Sunday, 6 December 2015

Like for like

Should a character in a play or movie with a defining trait be played by an actor with the same trait? Should a disabled person always be played by a disabled actor, or a transgender woman by a transgender woman, or a lesbian by a lesbian?

There's been a lot of controversy over this question recently. Activists objected strongly to transgender roles being taken by non-transgender actors. Flynn in "Breaking Bad", however, who has cerebral palsy, was played by Roy Frank Mitte, who himself has cerebral palsy. Yet nobody thought it strange that the two lesbians in "Carol" were portrayed by heterosexual women.

On the one hand, it's argued that the whole point of acting is to depict someone different from yourself, and it's your acting ability that makes the person convincing. The opposing view says that however good an actor you are, you can never be as convincing or as natural as the real thing - someone who is actually disabled, lesbian, or whatever.

My thinking is that you should use actors with the same trait as the character, as they do tend to be more authentic. But how far do you take it? You could apply the principle so widely it becomes not only absurd but impractical. Should you insist on a an actor who's a genuine anorexic, or alcoholic, or rapist, or hit-and-run driver? The casting process would be a nightmare. And suppose you wanted someone who was anorexic and a hit-and-run driver? The mind boggles.

On second thoughts, maybe you should just ask actors to do what they're supposed to do - act. Why spoil their fun?

Pic: transgender actor Rebecca Root

21 comments:

Wisewebwoman said...

I think like anything else we could carry this to extremes. I know one gay actor quite well who explained to me he's never played a gay role as it would bring his homosexuality to the forefront and he wanted a wide "range" of roles to be available to him.

One actor I greatly admire is Dirk Bogarde who was so splendid in "Victim" playing a gay man and putting his whole career on the line. Waaaaay ahead of his time.

XO
WWW

kylie said...

the whole idea is madness. actors are supposed to act, not represent themselves. and why does the idea only apply to minority groups? we wouldnt be discussing it if it was about a gay man playing a hetero man (happens all the time)

CheerfulMonk said...

Actors are supposed to act. Choose the ones that do the roles best.

Nick said...

www: Yes, you could easily get typecast as a particular sort of character and find it hard to get other roles. I think there are still a lot of gay actors who hide the fact for fear of career repercussions.

Kylie: Very true, why only minorities? And as you say, a gay man (or woman) playing a straight character is unremarkable.

Nick said...

Jean: I agree, getting the right person for the role should be the main aim. And that includes the character as a whole, not just a defining trait.

Dave Martin said...

If they're a good character actor it shouldn't matter a damn what their personal circumstances are.
A good actor will take the time to acquaint themselves with people like the character they intend to portray so they can get it right.
There are plenty of examples of actors playing parts that are totally different from their real selves with great success.
If a film character happens to be a blind lesbian junkie, you can't just hire someone who is a blind lesbian junkie for the part, because they won't necessarily have any acting ability.

Nick said...

Dave: Well, there seems to be a consensus building up that a competent actor can portray any sort of person convincingly. As you say, if they familiarise themselves with similar characters in real life, they should be able to act the part successfully. And as you say also, the "authentic" person might turn out to be a crap actor.

And what of imaginary characters that don't exist in real life anyway? Try looking for a real-life Hobbit or Lord Voldemort or Wicked Witch of the West.

Dave Martin said...

Well, for imaginary characters there's no real basis for comparison, so it's all down to the director's interpretation I suppose.
How many times have you read a fantasy book which they've later made into a movie, and the characters on screen are nothing like you imagined them when reading the story?

Nick said...

Dave: Very true that the screen characters are often nothing like the way we pictured them. For every 100 readers, there are 100 different imaginings!

Bijoux said...

It does seem silly to expect roles to only go to those the roles represent. However, I think it's great when those with disabilities are able to portray themselves and raise awareness, such as Mitte did and the young man with Downs Syndrome (Burke) in Life Goes On.

Nick said...

Bijoux: I agree, characters with disabilities help to raise awareness of their situation. All the TV and film characters when I was growing up were uniformly able-bodied - not a wheelchair in sight!

John Gray said...

I dont think we shouldbe so precious
But i do think that disabled actors of every aspect should be included in productions without inspection

Nick said...

John: Yes, as Bijoux said, disabled actors raise awareness of what it means to be disabled, and stop disability being hidden from view.

Jenny Woolf said...

I think where it comes to physical characteristics, it is generally a good idea to have characters played by people who share those characteristics in real life. If they are professional actors many roles playing people without their characteristics, will be closed to them. It seems unfair to deny them the chance to play roles they are physically suited to. I agree this means they are stereotyped but then ALL actors are, it is part and parcel of the job. If they look or act wrong for the part the director has in mind, then they can't be used.I think it is one of the many many things that is unfair about all actors' lives but their appearance is part of the performance and gives a particular message to the audience.

Nick said...

Jenny: That's a useful distinction between the physical and non-physical. As you say, actors should be able to play parts that reflect their own physical traits. Which makes me think of all those young actors who are transformed into someone elderly. Why not give the part to someone who is actually elderly?

Very true that an actor's appearance is part of what they have to offer and that's just the way it goes.

cedar51 said...

I seem to remember recently an actor who has lost a lot of weight, which has worried his fans - apparently it's for a role he is going to undertake.

I think as many of the readers, that one should remember they are just "acting" a professional stance that must include "i will act outside myself".

and actors may not be able to chose their roles, but the directors should use senstitivy when stating the kind of stance etc...

Nick said...

Cathy: Another case in point - why not employ a thinner actor rather than asking a "plump" actor to shed a load of weight? Surely there are plenty of suitable thin actors out there?

Rummuser said...

Typecasting has been the rule rather than the exception in the entertainment business for as long as I can remember. I think that the public and the performers both get used to these.

Nick said...

Ramana: True, typecasting is very common. I suppose sometimes it works to an actor's advantage because they're automatically considered for the relevant type, but at other times it prevents them spreading their wings and trying something totally new.

Secret Agent Woman said...

You could as easily argue that it's a good thing for (for instance) straight people to play gay characters, non-trans to play trans, and so on. And vice-versa. Because it sends the message that it's just part of the range of human expression and not something that has to be treated differently.

Nick said...

Agent: You've got a point about sending the message that these things don't need to be treated differently. Certainly anything that singles out being gay or being trans as something rather rarified or special is not doing them any favours.