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To act or not to act?

Actors spend their lives portraying other people. So why, asks Georgina Littlejohn, are they being criticised for doing their job?

The dictionary defines the word ‘actor’ as someone who pretends to be someone else while performing in a film, play, television or radio programme…

Pretends to be someone else. Pretends.

And yet, it seems, in this age of political correctness and anti-cultural appropriation, that’s just not good enough.

This week it was announced that Israeli actor Gal Gadot will be taking on the role of Cleopatra in a new film about the life of the Queen of Egypt.

She is a beautiful and elegant Middle Eastern actress, a box office sensation, one of the world’s highest paid actresses and will no doubt give 100% to the role and make it her own.

But her casting has deeply upset the perpetually offended and the raging Twitterati, because, according to them, an Arab or African actress, not a white one, should play Cleopatra.

Hate to break it to them but Cleopatra was neither Arabic nor black. In fact, she was actually of Macedonian and Greek descent.

But why should history and facts matter, right? Will these people also demand that Italian actors portray Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony?

It’s also amazing that a movie is being made about a strong female leader who became a queen at 18 and gave the patriarchy a run for their money – yet the woke feminists seem to have completely disregarded that.

Does it really matter what her personal heritage or religion is? Or any actor’s for that matter?

I can see why it’s problematic for a white person to take on an Asian or black character and vice versa. Some roles are meant to, and should only be, portrayed by a person of the same ethnicity.

Hence the term “whitewashing” which in the film industry means casting white actors in non-white roles, many of which have proved very controversial.

Scarlett Johansson came under fire for taking the lead role in the adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a story from a manga series entirely made up of Japanese characters.

Angelina Jolie portraying Mariane Pearl, a French-born woman of Afro-Cuban descent, in the film A Mighty Heart also ruffled quite a few feathers.

Then there was the 2008 heist drama film 21, based on the book Bringing Down the House about a group of students and ex-students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and other leading colleges who used card counting techniques to beat casinos all around the world at blackjack.

Most of the main players were Asian Americans but they are portrayed as white Americans in the film, which didn’t sit well with online bloggers who accused producers and casting directors of whitewashing.

But why do some people feel the need to be offended on behalf of someone else? Especially if that someone else could give two hoots?

Take Jeff Ma, for example, one of the real-life students who worked as a consultant on 21 and said the criticism over the casting was “overblown”. He was then accused of being a “race-traitor” for not demanding that his character be Asian-American.

But he laughed it off and told USA Today: “I’m not sure they understand how little control I had in the movie-making process; I didn’t get to cast it. I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me.”

And then there’s the casting of Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick Tonto, which had critics up in arms as they squawked that the role should have gone to a Native American.

Depp, for his part, not only said he had Cherokee blood, but he was also formally adopted into the Native American Comanche tribe – the same tribe Tonto comes from – proving they had absolutely no issue with his casting.

I can understand the furore surrounding certain castings, especially when it comes to race. It absolutely makes more sense to have an actor of the character’s ethnicity play the part because that, essentially, is the point of the character.

So hats off to Stephen Spielberg, who has remade West Side Story, but, in contrast to the original 1961 movie, his 2021 version will have a majority Latino cast.

But there have also been many all-black, or all-Asian adaptations of classic stories, most that were originally written about Caucasians that no one, to my knowledge, has made a fuss about that.

In 2008, I saw an all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre in London.

It didn’t matter that Adrian Lester played Brick or James Earl Jones starred as Big Daddy, roles written by Tennessee Williams about white people. Yes, it brought a fresh dynamic to the 1950s play, but more importantly, their superb performances had nothing to do with the colour of their skin.

And it’s not just colour and ethnicity that has raised issues but sexuality too.

Many straight actors have played gay people in films and been nominated for Oscars and without courting any controversy – take Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain and Sean Penn for political drama Milk for example.

Eddie Redmayne, however, was criticised for portraying the transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, despite being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and Bafta for a role he described as “a gift”.

He defended his casting and said trans, gay or straight actors should be free to play any role as long as they do it with “a sense of in integrity and responsibility”.

But in 2018, Darren Criss (who is straight and best known for playing gay characters Blaine Anderson in Glee and serial killer Andree Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace), said he would no longer accept LGBT roles because: “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role.”

On the other hand, gay actor Ben Whishaw told the Huffington Post last year that he had no problem with straight actors playing gay characters as long as gay actors get to play straight roles too.

“I really believe that actors can embody and portray anything and we shouldn’t be defined only by what we are,” he said.

Cate Blanchett, who played a lesbian in the Oscar-nominated film Carol, agreed with him. Speaking in Rome in 2018, she said: “I think, we expect and only expect people to make a profound connection to a character when it’s close to their experience.

“I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience.”

So when it comes to authenticity, where do we draw the line?

Heck, as an English girl, I could have easily been offended over Hollywood’s decision to cast the Texas-born Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones when there are so many talented England actresses out there.

And that’s one glaring thing that many seem to forget about. When casting a film – especially one that has the potential to be a box office hit – you need a big name to put bums on seats. And Hollywood star Gal Gadot is just the person to do that to make Cleopatra a success.

One of the wonders of cinema is that it gives us some escapism, a moment for us to suspend our disbelief. It’s also something that unites us all and shouldn’t cause division or hatred.

Actors play characters, whether they are real or fictitious but always purely for our entertainment. For many, it is an honour and a privilege to not only portray someone they admire, but to bring their story to life, whatever the colour, the religion, the sex, the gender or the sexuality of the actor or the character.

If an actor can bring authenticity to a role, then surely that’s enough for us to applaud their talent and passion for their craft without having to overshadow it with accusations of race or xenophobia.

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Georgina Littlejohn

Georgina Littlejohn is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience specialising in general and London news, entertainment and music. She cut her teeth in TV writing for news, sport and showbiz programmes before moving into print, starting at Associated Newspapers where she worked across the board from the Metro to the Standard to the London Lite before ending at MailOnline, where she was one of the senior showbiz reporters. After going freelance and working stints at the Mirror, the Sun, Music Week and Closer magazine, she took a career break in 2014 to work for theatre impresario Bill Kenwright as his Head of Communications. After a year as Senior Homepage Editor for MSN, she is now back freelancing and currently working for the i newspaper and its award-winning website. Georgina also volunteers as a kennel assistant for the Mayhew and as a befriender for Age UK.

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