For as long as there have been actors, there have been forces trying to determine how people should act. In the Elizabethan period, it was illegal for women to appear on stage in a play. Through much of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, the races could not mingle onstage. Later, there were efforts to ban communist actors from work lest they use their platform to turn the country red.
These rules all have two things in common. They were promulgated to serve a perceived societal good; and they were bad not only for art, but also for society. Today a new set of rules are emerging regarding who should act in certain roles. Recently, Scarlett Johansson was hounded out of a role as a trans man, and more recently the casting of Jake Whitehall as Disney’s first openly gay character was criticized because he isn’t gay. There are many more examples.
It is useful to look at today’s prohibitions on acting in the context of historical examples. In all cases, the prohibitionists attempt to establish the dominance of their worldview by making popular entertainment reflect it.
William Shakespeare said the actor holds a mirror up to nature. Centuries later, James Joyce would describe his mirror as the cracked looking glass of a servant. The point was that the mirror reflects what the people controlling it make it reflect. Turn the mirror a bit to the left or right, and the image changes.
Acting Is Pretend
Funny things have happened to acting in the last century or so. Until about 50 years ago, hardly anybody went to college to study acting. Until about 50 years before that, hardly anybody went to acting school to study acting. For most of its history, acting has been a craft, not a profession, and usually mastered by apprenticeship, not scholarship. Once mastered, the goal was to entertain people whose lives, by today’s standards, were absolutely grueling.
Acting’s basic meaning changed when it became a profession for which one can get a graduate degree. It was no longer just pretending to be something you aren’t for the enjoyment of others, it was a tool for social justice, among other things. In the last 20 years, identity issues have become the new shibboleths of censorship, the arbiter of who gets to pretend to be what.
The basic rule of thumb is that everyone gets to pretend to be straight white men, and who gets to pretend to be anything else depends on where they fall in the hierarchy of marginalization. Here’s a neat and clean example. A Broadway version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” with an all-woman cast is now being produced. Outstanding!
If ScarJo were cast as Ricky Roma, there would be gushing over this, maybe justifiably. But if that same ScarJo were to play a trans male character, who is below her in the oppression food chain, well, it’s just awful. So that’s how it works.
Acting Is Empathy
The problem with this double standard is that, at its root, acting is empathy. When I studied acting in the early 1990s, a question that often came up was, “Could you play Hitler?” The question this meant to get at was how you could play a morally depraved character. The going wisdom then, and I suspect now, is that you had to find a way to understand that this character thought he or she was doing the right thing and you had to think so too while playing that character. It’s an extreme example, but an important one.
How far can an actor go from his or her own experience and worldview and still present a compelling and believable figure? This is always the greatest challenge. You play a character that makes a stupid decision thinking it’s a good one. You know it’s stupid. How do you convince yourself in that moment that it is good? How do you portray something you find abhorrent as if you deeply believe it?
A less extreme example, in some ways, is playing a character of a marginalized group. How could ScarJo possibly play a trans man? The same way she might play Eva Braun or Mother Theresa, by being empathetic, by seriously thinking about what this person feels and has been through. Let’s remember, going back to acting as a craft, not a profession, that actors have no control over the words, the direction, or the editing.
The only question for the actor is: Can you pretend to be this person? Can you really empathize with him, and portray what he feels?
Empathy and the Dominant Culture
The one-way ratchet rigmarole that has been established for actors makes no sense. If an actor can’t play a person who isn’t exactly like himself, then there is no acting. If it is a question of opportunity, then should every movie have a racial distribution of actors that matches America’s demographics? That’s 65 percent white, 13 percent black, and the remainder made up of Hispanics and Latinos. Should the industry as a whole reflect this balance? Should every artist stay in his own lane and produce or appear in only productions meant for his identity politics cohort?
As a producer and an actor, I can scarcely imagine a more terrible way for the performing and film arts to operate. If a talented chubby white kid in Kansas wants to do a one-man show as Biggie Smalls, great. If a 50-year-old black man in Brooklyn wants to do a one-man show as Shakespeare, fantastic. If a disabled Asian woman in Los Angeles wants to do a one-woman show as Harriet Tubman, I’m all for it.
The whole point is to pretend to be something you are not, and in so doing not only learn that you are human and vulnerable and similar to the subject, but show that to your audience as well. Maybe this is something our society is dearly lacking right now: the sincere belief that we are all equally capable of empathy.
Throughout history, those who would place restrictions on actors have always done so because actors, plays, novels, and movies scare them. Artists cast doubts on the established sanctities of every time. It is an important role. The good news is that today’s prohibitionists will fail, just as all of their predecessors have, because the human need to understand each other is stronger than any political or social ideology.