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Hollywood’s casting controversy: Should actors play roles that are true to their ethnicity?

In this composite image a comparison has been made between Nina Simone (L) and actress Zoe Saldana.
In this composite image a comparison has been made between Nina Simone (L) and actress Zoe Saldana.
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Authentic casting is a hot topic in Hollywood.

With upcoming movies such as “Nina” with Zoe Saldana, an Afro-Latin actress playing Nina Simone, and British actor, Alfred Molina, playing an Afghan politician in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” critics are asking why actors with the same ethnicities of these characters were overlooked.

Casting actors of a different ethnicity than their characters was the norm in early Hollywood. In the 1940’s English actor, Rex Harrison, played the king in “Anna and the King of Siam” and Viennese-American actress, Hedy Lamarr, played an Egyptian-Arab in “White Cargo.”

Today, casting decisions regarding ethnicity are not as far-off, but star power still rules when it comes to filling leading roles - even if performers don’t fit the ethnic backgrounds of characters to a tee.

To combat the diversity crisis Hollywood, studios are taking the leap to make movies with a wider range of roles for actors of different ethnicities, but the challenges of a more inclusive entertainment industry go beyond the decision to make a biopic about Nina Simone.

Avy Kaufman has worked as the casting director for numerous films such as “Lincoln” and “Brokeback Mountain.” She also cast English-Indian Actress Sarita Choudhury for the role of a Saudi doctor in the upcoming film, “A Hologram for the King,” with Tom Hanks.

Kaufman joined Patt Morrison and FilmWeek critics, Justin Chang and Tim Cogshell, to talk about factors that go into casting and the challenges of putting actors in roles that reflect their ethnicity. Here are some highlights of their conversation:

During the discussion, Kaufman spoke about the audience’s ability to dive in to a film without letting the actor’s ethnicity overshadow the story.

Kaufman: Unless someone says,‘Where is she from?,’ are we gonna know? I find that it’s up to the actor and the actress most of the time if they feel they can handle [the role].

Kaufman also commended Zoe Saldana for taking on the role of Nina Simone.

Kaufman: I think it’s very brave of Zoe because she had to walk in knowing the positives and the negatives. I think some people are gonna tear it apart. Some people are gonna walk in to the theater and just get involved [with the story].

On the subject of the film, “Nina,” Tim Cogshell says Saldana’s performance isn’t the issue in question, but having a lighter-skinned Afro-Latina actress play Simone cannot be ignored, especially within the Black community.

Cogshell: Particularly Black women, of any hue frankly, will not be able to engage in that suspension of disbelief. If you know intimately who Nina Simone was, then that’s not going to happen. It already hasn’t happened with me and I’ve only seen the poster. And suspension of disbelief will not happen. The movie has already failed in my mind.

After watching “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Justin Chang says he didn’t recognize American actor, Christopher Abbot, who played a character who was Afghani. He credits this “suspension of disbelief” to Abbot’s acting skills, but wasn’t pleased to discover the part wasn’t played by an Afghani actor.

Chang: When I looked back and realized that was not Christopher Abbot, that really made me angry. I don’t think the suspension of disbelief is a good thing in this case because it’s kind of a testament, perhaps to Hollywood artifice and illusion which is a good thing. But there’s something very troubling about that and what it says about the inability to cast an actor from Afghanistan or from that part of the world in a role made for that actor.


Avy Kaufman, Casting Director, “A Hologram for the King,”  “Lincoln,” “Brokeback Mountain” and many more

Justin Chang, film critic for KPCC and chief film critic for "Variety;" he tweets from @JustinCChang

Tim Cogshell, Film Critic for KPCC and Alt-Film Guide; Tim tweets from @CinemaInMind