Unmatched actors and roles - what is the cutoff for race, sexual orientation, etc.?

We’ve all seen the various controversies over the years, both contemporary and retrospectively, about an actor cast in a role that does not match their personal reality, e.g. Fisher Stevens (self-described “White Jewish guy from Chicago”) playing stereotypical Indian caricature “Ben Jabituya” in Short Circuit (1986).

Aside from race, there have also been issues raised at various times over sexual orientation, heightism (Tiptoes, looking at you), deaf/hearing, sighted/blind, other physical disabilities, changing characters from the original material, etc.

The latest one, apparently, according to Sarah Silverman, is “Jewface.”

On the one hand, I get it.

On the other hand, it’s called “acting.” If you just want everyone to only ever portray characters that match exactly who they already are, that’s called a “documentary.”

Am I, a middle-aged average-height cis Asian man, ever allowed to portray a Black lesbian little person, or is that completely off the table? Am I really limited only to characters that are middle-aged average-height cis Asian men? Am I allowed to play a Christian if I’m an atheist?

Where do you think the cutoff should be?

Is the answer just, “On a case-by-case basis, I’ll know an offensive portrayal when I see it” or should there be an agreed-upon list of “ABSOLUTELY NEVER DO THESE THINGS,” or something somewhere in between those two?

IMHO it depends on what characteristics of the role are essential and which ones are incidental. Take the various controversies over the years about who will play the next James Bond. Bond being white is an incidental aspect of the character. Having a Black or Asian man get the role wouldn’t really change the character of who James Bond is. Having a woman in the role, however, would fundamentally change the character and wouldn’t make sense for those movies. In other cases, like Ghostbusters, having women be the lead roles doesn’t change things (although having the main villain be a human instead of ghost was a major flaw).

One of the cutoffs is whether or not there are opportunities for the group in question.
For example, there’s not alot of (altho there is some) controversy about straight actors playing gay characters, and vice versa, because there’s plenty of opportunities for both. But, when it comes to roles for minority groups (and I’m strictly taking about American movies and theater) the opportunities are rare. So, having a white person portray a minority character is going to get push back. Any good actor can make you forget that they are not of middle eastern descent, for example, but there aren’t many opportunities for actual middle eastern actors (aside from stereotypical minor roles). So a white person is taking a job away from them. And that’s completely ignoring that someone from a different culture may not understand all of the subtleties required to portray that character.

In an ideal world it wouldn’t make too much difference who played what character. As you point out, they’re actors. It’s their job to portray characters that are sometimes very different from themselves. But, we’re obviously not in a perfect world. Some groups have so little opportunity to be represented by people of that group, that even if the portrayal is not inherently offensive, it’s an affront to a fair and equitable society.

And to Sarah Silverman’s point.
She doesn’t have a problem with non Jews portraying Jewish characters. Her problem is with them portraying their Jewishness.
She uses The Marvelous Mrs Maisel as an example (Rachel Brosnahan is not Jewish).
Is the character a comedian who just happens to be Jewish? If so than it doesn’t matter (to Silverman) who portrays her. But, if she’s a Jewish comedian, and her Jewishness is an important part of the character (which it clearly is, to her) then yes it should be a Jewish actor.

And I agree with that.

Brosnahan to me is not convincing playing a Jewish character. The actors playing her parents (also not Jewish) aren’t really either.

It can cause problems with roles with multiple identities. I read that Saturday Night Live was avoiding having someone play Meghan Markle because she’s biracial. It’s hard to have a cast large enough for someone to meet all criteria.

Was Billy Crystal wrong to portray Sammy Davis Jr.? Crystal isn’t black but he is Jewish. Not a lot of eligible actors if you need both.

How about English actors playing Americans? I suppose enough time has passed that American is considered a different ethnic identity. So it should be offensive now?

Ben Kingsley would disagree with that. There should be no limit on how a writer/director/producer wants to present their art. The real limiting factor is if the work will make money. The work has to appeal to an audience. No one will care which actor is playing which role if the production is entertaining.

I don’t know what this means? Has he said something to you about it his topic?

Kingsley was the English-Indian actor who played Itzhak Stern in Schindlers List and gave a masterful moving performance. It mattered absolutely nothing what his heritage was. Meryl Streep won the Best Acrtress Academy Award for her performance in Sophies Choice. Would casting a Jewish actress in the role made the movie better? Doubtful.

Silverman still feels guilty about blackface so she has made up jewface to feel better. To me a non-jew playing a jew is like a norwegian-american playing an italian-american.

So it’s you, madsircool, who would disagree (by cherry picking examples). We don’t really know Mr Kingsley’s position.
Nobody is saying that Kingsley or Streep weren’t good in those roles. Maybe even the best choice (which is a debatable). The debate is about what’s best for society.
I would say that a Jew playing Stern could possibly have given a performance that would’ve matched (or even beaten) Kingsley’s, but we’ll never know because he was not chosen.

I’ve been in theater for over 35 years, and I’ll tell you, as good as Kingsley is (and I agree he is a great actor) there are actors of every group you could possibly think if that are just as good, maybe even better, that are never given a chance. It’s oftentimes not about the art, that dictates casting choices. It’s about the commerce. It’s about playing it safe. Going with the least risky bet.

And non traditional casting can be a very powerful tool if done right. Reversing genders to make a point about gender roles in society. Or casting minorities to play the founders of a country to make a point about the roles minorities actually played in the founding can be quite profound.

But these aren’t usually the cases that get talked about. It’s the roles in an otherwise traditionally casted movie that don’t seem right, that gets people’s goats. It’s the white woman cast as a half Asian in a movie set in an “exotic” locale surrounded by an entirely white cast. It’s a movie with the possibility of casting many non white actors, and not only are all the characters white, but the one character who is actually not completely white is also played by a white actor. There’s no reason for it.

You said the real limiting factor is if the work is profitable. Well, the audience is speaking. It’s becoming less and less ok to not have casting that reflects the real world.

People should be able to act or write any role. It’s silly to think this is a thing.

I disagree that there are plenty of opportunities for gay actors to play gay characters. There are far more straight roles than there are gay roles. Besides, I’d hate to see gay actors restricted that way. Gay Shakespearean actors barred from playing Othello or Romeo or Anthony or MacBeth? Horribly unfair.

Unfortunately, like any of these things, it gets taken to such extremes that it is parody.

Like Brian Cranston playing a quadraplegic in The Upside. I’d not be expecting too many people who are quadraplegic to be actors, and able to play the role, and even if you could (and the limited roles that actor could play), I’d expect it to be a difficult shoot working around the limited abilities, tiredness, pain and medication involved in the multiple takes on the acting. So just get a good actor to act.

Gay to straight, well, you’d not want it to be going the other way and gay people banned from straight roles.

There is also a question of effort of casting, some actors like Omid Djalili gets used for many middle-eastern roles due to location (London) and multi lingual (probably wouldn’t be an issue normally in acting) and minor roles. But the likelyhood is his availability and probably be at an English based studio in less than an hour on any day required which got his start…

That would quite strange considering Maya Rudolph (who SNL has called back to do a number of roles - Kamala Harris being one of the most recent ones) is biracial.

In my early life I trained as an actor, and was very adept at dialects/accents and character work. As a white cis male, I can’t help but notice that the rules seem to be that I am not allowed to portray a myriad of characters, whereas people who are not white cis male are. It is difficult to discuss, because I know I sound like a grieving deplorable.

I accept that one of the problems is that there has historically been a trend in casting of too often choosing an actor from a privileged group to portray a character from an under-served group. So, in order to right that wrong, vigilance is the watchword, and I end up in the unfortunate category of one who sacrifices.

I suppose that in a perfect world, anyone could play any role, with minimal outside agitation calling it into question (I will never get to play Effie in “Dreamgirls”). But, inevitably that would result in mostly hiring white and putting them in make-up. (…Variety: Matt Damon was PERFECT as Thurgood Marshall!)

For me, I wouldn’t mind seeing more attention paid to hiring UK/Aussie actors for American roles. There seems to be this fetish in the industry that somehow UK/Aussie actors are “better” than Americans. I find it particularly annoying when it’s a historical figure (Oyelowo as MLK in “Selma”, Erivo in “Harriet”). Yes, there have been a few prominent recent examples of US actors playing famous Brits (Lithgow as Churchill in “The Crown”, Streep in “The Iron Lady”) but those are sorta the exception that proves the rule? [Grieving Deplorable]Foreigners taking jobs away from decent hardworking Americans![/Grieving Deplorable]

With race, I’d argue that any actor who doesn’t, well, resemble the character being portrayed is inappropriate. It would be an utter mockery if Nelson Mandela had been played by anyone other than a black man, for instance.

This seems perfectly reasonable to me. And to quote Silverman’s actual description in the link in the OP:

Silverman says these “Jewface” roles typically involve putting a person’s “Jewishness front and center” with “makeup or changing of features” like a “big fake nose” and “all the New York-y or Yiddish-y inflection.” She also argues that, “if a Jewish woman character is courageous or deserves love,” then she is never actually played by a Jewish person.

If that trend is real that seems problematic, even if it’s not quite up their with the more visible and pervasive lack of diversity in skin color, and even if Silverman might at some point in the future decide to apologize for trivializing “blackface” in using “jewface” this way.

The thing is. Even today, with all the focus on these aspects, white cis males are still over-represented in movie/TV/theater compared to society. As a whole that is. I wouldn’t be surprised if representation of domains that are for instance currently very male have more females than reality.

Silverman, despite having a show called
I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman
(implying that an America without Sarah Silverman is less deserving of her love), is like most Americans lacking her history that doesn’t feed her grudge. Born in 1970, her childhood was in an era that pushed against the assimilation of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s

1950’s Jewish women didn’t want to be Fanny Brice, they wanted to be Grace Kelly (perhaps hoping to cross over into WASP-hood from the Jewish shtetl as… gracefully as Kelly had from the Irish shanty. Notice how the names from your baby boomer TV in Adam Sandler’s song were sometimes a surprise: William Shatner, Paul Newman.* How many Jewish actors took their training in the old Yiddish Theater, then went to Hollywood and performed as if it had been the Old Vic? (Or in Sam Wannamaker’s case, actually went to England and rebuilt Shakespeare’s theater from scratch). Post-WWII America was a rhinoplastician’s dream, papered with petitions to Anglicize those surnames imposed back in the German Confederation.

On balance, if Silverman wants to go after over-the-top portrayals by non-Jews as Jewish characters, while Jewish actors could play the part more accurately and subtly, I say go ahead an drag Sean Penn for Carlito’s Way (if for no other reason how funny Sean Penn is when indignant).

*yes, I know Paul Newman was half-Slovak. But like Jewish Mel Brooks and Italian Anne Bancroft’s son Max called himself, Newman was “not Jewish enough to get into Israel, but enough to get into Auschwitz.

That’s quite the stretch. As shown in the opening graphic:

HuluILYALogo - I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman - Wikipedia

It’s intended to be I love you, America - then a line break - with Sarah Silverman.

Do you also think The Problem with Jon Stewart is about all of the terrible things Jon Stewart has done in his life?