Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Mainstream Hollywood has come under a lot of flack recently due to race and gender swapping major established characters, and for some questionable casting choices.
Fans of the original comic book version of the Fantastic Four riled at director Josh Trank’s decision to cast Johnny Storm an African American in his 2015 reboot. Not only did this alter established canon, it also scuppered the sibling rivalry dynamic between him and his sister, Sue Storm. That said, casting Jessica Alba, a dark haired, brown eyed Mexican, to play a blond haired, blue eyed American in the earlier films was perhaps a questionable casting decision too.
The gender swapping of the main characters in 2016’s Ghostbusters received widespread ridicule, and caused heated arguments on social media for some time after its release.
Hollywood’s white washing - the practice of casting Caucasian actors to play non-Caucasian characters - has also come under fire, and rightly so. Casting Scarlett Johansson to play Motoko Kusanagi, the Japanese lead character in Ghost in the Shell is a recent example. Some people found it offensive, whilst many others simply found it stupid. Were all the Japanese actors who may have better filled the role unavailable? Were they all on holiday or something?
(Full disclosure – Nomad has not seen these three recent films at the time of writing.)
Poor casting is not a recent phenomenon however. I greatly enjoyed 'The Hunt For Red October', but even as a child I couldn’t help thinking that Captain Ramius, played by Sean Connery, sounded a lot more like he was from Edinburgh than from Vilnius.
Enemy at the Gates cast Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Bob Hoskins as the lead Russians, and Ed Harris as their German antagonist. The result? Cockney Soviets and a New Jersey Nazi. As much as I enjoyed the film, this made it painful to watch, and robbed it of the gravitas that portraying such a tragic battle deserves.
However, there is a solution to this, one so obvious that Hollywood often misses it. The solution is simple: "Cast actors from the same countries as their characters".
2009 gave the world a masterclass in sensible casting. That film was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino has never been afraid to do things differently, and this film was no exception. Instead of sticking to the usual Hollywood formula, this film was an international affair, with an equally international cast.
Jewish-American characters, such as Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz, were played by Jewish American actors, such as Eli Roth.
British characters such as General Ed Fenech were played by actors of British descent, for example Mike Myers.
German actors, in this case Diane Kruger, Til Schweiger and August Diehl played Bridget von Hammersmark, Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz and Major Dieter Hellstrom respectively, all of which were German characters.
The Jewish-French character of Shosanna Dreyfus was played by the equally Jewish-French actor Mélanie Laurent.
Lieutenant Archie Hicox, the British officer who attempted to pass himself off as a Nazi officer, but failed due to his imperfect understanding of German customs and command of the language, was played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is half Irish, half German, and his command of the German language prior to filming was, in his own words, ‘a bit rusty’.
The script and dialog were perfect, as we would expect from Tarantino. On top of this, the performances were superb, the characters felt genuine and their accents were spot on.
(Except for Hicox, who's accent was supposed to be 'a little off’, since that was a major story point.)
Would this film have been anywhere near as good, or felt so authentic, if the cast were the usual ‘all American’ Hollywood A-listers? I doubt it.
2009’s District 9 had a similar casting philosophy. Filmed by South African director Neill Blomkamp, it was set in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was filmed on location. It featured an *almost* all South African cast of characters, who were portrayed by an all South African ensemble of actors.
(The exceptions being the alien prawns and the Nigerian gang members, for obvious reasons. However even these characters were played by South African actors.)
Would this film have been so memorable if it had been set and filmed in Los Angeles, and starred the usual Hollywood brat pack? Again, I suspect the answer would be ‘no’.
Unfortunately, Hollywood does not appear to have learnt from these lessons, if the recent casting decisions mentioned earlier are anything to go by.
That said, there is perhaps hope for the film industry yet.
Maverick director Christopher Nolan’s 2017 DUNKIRK has continued to buck the Hollywood trend, by casting UK actors for all the British characters. There are few, if any, American actors in the whole film, which is fitting as America had not joined the war by this point, so there would have been few, if any, Americans at Dunkirk. Prominent French characters, for example the French soldier in the fishing trawler, were played by french actors, and the Dutch sailor was played by a Dutch actor.
This was a courageous decision, considering Dunkirk was such a high-profile film from an equally high-profile director. Nolan clearly cared more for historical accuracy than for maximising box office returns, and is to be commended. The film has its faults, but poor casting is not one of them.
But that is a story for another day.
See you all then.