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Why Scarlett Johansson Is Mostly Right About Identity-Blind Casting


Scarlett Johansson is in hot water again after seeming to reverse her previous position on playing a transgender character. Last year, Johansson stepped down from the lead role (a trans-identifying man) in the movie “Rub and Tug” amid backlash from the left and transgender activists who argued that a trans actor must play the role. This week, in an interview for As If magazine, the megastar struck an entirely different tone.

She told the magazine that, “You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.” She went on to say that, “I feel like it’s a trend in my business, and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions. Society would be more connected if we just allowed others to have their own feelings and not expect everyone to feel the way we do.”

Johansson is largely correct here. The actor’s job in almost every case is to play someone or something that he or she is not. An actor studies the character he is meant to portray, almost always with an eye towards empathy, and striving to understand rather than judge, what drives a character’s actions. To say that an actor can only play himself, or someone very similar to himself, is an insult to the art form. Yet these questions can still be tricky.

As a theater producer whose company put up more than 300 short plays from 2001-2016, I’ve frequently encountered the question of color-blind, or identity-blind, casting. My approach followed a few simple rules. The first was to determine if the identifier(s) of the role in question is “contextually specific” or “contextually neutral.” In the former case, the identifier is not only noted by the playwright, but informs the work, and or is specifically mentioned in the text. In the latter there is nothing in the text that determines the actor’s identifiers.

In the case of “contextually neutral” roles, there is no need to consider identifiers; one may simply select the best actor for the role. This is true even if the demographics of the role are historically or regionally implied. As “Hamilton” proved, nobody is particularly thrown by a black George Washington (more on this case below). Audiences forget about it fairly quickly and simply take in the work.

Contextually specific roles can be more complicated. If, for example, the writer is exploring a very specific racial dynamic, it makes sense to present the play or movie as the writer intended. In the case of “Rub and Tug,” this is further complicated by the fact that, according Johansson’s critics, trans-identifying men are actually women, so it would seem there is no reason Johansson should be barred from the role.

Getting back to “Hamilton,” the will of the writer — or, in the case of movies the producers — plays a central role in determining if the identifiers of the actor matter. Lin-Manuel Miranda has made clear he always wants actors of color to play the leads in “Hamilton.” One can agree or disagree with his decision, but it should be his call. This is also true of Samuel Beckett’s estate, which is notoriously stingy in granting the rights to his plays to companies who wish to stretch the boundaries of the specific words in his plays and character descriptions.

Just as a painter is free to create any person of any type on a canvas, so too can a writer or producer do so in their stage or screen pictures. But what Johansson is rightfully pushing back against is a different matter, rather than a specific choice regarding a specific work. It is a blanket call to keep “less oppressed” actors from playing a character from a “more oppressed” demographic. This one-size-fits-all approach rooted in privilege theory is a wrongheaded mistake.

It is rooted in privilege theory because there is no prohibition on a trans actor playing a non-trans character, or a black actor playing a white one, or a woman playing a man, etc. The ratchet moves in only one direction. At first, this was a justified effort to secure more roles for people of color in a very white industry, but now it isn’t about opportunity, but the limits of art itself.

Those who scold Johansson aren’t just saying a trans actor lost an opportunity, they are saying that non-trans person can’t possibly play the role accurately, having never lived the experience of a trans person. This is where ScarJo is correct in defying her critics. I mean, Ian McClellan has never been a wizard. He pretends. It is perfectly fine to be sensitive in regard to these casting choices, but simply denying “privileged” actors the ability to play the less “privileged” is not the way to go about it.

Johansson deserves credit for weighing in on this testy issue. It would be far easier for her to simply ignore it and take any of the bevvy of the job offers she no doubt receives. But she cares about her art form, and understands how badly these illiberal ideas can harm it. Acting, which is the ultimate act of empathy, instead becomes caricature of itself.

Johansson’s measured changing of her mind on this issue should be welcomed by everyone. It opens the door to a real and honest conversation about the issue. And that is, so far, something that has been sorely lacking.