Wow! There’s been a lot of talk in the media this week about which actors can, or some would say should, be allowed to play certain characters on-screen.
The big blow-up came back at the end of April, when Newsweek posted the now infamous article by Ramin Setoodeh, essentially insisting that gay actors can’t play straight characters. Sean Hayes (Jack from Will and Grace) was the initial target of his ire:
Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. (The fact that he only came out of the closet just before Promises was another one of those Ricky Martin-duh moments.) But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.
The question of appearances in casting, whether it be their personal reality (someone’s sexuality for example) or their ethnicity has been a hot topic for a while. Just this week Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly suggested that Beyonce Knowles should play Wonder Woman. As you can guess, the boards lit up with mostly negative reactions. Earlier this year M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender generated a load of controversy surrounding it’s casting when the call for auditions was published, calling for Caucasian actors (or any other ethnicity) to play mainly Inuit and Asian roles:
No ethnic actors were originally cast in the movie, although Dev Patel stepped in as Zuko, replacing Jesse McCartney who pulled out due to scheduling conflicts. The outcry prompted the film’s producer, Frank Marshal to insist that the original casting call did not specify race, but that the ‘poorly worded’ request for auditions came from a third-party talent agency employed by the production firm:
“Ultimately, we all take responsibility for not doing a more thorough job monitoring these frequently used third-party agents and Paramount has since been in regular dialogue with Asian American advocacy groups including the Japanese American Citizens League and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to ensure that such a mistake does not happen in the future.”
This has not stopped fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender from accusing the movie producers and Shyamalan of “racebending”, the casting of an actor in an ethnic role who is not of that race. Recently, SciFi Wire has posted two articles on either side of the casting divide. (The Yea article is written by Marissa Lee of Racebending.com. The Nay article doesn’t claim an author.) As a matter of fact, Racebending.com is even calling for a boycott of the movie in protest the casting selections and to promote greater use of ethnic actors in major Hollywood productions.
A greater representation of ethnicities in major motion pictures is definitely a laudable and obtainable goal, but is truly color-blind casting even possible? My father likes to say that people these days are so open-minded that their brains have fallen out. I don’t believe that he’s correct, but I do wonder if being politically correct in terms of story telling does a disservice to the character.
Casting a character for a movie, especially one that has already been visually defined in either comics, anime or animated features, must be incredibly difficult because fans already have an idea in their heads about what the characters look like. Characters like Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman have been around for years, and are considered icons of the genre. To mess with their appearance is tantamount to sacrilege in certain circles. I remember when Keanu Reeves was cast as John Constantine back in 2003; the hue and the cry because he wasn’t English, he didn’t have an accent and he wasn’t blond was close to deafening. (Reboot with Paul Bettany, please? Pretty please?) And producers weren’t doing any racebending in that case. Can you imagine what would happen if Beyonce was cast as Wonder Woman? Or if Jet Li played Blade? Or if Freida Pinto played Hatsumomo from Memoirs of a Geisha? It wouldn’t work. Why?
People wouldn’t believe them in those roles. Not because people are racist, but because it would prevent them from suspending their disbelief that would be required for them to enjoy the movie. Would anyone accept a movie where the entire Zulu nation was played by Apache Indians? No, we’d sit back and wonder what the heck the production crew was smoking when they cast the movie.
Does this mean colour blind casting is impossible? Certainly not. If you look at EW message boards following Darrin Frannich’s article, people who were completely against the Beyonce casting, stopped and paused when Gina Torres’ name is mentioned
“Although, if we’re talking strong, African-American female actresses, can I offer you a Gina Torres? I want to see her more…”
“Gina Torres – good call!”
“If you’re going to forgo the “Wonder Woman is white” rule, please relax it for Gina Torres.”
Another example would be Idris Elba who’s been cast as Heimdall in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, a film where you expect as Aryan a cast as any ever assembled. Elba’s casting has been embraced by fans (it has met with derision as well, don’t get me wrong) as brilliant. The irony of ‘The White God’ played by a black man is too wonderfully ironic to ignore. Plus, Elba is an incredibly talented actor (we’ll pretend Obsessed never happened, ‘kay?). It was a bold move on the part of the producers.
And that, I think, is key when it comes to colour blind casting. The choices have to be bold. Beyonce is well-known as an actress, she’s very popular, and therefore bankable. As a result, casting her smacks of nothing more than a money grab. She’s also a mediocre talent onscreen and those two factors combine for a lot of backlash (cast her as Dazzler in an ensemble film instead). But cast Gina Torres, a proven talent, unconventionally beautiful, who is not generally well know and *BANG*, you have a choice most people can get on board with. She’s already played the most beautiful woman in the world (Jasmine on Angel), so people would be willing to buy her as an Amazon. The same can be said of Elba, he’s not that well-known, but he’s incredibly talented with a proven track record (The Wire, The Office, Luther) and he plays with people’s expectations of the role of Heimdall. Again, with this characterization that works.
You can’t have it all one way or the other. Casting directors need to look at the story, the characters, their history, audience expectations, and the actors who are up for the role and try to find a balance between all these expectations and the best actor to play that character. Sometimes you are going to be able pull the unexpected out of the hat, other times you are going to have to stick with the traditional depictions from the source material. If that is the case, then every effort should be made to find an actor of the proper ethnicity. I don’t think that was the case with The Last Airbender. I don’t know if it was laziness on the part of Paramount, or lack of money, but if Kevin Costner could find enough Native Americans to cast Dances with Wolves, including the lead roles, there’s no reason that Shyamalan couldn’t do the same for the Inuit and Asian races for his movie.
Some characters can benefit from colour blind casting. Neo for example could have been from any race. Personally, I would have preferred Will Smith in the role, but that wasn’t because of his ethnicity, it’s because he’s a better actor. Other roles, like Captain America or Wonder Woman are iconic in that they have a definitive physical appearance. The same could be said for Blade or The Silver Samurai. In those cases, producers could play with the supporting cast. Would Superman have suffered if Elijah Kelley played Jimmy Olson, or if Jesse L. Martin played Captain George Stacy? No, they wouldn’t have, any more than Tim Burton’s original Batman movie suffered for having Billy D. Williams play Harvey Dent, a casting decision I wish they would have carried over into The Dark Knight, at least in spirit.
As for actors sexuality, if the actor is the best person for the role, who they sleep with should have no bearing on whether they be cast or not. Was Russell Crowe less believable as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind because he never suffered from a mental illness? Was Sandra Bullock less believable as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side because she never saved a young black boy from poverty (well, not at that point in her life anyway)? The answer to those two questions is “NO!” The same can be said for a gay actor playing a straight character. If he or she does his or her job properly, fill’s the shoes of the character, one’s sexuality should never enter into the equation.
So when it comes to that issue, the problem lies solely in the laps of the audience. Because if we aren’t buying a portrayal of a straight character by a gay actor (or vice versa) and there is nothing wrong with the performance, the problem lies with us. We aren’t allowing ourselves to suspend our disbelief because of our own prejudices. Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) recently posted a rebuttal to the harsh criticism of Ramin Setoodeh in The Huffington Post where I think he nails the issue square on the head:
An actor, no matter which sex they’re attracted to, can’t “play” gay or “play” straight. Gay and straight aren’t actable things. You can act effeminate and you can act macho (though macho usually ends up reading as gay), but an actor can’t play gay or straight anymore than they can play Catholic. The most disturbing thing to me about this episode is that the theater critic for Newsweek didn’t know that. Of COURSE gay actors can play straight characters — it’s impossible to believe that Mr. Setoodeh would prefer if Ian McKellen would stop doing King Lear.
The problem doesn’t have anything to do with sexual preference. The problem has everything to do with the fact that we know too much about each other and we care too much about what we know. In one short decade we have been reconditioned to be entertained by the most private areas of other people’s lives.
if it were me, I’d re-direct my anger to the real problem. The honest-to-God, no kidding around, small-minded, mean-spirited, hysterically frightened, pig-ignorant bigots who don’t think homosexuals are fit to get married, adopt children or fight and die for their country. The ones who hold signs saying “God Hates Fags.” Those people aren’t in the backwoods of Idaho, they’re in Congress. Fight THEM. I’ll help.