So, I’m assuming we ALL want to write great characters, in great stories: well, duh. But what does “great” really mean, when interpretations of what’s “good” (or not) vary so hugely? Well, let’s assume none of us want to write “the usual”, not to mention we don’t want to perpetuate lame and damaging stereotypes; plus, on less philanthropic note we want to stand out and MAKE LOTS OF CASH (or at least get noticed and have a rewarding career).
With all the above in mind then regarding this post, we agree:
– Diversity is key
– A variety of stories is desirable
– Marginalised voices should be heard
– Produced content must be both artistic AND commercial
– Certain actors have more status/box office draw than others, ie. notions of “stars” vs. unknowns
– Visual images mean different things to different people
So here are my thoughts on the big three issues that can create all sorts of arguments not only in the development process, but also in the physical making of your screenplay …
This must be the easy one … Cast the best actor for the job! And no, of course you would never cast a white person and have them in black or yellowface. That’s ridiculously antiquated as well as offensive. Besides, there ARE great actors out there who both people of colour AND stars. Glad we got that one out the way.
VERDICT: I think it’s common sense to accept that no one wants to see a return to the days of white people playing people of colour. One’s race is completely unchangeable and (should be) non-negotiable. Except the issue of race and casting still raises its head. As I’ve written before on this blog and tweeted about, multiple times, there is still a massive issue here: some writers (including PoCs) believe *anyone* “should” be able to play a particular character and casting agents should do the work of deciding on race, according to that fabled notion of the “best actor for the job” … Other writers (including white writers) believe they must specify what race their own characters are, so there’s “more chance” of this filtering through the process and this actually happening in production.
WHAT WRITERS CAN DO: There’s no hard evidence to suggest racial diversity actually happens in the physical making of movies and TV on the basis of writers specifying the race of their characters; but equally, there’s none to say writers doing so doesn’t contribute to diversity, either. On this basis then, I would recommend writers follow their own conscience on this issue BUT always examine their own characterisation for offensive or even just “usual ” (read: boring) tropes.
In the first instance, we should consider characters who use wheelchairs and similar, because this is inevitably the conversation writers, audiences, filmmakers have the most. Obviously, it would be preferable that actors who use wheelchairs be cast, especially considering there are excellent campaigns like Don’t Play Me, Pay Me.
This can have the added “bonus” that an actor with a REAL impairment can “up” awareness for that particular condition, too. If we consider Brit institution Coronation Street, the character of Izzy Armstrong, played by Cherrylee Houston, has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I had never heard of this condition before seeing Izzy on screen, so there’s new awareness right there.
But like race, disability has a big issue to it, as well. If, in the case of Cherrylee Houston, a character has “always” had an impairment, then it seems relatively straightforward: go with the actor who is a wheelchair user. But what if a character has some sort of accident, meaning they become a wheelchair user as part of the narrative; or we see that character in the past, “before” the accident (or similar) via flashback?
And then there are the conditions that don’t necessarily affect mobility. If it’s obviously not appropriate for an actor without say, Down’s Syndrome, to play a character with Down’s Syndrome, which carries with it certain physical traits (following on from the logic of other physical elements, like skin colour). On this basis, we may see Down’s Syndrome actors with some regularity, especially child actors in soap operas.
But what about “unseen” conditions, like autism? Or significant to severe mental health difficulties? Or addiction? Though an actor who has literally experienced autism, psychological problems or addiction may well bring some added authenticity to a role, it’s not always appropriate to cast that person in said role for any number of reasons (and not just because “it’s too much hassle”!).
In other words, is acting “supposed” to be LITERAL?
If acting is NOT supposed to be literal, then this also surely accounts for the relatively high number of female actors (plus Arnold Schwarzenegger!) who have played pregnant women, yet would never have a child themselves, either through choice or biology. Oh AND actors playing people from other time periods, including the past and future; not to mention people of other classes too – a previously poor actor may play a rich person, or vice versa. Or actors playing cancer sufferers, yet they’ve had cancer themselves — and so on. In other words, where is the line drawn? I don’t think anyone can say where with absolute authority.
So, whilst there CAN be happy pairings, such as Cherrylee Houston in Coronation Street, it’s also worth remembering she is a character in a show stretching back fifty years and only the second wheelchair user to appear, ever. Coronation Street is presumably quite a rich show too, with many people working on it and with relatively little to “lose” in providing for a single actress; they can only gain. In direct comparison, the lack of money/facilities in other areas of the media, especially indie film, can prove a barrier to actors with genuine impairments, in the same (unhappy) way their choice of non-acting work can also be limited.
But if we are to throw out the notion of acting “needing” to mirror reality by being literal, why can’t actors without impairments play characters who have them? As an example: if Cherrylee Houston and Cate Blanchett were in front of a movie producer for an indie film about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, then would the bigger star be “better”, on the basis she could bring a worldwide audience, thus greater awareness for EDS? In short:
Most people would agree that actors **don’t** have to have the literal experience of the characters they’re playing, to be able to play those characters AND that it is desirable to get an unusual character’s worldview to as many people as possible … but these two things are often in conflict.
VERDICT: Yes and no. It’s a tough one. In an ideal world, an actor who is a wheelchair user or has a condition like Down’s Syndrome should ALWAYS be given “first dibs” on a role in my opinion. However, it should also be down to a) the best actor for the job and b) what that actor can bring to the table, not only in terms of authenticity, but also in terms of exposure for any message or theme a piece may have, either primary or secondary.
WHAT WRITERS CAN DO: There are not many characters in the spec pile with disabilities of ANY kind and when they are there, it’s usually for a reason that relates directly to the plot. I would like to see more characters with disabilities in stories just as standard *because they do*. When 1.3 million people in the UK live with some sort of long lasting condition, why not? Yes, there’s a stronger than average chance your character’s disability or condition will get chucked out in the development stage for the sake of saving a few ££££ further down the line, but I really don’t see any justification for not at least TRYING to bring them into the story.
So: men pretending to be women? Like blackface, or yellowface in point 1 — NO. Of course not. And obviously, vice versa too.
Except … what if the story is about drag artists, like two characters in PRISCILLA THE QUEEN OF THE DESERT? Then that sounds okay, as it’s part of the actual characters’ lives, thus built into the story. Same goes on that basis for a female who poses as a male as in a movie like BOYS DON’T CRY, or vice versa as in THE CRYING GAME.
There are no boundaries there on the basis of “star power” either, as many A List actors would love the chance to get their teeth into a character that is outside their “comfort zone”, that’s the point of acting, right? We have seen heterosexual stars play homosexual characters and vice versa, too.
BUT … what about transgender characters? We barely ever see their stories and it sure would be nice to see some actual transgender actors play their own worldview, so we can understand better what it must be like to be in their shoes. Totally up for that. In fact, don’t we NEED those stories if we are to have true diversity?!
Except … How many (openly) trans actors are there, total? I really don’t know. But why not put out an audition call out and see who responds (even though those actors would effectively be “outing” themselves by attending and they may not want to risk it; or we may have some actors pretending to be trans, when they’re not — so how do we make sure? It’s hardly ethical to ask for pre-op and post-op photos, or ask them to strip at the audition!). MORE ON THIS: Hit & Miss: Should Non Transgender Actors Play Trans People? (Paris Lees in The Guardian)
Now let’s consider that elephant in the room again: $$$ . How many (openly) trans STARS are there, with big potential box office draw, regardless of being trans, of ANY race? Hmmmm. Can you think of a single one? Because I can’t. UPDATE: Laverne Cox in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is the obvious one now and of course, there *should* be more. It seems a missed opportunity to me that a cis man like Eddie Redmayne is playing the lead role in THE DANISH GIRL, the adaptation of the book about Lili Elbe, the “first” transwoman, but is it inevitable, given Redmayne won an Oscar for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING? Are we back to this notion of “star power” and bringing an awareness of trans history to a greater audience? This leads me to wonder: is the future actually GENRE for openly trans actors like OITNB, over “worthy” drama?
VERDICT: No. Yes. Depends. Again, there’s an element of common sense here, plus conscience, but again: commerce. Whether creatives like it or not, actual stars (of any race) draw audiences considerably more than unknown actors. It’s certainly true that unknown actors *can* be given groundbreaking parts that are a box office smash, but investors have to be pretty certain it’ll be a gamble that pays off for this to occur. That’s why an unknown like Lupita Nyong’o gets cast as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave, but a big star like Jared Leto gets cast as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s not about race or gender; it’s not even about “issues” — it’s simply and purely about the bucks via audience recognition.
WHAT WRITERS CAN DO: Keep writing those amazing characters and putting them in brilliant stories. Whether an unknown or a big star gets cast is not really up to us, unless we’re also producers as well. Actually … 😉 Excuse me for one second …
Aaaaaaah that’s better!
So I don’t have any definitive answers. The fact is, nobody does (except those who’ve never actually had to cast and make a creative work, of course!). Whilst it might not seem like rocket science, casting opens a huge can of worms: someone’s always going to find a particular actor choice wanting, whether it’s considered “excluding”, “exploitative” or even, “patronising”! Usually, it’s a question of how justified that judgement is, especially once the following is factored in:
– Movies are a visual art form (with personal interpretation creating both conflicts AND opportunities)
– Art & commerce make uneasy bedfellows (with star power and $$$ figuring more than maybe we creatives like to admit)
– Movies are not literal, but equally images can be powerful regardless
So what can writers do?
What we’ve always done. Keep writing. Keep challenging. And never, ever, ever go for the “usual”. It’s all we can do … It might end up making no difference. Or it might make all the difference. Good luck!
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