In this entry, I will be looking at the subject of casting calls, casting controversies and industry opportunities.
Lord Puttnam spoke in this lecture about the importance of casting the right actors for the role, and the vital role that casting plays in a film’s success and in helping the audience to invest in the world of the film. I want to outline some obstacles that actors face in navigating the industry and the lack of diverse, complex roles available to particular groups of actors.
Casting calls, auditions and the final casting decisions do not occur in a cultural vacuum – the types of roles that get written, the kinds of casting calls that are sent out, and the carefully selective, or incredibly thoughtless, language they use reflect the (overt or subconscious) prejudices and ideologies of writers and directors. Recently, there has been a number of scandals involving casting calls containing questionable and discriminatory language: the casting call for NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton (Cadet) in particular is horrifically racist, colourist and misogynisitic. Critics of the outrage over these casting calls usually offer a defense incorporating the following arguments: the casting call was just being true to life; it’s the director’s/writer’s particular and unique vision; the casting call was written in crude and reductive terms and that’s acceptable because it is for minor parts. This is not an isolated issue: a Tumblr chronicling the sexist and sparsely -characterized casting calls for actresses was recently started (Marrone). The roles described in these casting calls encompass the full depth and breadth of modern womanhood: from young, attractive and overtly sexual to old and irrelevant, and with added exotification of women of colour.
Amandla Stenberg as Blue Saergent
There have been many films that have been magnets for controversy – from remakes such as Ghostbusters and new franchises such as the The Hunger Games, to middling dramas like Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, which featured the very non-Asian actress Emma Stone as Alison Ng, a half-Asian character – a casting decision that Cameron Crowe later (half) apologized for (Duboff). These films and their choice of casts have provoked outrage from nostalgia-obsessed misogynistic fanboys, and anger concerning the whitewashing of characters of colour, as well as the casting of actors of colour in insignificant or poorly-written/stereotypical roles. In the age of social media, there is significant blowback against these decisions. There are a number of interrelated phenomena which highlight how fans react to and attempt to influence casting issues now – one example is the prevalence of hashtag campaigns such as #KeepIrisBlack, an effort by fans of The Flash series to ensure that the role of Iris West would be played by a black woman in the upcoming WB movie (Candice Patton, who plays the CW’s version of Iris West, was a casting choice that ignited some controversy, as the comic book Iris West was originally a red-headed white woman) (Griffin). There is also the thriving online practice of fan-casting; following Henry Jenkins’ idea of a participatory culture (and remix culture), we can view this trend as a response from disappointed and otherwise disenfranchised fans – these fans create fan-casts for the media they consume, often racebending or ‘gender’bending the films and shows so they are more diverse, and post graphics and videos on Tumblr or Twitter (Misra); popular examples include the widespread fan-casting of Nathan Stewart Jarrett as Newt Scamander, or the popularity of Amandla Stenberg for roles ranging from a re-imagined Hermione Granger to the role of Blue (a character that Kiko Mizuhari is also regularly fan-cast as) in an possible adaptation of popular YA series The Raven Cycle; we saw an example of sorts of this practice during the lecture, as Lord Puttnam showed us the actors whom he wanted to cast in his film Arctic 30. Fan creators, therefore, feel huge sense of ownership over characters (and by proxy, the actors) and investment in their depiction – these characters are their cinnamon rolls, extensions of themselves, important for identity; prominent characters of colour and women allow a great deal of the audience to see themselves reflected back.
Referring back to Lord Puttnam’s lecture again, what fans want from an actor is the appearance of authenticity – an actor who truly inhabits the role, who brings some fundamental truth and verve to the part, who feels right. Of course, in one sense, all of this is a subjective matter: fanbases and the general public will diverge in opinion, and even rabid fanbases will be divided on specific castings. Viewers will also have a preference for stars, based on their carefully constructed media personas, and their personal view of an actor’s talent and style. But what is most important is the audience’s belief in a character, in the actor’s choices, and for their (individual) vision to somewhat match up with the film’s, for them (the audience) to be convinced, and increasingly, for the casting to be thoughtful and appropriate in terms of race, ability and other identities.
Casting Directors, Casting Decisions and Coded Rhetoric
Casting directors are a vital component of any film or television production – they discover burgeoning stars, conduct chemistry tests and ensure that a cast gels together, forming a coherent whole (Vineyard); they have the ability to elevate an actor to previously unknown heights. A casting director, and other players involved with casting – the director, writers, producers – have, as I have already stated, their own personal prejudices – a pertinent example is the casting of Carey Mulligan in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. The part was originally written (adapted from the novel) for an older Latina actress. Carey Mulligan, wanting to work with Refn, auditioned for the role and petitioned strongly for it. Refn has described what he was looking for for the role of Irene: an actress with whom the audience would connect and would want to protect, who appeared vulnerable, who ‘fit’ visually next to Ryan Gosling, who would be read as innocent. Even though he met with all the great Latina actresses, he just ‘couldn’t fall in love with any of them’ (McGillicuddy); when he met with Mulligan, he felt a powerful urge to protect her; it is clear to see how this decision could have been racially influenced – Refn saw an innocence and vulnerability in Mulligan, a fragile White English rose, that he didn’t see in any Latina actress. The ultimate decision to cast a particular actor for a role is a decision that is not made in a vacuum – there are a great many factors as to why an actor is selected, such as their pop cultural relevance, their star image (and how well it aligns with the project/franchise), their box office power, and their personal relationships in the industry and connections to the writer/director/producer/casting director. None of this is necessarily inherently wrong – but it is disingenuous and inaccurate to say that Hollywood (or really any acting space/industry, or acting school) is a meritocracy, where decisions are made for noble and correct reasons, guided only by a dedication to showcasing the best actors and their craft. The rote defense that is given after every casting controversy (and there have been many this year alone) is that the best person was chosen for the role.
I’m not the first person to point out the implications of this logic: if the best person is always chosen for the role, and that person nearly always happens to be white (for a role that was explicitly or implicitly written as non-white, or was open to interpretation), or able-bodied (when the role called for a disabled actor), or cisgender (recent examples of casting defenses: Transparent and The Danish Girl – in the case of the former, Transparent has given some opportunities to transgender actors such as Hari Nef, and in the case of The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper has spoken out about the untapped pool of trans acting talent, even while he ignored that pool of talent and cast a cisgender man in the role of Lili), what kind of message does this communicate, and how does it act to frame conversations about diversity, social responsibility and casting? The implication from these kind of justifications, made time and time again, is that the best person for the role just happens to rarely be a person of colour, or a disabled actor, or a transgender actor; that every actor had an equal chance, but the best person just happened to be like every other best person cast in film and television. It also serves to give power to the notion that actors of colour, or any actor from a marginalized or minority group, were cast to fulfill quotas of some sort, or that the filmmakers were pressured by some sort of authoritarian diversity police, a shadowy cabal of powerful internet warriors. The vague language employed when Hollywood responds to these casting issues – equality, fairness, open-minded, reinterpretation – downplays the power structures that systemically privilege certain actors; the idea that films always, in theory, are open to casting any actor of any background, obscures the fact that for personal and business reasons, filmmakers and studios align themselves with actors they see as ‘safe bets’/who they believe will bring them more profit. Beyond the best person for the job excuse, it often happens that the casting process itself limits the pool of actors who can audition; character descriptions are rife with coded language – for instance, this casting call for Super 8 has the one-two punch of requiring their 13 year old female star be stunning but attainable, and all the young actors should have a ‘Midwestern feel’ (Buchanan); what does having ‘a Midwestern feel’ entail, in terms of racial coding? The Midwest is largely conceptualized as White and ‘wholesome’ – which actors say purposefully alienate them from casting; casting calls that have roles which are open to actors ‘of all ethnicities’, or with no ethnic designation, are usually understood to be favorable towards or reserved for White actors (Rostagi Shen). Actors are dissuaded by filmmakers or agents, or there is an explicit call for white actors only. The myth of meritocracy allows for the filmmaker/producer/studio to displace responsibility – they no longer have to examine their own biases, or work to create opportunities within a system that has historically and continues to exclude actors of colour.
The excuses that directors and writers give with regards to casting controversies are often on the face of it poorly reasoned, overly defensive, or flat-out bigoted – see for instance Ridley Scott’s quote about casting the protagonist in Exodus: ‘I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such’ (Allen). In other cases, there is an attempt to divert the criticism by offering up other excuses: casting a Native American actor for a Native American role would be harmful, as the role is stereotypical, and an actor wanted to turn the stereotype on its head. Another tactic used in attempting to deflect criticism is to emphasize another progressive feature of the casting – like if the role is ‘genderbent’, such as Tilda Swinton playing male Tibetan character The Ancient One in Dr. Strange; defenses of this casting ranged from the re-imagining of the character and defending their origins as ‘Celtic’ (even though this character lives in Tibet, and the film uses specific and general ‘Asian’ iconography – diluting and mashing up many different cultures in a Orientalist manner), to the aforementioned win for women in cinema that the casting supposedly represented.
The process of casting can never be truly equal if institutional power is held by people with little concern for even a facsimile of equality; producers often make excuses as to why certain types of actors cannot be cast. The most commonly used excuses usually include: it’s a universal story (which always translates to white and male), there is nothing culturally specific about the plot (see for example: The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell) and that ‘the overseas audience’ won’t see the film, if it has too many Black people in it (this overseas audience is sometimes kept vague, and sometimes explicitly stated to be the ‘Asian audience’/China; this allows Hollywood studios to offset any concerns about the hegemonic Whiteness that Hollywood is built on and actively propagates, and instead place any blame on a mysterious Other, invoking the spectre of anti-Blackness across a (Western construction of) a sort of culturally pan-Asian culture, and removing themselves from culpability for lack of diversity and racist casting practices. It’s also interesting to note that a great deal of anti-Blackness in Asia, and the stereotypes that have become part of certain countries’ pop culture, have their roots in Hollywood’s depictions of Black Americans). In actuality, films with at least halfway diverse casts have consistently performed well at the box office for the last few years – examples include perennial Fast and Furious series, which has been extremely successful (Close).
In addition to exclusionary casting calls and the poorly-conceived roles, some actors of colour also experience a lack of acknowledgement for their work at award shows – as seen at the Academy Awards in recent years. It might even be fair to say that performances by actors of color are judged by different criteria – The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed series of all time, had a cast that was predominantly Black, and were never recognized for their work by awards committees (and anecdotally, when reading fan reactions to this series years ago, I often happened across praise for the actors, but couched in language about how ‘authentic’ the actors were, how it wasn’t really acting for them, and the assumption that most of the cast had personal familiarity with the environments and deprivation the show explored – these observations and assumptions were made about both actors such as Felicia Pearson and others from the ensemble who did come from Baltimore and were involved in crime/gangs, and about actors such as Andre Royo and Wendell Pierce, who had little familiarity with the specific problems of Baltimore; there was an uneasy undercurrent – their performances weren’t considered as multifaceted or nuanced as the performances in Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and were considered to just be an extension of their own backgrounds and experiences).
The institutional obstacles against actors of colour, trans actors, etc have been present for decades; the difference now is that actors are speaking up, and fans are joining in debates. There has been a recent shift in cultural consciousness: audiences have more say, or at least more forums to say their piece, about casting and the practices and assumptions that systematically exclude actors of colour (etc). There is also more of a dialogue about the implicit and explicit racism, prompted by actors themselves, who risk their livelihood and potentially jeopardize their careers in order to speak out about the quality of roles they are offered and the scarcity of roles in general, as well as films they are actively erased from. There is more debate about the way in which casting is conducted ideologically with regard to race: the complications of colourblind casting and blindcasting have been extensively explored in Kristen J.Warner’s dissertation , which includes a variety of interviews with casting directors in Hollywood, and her later book The Cultural Politics of Colourblind Casting, for instance, and with the much vaunted success of Hamilton, the idea of colour conscious casting has been promoted. In my opinion, the myth of colourblindness – a liberal ideology that evades and deflects discussion of discrimination and allows for the denial of structural racism – and its use in the processes of casting should be examined – on the surface, a’colorblind’ approach to casting, or blindcasting, is commendable and fair; but it is employed in both progressive and in sinister ways: in saying that the casting process does not take ‘colour’/race into account, it can open up casting to a variety of groups and result in actors of colour being cast in roles that are not solely defined by race/racialised, or roles that they may not usually be considered for; however, it also can be used as an excuse for whitewashing – a role that requires or would benefit from cultural/racial specificity is cast with little consideration for these factors. The process of casting must be made genuinely equal: people want to see themselves represented, and are willing to pa. Producers, directors and casting directors must be explicitly challenged on the excuses they use (no more Joe Wright-esque promises of a truly international cast, where all the main roles are played by White people), and the homogeneity of roles and casts challenged also; and ultimately, as Viola Davis puts it, actors cannot have sustainable careers in the industry, or be rewarded and celebrated, if the roles are not there (McDonald).
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