, but you know from the start that it’ll be memorable!
4. Michael Fassbender as Magneto in the X-Men series (2011-2019)
It’s never easy for an actor to give us a villain that’s both relatable and sympathetic, and yet, Fassbender does just that during his tenure in the X-Men franchise that started with First Class and ended with Dark Phoenix.
Despite his great power, there is a stark vulnerability to his portrayal of a man who must ultimately decide between family and revenge, as his obsession threatens to turn him into the very thing he hates most.
5. Ciaran Hands as Steppenwolf in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Warner Brothers took a gamble in allowing Zack Syner to remake the film he started, but it paid off in a far superior film. Darker, grittier, and more violent, but with a greater sense of purpose and character development, not the least of which is Steppenwolf, who undergoes a dramatic change from the 2017 version.
Thanks to Hands’ masterful portrayal, what was a throwaway villain the first time around becomes a memorable and menacing rival to anyone in the DC film universe.
6. Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films (2004-2011)
It’s not easy for an actor to take over a role made iconic by another, but that was exactly the challenge for Gambon in becoming Dumbledore after Richard Harris passed away.
And though a lesser actor would have simply tried to copy the success that came before, Gambon took the role in a completely different direction and made it his own.
7. Dylan Moran as David in Shaun of the Dead (2004)
In a film where Simon Pegg and Nick Frost shine as the unforgettable duo driving the story, it takes a great actor to create a worthy antagonist.
Moran does just that as the rival holding a candle for Shaun’s girlfriend, Liz, becoming both a great comedic foil and a character we love to hate.
8. Fionnuala Flanagan as Mrs. Mills in The Others (2001)
The performances are crucial when you make a haunted house movie emphasizing atmosphere over action.
And this creepy and scary film doesn’t disappoint, largely thanks to the supporting cast as much as to the stars, the chief of which is the award-winning turn by Irish actress Fionnuala Flanagan as the housekeeper caught in the middle of a supernatural mystery plaguing the central characters.
9. Brendan Gleeson as Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter franchise (2007-2010)
Not only does Gleeson play one of the most fun and memorable roles in the Harry Potter film franchise, but he plays two different characters inhabiting the same body, leading to two subtly different performances over the series of films in which he appears.
Each time he’s on-screen, we’re riveted to what he will do or say next, and his performance is as unpredictable as the role he portrays!
10. Sam Neill as John Trent in In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
With so many iconic roles in genre films, not the least of which is Alan Grant in Jurassic Park and Weir in Event Horizon, Neill’s performance as an insurance investigator caught up in a Lovecraftian mystery stands out as equally entertaining and utterly captivating as the world descends into chaos and he loses grip on reality over the course of the story.
By the end, we’re no closer than he is to knowing what’s real and what’s a figment of a deranged imagination set free.
Final Thoughts: Irish Actors and Actresses in Genre Movies
The Irish film industry is one to be reckoned with. Not only do they produce brilliant films, but the movie stars involved in these productions are absolutely stellar. Irish actors have shown their skills in various genres, from dramas to comedies, horror to romance.
We’ve highlighted ten impressive performances from great genre films over the years; we hope you enjoy watching these protagonists and antagonists as much as we enjoyed putting this list together!
Love top movie lists? Check out these ones!