Did any of you catch Matt Zoller Seitz’s pieces on underrated actors and actresses? Given that the purpose of “top ten” lists is to make people argue about who should really be on the list and obviously there are great people not on the list who are underrated, I’m going to say that any list that makes the argument that Wendell Pierce should be in everything is a list I can be happy about. I was especially pleased to see a nice variety of ages among the actresses.
The brilliant Wenhwa Ts’ao taught me to cast actors (with a little help from Judith Weston), and she taught me to look at every actor who came into the room to audition and ask myself “What will kind of character will this actor create in my story?” vs. “Does this actor fit the idea of the character I had in my head?” First, because as a low-budget filmmaker, you have to be flexible and sometimes rewrite your story to take advantage of the talents and resources you have around you. Second, for creative reasons, the actor you want is the one who makes you re-imagine your film. He or she makes your film possible in a way that it wasn’t before, just by existing and walking into the room.
I wanted my first-year film students to understand what happens to a story when actual human beings inhabit your characters, and the way they can inspire storytelling. And I wanted to teach them how to look at headshots and what you might be able to tell from a headshot. So for the past few years I’ve done a small experiment with them.
It works like this: I bring in my giant file of head shots, which include actors of all races, sizes, shapes, ages, and experience levels. Each student picks a head shot from the stack and gets a few minutes to sit with the person’s face and then make up a little story about them. I wanted to know:
What kind of story or genre do you think of when you see this person?
Is there a specific role or type that comes to mind?
The students then show off their actor’s photo and pitch their stories to the class and then we talk about the results. I’ve run this experiment a few times, and the students are very excited and creative with stories/genres and have a lot of fun with it. “I picture him in a Western. He’s the lone cowboy who rides through town and gets caught up in the trouble that’s going on there.”
However, some troubling shit always occurs.
Namely, for white men, they have no trouble coming up with an entire history, job, role, genre, time, place, and costume. They will often identify him without prompting as “the main character.” The only exception? “He would play the gay guy.” For white women, they mostly do not come up with a job (even though it was specifically asked for), and they will identify her by her relationships. “She would play the mom/wife/love interest/best friend.” I’ve heard “She would play the slut” or “She would play the hot girl.” A lot more than once.
For nonwhite men, it can be equally depressing. “He’s in a buddy cop movie, but he’s not the main guy, he’s the partner.” “He’d play a terrorist.” “He’d play a drug dealer.” “A thug.” “A hustler.” “Homeless guy.” One Asian actor was promoted to “villain.”
For nonwhite women (grab onto something sturdy, like a big glass of strong liquor), sometimes they are “lucky” enough to be classified as the girlfriend/love interest/mom, but I have also heard things like “Well, she’d be in a romantic comedy, but as the friend, you know?” “Maid.” “Prostitute.” “Drug addict.”
I should point out that the responses are similar whether the group is all or mostly-white or extremely racially mixed, and all the groups I’ve tried this with have been about equally balanced between men and women, though individual responses vary. Women do a little better with women, and people of color do a little better with people of color, but female students sometimes forget to come up with a job for female actors and black male students sometimes tell the class that their black male actor wouldn’t be the main guy.
Once the students have made their pitches, we interrogate their opinions. “You seem really sure that he’s not the main character – why? What made you automatically say that?” “You said she was a mom. Was she born a mom, or did she maybe do something else with her life before her magic womb opened up and gave her an identity? Who is she as a person?” In the case of the “thug“, it turns out that the student was just reading off his film resume. This brilliant African American actor who regularly brings houses down doing Shakespeare on the stage and more than once made me weep at the beauty and subtlety of his performances, had a list of film credits that just said “Thug #4.” “Gang member.” “Muscle.” Because that’s the film work he can get. Because it puts food on his table.
So, the first time I did this exercise, I didn’t know that it would turn into a lesson on racism, sexism, and every other kind of -ism. I thought it was just about casting. But now I know that casting is never just about casting, and this day is a real teachable opportunity. Because if we do this right, we get to the really awkward silence, where the (now mortified) students try to sink into their chairs. Because, hey, most of them are proud Obama voters! They have been raised by feminist moms! They don’t want to be or see themselves as being racist or sexist. But their own racism and sexism is running amok in the room, and it’s awkward.
The students aren’t stupid or malicious or evil for automatically slating the actors they way they did. They aren’t doing anything that casting directors don’t do every day. They are just reflecting the world they’ve seen on screen since they were born, the one where white men with strong jaws are the default human and everyone else is “other.”
The casting director and the studio will say “It’s just business. We’re trying to do what sells and give people what they want.” Let’s say you get to direct a big budget studio action film. Daniel Craig is interested in starring in the project. But you would love to cast Chiwitel Ejiofor, who is also great-looking and athletic and brilliant and who can definitely carry a film and even has a British accent! Both would do a bang-up job with the role, but with one actor you are guaranteed a certain box-office return and with one actor you are not, so you now have to talk your investors and the studio into shouldering more risk (and probably cutting your budget significantly or even un-greenlighting your movie or firing you, because what kind of idiot would turn down such a proven moneymaker?) So you think, I know! I’ll cast Craig as the lead but Ejiofor can be the partner (the one who dies horribly and inspires Daniel Craig to punch everyone in the world as revenge). The film will be good, everyone will make their money, no one is trying to be evil. Problem solved, right?
The problem is that actors carry our dreams onto screens with us, and those dreams have power. More than one person (including Dennis Haysbert) has said that Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of the president on 24 paved the way for the Obama presidency, by making it something routine and normal for us to see. I think Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones is important. Ellen Ripley saved my life, too.
A few years ago, I went to a special screening of Shaft attended by Richard Roundtree (Who was wearing Uggs! When Chicago winters fight fashion, fashion loses every time) who talked afterwards about the impact that role had on people around the world and what it meant for people to see him on the screen, kicking ass and taking names and how it made him think about representation. After that experience, he didn’t want children to see him doing drugs or playing a drug dealer, because it would affect the way they saw themselves. He also told stories about getting a script and immediately flipping to the end to see if his character was still alive, and the way black actors joke with each other make little bets with themselves – “I think I’ll die by page 80. It will be my noble sacrifice that takes us all into the third act!”
Side note: I haven’t seen Rise of Planet of The Apes yet, but, here’s a Spoiler Alert: The Black Guy Dies.
And listen, I get that it’s complicated and subjective. Film casting is often about finding people who are instantly believable as their characters, especially in minor roles. (At the student/low-budget level, it’s often about finding warm bodies who can show up.) Some of that “rightness” comes from talent and craft and costuming and hair and makeup, but some of it just comes from having the “right” face and the right look so that the audience says “yep, that guy playing the security guard looks like a security guard all right, and that stoner college student is a believable stoner college student” and isn’t shaken out of the story by some jarring detail. It’s tempting to keep the background stuff a little predictable so that the audience will focus on what you want them to focus on and be attuned to things that are against “type.” Edited to Add: You don’t have to turn every single film project into a “very special episode” to make me happy. In fact, please do not do that. But you have to remember that your idea of “right” is subjective, and be open to the possibilities that an actor brings you when they walk in the door. It’s much more interesting and powerful to cast a talented actor, say, with a visible disability, and then say nothing about it in the story. Just let them play that character and fold that disability into the human being we see on the screen.
If you want to talk strictly aesthetics vs. politics, I think movies that are populated only with skinny under-25 white people with perfect teeth and hair who try to find love within the same 10 square blocks of New York or LA (with maybe some charming ethnic neighbors or whatever) are just… boring. Movies that star THE WALL OF DUDE + 1 TOKEN HOT LADY are boring. And then…did anyone see the trailer for Larry Crowne (as described by Melissa McEwan)? Watching that piece of mediocre bullshit before every single movie I’ve seen this summer, I can’t decide if I’m angry, bored-angry, angry-bored, or bored-bored. The sad thing is that the filmmakers are probably patting themselves on the back for not having an all-white cast and those actors are happy to get the paycheck and work with Tom Hanks.
So what I want to say to Hollywood industry folks is that you have so much power to change the way that people see themselves and the world, and if you would just dream a little bigger, we would follow you. While everyone likes looking at gorgeous people, there are a lot of definitions of gorgeous. The way we are represented on screen hold meaning and power and consequences for us. You can take risks and still be commercial. If Machete can pass the Bechdel Test, so can you.
And for my talented and lovely students, who will make the films we’ll be watching years from now, it’s important to me to get this out in the open right at the start. Take the Red Pill, students! In school, when you’re not making commercial work and you’re not beholden to anyone for what you do, why bind yourself to reproducing what you’ve already seen?
Because if this semester I have to watch 75 films about able-bodied middle class white guys with good abs being white at other white guys, relieved only by the occasional “hot chick”, “mom”, “love interest” ,”thug”, “maid”, or “black best friend”), I’m sure the writing will be sharp and the camerawork will be skilled and the acting will be good and your grade will be fine. But you’ll also be sending me and everyone else a message that you’re happy with the world just as it is. And the prospect of that makes me just a little angry-bored.