Past the Skin Color: Understanding Actors and Their Roles


Have you ever heard the phrase “this too shall pass?” When the Greeks introduced theatre, numerous dramas were about the gods and other mythical beings, celebrating them and musing at them. When Shakespeare was alive, men played all the female roles because women weren’t allowed to act. And yes, Caucasian men and women used to perform “blackface” routines to mock African Americans. Like everything else, these norms changed because our mindsets have changed. Yet with recent movies like The Lone Ranger and Star Trek: Into Darkness that cast a Caucasian person in a non-Caucasian role, people question, “Why do directors choose white people to play those roles?”

Some directors have claimed that this casting is based on who will draw a larger audience or more money. Some actor-producers even cast themselves in these roles, like Ben Affleck did in Argo with his role as a Hispanic man. Granted, many roles could’ve used more realistic actors, like the main trio in The Last Airbender: Aang (Noah Ringer), Katara (Nicole Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), who were Asian or Middle Eastern in the cartoon series the movie is based on. Using actors who better understood meditative and spiritual religions or life-styles could’ve helped an audience better understand these three characters and appreciate the movie.

However, many of these roles have been performed exceedingly well. For many of us who didn’t know the video game Prince of Persia, which the movie is based on, Jake Gyllenhaal’s role as Arab Dastan was passionate and believable as a street orphan adopted by the royal family who flees after his adopted-father’s death. In Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Demi Moore lent her voice to Esmerelda, a Middle Eastern gypsy woman. Because the audience is drawn into the story of poor Quasimodo and his revelations about how the world truly is, many forget about the actors behind the voices. And Catherine Zeta-Jones’s performance as Hispanic Elena de la Vega in The Legend of Zorro was exceedingly realistic, making a viewer forget that Zeta-Jones was actually born in the UK.

Many may be frustrated with Hollywood’s current casting decisions, but let’s keep in mind the alternative: typecasting, which would force directors and producers to seek a specific skin-toned actor and turn away any other qualified candidates. Here’s a better solution: if an actor or actress can act well and make a character believable, then let him or her have the role. A character is a personality, and that’s not determined by skin color.

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