Channelling their efforts: 12 movie stars who decided to downsize in search of meatier roles on TV

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Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." These were the words of Pauline Kael (1919-2001), the legendary American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine.

Nowadays it looks like even movie stars are losing interest in movies, shunning increasingly formulaic Hollywood opportunities to make more “great trash”, and choosing instead to embrace the “golden age of television” with its innovative storytelling and dramatic excellence.

Not so long ago, movie stars couldn’t do television even if they wanted to, bound as they were by exclusive studio contracts. Even after the studio system crumbled and stars became free agents, doing TV was, until recently, viewed as a fall from grace – a badge of shame or the result of fiscal desperation to pay the mortgage on that Malibu mansion.

Nowadays, actors face no such stigma or snobbery. They realise that in the freelance economy, they are only as good as the buzz for their most recent project, regardless of screen size or budget. Better yet, they know that being on a hit TV series is a smart strategy to build their fan base and secure a megabucks payday when a good movie offer does come along.

Streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have also helped to create an unprecedented demand for new shows – and for familiar faces (read "brands") to headline them and attract new viewers – in their battle for ­dominance over broadcast and cable networks. This allows even veteran movie stars, such as Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (Grace and Frankie), to pick and choose roles – or even have a series created just for them. Hollywood does them few such favours.

Artistically, too, there are creative benefits in choosing telly over the movies. Actors such as Sharon Stone (Agent X) and Clive Owen (The Knick) are discovering how much more satisfying it is to be able to explore more facets of a character over many hours, as opposed to 90 minutes in a one-off movie gig. The steady paycheque doesn't hurt, either.

Then there is the allure of working with a genius – showrunner Nic Pizzolatto's sheer writing brilliance on True Detective (for season one at least) attracted the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, ­Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn.

Mind you, it does not always end well. Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte's horse-racing saga, Luck, fell at the first hurdle after a single season on HBO. Even Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) saw her sitcom, ­Julie, canned after six episodes.

Below, Greg Kennedy takes a look at a dozen ­movie stars, who, for better or worse, swapped the big screen for TV roles.

Kiefer Sutherland

Movie mojo: Hollywood first noticed Sutherland for his poignant portrayal of a Depression-era Canadian lad in The Bay Boy (1984). Tinseltown turned him into a bully (Stand By Me), a vampire (The Lost Boys) and a medical student fascinated by death (Flatliners). More recently, however, his movies have largely been box-office duds.

TV buzz: One of the first stars to make the leap to the small screen, in 2001, as counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer in 24. He continued to appear in the real-time thriller until 2014 (a reboot without him will begin this year). However, Touch, in which he played the father of a gifted child, was cancelled after two seasons. He is back on TV in the autumn in political drama Designated Survivor, as a cabinet secretary who becomes president after a terrorist attack wipes out most of the US government.

Kevin Spacey

Movie mojo: With two Oscars – for neo-noir crime ­thriller The Usual Suspects (1996) and midlife crisis-themed American Beauty (1999) – plus the fact that he does ­wickedly funny impressions on the talk-show circuit and has impeccable stage credentials as former artistic ­director of London's Old Vic theatre, Spacey's reputation is rock-solid.

TV buzz: Surprisingly, perhaps, despite all his success on the big screen and on stage, it is his Golden Globe- winning role as the conniving, murderous US president Frank Underwood over four seasons of Netflix drama House of Cards that really elevated him from acclaimed actor into a global phenomenon.

Zooey Deschanel

Movie mojo: With her gift for deadpan comedy, this actress, singer-songwriter, model and creator of the female-focused website HelloGiggles won praise for roles movies including Almost Famous (2000), The Good Girl (2002), The New Guy (2002), Elf (2003) and Failure to Launch (2006). She also won over drama fans big-time in 2009, opposite Joseph ­Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer.

TV buzz: Since 2011 she's been fizzier and sweeter than a cool summer soda as Jessica Day on the hit Fox sitcom New Girl. Describing her performance, USA Today wrote: "Given a role tailored to launch her from respected indie actor to certified TV star, Deschanel soars, combining well-honed skills with a natural charm". Did we mention she also plays keyboards, percussion, banjo and ukulele?

Tom Hiddleston

Movie mojo: As debate swirls as to whether this lanky Brit might be the next James Bond now that Daniel Craig has reportedly stepped down, we can say with certainty that the nimble trickster, a fan-favourite as Loki in Marvel's Thor and Avengers movies, is a crowd-pleaser who always lands on his cinematic feet, most recently scoring critical acclaim for High-Rise – a sci-fi slice of class warfare adapted from G Ballard's novel of the same name. Ahead lies Kong: Skull Island, a 2017 reboot for the big ape.

TV buzz: North American audiences and critics are swooning over the sandy-haired 35-year-old in The Night ­Manager, a TV mini-series ­adaptation of John le Carré's novel, in which he plays a spy with a heart of gold who takes on a soulless arms dealer played by Hugh Laurie. A savvy careerist, Hiddleston is a rising star in both mediums.

Christian Slater

Movie mojo: Even before cult-movie immortality as a crazed Jack Nicholson wannabe in the dark comedy Heathers (1989), Slater had already co-starred, while a teenager, opposite Sean Connery in the medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1986). He went on to prove himself a bankable star in movies such as Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Broken Arrow (1996) and Hard Rain (1998), though hits have been few and far between in more recent years.

TV buzz: Slater tried his hand at sitcom for Fox in 2011 with Breaking In, but poor ratings led to cancellation after two seasons. The 46-year-old has finally hit ­critical and ratings pay dirt as the title character and chief ­anarchist in Mr Robot, the USA Network cyber-thriller, for which he won his first Golden Globe in January. The second season begins this summer.

Jessica Lange

Movie mojo: Discovered by producer Dino De Laurentiis, this blonde bombshell won the first of five Golden Globes by monkeying around with King Kong in the 1976 movie remake. She went on to win two Academy Awards – as a soap-opera star in Tootsie and a manic-depressed housewife in Blue Sky. Many distinguished movie roles followed. In short, her reputation in the Hollywood pantheon is bulletproof.

TV buzz: Yet it has been her transition to television in recent years that has thrilled critics and introduced the 67-year-old to a new generation. She won her first Emmy playing Big Edie, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's famed aunt, in HBO's Grey Gardens (2009). And she's been scary good – winning two more Emmys – for her inspired creepiness during the first four seasons (2011-2015) of the American Horror Story anthology series.

James Spader

Movie mojo: So maybe he was a rich, arrogant jerk to Molly Ringwald in John Hughes's Pretty in Pink (1986), but after his breakthrough as the voyeur in Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) won him the best actor award at Cannes, there was no stopping this cerebral actor in movies such as the sci-fi action hit Stargate (1994), David Cronenberg's psycho-­thriller Crash (1996) and, more recently, in the Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

TV buzz: TV, too, has proved a great showcase for Spader's acting abilities. As legal eagle Alan Shore, first on The Practice and then on its spin-off Boston Legal, he won three Emmys. Then came Spader's weirdly wonderful turn as regional manager Robert California on the eighth season of The Office. He is now riding high as the ruthless, eccentric master-criminal Raymond "Red" Reddington in crime drama The Blacklist, which has been renewed for a fourth season.

Kerry Washington

Movie mojo: After star turns in biopics about musician Ray Charles (Ray, 2004) and despot Idi Amin (The Last King of ­Scotland, 2006), she tugged at our heartstrings big-time as German-­speaking slave Broomhilda von Schaft in Quentin Tarantino's revenge epic Django Unchained (2012). In 2014, Time magazine included her in its Time 100 list of the most influential people.

TV buzz: The talented 39-year-old can thank TV, ­however, for finally making her a household name. As the star of acclaimed ­showrunner Shonda Rhimes's drama ­Scandal, since 2012 she has entranced viewers as Olivia Pope, a crisis-management expert to the power ­brokers in ­Washington. This month she also starred in the HBO film ­Confirmation – a ­political thriller about sexual ­harassment and the US Supreme Court.

Matthew McConaughey

Movie mojo: It's hard to believe the guy who was a goofball in his breakout role, in the coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused (1993), and the villain in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) has matured into one of the finest dramatic actors of his generation, with roles in box-office hits including Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street and Interstellar, and an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club (2013).

TV buzz: When he's not suavely tooling about in luxury Lincolns in TV adverts, the man behind what critics are calling the "McConaissance" era has made some dazzling television drama – most notably as the eccentric, intense Detective Rust Cohle in season one of HBO's anthology series True ­Detective in 2014, alongside Woody Harrelson.

Ray Liotta

Movie mojo: Those hypnotic blue eyes of his are stars in their own right – and Liotta put them to good psycho- pathic use as mobster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese's gangster drama Goodfellas (1990), and as the heartbreaking Shoeless Joe Jackson in baseball fantasy Field of Dreams (1989). More recently, he impressed critics in ­Killing Them Softly (2012) – but not so much in the redundant sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014).

TV buzz: Liotta must feel pretty lucky these days. His cop drama Shades of Blue – already renewed for a second season – has revived his career like a hypodermic needle of adrenalin jabbed straight to the heart. Despite lukewarm reviews, nine million viewers tune in each week to watch Liotta – as Lieutenant Matt Wozniak, a corrupt precinct commander – alongside co-star Jennifer Lopez.

Heather Graham

Movie mojo: Graham gave her breakthrough performance in director Gus Van Sant's critically acclaimed 1989 movie Drugstore Cowboy. Critics later adored her as the starlet Rollergirl in Boogie Nights (1997) and as co-star in Bowfinger and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, both in 1999. As the baby mama in The Hangover, she also earned comic kudos in 2009.

TV buzz: An early convert to the small screen, Graham had a memorable role in David Lynch's atmospheric serial drama Twin Peaks in the early 1990s. She also appeared in nine episodes of the medical comedy Scrubs in 2004 – but when it came her turn to headline her own series, Emily's Reasons Why Not, a lame copycat of Sex and the City, the 2006 show was cancelled after only one episode was broadcast. Better stick to movies, Heather.

James Franco

Movie mojo: He is only 38 and already has his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – not too shabby. Franco's movie hits include Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, Pineapple Express, Milk, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Oz the Great and Powerful, This Is the End and The Interview. He garnered a best actor Oscar nod for his role in the mountain-climbing survival drama 127 Hours.

TV buzz: All of his success began with a role on Freaks and Geeks, a much-loved TV show cancelled after just 12 episodes in 1999, now a fondly remembered cult hit – in 2013, TV Guide ranked it top of their list of shows that were "cancelled too soon". This year, Franco also shone in time-travel mini-series 11.22.63, based on the Stephen King novel. Jack Moore of GQ wrote: "What Franco gives is a vanity-free, indulgence-free performance that feels like the work of an Old Hollywood legend."