American Nepo Babies Have Nothing on the British

American Nepo Babies Have Nothing on the British

First they came for the nepo babies – and every single one of them spoke out. Discussion of New York magazine’s cover story declaring 2022 the year that nepotism went mainstream in Hollywood has extended well into 2023, kickstarting the cyclical debate of the advantage enjoyed – or not! – by the children of famous people.

Those who felt called out responded with varying degrees of self-awareness. “I don’t really care,” said Kate Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, “we’re a storytelling family.” Tom Hanks, whose sons Colin, Truman and Chet are all actors, echoed her, saying “this is a family business”. Hailey Bieber, daughter of Stephen Baldwin, donned a T-shirt reading “nepo baby” and Gwyneth Paltrow, daughter of Blythe Danner and Bruce Paltrow, approved: “I might need a few of these.”

Inevitably, ripples reached across the Atlantic. Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono, had fun with the charge, joking that she was “actually pretty devastated” to be omitted from New York’s write-up: “if I can’t laugh at myself.. well then I really am a privileged cunt”. Lottie Moss, half-sister of Kate, took a different tack. “I’m so sick of people blaming nepotism for why they aren’t rich and famous or successful,” she tweeted

The fact that Moss not only deleted her tweets but also temporarily deactivated her account, then returned to post passively-aggressively about “jealous people”, gives you an idea of Twitter’s response. But, in the broader British media, coverage of the nepo baby brouhaha has been limited, presented as a meme or a Hollywood foible, like Gwyneth’s vagina eggs.

The framing is perhaps telling. Far from a “new trend” (as the Express suggested), nepotism is a driving force throughout British society – not least the media. There are, however, key differences.

As New York’s analysis made clear, nepotism exists on a spectrum. Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, no doubt had more of a leg-up than Kirsten Stewart, whose mother “was the script supervisor on The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas”. (Ten-year-old Stewart had a small part, as “Ring Toss Girl”.)

Much of New York’s case for the dominance of nepo babies in show business boiled down to what has been jokingly termed online “cool parent privilege” – or, quite simply, wealth. Beauty, introductions, online influence: all can be bought and used to pry open doors, especially those that are already ajar. 

Nepotism in the UK is different in the same way that Ricky Gervais’ The Office differs to Steve Carrell’s: It’s subtler, nastier, and arguably more effective in achieving its aims.

As is so often the case, it comes down to class privilege: slippery to define, let alone obtain. Though it often tallies with wealth, class is technically untethered. Felix Salmon, the British-born host of the Slate Money podcast, recently attempted to explain the distinction for bemused US listeners: “You can be very high class, but not have any money. You can be upper-middle class, but poor.”

Even that three-tier model (upper, middle, working) is reductive compared to “the subtle and complex ways” class is judged in practice, wrote anthropologist Kate Fox in her 2004 field guide Watching The English – down to your choice of car and pet, “the words you use and, of course, how you pronounce them”.

Those with the double-edged privilege of class and wealth tend to trace their lineage back to the days of the British empire (Benedict Cumberbatch’s family, for instance, profited from slavery in 18th and 19th century Barbados). If an ancestor, back in the far reaches of the family tree, found success as an actor, that can take root to become not so much the “family business” as a birthright.

The Redgrave dynasty – begun in the late 19th century by the silent film actor Roy Redgrave – now spans five generations of actors, including EGOT-winner Vanessa Redgrave, her daughters Joely and the late Natasha Richardson, and their children. 

“It was always said to me ‘finish school, and preferably some studies and then you can do what you want afterwards’,” said Daisy Bevan, Joely’s daughter with producer and Working Title Films co-chair Tim Bevan – who, sure enough, went into acting. Micheál Richardson, Natasha’s son with Liam Neeson, was cast in thriller Cold Pursuit after his dad suggested him to the director.

The ties can be dizzying to untangle – but are so rife within British culture, they are taken for part of the fabric. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) – among Britain’s most prestigious acting schools – was founded by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a member of the prosperous Beerbohm family, in 1904. His descendant Georgina ​​Moffat, born 1989, went on to have a recurring role in Skins.

Hilda Hanbury, a member of Tree’s theatre troupe around the turn of the century, gave rise to her own dynasty with her son, grandsons and great-grandchildren – the far-reaching, affluent Fox family – all in the acting business. Erstwhile “anti-woke” activist Laurence Fox graduated from RADA in 2001, bringing the family connection full circle.

Benedict Cumberbatch, too, was born into not just wealth but to successful actor parents – though, he has claimed, this has only been a burden. “All the posh-bashing that goes on,” he said back in 2012. “[I’m] castigated as a moaning, rich public school bastard, complaining about only getting posh roles… It makes me think I want to go to America.”

Such “class-typing” is certainly rife within the screen industries – but only to Cumberbatch’s advantage. Notably, the British actors who actually relocated to the US for roles have said they struggled to break through at home because of their class and/or race, including Daniel Kaluuya, Idris Elba, Dev Patel and David Oyelowo.

It shows how class privilege in Britain works: not only by opening doors for some, but also shutting others out. A paper published in the Sociology journal in November 2022 found that just 8 percent of actors, musicians and writers were from working-class backgrounds: half the number of the 70s, despite decades of initiatives to make the arts more open and diverse.

Those in positions of influence within the arts, however, tended to be from privileged backgrounds, and to favour those who were the same. The 2021 Screened Out report by the Policy & Evidence Centre (PEC) found that 61 percent of arts officers, producers and directors had at least one parent in a higher or lower managerial, administrative or professional occupation, “making it amongst one of the most elite occupations… in the entire British economy”.

Heather Carey, co-author of the Screened Out report and director of Work Advance, tells VICE that nepotism is “entrenched” within the film and television industries, and made worse by their tendency to recruit informally from a small, familiar pool. “The time between a project being commissioned and production starting can be very tight, often prohibitive to the type of open and competitive recruitment process seen in other industries,” she says. In 2020, only 25 percent of the workforce came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, compared to 38 percent across the economy, while 53 percent were privileged – up from 47 percent in 2014.

Over the past decade, Michael Sheen, Christopher Eccleston, Julie Walters, Gary Oldman and other actors from working-class backgrounds have warned of dwindling opportunities for those like them, and been met with either indifference or outright hostility. “They should probably stop talking… given the money they earn,” said Laurence Fox in 2016, denying being “particularly posh” despite lavish family wealth and having attended Harrow at the cost of some £35,000 a year. (To be fair, he was expelled – just like his actor-dad James.)

The sense that it is impolite to interrogate class – or even to call attention to its “homogenous façade”, to quote critic Kayleigh Donaldson – is another way in which the system functions. Either you’re born privileged, and thereby maybe oblivious about how your passage has been eased; or you must succeed by their rules – crucially, without being seen to be trying.

For those who want to “get on”, the time-honoured route is through education. In Sad Little Men: How Public Schools Failed Britain, Richard Beard describes how his builder father in Swindon scraped together the fees to send him to boarding school so that he might “belong for life” among Britain’s “top people”. True enough, once Beard was in – first at Pinewood prep, then Radley College, now charging nearly £15,000 a term – his new-money background was of little interest to his peers: “the fact of being there counted as credentials enough”.

A private education can certainly be advantageous for an actor, as the sheer number of them suggests. Like Foxes Sr and Jr, Cumberbatch too went to the all-boys, all-boarding Harrow. Then there’s Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West, Damian Lewis and Tom Hiddleston: Old Etonians, at the present-day cost of some £15,000 a term. Tilda Swinton, Imogen Poots and The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy are alumni of Queen’s Gate in South Kensington – alongside the actual Queen-Consort Camilla. Emma Corrin and Carey Mulligan attended Woldingham in the rolling Surrey hills, where boarding prices start at £13,000 a term. Newly crowned A-lister Florence Pugh, Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke and Sebastian Croft, and Skins’ Sebastian de Souza of Skins studied at St Edward’s Oxford, known as “Teddies” – as did, historically, Sir Laurence Olivier.

By way of comparison, just 7 percent of the British population is privately educated. It is a “ridiculous” proportion, said Glaswegian actor James McAvoy, addressing Britain’s “class ceiling” on The Late Show in 2016: “If all the actors are posh actors, it’s a symptom of something wrong in our education system.”

But, Beard’s book would suggest, it’s not their exemplary tuition in drama giving them an edge, but the connections and “way of being” they gain along the way. “If it was just school, no one would pay so much money,” he writes. A private education can serve as a pipeline into the performing arts by bringing those who weren’t born well-connected in contact with those who were.

Robert Pattinson, for instance, is not from a theatrical family, but The Sandman’s Tom Sturridge is: His mother and maternal grandfather are both actors and his father, a BAFTA-winning director and screenwriter who has often cast his mother. Pattinson and Sturridge have been friends since they were 13, having both attended the Harrodian School (Netflix comedian Jack Whitehall, newly-cast Guardians of the Galaxy star Will Poulter and 1917’s George Mackay are graduates, too). Pattinson is even godfather to Sturridge’s niece – while Sturridge’s sister Matilda also an actor.

It goes on: In their early days in Hollywood, Pattinson and Sturridge were friends and occasional roommates with Redmayne (Eton), Andrew Garfield (Priory Preparatory, City of London Freemen’s School) and Charlie Cox (Sherborne). Sturridge was in a relationship with Sienna Miller, an alumna of the famed Lee Strasberg drama school, which her mother used to run in London. The couple reportedly introduced Pattinson to FKA Twigs, who attended St Edward’s School in Cheltenham (though on scholarship) – where she appeared in a production of Bugsy Malone alongside The Crown’s Josh O’Connor.

The circles are close, and so tightly-packed as to be virtually impenetrable by anyone without the right credentials. A 2016 YouGov survey of people aged 16 to 25 found that 44 percent of those from poorer families said they did not know anyone who could help them find a job or work experience – let alone in acting. Even setting aside explicit nepotism shown by the “old boys’ network”, the “polish” afforded by a fee-paying education can give individuals an edge.

That self-belief can be rocket fuel behind any acting hopeful. Sixteen-year-old Henry Cavill, then a boarder at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, introduced himself as an aspiring actor to Oscar winner Russell Crowe, who was shooting Proof of Life on the grounds: “I thought I may as well go over and ask this famous guy about it.”

When combined with opportunity, it can seem as though acting success was always fated. Emily Blunt has said her career “fell into my lap” after she was head-hunted through Hurtwood House’s drama programme; her “first real non-school play” was opposite Dame Judi Dench. (She appears to have paid it forward, with her little brother Sebastian playing a soldier in The Edge of Tomorrow, having previously only appeared in short films.)

Carey tells VICE that privileged candidates are perceived by employers to project confidence and competence – “and, armed with the right cultural references, benefitted from being a ‘cultural match’ with those making hiring decisions. This contrasted strongly with acute feelings of self-doubt amongst those from working-class backgrounds, who struggled to find the confidence to speak up and stand out.”

With family connections thrown in, the elements normally left to chance for show business success are greatly reduced. After deciding to aspire to acting at age 12, Bridgerton’s breakout star Phoebe Dynevor was well set up to succeed between her parents being Coronation Street actor Sally and screenwriter Tim, and the incubation of private school (Cheadle Hulme School, also the alma mater of Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood). Dynevor landed her first job aged 14.

The schools benefit from their reflected success, too. George Mackay’s school newsletter trumpets his family “as Harrodian legends”, with Mackay’s costume designer mother and former lighting and stage manager father both lending their talents to productions.

None of this is to dismiss Dynevor, Mackay or any other actors’ talent or hard work – they would not have progressed without both – but it does illuminate the barriers for others. In the screen industries, nepotism is not so much a blindspot but “how it’s done”, said Carey of research prepared for the BFI in 2017: “If you don’t have the network, it is incredibly difficult to get in and progress.”

Indeed, the hurdles to becoming an actor now begin at state school, with performing arts increasingly squeezed out of the curriculum by cuts to core funding. The number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade, a 2021 Labour analysis revealed. 

Of those who continue studying drama and acting courses after school, “a higher share” are privately-educated, says Carey – perpetuating the pipeline of privilege. A three-year degree at RADA costs around £30,000, and that’s only the start of the hustle. The BFI report, in 2017, found that the average film worker did 46 days’ unpaid work before gaining their first “official” position.

The worsening cost of living and housing crises in London, and other cities where the creative industries are headquartered, has raised the bar progressively higher. Now more than ever, pursuing the arts is an option only for those who don’t have to depend on them to make a living, and who have the financial freedom to develop their craft.

As Kate Fox foresaw in 2004, predictions that the “inexorable spread of American cultural imperialism” would undo class distinctions in the UK have not come to pass. Instead, 20 years later, we are finding ourselves with the worst of both worlds, with family wealth increasingly essential for a creative career – and the inherited privilege of class a stubborn, impenetrable seal on top.

What this means is not just a leg-up for a lucky few, but a structurally unequal Britain for everyone – with the repercussions for the arts among the least concerning, argued Lily Allen (daughter of actor Keith and sister of Game of Thrones actor Alfie). “The nepo babies y’all should be worrying about are the ones working for legal firms… banks, and… politics,” she tweeted, “if we’re talking about real world consequences and robbing people of opportunity.”

It is true that – with an absurdly high proportion of senior judges, politicians, diplomats and journalists privately-educated, and sometimes following in their parents’ footsteps – “power rests with a narrow section of the population”, to quote a 2019 government report into elitism in Britain. And, as Decoder’s Kelsey McKinney wrote, any “nepo baby” in show business is small fry compared to “those that are primed to inherit the earth silently, without attention, and without anyone noticing”: the children of Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch and other billionaires.

But that is not a reason not to care about the UK’s creative class gap. For a start, it is more pronounced than in other sectors, with a colossal 250,000 working-class people needing to be employed for the industry to be more representative. “Creative occupations are amongst the most elite in the economy,” Carey tells VICE. Key creative roles are now more dominated by people from privileged backgrounds than doctors, judges, management consultants or stockbrokers.

Not only does this mean that what art gets made is decided by the elite; it works against social mobility more broadly, keeping those with privilege centre-stage while denying those without it a platform. “The point is not that the next Gary Oldman might be working at Sports Direct,” wrote critic Danny Leigh in 2018. “The point is he or she could be there forever.”

Meanwhile, Tom Hardy has admitted to affecting an accent to obscure his “bourgeois, middle class, posh” background – having boarded at Reed’s School in Surrey as the only child of screenwriter Chips Hardy – while enjoying a range of parts never extended to working class actors, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Inception to Mad Max: Fury Road. Father and son later created the 2017 series Taboo together; a Vanity Fair headline, intending to generate excitement for the collaboration, inadvertently captured its grim predictability: “Tom Hardy and His Dad Wrote a TV Show Together, and You’re Going to Watch It”.

It speaks to the breadth of this “class crisis” as not just an economic failure, but a cultural one. Gatekeeping by a small, unrepresentative sliver of the population is keeping culture stale: curtailing the breadth of art – stories, ideas, experiences – that we all get to share in, and maintaining the status quo. “Working-class voices and their lens on life are being disappeared, and their stories are being told through the inaccurate prism of the privileged,” wrote Dr Lisa McKenzie, a working-class academic and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, in 2021. It’s no wonder that so many people feel shut out of British public life and culture.

Meanwhile, nepo babies have been keen to stress that their famous parents were indifferent to their acting dreams, or even actively discouraged them. “There was never any expectation on me… and that gave me huge confidence,” said The Big Short actor Rafe Spall, son of Timothy. “Initially my parents were anxious because it’s such an unpredictable profession,” says Max Irons, son of Jeremy and actor Sinéad Cusack, beneath a headline heralding him as “Hollywood royalty”.

Other interviews with privately educated or otherwise privileged actors have centred the challenges they had to overcome to succeed: Emily Blunt’s childhood stutter, Will Poulter’s struggle with dyslexia and dyspraxia, Pattinson’s troubles with bullies. These are all potentially traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, and all suffering is relative; but the emphasis on them points to an awareness of the need for an origin story more interesting than knowing the right people, a desire to prove the part they played in their own success. 

In the big picture, it misses the point: Even if they had to triumph over adversity, the option to try was always theirs. Of course it’s always going to be an advantage for an aspiring actor if Mummy and Daddy are successful actors themselves, or at the very least rich. The issue – and where we are increasingly headed – is when it’s a prerequisite to act at all.

Read our rough shortlist of the UK’s showbiz nepo babies.

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