Courting controversy by casting against 'type'
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Courting controversy by casting against 'type'

Another day another casting controversy, and another entirely predictable round of righteous indignation on social media.

The spur to the latest bout is the news that English actor-comedian Jack Whitehall has been cast to play what is billed as Disney’s first openly gay character in the comedy Jungle Cruise. But Whitehall is straight, and the character isn’t just gay, he’s “effete” and “camp”. How very dare they! (Never mind that the Disney canon is full of thinly veiled gay characters already, played by actors both straight and gay.)

Jack Whitehall in the ABC's Bad Education.

Jack Whitehall in the ABC's Bad Education.

Photo: ABC

It comes just weeks after Scarlett Johansson was cast (and then uncast) as a transgender brothel owner in Rub & Tug. Given the response to her playing a nominally Asian AI cop in Ghost in the Shell last year, ScarJo should have known better, but she only added insult to injury by suggesting any criticism “can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment” (these actors played transgender characters, in Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club and Transamerica respectively).  A few days after releasing that tone-deaf statement she withdrew from the project.

Scarlett Johansson appears in a scene from Ghost in the Shell.

Scarlett Johansson appears in a scene from Ghost in the Shell.

Photo: Paramount Pictures/AP
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Some of the outrage borders on outrageous, as in the response to last week's news that Ruby Rose had been cast as the openly gay Batwoman. Because she has described herself as “gender-fluid”, Rose was deemed the “wrong” kind of lesbian for the role.

It's not just the screen arts that stand accused either. Last month, Opera Australia found itself under attack when it announced Julie Lea Goodwin would play the role of Maria, a Puerto Rican, in its upcoming production of West Side Story.

There have been many more instances, and there will no doubt be more to come. But is any of this outrage – manufactured or otherwise – justified?

The temptation is to say no, not really. Actors act. Often they play characters strikingly similar to their real selves, but some of the greatest performances have been by actors pretending to be something they are not: Daniel Day Lewis as the cerebral palsy-afflicted artist Christie Brown in My Left Foot; Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster; Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer dying from an AIDS-related illness in Philadelphia.

Charlize Theron as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Charlize Theron as the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Photo: Supplied

To follow the logic of the argument being mounted in activist circles, only a disabled actor ought to be cast as Brown, an unattractive woman as Wuornos, a gay man as Beckett. And to push that argument to its logical extreme (a la the Ruby Rose backlash), the actor playing Brown ought to be not merely disabled but severely crippled with CP; the actress playing Wuornos ought to have real-world experience of killing; and the poor chap playing Beckett should be not long for this world.

Seen through this prism – in which actors are being denied the right to perform roles that are within their powers of transformation – it is easy to dismiss all this indignation as ludicrous.

But let’s flip it for a moment. Let’s consider the notions of opportunity and transformation and the denial thereof from the other side of the fence.

Daniel Day Lewis has played gay and disabled characters, as well as a white man raised by Native Americans. But how many Native American actors have been given the opportunity to play a lead character who is not specifically written as such?

Other than Michael J Fox, whose Parkinson’s disease developed after he became a major star, how many disabled actors have played major roles where their disability is not the focus of their character’s storyline?

Arguably, being out in Hollywood is not the career suicide it once was, but instances of known gay actors playing straight are still relatively rare – Neil Patrick Harris’s rampantly hetero Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother being one shining example.

Straight actors can gain kudos and a career boost by playing gay – as in the case of Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet as the lovers in the Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name – but an openly gay man as a straight lead is still considered box-office poison. Just ask Rupert Everett.

Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name.

Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name.

Photo: Supplied

That is why so many male actors in Hollywood remain more or less closeted.

In short, the argument is only partially about who is qualified to play particular characters. It is primarily about the lack of opportunity for all performers to play any type of character, regardless of personal characteristics.

At this moment in time it might seem entirely unfeasible that a trans woman might play the US president, at least without seem serious textual explaining. But it’s not that long since the idea of a woman or a black man playing the US president seemed inconceivable.

What about a disabled actor in that role? Not a chance, you might say … until you recall that Franklin Delano Roosevelt in fact served four terms as US president after becoming paralysed from the waist down in 1921 (though, to be fair, he did his best to hide his disability from the public – which was possible in those pre-television and social media days, but unlikely now).

Ultimately, what the diversity push aims to achieve is a world in which a trans actor can play a teacher without the fact of their background needing explanation, where a Muslim can play a cop, where an Asian can play a romantic lead opposite a caucasian actor, where a disabled actor can simply be.

Until that happens, demanding they get first pick of the roles for which they are most qualified seems a reasonable place to start.

And seen through that prism, the outrage really isn’t so outrageous at all.

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Karl has been a journalist at Fairfax Media since 1999, in a variety of writing and editing roles. Karl writes about popular culture with a particular focus on film and television.