n every great story told on the big screen, there’s a character whose journey captivates us. This character, typically portrayed by the lead actor, becomes the focal point of the narrative, drawing us into their world. The lead actor is our anchor within the world of a story. Through their journey, we experience various aspects of the human condition — the lifeblood of what draws us to stories in the first place.

What is a Lead Actor?

First, let’s define a lead actor

Let’s start by looking at the definition of a lead actor (aka "leads") and what distinguishes one from other actors in a film or theatre production. 


What is a lead actor?

A lead actor, also known as a leading actor, is the performer who portrays the primary character in a film or play. This crucial character holds significant importance to the story, shaping its direction and propelling the plot forward with their actions and decisions. As the central figure, the lead actor often carries the weight of the narrative, commanding the most dialogue and occupying the majority of screen or stage time, making their role pivotal in capturing the audience's attention and conveying the intended message effectively.

What is a Lead Actor Defined By?

  • Charisma and presence
  • Versatility and range
  • Dedication
  • Storytelling through performance

What is a Lead Actor Defined By?

Characteristics of a lead actor

Lead actors possess qualities that go beyond their acting skills. These include charisma, emotional depth, adaptability, and a commanding screen presence. Understanding these traits is crucial to appreciating the nuanced performances that set certain actors apart. 

Charisma and presence 

Lead actors must have an extraordinary screen presence that can captivate audiences. They need to be able to command attention and create an emotional connection with viewers. 

In this video, Marlon Brando, highly regarded as one of the best screen actors in history, gives a perspective into the craft of creating a presence on the silver screen. Here is our picks for Brando's best performances.

How Marlon Brando Changed Screen Acting Forever

Versatility and range 

To effectively portray a variety of characters, lead actors must possess a wide range of acting skills. From being able to switch between different accents and mannerisms to providing convincing physicality, the ability to draw on a number of techniques is key.


Leads must be committed to their roles in order to portray them accurately and authentically. This involves delving deep into the character's backstory and motivations in order to bring them to life.

Storytelling through performance

A lead actor demonstrates a profound understanding of the script's nuances. They analyze the subtext, symbolism, and underlying themes, allowing them to deliver a multi-dimensional performance. Their interpretation of the script adds depth and complexity to the character, enhancing the overall storytelling.

This video analysis by Nerdwriter breaks down how iconic actor James Gandolfini portrays the emotional arc of the character Tony Soprano in the trailblazing series The Sopranos.

How James Gandolfini Navigates Emotion

Carrying the Narrative

One of the primary responsibilities of a lead actor is to carry the narrative forward. They are entrusted with driving the plot, engaging the audience, and maintaining their interest throughout the performance. Their presence and performance shape the overall progression and impact of the story.

Now that we've identified the key characteristics of a lead actor, let's delve into the world of cinema and highlight some of the most iconic performances by lead actors. These performances not only embody the traits we've discussed, but they've also left an indelible mark on film history.

Best Lead Actor Roles

Iconic lead actor performances

Throughout the decades, numerous talented actors have taken on leading roles in movies that define their respective eras. Here are some iconic lead actor performances from various genres of film: 

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942)

As a cynical but passionate American expatriate, Bogart gave one of the most memorable performances in film history as Rick Blaine. His passionate and nuanced portrayal won him an Academy Award for Best Actor for this iconic movie.

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954)

As a former boxer from the wrong side of the tracks, Brando's performance as Terry Malloy is considered one of the greatest of all time. Brando won an Oscar for his performance in this classic American drama.

I Coulda Been a Contender  •  On the Waterfront

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)

Playing the leading role of troubled boxer Jake LaMotta, Robert De Niro gave an intense and emotionally charged performance that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Raging Bull  •  You Want Your Steak?

Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001)

A powerhouse performance from Washington as Alonzo Harris, a corrupt and manipulative narcotics officer, showcased his ability to embody complex characters. His compelling and intense portrayal won him an Academy Award for Best Actor, solidifying his place in cinematic history.

Training Day  •   Alonzo’s King Kong Speech

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011)

As the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher is widely considered to be one of her most iconic performances. She won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in this biopic.

The Iron Lady  •  Cabinet Meeting Scene

These actors have left an indelible mark in film history with their powerful and captivating performances. Their characters live on through the stories they tell, reminding us of the importance of a lead actor in crafting compelling narratives. 

A leading actor plays a crucial role in every story on screen or stage. Through iconic performances, they become part of the collective imagination and culture, creating lasting memories. From classic to modern films, an actor in a leading role is a key part of any great performative story.

Up Next

What is a Character Actor?

As we shift from exploring lead actors' vital role and impact, let's delve into character actors, unsung heroes who bring diverse and memorable personalities to life on the screen. They contribute significantly to the richness and depth of the narrative in the cinematic world.

Up Next: How Character Actors Work →
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