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The Only 'New' Thing About Cross-Cultural Casting Is Who's Getting The Roles

Jul 15, 2021
Originally published on July 30, 2021 8:56 am

From the debates and the hype on social media about unconventional casting choices lately, you might think the world was about to spin off its axis.

If Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel takes a seat at the Round Table in The Green Knight, does that mean King Arthur recruited knights of Indian descent in the 12th century?

And is Mindy Kaling really voicing the brainiac title character in a Scooby-Doo spinoff called Velma? And producing it too?

And didn't casting Jamaican British actress Jodie Turner-Smith as the doomed wife of King Henry VIII in the British miniseries Anne Boleyn violate some unspoken rule about historical realism?

"For what it's worth," wrote The Guardian's Lucy Mangan in a review of that last opus, "I am aware that Anne Boleyn wasn't black, but I'm also aware that she wasn't Claire Foy, Merle Oberon, Helena Bonham Carter or any of the other women who have played her over the years, and my brain is not unduly upset by any of it."

What Mangan could have added is that social media dithering over these announcements is at best misguided, since cross-cultural casting is about as old as casting itself.

Audiences have a long history of suspending disbelief

In the fifth century B.C., when the Greek playwright Aeschylus needed a top-notch defense attorney for his leading tragedian in the trilogy The Oresteia, he settled on the god Apollo.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is not a choice a playwright would make if he were worried about verisimilitude in casting. And why would he be? Live theater has always assumed the audience can make imaginative leaps, whether it's depicting a deus ex machina, a warrior king who rants or Founding Fathers who rap.

John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) and Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan) in the filmed version of the original Broadway production of Hamilton.
Disney+

Hamilton, of course, is a special case: a Broadway musical famous not just for putting hip-hop in the mouths of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but for matching Black and brown faces to those historic white characters.

For composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, that casting decision was baked into the show's content from the moment he decided that the characters would rap.

"Hip-hop was uniquely suited to telling Hamilton's immigrant narrative," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And it's incredibly meaningful to then populate our live show with Black and brown artists ... because hip-hop is a Black art form and, also, it's our country too."

"Every time I write a piece of theater, I'm trying to get us on the board."

Inclusion became Hamilton's calling card, and diverse audiences soon made it a worldwide phenomenon, an outcome that seems natural in retrospect but that flew in the face of decades of theater practice.

Theatrical white privilege at play

In 1986, when the performers union Actors' Equity convened the first National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting, it noted that more than 90% of actors who had been hired in the U.S. in the previous five years were white. And it presented scenes designed to help theater-makers consider other possibilities: in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for instance, James Earl Jones as Southern patriarch Big Daddy, opposite white actor Stephen Collins as his son Brick.

New York magazine critic John Simon did not see this scene, having pointedly declined to attend the symposium, but he told NPR's Carole Zimmer at the time that the whole notion struck him as ridiculous.

"You cannot create the illusion of a Joan of Arc with a Black actress," he stated flatly. "It doesn't work, unless they can make themselves up to 'pass.' But this they can no longer do because their ethnic pride forbids it."

To be clear, Simon had no problem with Jeanne d'Arc, who was burned at the stake at age 19 in France, being played by an actress in her 30s, in English. For him, skin color was the one deal-breaker.

Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones during curtain call at the opening night of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on March 6, 2008, at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City.
Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

His attitude regrettably held sway for years despite the efforts of the symposium's attendees to make dents in the armor of white theatrical privilege. It would be decades before Jones finally got to play Big Daddy for a paying crowd. But then, actors of color were used to waiting, even for roles for which they were ideally suited.

Choosing blackface over Black actors

Take Othello, arguably the most famous Black character in theatrical history. Shakespeare penned his tragedy in 1603, and it's rife with references — "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" — to the title character's African origins.

Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona at the Shubert Theatre in New York City on Oct. 13, 1943.
AP

Would it surprise you to know that it took more than two centuries before the part was played in England by a Black actor? New Yorker Ira Aldridge was the first, having relocated to London because in the early 1800s, Black actors couldn't get work on American stages.

The reaction? British critics had a problem with Aldridge's Othello because of his race(!) — in the absence of Black English actors, they'd grown accustomed to the Moor being played as a light-skinned Arab.

Times would change, casting choices too, but slowly. When the great African American actor Paul Robeson played Othello in the 1930s, he was the exception, not the rule. And things moved slower still on-screen.

Orson Welles was one of many white actors to play the Moor in blackface on film and television more than a century after Aldridge. Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for playing him in blackface in 1965. Anthony Hopkins played him on television in 1981 to general acclaim.

Big screen, but limited imagination

In Hollywood, cultural appropriation was common and strictly a one-way street: always white performers darkening their skin to play characters of color, even when those characters were historical figures — Genghis Khan, say, portrayed in The Conqueror (1956) by John Wayne with a gunslinger's swagger and a Midwestern drawl.

John Wayne in The Conqueror, 1956.
LMPC via Getty Images

Surely there was an Asian actor who was a better fit for that Mongol warrior, but never mind — Burt Lancaster had just played the title character in Apache, and no one had batted an eye.

Even after that sort of grotesquerie became untenable, exceptions were made for white actors in the classics. And if the film industry saw fit to hand Othello, the theater's most famous Black leading role, to the likes of Olivier and Hopkins, what hope could actors of color have for roles not specifically conceived for them — say, a Black James Bond?

That's a question Idris Elba has been fielding for so long that he has more or less aged out of contention. And sure, he has the detective miniseries Luther, as well as a place in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe, to console him. But as big a star as Elba is, was anyone auditioning him when he was in his 30s to play Mr. Darcy? There's a whole world of literary parts he's unlikely ever to be considered for.

New possibilities in a new generation

It's something you might also have said until recently about Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel. Imagine him being cast in Dickens? Preposterous, until it happened. Director Armando Iannucci decided on colorblind casting for The Personal History of David Copperfield, filling the screen behind Patel's dashing Dickensian hero with Black aristocratic mothers of white sons, Asian fathers of Black daughters — giving the film's world far more diversity than even mid-empire London would have possessed. It interferes with the storytelling not at all, and, says Iannucci, it offers opportunity evenhandedly.

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield.
Dean Rogers / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

"There is such a lot of talent there," he told an interviewer shortly after the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "And Dev himself said, normally in a film like this he'd be carrying a tea tray, standing at the back. And for a man of his talent and ability, that's just tragic to think that that's a possibility."

Color-blind casting of the sort that Iannucci is practicing is one way to counter that.

Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) in Bridgerton.
Liam Daniel / Netflix

Another is color-conscious casting, where roles are assigned nontraditionally to make a point. That's what producer Shonda Rhimes did in the Emmy-nominated Bridgerton, desegregating costume drama by using the real Black ancestry of Britain's Queen Charlotte (wife to King George III, who just a few years before the ones depicted in the series had been dealing with those pesky American revolutionaries depicted in Hamilton) to imagine a Black British aristocracy in waistcoats and petticoats.

"We were two separate societies divided by color," says Adjoa Andoh's Lady Danbury," until the king fell in love with one of us."

She sees this as evidence that love conquers all. Her nephew, Simon, who has been dallying with the show's white leading lady, is skeptical.

"The king may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to, now, dukes and royalty. And at that same whim, he may just as easily change his mind."

And there's always the risk that something similar could happen with nontraditional casting. Which is why the last few months have been so bracing — Bridgerton, Copperfield, Anne Boleyn. Later this month, Dev Patel's Sir Gawain will quaff ale with King Arthur in David Lowery's The Green Knight. As the weather cools, Elba, Regina King and Delroy Lindo will head a star-studded Black cast in The Harder They Fall, an attempt to reclaim the Western.

A star-studded Black cast reclaims the Western in The Harder They Fall.
David Lee / Netflix

And before year's end, Denzel Washington will star opposite Frances McDormand in a presumed awards-contender: Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by McDormand's husband, Joel Coen.

Macbeth is a role that Ira Aldridge — that first Black Othello in the 1800s — had to wear white makeup to play. So there has been progress, though it has certainly been long in coming — more opportunity always on the way, but just out of reach.

"Tomorrow," as Washington will soon intone. "And tomorrow, and tomorrow ..."

Bilal Qureshi edited this story. It was produced for broadcast by Kelli Wessinger.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Social media has been buzzing about unconventional casting choices in film and TV - Mindy Kaling playing Velma in a "Scooby-Doo" spinoff, Black Jamaican actress Jodie Turner-Smith playing the doomed wife of Henry VIII in the British miniseries "Anne Boleyn."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANNE BOLEYN")

JODIE TURNER-SMITH: (As Anne Boleyn) My dear sister-in-law holds a loose tongue in her head.

KELLY: So does this sort of diverse casting violate some unspoken rule about realism? Well, critic Bob Mondello takes a long view. He says cross-cultural casting has always raised eyebrows, even though it's as old as casting itself.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the fifth century B.C., when the Greek playwright Aeschylus needed a defense attorney for his leading man in the tragedy, "The Oresteia," he picked the God Apollo, a choice you do not make if you're worried about verisimilitude in casting. Live theater has always assumed the audience can make imaginative leaps, whether it's depicting warrior kings who rant...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As King Richard III) A horse - my kingdom for a horse.

MONDELLO: ...Or founding fathers who rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) I am not throwing away my shot.

MONDELLO: "Hamilton," of course, is a special case.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) Ay, yo, I'm just like my country. I'm young, scrappy and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot.

MONDELLO: It's a Broadway musical famous not just for putting hip-hop in the mouths of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but for matching Black and brown faces to those historic white characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIRANDA: Every time I write a piece of theater, I'm trying to get us on the board.

MONDELLO: Latino composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda speaking with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIRANDA: Black and brown artists - this is a story of America then told by America now. It's our country, too.

MONDELLO: With inclusion as "Hamilton's" calling card, diverse audiences made it a worldwide phenomenon, an outcome that seems natural in retrospect but that flew in the face of decades of theater practice. In 1986, when the stage union Actors' Equity convened the first national symposium on nontraditional casting, it noted that more than 90% of actors hired in the U.S. were white, and it presented scenes designed to help theater-makers consider other possibilities - in Tennessee Williams's "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," for instance, James Earl Jones as Southern patriarch, Big Daddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF")

JAMES EARL JONES: (As Big Daddy) You and Skipper, being so different, would pick out more or less the same kind of woman.

TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Brick) We married into society, Big Daddy.

JONES: (As Big Daddy) Crap. Why do they both have that same anxious look?

MONDELLO: New York magazine critic John Simon did not see this scene, having pointedly declined to attend the symposium 35 years ago. But he told NPR's Carole Zimmer at the time that the whole notion was ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN SIMON: You cannot create the illusion of a Joan of Arc with a Black actress. It doesn't work unless they can make themselves up to pass. But this, they can no longer do because their ethnic pride forbids it.

MONDELLO: To be clear, Simon had no problem with Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake at 19 in France, being played by an actress in her 30s in English. For him, skin color was the deal-breaker. And his attitude held sway for years, despite the efforts of attendees to make dents in the armor of white theatrical privilege. It would be decades before Jones got to play Big Daddy for a paying crowd, but then, actors of color were used to waiting, even for roles for which they were ideally suited to. Take Shakespeare's Othello, perhaps the most famous Black character in theatrical history...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO")

PAUL ROBESON: (As Othello) When you shall these unlucky deeds relate...

MONDELLO: ...Played here by the great African American actor Paul Robeson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO")

ROBESON: (As Othello) ...Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate.

MONDELLO: "Othello" was written in 1603. Would it surprise you to know that it took more than two centuries before the part was played in England by a Black actor? A New Yorker at that - Ira Aldridge, who'd relocated to London because in the early 1800s, Black actors couldn't get work on American stages. The reaction? British critics had a problem with Aldridge's Othello because of his race. In the absence of Black English actors, they'd grown accustomed to the Moor being played as a light-skinned Arab. Times would change - casting choices, too - but slowly, especially slowly on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OTHELLO")

ORSON WELLES: (As Othello) She loved me for the dangers I had passed.

MONDELLO: Orson Welles was one of many white actors...

WELLES: (As Othello) And I loved her that she did pity them.

MONDELLO: ...To play Othello in blackface on film and television more than a century after Aldridge, even after Robeson. In Hollywood, cultural appropriation was common and strictly a one-way street - always white performers darkening their skin to play characters of color, even when those characters were historical figures. Surely there was an Asian actor who was a better fit for a Mongol warrior Genghis Khan than John Wayne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONQUEROR")

JOHN WAYNE: (As Genghis Khan) While I have fingers to grasp a sword and eyes to see, your treacherous head is not safe on your shoulders, nor your daughter in her bed.

MONDELLO: Even after that sort of grotesquerie became untenable, exceptions were made for white actors in the classics. And if the film industry saw fit to hand Othello, the theater's most famous Black leading role, to the likes of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, what hope could actors of color have for roles not specifically conceived for them, say, a Black James Bond? That's a question Idris Elba has been fielding for so long he may have aged out of contention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IDRIS ELBA: My poor mom - she's like, one day you're going it. Don't mind them. I was like, mum, it's all right, man. I'm good. I've got "Luther."

MONDELLO: And yes, he does have the detective miniseries "Luther" and a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to console him. But as big a star as Idris Elba is, was anyone auditioning him when he was in his 30s to play Mr. Darcy? There's a whole world of literary parts he's unlikely ever to be considered for, something you might also have said until recently about "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel. Imagine him being cast in Dickens? Preposterous - until it happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

DEV PATEL: (As David Copperfield) I'm David Copperfield from the rookery. I've been ill-used and put to work not fit for me, and you're the only family I have.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come inside. Come inside.

MONDELLO: Director Armando Iannucci decided on colorblind casting for last year's "Personal History Of David Copperfield" - Black aristocratic mothers of white sons, Asian fathers of Black daughters - which gives the film's world far more diversity than even mid-empire London would have possessed. It interferes with the storytelling not at all and says, Iannucci, offers opportunity even-handedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMANDO IANNUCCI: There is such a lot of talent there. I mean, Dev himself said normally in a film like this, he'd be carrying the tea tray and standing at the back. And for a man of his talent and ability, that's just tragic to think that that's a possibility.

MONDELLO: Colorblind casting of the sort Iannucci is practicing is one way to counter that. Another is color-conscious casting, where roles are assigned non-traditionally to make a point. That's what producer Shonda Rhimes did in the Emmy-nominated "Bridgerton," desegregating costume drama by using the real Black ancestry of Britain's Queen Charlotte to imagine a Black British aristocracy in waistcoats and petticoats.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

ADJOA ANDOH: (As Lady Danbury) We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us.

MONDELLO: Lady Danbury sees this as evidence that love conquers all. Her nephew, Simon, who's been dallying with the show's white leading lady, is skeptical.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

REGE-JEAN PAGE: (As Simon Basset) The king may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty. And at that same whim, he may just as easily change his mind.

MONDELLO: And there's always the risk that something similar could happen with nontraditional casting, which is why the last few months have been so bracing - "Bridgerton," "Copperfield," British TV's Black "Anne Boleyn." Soon, Dev Patel will be sitting at King Arthur's Round Table in "The Green Knight."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

PATEL: (As Sir Gawain) Honor, that is why a knight does what he does.

MONDELLO: A star-studded Black cast will try to reclaim the western...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That ain't no way to board a train, you damn, stupid...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

MONDELLO: ...In "The Harder They Fall."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Cherokee Bill) You know, he might could have said nincompoop.

REGINA KING: (As Trudy Smith) We ain't no nincompoop.

MONDELLO: And before year's end, Denzel Washington will star opposite Frances McDormand in a presumed awards contender, Shakespeare's "The Tragedy Of Macbeth." Macbeth is a role that Ira Aldridge, that first Black Othello in the 1800s, had to wear white makeup to play - progress long incoming tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.