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Reviews |  Let the actors act

Adrian Lester, a British actor from Birmingham and son of two Jamaican immigrants, was nominated for a Tony Award last week for his performance in ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ as Emanuel Lehman, one of the original Jewish founders German investment giant Lehman Brothers has fallen. Lester, like the other actors in the threesome, plays several roles, including female characters and, at one point, a toddler who sucks his thumb.

There was no outcry over a British actor of African descent playing a German Jew, and there was no commotion either when he played Bobby, a character traditionally played by white actors, in a London production of “Company” by Stephen Sondheim, for which he won the award. an olive tree.

And why should there have been? It’s called playing.

Nor was there a protest against Lester’s co-star Simon Russell Beale, born to British parents in what was then British Malaysia and a former chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, playing a German Jew. Adam Godley, the play’s third actor, is Jewish in real life, but he’s also bisexual — not in the play. Again, it’s called acting, and Beale and Godley were also nominated for Tony Awards last week.

And yet, countless actors have been criticized for playing people they don’t look like in real life.

Earlier this year, Helen Mirren was lambasted for playing Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, in an upcoming biopic, even though she’s not Jewish – engaging in what is now being called ” Jewface”. In a recent interview defending Mirren, Ian McKellen (who, incidentally, has played everything from wizard to cat) asked, “Is the argument that a straight man can’t play a gay role, and if so , does that mean I can’t play? straight parts? He continued: “Surely not. We act. Have been claim.”

Daring to take on roles different from oneself hasn’t always sparked a storm. In 1993, when Tom Hanks played a gay character in “Philadelphia,” he was hailed as brave for fighting homophobia and won an Oscar. Today, his performance no longer plays so well in some circles. “Straight men who play gay — everyone wants to give them an award,” complained performer Billy Porter during a 2019 cast roundtable. Still, many of our top gay actors, lesbians and bisexuals — Jodie Foster, Alan Cumming, Kristen Stewart, Nathan Lane — have won awards for straight roles without so much as a whisper of complaint.

What we’re effectively saying here – never, God forbid, saying it out loud – is that it’s OK for actors from groups considered marginalized – whether they’re gay, indigenous, Latino, or whatever. number of identities – to play straight white characters. But it’s not OK for the reverse.

These double standards may not bother you. But if it’s a problem that a “badly cast” actor – an actor whose identity differs from the character – takes a role away from a “correctly cast” actor when there are already fewer roles for groups under -represented or marginalized, so why not condemn Simon Russell Beale for accepting the role of a Jewish actor? Why no outcry every time a 40-year-old actress bends biology to play the mothers of 25-year-old actresses, stealing older actresses who more likely fit the role?

If, however, the real problem is that the actors cannot understand what it feels like to be part of a demographic group or to have a sexual orientation outside the confines of their own experience, then none of those actors should to be able to play anyone. unlike themselves. In other words, no one should ever be allowed to play a role.

Hollywood has wisely moved on from the offensive extremes of blackface and Shylock stereotypes, “queeny” gay characters, and Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing turn as a Japanese landlord in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” There’s plenty of room in the middle without ricocheting to the other unwanted extreme.

It’s not that a strict typecast should never happen; this can create enriching opportunities for actors and audiences. Here are the deaf performers of the Oscar-winning “Coda.”

But deaf performers can also act movingly in a musical like Deaf West’s 2015 revival of “Spring Awakening,” which featured them in roles that were originally played as hearing characters and performed simply in as characters, neither explicitly hearing nor deaf, but transcendent human in their expression.

Similarly, in a recent revival of “Oklahoma,” Ali Stoker, who uses a wheelchair, was able to fully embody Ado Annie, who spends much of her time in film and previous stage versions wandering away from her pretender, Will Parker, just as Daniel Day-Lewis once captured him, with extraordinary sensitivity in “My Left Foot,” wheelchair-bound writer and painter Christy Brown.

Good actors are able to find a way to portray people who aren’t like them, either on the surface or far below, which sets them apart from those of us who could barely remember our lines in a fourth-grade production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas. Acting is a feat of compassion and an act of generosity. Those capable of this kind of emotional ventriloquism allow audiences to find themselves in the lives portrayed on screen, too little do they resemble ours.

Congratulations to these actors who do this well. Congratulations to the talented Adrian Lester, who forgets his skin color, his nationality and his religion – and gives himself entirely to his performance. There’s no reason for an actor to apologize for practicing and reveling in their craft.

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