Actors and Roles

I don’t want to say too much about it for fear of causing offence, but I just came across this rather perplexing story. Dame Maureen Lipman has questioned the casting of Dame Hellen Mirren as Israeli PM Golda Meir in an upcoming film about her life. Lipman says that, while Mirren is an excellent actor, she thinks only Jewish actors should be cast to play jewish roles, and that not casting a jewish actor would be the equivalent of a white actor putting on blackface to play a black character.

This strikes me as a very thorny issue indeed. I feel compelled to say something about it, but I’m not sure what I ought to say. Of course, as the article points out, there is an argument that to retain a sense of authenticity in a role, characters representing minorities should be portrayed by actors from those minorities: thus trans people should be played by trans actors, gay people by gay actors and disabled people by disabled actors. This I have no problem with, and agree wholeheartedly. The thing is, in the case of physically disabled people especially, we have attributes which set us apart from ‘the norm’; we look different, so a nondisabled actor playing a disabled character simply wouldn’t look authentic. (that reminds me, I really must watch My Left Foot again…) There’s also an argument saying that only someone with the right life experiences can play a character with any degree of authenticity, so you can only play a persecuted person if you have yourself experienced a similar degree of persecution. The counterargument, of course, is that part of the very nature of acting is to portray people you are not, and that any actor should be able to take on any role they are deemed suitable for. (After all, Sir Ian Mckellen might not be a wizard, but he made a really good Gandalf.)

Thus, given that Jewish people don’t differ physically from other people, I would argue that a nonjewish actor would play a jewish role at least more convincingly than a nondisabled person could play a character with, say, cerebral palsy. There would not be as many physical barriers to overcome. Unlike a white actor playing a black character, there would be no need to alter their appearance, so the intrusion wouldn’t be as overt or gratuitous. The question is, then, why would people like Maureen Lipman object so strongly? Why should certain roles be kept for certain people? why is this so culturally sensitive, especially in cases such as this?

3 thoughts on “Actors and Roles

  1. Jewishness has no defining physical characteristic. I think the idea that jew would be identifiable based on physical appearance bizarre and almost antisemitic. In no way does it compare to issues of race or disability. I will at this point reserve judgment on the issue of a trans individual. Identity politics taken to an extreme as in this case becomes absurd. So only an actual mother or father can play a mother or father? Only a catholic could play Sir Thomas More? As a gay man I would be opposed to the idea that only a gay man could play one in a film or play. In graduate school a female colleague said it was impossible for me, as a man, to direct Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House because only a woman could understand the central character, Nora. I pointed out then that , Ibsen was a man which makes her argument nonsense.

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    1. I don’t want this to sound antisemitic, but I get the impression that Lipman is seeking to separate jewish roles from others, trying to endow them with certain, special qualities which only jewish actors can portray. Yet given that such roles would require no unique skills, such as knowledge of a particular language or martial art, I don’t see the problem. After all Ben Kingsley played Gandhi, even though Kingsley was white and Gandhi was indian.

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      1. On Facebook I belong to a group called Old World Jewish Humor and I posted this article there. The overwhelming consensus opinion was that actors are actors and this is a daft idea.

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