What do I mean by B-list? I mean, actors and actresses who do strong work in good and/or well known films, but who will never be the main draw of a big-budget film (though, will often be the main draw in an indie). They have lots of talent, they play important roles, and they are well-liked, but they are never going to open a blockbuster film.
Emily Blunt — Blunt is on the cusp of the A-list, but I’m not sure she ever gets there: As kick-ass as she is in a movie like Edge of Tomorrow, and as amusing as she can be in a movie like Five Year Engagement (which had a few decent sequences), Blunt will never be the person who carries a major feature film, but she’ll always be an excellent complement to the A-list star (Jason Segel, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep) who does.
Patrick Wilson — Wilson is exactly the person you hire when you have a tight budget, and you want the focus to be on the story rather than the talent. He is familiar, likable, and serviceable for nearly any male role, although he seems to excel in B-movies and indies.
Rose Byrne — Byrne is a terrific actress, and every time I see her, I grow more impressed with her range, especially knowing her first as the stone-cold bitch in Damages and only coming to her comedic abilities later in Bridesmaids and Neighbors (where she was insanely good). But nobody is going to rush out to see a “Rose Byrne” movie, although no one will be sad to see Byrne in someone else’s film.
Chris Messina — He can do television leading man, and he can play the boyfriend to the A-list star in feature films, he’s great in ensembles, and he can also go to town on an indie movie role, but Messina has a ceiling that only a few men of his type can bust through (Paul Rudd may be the only one).
Vera Farmiga — Whenever an A-list leading man in his 40s or 50s wants a love interest who is age appropriate, Farmiga is always one of the first two or three people on that list (along with Rosemarie Dewitt, who I adore, but who doesn’t quite rise to B-lister). She can help your film get an Oscar, she can help your leading man earn an Oscar, and she can even get a nomination herself, but she will never be the reason why someone goes to a movie.
Jon Hamm — I hate to concede it because I am such a huge fan of Hamm, but I don’t think he’s ever going to be an A-lister, even though he looks like an A-list star. He doesn’t want to do superhero films (to his credit), which means he’s likely to bounce back and forth between ensemble roles in films marketing to older adults, smaller roles in comedies, and leading man roles in indies. He’s infinitely recognizable, but rarely the draw (see Million Dollar Arm).
Zoe Saldana — Who else has substantial roles in three major movie franchises (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek) and still has to schlep it for a shitty NBC miniseries (Rosemary’s Baby)? Saldana should be a huge star, but her one attempt to open a movie on her own (Colombiana) failed to make much of a mark (though, she was excellent in it).
Nicholas Hoult — Poor Hoult. He even plays a B-lister to his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence. Make him the lead in a genre movie (Warm Bodies) or a huge blockbuster (Jack the Giant Slayer) and the results are likely to be the same ($65 million). He seems like the kind of guy who will always be great in an ensemble, or a cheap hire (like Patrick Wilson) for a bigger picture that just needs a solid, reliable actor without a lot of flash or drama (X-Men: First Class).
Mary Elizabeth Winstead — Winstead is in everything, from the leading female in Scott Pilgrim to the daughter in the Die Hard franchise to Mary Todd Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to the lead opposite Aaron Paul in the addiction drama, Smashed. She’s a very versatile and familiar actress, but not a particularly well-known one, which works to her advantage: She can bounce around in a lot of roles in movies and television without ever being typecast as one.
Ben Whishaw — Were it only that we lived in a world where Ben Whishaw could be an A-list leading man. Alas, Whishaw can lead a brilliant British series (The Hours), and can hold his own in a massive ensemble (Cloud Atlas), and he can even take on a recurring role in the James Bond films, but never expect Whishaw to open a film himself. He’s just not the type.