Casting controversy … It seems hardly a month goes by without some! What’s more, the same-old arguments and responses get wheeled out every time. Sometimes, writers may have trouble separating their own feelings about various casting troubles from the realities of the industry … Plus other times, the realities of industry actively entrench those same-old problems. Now what??
Well, here’s a round up of the consistent casting mistakes, misgivings and confusions writers have when diverse characters and the actors who play them intersect. Enjoy!
1) “It should be the ‘best actor for the job’
You’re right, it absolutely should – so how come the SAME actors get all the roles? We’re not even talking about stars either (though if we are, see number 7 on this list!). Instead, we see the same actors in the same roles these ways:
- White actors in historical pieces (and the majority of stuff generally!)
- Able-bodied actors playing disabled characters
- Straight actors playing gay characters
- Trans characters played by cis* actors (*not transgender)
- white-centric story worlds
- male-centric story-worlds
In fact, this is SO normalised, that every single time anyone complains about this, it becomes a big row. The idea of an actor like Dev Patel as David Copperfield is seen as ‘political correctness gone mad’, but why? Dev Patel is British, he’s a great actor and David Copperfield is a fictional character. Why the hell CAN’T he be David Copperfield? Because it’s an historical piece? Seriously??
But also, why can’t disabled people play disabled roles for once? Actor Adam Pearson was not even considered for an audition for the new film about Joseph Merrick, aka ‘The Elephant Man’. This was despite the facts Adam was known to the producers AND has a similar facial aesthetic to Merrick’s. So Adam makes a great point when he says, ‘If a disabled actor can’t get a look in at playing a disabled character what chance do they have of getting anything else?’ Check out the video and thread, HERE.
In A Nutshell
Life is not a meritocracy and neither is acting. We live in a hierarchal society where the odds are against some more than others. Besides, all marginalised creatives want is that ‘look in’ Adam Pearson speaks off, they don’t want a free pass. They just want the chance.
2) The IDEA is what ‘they’ ARE?
It’s true that movies and TV shows are primarily about entertainment, not education. Creatives’ ‘primary responsibility’ is not to be BORING. Yup, completely. BUT …
… why then are writers and other creatives RECYCLING the ‘same-old, same-old’??
We can’t know what we don’t know by MAGIC. It takes empathy and research. Every writer knows this. Yet too often, what research means is just not good enough. We end up recycling the same old tropes and character role functions because we have not identified what we don’t know.
Now the good news is, when it comes to the CRAFT of writing, finding out what we don’t know is fairly straightforward. We can read the books, do the courses and buckle down.
We can do the same when it comes to diverse characters (**coughREADMYBOOKcough**), but we should ALWAYS LISTEN to real marginalised people and what they have to go through. If we don’t, then we run into the issue of what Chimanda Ngozi Adichie calls ‘The Single Story‘:
‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.’
Such stereotypes that are exacerbated by writing and casting the ‘single story’ way may include (but are not limited to):
- Trans women = men. As Laverne Cox posits here, every time a non trans actor plays a trans woman, the belief that being trans is somehow a ‘costume’ (at best) is exacerbated.
- Reductive disability. When the only disabled characters on screen are evil scientists trying to cure themselves or characters who have accidents and become wheelchair-users, then non-disabled actors are the standard. But when 1 in 5 people in both the UK and USA have a disability, there’s countless untold stories here.
- BAME people are bad OR good, never in-between. Casting BAME actors as hoodlums, ninjas, terrorists or in positions of authority like teachers, police captains and doctors too often means BAME actors have a very narrow pool to draw from. They are also most likely to be supporting characters. This also adds to the notion that actors like Idris Elba ‘can’t’ be James Bond, even though Elba is every bit as British as say, Daniel Craig or Sean Connery.
In A Nutshell:
Reject the ‘single story’ at page level. Here’s what you can do as a screenwriter to help with diversity and inclusion in terms of casting in your spec screenplays.
3) Casting = ‘Either/Or’
Too often casting arguments online revert to binary choices of ‘either/or’ … There’s this assumption that you have a so-called ‘diverse’ actor playing a marginalised character … Or you don’t. And that’s it. Nope!
We see this response most often lamented by the Dudebros who insist ‘every’ character ‘has’ to be ‘different’ now (and that white male characters will soon be a minority!) … But in real terms just about everyone will fall for this response at some point. Hell, I’ve been there myself.
But what if I told you it can be BOTH???
Consider Furiosa, in Mad Max Fury Road. Played by Charlize Theron, she obviously does not have a bionic arm. But where was the epic backlash online against an able-bodied actress playing a disabled heroine? Oh, that’s right … Nowhere. Here is why:
The entire storyworld of the Mad Max Fury Road is inclusive of disability.
Good AND Evil
Whether good OR evil, just about every character (bar the wives) in the movie is disabled in some way. These disabilities make no difference to how the characters negotiate their circumstances, nor do these disabilities dictate how they behave. When Hollywood movies usually make disabled people antagonists (if they are represented at all!). This makes a refreshing change.
In the course of my research for my Diverse Characters book, disabled people consistently praised the Mad Max franchise for its depiction of disability. They loved that Furiosa’s arm was an ‘upgrade’ (she could never have caught Max with her flesh arm when he falls from the rig). They also loved that Furiosa removed her arm when she was resting (it would be heavy! This is realistic and shows good research — many able-bodied people do not realise disabled people need ‘breaks’ from those artefacts that help them, such as prosthetics and wheelchairs). What’s more, Furiosa didn’t need her arm to beat the crap out of Max (see pic), she is still strong without it. Best of all, they said, there were many shots of real disabled people throughout the movie such as wheelchair users, little people and amputees.
In A Nutshell:
Too often people think you need just ONE character who is marginalised in some way … But what if it was nearly all of them, as part of the story world? This opens up opportunities in terms of casting and closes down criticism of how diverse characters are ‘usually’ represented.
4) ‘It’s Called Acting’
Every single time a non-trans star is cast as a trans person, there is uproar online. The most recent that grabbed the headlines was of course Scarlett Johannson who recently withdrew from Rub And Tug, the story of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a crime kingpin and trans man who used his massage parlour as a front for prostitution in the ’70s and ’80s.
When this happens, there is always a queue of pundits, commentators, bloggers and people on sites and social media queuing up with the ‘It’s called acting’ defence. They will posit that trans people are overreacting. They will say that gay people play both straight AND gay roles now, so what’s the problem? Trans actors can surely do the same?
Well for starters, gay actors have their own casting issues (see number 5 on this list). But the sad fact is, for the moment at least, trans actors DON’T get cast as non-trans characters as standard. This is the reality. So why shouldn’t trans actors get ‘first dibs’ on trans roles? As Jen Richards, an actress, writer, CMT’s Nashville points out:
‘The argument that provokes my ire the most is people who keep responding to any critique about casting cis people in trans parts with, “It’s called acting.” Every one of them says this with this kind of glee, like we had never thought of that. Of course it’s acting. And of course, in an ideal world I would like anyone to be able to play any kind of part. That’s the kind of freedom I want for myself and the kind of freedom I want for others.’
In A Nutshell:
Acting is like writing – if actors have EXPERIENCE of something, they will bring authenticity to a role. What’s not to like? That doesn’t mean ONLY trans actors should be hired, just that they should get the same chances – but to do this, they have to be SEEN to be working.
5) ‘Gay People Can Play Straight Roles’
So, it’s often posited online that gay actors are well represented, plus they play straight roles ‘all the time’. Certainly, gay stars do exist, such as Jodie Foster, Ellen Page, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris and Kristen Stewart (though it should be noted most were in the closet when they began their careers).
All of these stars have indeed played straight roles, so it may seem bemusing to some that ‘gay for pay’ is still an issue. After all, no one is bothered that British or Australian actors frequently play Americans, or that working class actors play royalty, or anything like that. So what gives?
CONTEXT. Basically, just like the trans roles, too often straight actors are given gay roles. This is particularly the case when it comes to so-called ‘Oscar Bait’ movies and mainstream movies. When this happens, not only are gay actors ‘locked out’ of roles they could have brought that authenticity to, they are often penalised FOR that authenticity!! This tweet from comedian James Barr nails it, regarding the recent casting of Jack Whitehall in Disney’s ‘first ever’ openly gay character:
In A Nutshell:
Why can’t gay and queer actors portray characters LIKE themselves in their OWN stories for once? Straight people do this all the time and no one thinks is strange. Plus, why can only ONE type of actor portray marginalised people? The industry doesn’t have to be either/or on this, just – you guessed it! – more inclusive.
6) False Equivalency (aka misses the point)
Ah, Scarlet Johansson again: this time, in Hollywood’s remake of Ghost In The Shell, there was controversy in the West due to the ‘white-washing’ of iconic female lead The Major by placing Johansson at the helm.
Writers who don’t agree with the notion of ‘white-washing’ will often cite this film as evidence that it’s not a thing because apparently, Japanese fans of the original were very happy with the remake. They liked the fact Johansson was in it especially, because they enjoyed her character Black Widow
Avengers Assemble. In addition, those writers will also mention the director of the original film Mamoru Oshii apparently has no issue with Scarlet Johansson’s casting in the remake either.
But by focusing on Japanese people’s responses, this argument misses the point spectacularly. The white-washing controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell is about the fact AMERICAN and EUROPEAN actors (who just so happen to have Asian heritage) missed out yet again due to Johannson’s casting.
After all, Hollywood has form for going with white actors as standard. Consider Marvel’s Iron Fist, a critical disappointment and an epic let-down for the fans alike. This is apparently mostly due to the tepid lead Danny Rand, whom viewers AND critics labelled, ‘frustrating and ferociously boring’ and ‘laughably bad’.
Now it turns out the series’ villain Lewis Tan could have been Iron Fist instead. Could he have saved the series? No one knows because it never happened, but when so many fans actively wanted an Asian Hero for once, it certainly could not have hurt. Instead, we get yet another action series with a white lead and BAME bad guy. Yawn.
Wouldn’t changing Danny Rand (white in the comics) to Asian-American in the TV Series be an example of ‘BAME-washing’?
No, ‘BAME-washing’ or ‘black-washing’ (or whatever you want to call changing a white character’s race from white to black, Asian or minority ethnic) is NOT a thing. This is because MOST lead characters – yes, even now when you see more ‘diverse’ leads – are white. So changing characters white to BAME does not have the same loaded expectations.
In short, white actors can AFFORD to ‘lose’ a character to BAME actors, white people have a veritable stack of them. (Still confused? Check out this great explanatory post about major characters with the use of chocolate raisins).
In A Nutshell:
When ‘white-washing’ comes up in relation to casting, don’t derail the conversation by talking about how the ‘original’ creatives or fans think it’s fine, or suggest ‘black-washing’ is a thing. Neither are relevant. Actors of colour from America and Europe deserve major character roles too and to be thought of as heroes as well as villains.
7) ‘It’s About Star Power’
At last, one of the TRUE arguments regarding casting … but how people cite it is too often incorrect.
As I mention in my Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays book, star is power is REAL. Whilst writers and other creatives may choose a movie or TV show based on its story, or even who has made it (favourite writers and directors in particular), this is the reality:
The average audience member will choose on the basis of WHO is in it, in terms of actor.
This is why stars – as opposed to ‘character actors’ – are a ‘thing’. That doesn’t mean stars can’t be great actors as well, but it also explains why some stars are terrible actors, but audiences still want to see them in stuff. What’s more, nearly everyone on Earth has favourite stars. These actors are a DRAW, which means KERCHING. So it may seem reasonable to defend stars in certain roles on the basis the star’s name will sell more tickets.
But now consider the rampant success of Twelve Years A Slave. Made by Film4, Regency Enterprises and Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B. (Whether you liked it or not is another matter).
Obviously Brad Pitt would want a cameo in the piece; he is an actor and his money/expertise was going into the movie. Fair enough. But OF COURSE Pitt portraying Solomon Northup would be ridiculous (he’s also too old). What’s more, love him or loathe him, Brad Pitt is A List and has been for over two decades. His presence in Twelve Years A Slave – even though he is only in the movie for about 5 minutes! – will have helped sell tickets.
Even better, his character Bass literally existed in the real story and was not invented for the sole reason of inserting Brad Pitt into the movie. For those who have read the book, you will know Northup actually devotes more time to him than the movie. Though why not create a cameo or even a supporting role for a star, if it helps get a movie off the ground with a diverse actor in the lead!
So, in real terms, Brad Pitt’s influence as a star literally helped Twelve Years A Slave on multiple levels. There’s absolutely no reason that the likes of say, Scarlet Johansson could do something similar with the likes of Rub And Tug with her own production company, just with a trans actor in the role of Tex.
In A Nutshell:
It’s true, star power is real. But the days of ‘having to have’ a star in the LEAD role of a marginalised character to get audiences through the door are fading fast. What’s more, stars can help get diverse character movies and TV shows greenlit in other ways, especially via their production companies. They will still get the acclaim they want, not to mention money, plus their fanbase. Again, what is not to like? The whole point of being progressive is changing with the times … But even if stars don’t care about that, if they want the audiences, then they need to give them what they want, which research has shown is more diversity as standard.
Too long, didn’t read? Here you go:
- YES, the ‘best actor for the job’ should be picked (but that doesn’t happen NOW!)
- NO, this doesn’t mean bad actors should get a ‘free run’ by virtue of ‘being’ marginalised
- YES, literal casting is not always desirable, or necessary, especially regarding race
- NO, that doesn’t mean trans and disabled actors don’t deserve some literal casting
- YES, literally everyone knows ‘acting = pretending’
- NO, ‘acting = pretending’ is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, so shush
- YES, we CAN change casting practices by discussing this
- NO, it does not have to be ‘either/or’
- YES, writers can make a difference from the page upwards
- NO, diverse actors don’t want to take over, they just want the SAME CHANCES
- YES, star power is real – but there’s more than one way of utilising this
- NO, acting is not a level playing field!!! Until it is, these points need examining.
Of course, screenwriters have limited powers. We might feel passionately for diversity in all levels of our work, but unless we’re making the film or show and have the final say, sometimes this stuff WILL be out of our hands. But in addition to the page, there’s one other small thing we can do. So …
… What if we all made a list of marginalised actors in our heads, for when we’re asked by producers, directors etc for our casting ‘wish lists’?
Because we WILL be asked.
So be ready!
Then check out my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, out now from Creative Essentials. Available in paperback and ebook, from Amazon and all good book stores. Click on the link or the pic for more info.