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?