One piece of advice which seems to work equally well in all situations is to ‘be yourself’. The reasoning goes that people will detect if you are hiding something and, whether it is a job interview or a date, it won’t go well. But if you are an actor and your whole purpose is being someone else, how much does it matter who you are?
Josie Wittaker has pleaded with fans not to judge her performance on her gender.
Over the last week (July 2017), I would guess that more people around the world have reacted to the news that Dr Who is being reincarnated into a female body than watch the average episode. The debate is fascinating because it hasn’t touched upon acting ability or whether the show is entertaining but solely on the gender of the actor. The primary argument against the choice appears to be based on a principle: since the show’s launch in 1954, the character has always been a (white) man, therefore he should always be a man.
Doctor who has always been a white male since 1954. Why should that always be the case?
This same debate has been taking place for rather longer in theatre. Amidst complaints of a lack of strong female parts in Shakespeare, the solution has been to take on the great roles written for men. Maxine Peake starred as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark to acclaim in 2014 but she was following in the footsteps of Frances de la Tour in 1979 and trailing behind Sarah Siddons who played the role in 1777. And the question doesn’t stop at gender: in 2006, when the RSC launched its cycle of 8 history plays, Chuck Iwuji played the complex role of Henry VI. Comments focused on the fact that the king was not black, though there were no similar objections to the historical inaccuracy of peasants speaking in perfect pentameters and French characters all being played by English people. There was a much more visceral reaction in 2016 when a black actor, Noma Dumezweni was cast as fictional character, Hermione Grainger from the Harry Potter books (where her skin colour is not mentioned). The author JK Rowling commented: ‘Idiots were going to idiot… Noma was chosen because she was the best actress for the job.’
Chuck Iwuji playing Henry VI
That is a powerful argument for open casting, that you get a new depth to a character. The other one, which can have less positive effects, is that to get a film made, you need star quality and a well-known name, even if the casting provokes a sharp intake of breath, such as the five feet seven inch Tom Cruise becoming the six foot five inch Jack Reacher. Unfortunately, plenty of less-amusing examples exist, where well-known white actors have taken roles written for other races.
As more entertainment feature trans characters, it has been highlighted how often trans parts are taken by cis actors. The director of The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper, cast Eddie Redmayne in the lead role. While defending his decision, he pointed out that the film also featured a number of trans actors playing cis roles and he called for this to be made the norm. He was articulating the risk that the statement ‘only trans should play trans’ gets heard as ‘trans can only play trans’ condemning these actors to be marginalised rather than given full access to all roles. Underlying each decision is the real question over whether these portrayals may contribute to discrimination against the trans community. This is particularly in scenes where men play trans women and then accept their acting award in a tuxedo, potentially reinforcing the slur of trans women being just men dressed up.
Although unconscious bias may influence a lot of casting decisions, even the best actor will struggle if given a dull plot or cliched dialogue. As portrayals of diverse characters become more the norm, we will also need diverse writers and directors for an experience that reflects our beautiful, diverse world. And at that point, entertainment should start getting a lot more entertaining…