Over the course of my career in the film and TV business, I’ve hired a lot of actors. If I’m honest, I didn’t hire a one of them to act. I wanted all of them just to “be”. Now, keep in mind, we’re talking about acting for the camera, not acting for the stage. They’re two different things. The stage demands actors project everything to the back row: voice, emotion, nuance. The camera makes actors projecting extraneous. It really does see everything – no help needed. If an actor poses for a shot, the camera sees them posing. Not being entirely candid. At the moment of truth – when the audience needs to buy what the actor is selling – they’ll want honesty (the actor’s craft). In a close up, acting looks like acting. It never looks like honesty.
That’s why, as a producer (and a writer), I always hire actors to “be” and never ever to act. Acting always ends up on the cutting room floor.
Acting Is Honesty
Aside from Meryl Streep (and maybe a handful of English actors), actors don’t really disappear inside their roles. They fill their roles with themselves – and then (this is the actor’s craft) – they reach down to their own emotions and feel them in real time as genuinely and fully as they can. But – here’s the trick – the craft of acting is knowing how to let go of all fear of failure and exposure.
Yeah, we give actors different names. We put words into their mouths. But the emotions will be all theirs. The more emotionally naked they’re willing to get – in ways we believe? That’s how we measure their quality.
Everything else is surface detail.
When we go to hire actors, say, for a TV episode, we rarely hire people who are direct analogs of their characters. There will be some similarities but also there will be very real differences. We’re talking about things that should take an audience completely out of the story – they’re that glaringly unrealistic. But, we ignore them because it’s a meaningless surface detail; we’re connected to the emotional honesty. We understand: these are actors acting parts.
FFS Get The Accent Right!!!
Dick Van Dyke is a very talented man. He can do it all – except accents. If he was black – and his Cockney accent impeccable – I would forget his skin color in a heartbeat because he sounded so authentic. In fact, the color of our skin is one of our most insignificant differences. There’s data and research that says children don’t naturally differentiate between each other based on skin color. They see the human underneath – the cake as it were. We teach them to see only the icing.
And then to judge them solely on “the color” of the icing!
Open Casting Call!
The growing color blindness in casting is fantastic! We still see it because it’s so new. But now that we’ve opened our minds to looking past the skin color icing to the acting cake beneath, we’ll soon adapt completely. We’ll think of Black actors playing white characters the same we think of Americans playing Brits or Brits playing Americans.
The question should be: are they getting the accent right?
The day needs to come where, if I see an ad on TV with a mixed race couple, my first thought isn’t “Oh, look – a mixed race couple”. It will be “Oh, look – a couple”. That’s a long way away yet. But if we never start toward it, we’ll never get there.
Now, this can only be a one way street. Yeah – not fair. But only “not fair” in the instant and to one set of players. The white ones. We all live in a reality where one culture (in our multi-ethnic culture) unfairly dominated all the others until very, very recently. We have never enjoyed any sort of level playing field.
That’s at the heart of the dynamic tension riling America. One group wants the playing field leveled so that everyone willing to put in the sweat equity gets the same shot at success. The other wants to keep the playing field tilted toward them. Hell, they want to tilt it even further – all the effing way.
Denzel Does Macbeth
One of the most under-rated (and maddeningly unseen) films of the past few years is Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy Of Macbeth” starring Denzel Washington. Frances McDormand plays Lady M. The color of Denzel’s skin never enters into the storytelling equation. Ah, but Denzel’s reliable ability to be honest for the camera shines all over the place! His honesty and craft as an actor makes Macbeth relatable. Acting mission accomplished!
Human beings might be the only creatures who story-tell to each other. This requires an understanding between storyteller and story-tellee. The tellee must be able to imagine what the teller is telling. It gets easier when the storyteller has a movie camera in their hand. This gives storytelling great power.
How we tell stories – how we cast them – quickly becomes “normal”. If this color blind casting trend continues, it shouldn’t be too long before most of us become less racist. It is racist to think a Black person can’t play a white person when so many white people have played (badly, too!) people of every other race on the planet.
One More Thing!
By the way – a huge congrats to the cast of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” – winners of this year’s SAG Award for ensemble acting! As 94 year old cast member (and my former next door neighbor!) James Hong said:
“My first movie was with Clark Gable. But back in those days … the leading role was played by these guys with eyes taped up like this, and they talk like this, because the producers said the Asians were not good enough and they are not box office [draws]. But look at us now.”
Hear, hear, Mr. Hong! Hear-effin-HEAR!