Casting More Non-White Actors In Traditionally White Roles : Consider This from NPR Jodie Turner-Smith in Anne Boleyn. Mindy Kaling in Scooby Doo. Dev Patel in The Green Knight, and last year's David Copperfield.

It seems like Hollywood gatekeepers are opening up more traditionally white parts to other performers. But as NPR film critic Bob Mondello explains, cross-cultural casting isn't new — and it's always raised eyebrows.

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Cross-Cultural Casting: Noteworthy For Hollywood, But Not Exactly New

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's been some drama lately on the internet and elsewhere about some unconventional casting choices in film and TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANNE BOLEYN")

JODIE TURNER-SMITH: (As Anne Boleyn) Fear can be fuel. Let your fear drive you to be bigger, louder. The sky itself will not limit you.

CORNISH: That's actress Jodie Turner-Smith, British and Jamaican, playing the doomed wife of Henry VIII in the British miniseries "Anne Boleyn." And you can probably imagine what some of the reaction has sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Anne Boleyn wasn't Black.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think it's ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know, I don't...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I disagree, but it's like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why didn't you get a white actress?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why should you? If an actress...

CORNISH: Here's another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A planned remake of the popular cartoon "Scooby-Doo" is causing controversy over the casting of one of its main characters.

CORNISH: Indian American actress Mindy Kaling is playing Velma in "Scooby-Doo." And British Indian actor Dev Patel plays the nephew of King Arthur in the movie "The Green Knight."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

DEV PATEL: (As Gawain) I fear I'm not meant for greatness.

CORNISH: Patel also starred in Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield" last year, a role he told the film's director he was surprised to get.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PATEL: And I told Armando when I first met him, I was like, normally, you know, the only opportunity I would get would be holding a tray in the side of the room in a world like this. So for you to give me such a substantial role, you know, a real opportunity here - that means so much. And...

CORNISH: Patel told NPR he and director Armando Iannucci spoke about the success of Broadway's "Hamilton," where Black and brown actors play white figures from history on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PATEL: The audience's ability to just look past the actors and really key into the story - you know, that's what Armando's initial pitch was to me - was, you know, if we can do it in theater, why can't we do it in film?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - in one sense, it does seem like more gatekeepers in Hollywood are thinking that way - casting actors in parts they wouldn't have played in the past. But as our film critic Bob Mondello will explain, the only thing new about cross-cultural casting is who's getting the roles.

From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, July 16.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The conventional criticism of diverse casting is that it violates some unspoken rule about realism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's utterly one-way traffic. You will not be getting any white people playing Othello any time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Or Barack Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I agree. And I agree.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You know, if there's a biopic of Nelson Mandela...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...He will not be played by a white actor. This is wokery (ph) gone mad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, so you...

CORNISH: That's the view on one British talk show, anyway. But as NPR's film critic Bob Mondello explains, cross-cultural casting has always raised eyebrows, even though it's as old as casting itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB MONDELLO: In the 5th century B.C., when the Greek playwright Aeschylus needed a defense attorney for his leading man in the tragedy "The Oresteia," he picked the god Apollo, a choice you do not make if you're worried about verisimilitude in casting. Live theater has always assumed the audience can make imaginative leaps, whether it's depicting warrior kings who rant...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) A horse - my kingdom for a horse.

MONDELLO: ...Or founding fathers who rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) I am not throwing away my shot.

MONDELLO: "Hamilton," of course, is a special case.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) Ay, yo, I'm just like my country. I'm young, scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot.

MONDELLO: It's a Broadway musical famous not just for putting hip-hop in the mouths of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but for matching Black and brown faces to those historic white characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIRANDA: Every time I write a piece of theater, I'm trying to get us on the board.

MONDELLO: Latino composer lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda speaking with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MIRANDA: Black and brown artists - this is a story of America then told by America now. It's our country, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) The plan is to fan this spark into a flame. But damn, it's getting dark, so let me spell out my name.

MONDELLO: With inclusion as "Hamilton's" calling card, diverse audiences made it a worldwide phenomenon, an outcome that seems natural in retrospect but that flew in the face of decades of theater practice. In 1986, when the stage union Actors Equity convened the first national symposium on nontraditional casting, it noted that more than 90% of actors hired in the U.S. were white, and it presented scenes designed to help theater-makers consider other possibilities. In Tennessee Williams's "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," for instance, James Earl Jones as Southern patriarch, Big Daddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF")

JAMES EARL JONES: (As Big Daddy) You and Skipper being so different would pick out more or less the same kind of woman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We married into society, Big Daddy.

JONES: (As Big Daddy) Crap. Why'd you both have that same anxious look?

MONDELLO: New York Magazine critic John Simon did not see this scene, having pointedly declined to attend the symposium 35 years ago. But he told NPR's Carole Zimmer at the time that the whole notion was ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN SIMON: You cannot create the illusion of a Joan of Arc with a Black actress. It doesn't work unless they can make themselves up to pass. But this, they can no longer do because their ethnic pride forbids it.

MONDELLO: To be clear, Simon had no problem with Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake at 19 in France, being played by an actress in her 30s in English. For him, skin color was the deal-breaker. And his attitude held sway for years, despite the efforts of attendees to make dents in the armor of white theatrical privilege. It would be decades before Jones got to play Big Daddy for a paying crowd. But then, actors of color were used to waiting, even for roles for which they were ideally suited. Take Shakespeare's Othello, perhaps the most famous Black character in theatrical history...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO")

PAUL ROBESON: (As Othello) When you shall these unlucky deeds relate...

MONDELLO: ...Played here by the great African American actor, Paul Robeson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO")

ROBESON: (As Othello) ...Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate.

MONDELLO: "Othello" was written in 1603. Would it surprise you to know that it took more than two centuries before the part was played in England by a Black actor? A New Yorker at that - Ira Aldridge, who'd relocated to London because in the early 1800s, Black actors couldn't get work on American stages. The reaction? British critics had a problem with Aldridge's Othello because of his race. In the absence of Black English actors, they'd grown accustomed to the Moor being played as a light-skinned Arab. Times would change - casting choices, too - but slowly, especially slowly on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OTHELLO")

ORSON WELLES: (As Othello) She loved me for the dangers I had passed.

MONDELLO: Orson Welles was one of many white actors...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OTHELLO")

WELLES: (As Othello) And I loved her that she did pity them.

MONDELLO: ...To play Othello in blackface on film and television more than a century after Aldridge, even after Robeson. In Hollywood, cultural appropriation was common and strictly a one-way street - always white performers darkening their skin to play characters of color, even when those characters were historical figures. Surely there was an Asian actor who was a better fit for a Mongol warrior Genghis Khan than John Wayne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONQUEROR")

JOHN WAYNE: (As Genghis Khan) While I have fingers to grasp a sword and eyes to see, your treacherous head is not safe on your shoulders, nor your daughter in her bed.

MONDELLO: Even after that sort of grotesquerie became untenable, exceptions were made for white actors in the classics. And if the film industry saw fit to hand Othello, the theater's most famous Black leading role, to the likes of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, what hope could actors of color have for roles not specifically conceived for them, say, a Black James Bond? That's a question Idris Elba has been fielding for so long. He may have aged out of contention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IDRIS ELBA: Listen, my mom, my poor mom - she's like, one day you going to get it. Don't mind them. I'm like, mom, it's all right, man. I'm good. I've got "Luther."

MONDELLO: And yes, he does have the detective miniseries "Luther" and a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to console him. But as big a star as Idris Elba is, was anyone auditioning him when he was in his 30s to play Mr. Darcy? There's a whole world of literary parts he's unlikely ever to be considered for, something you might also have said until recently about "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel. Imagine him being cast in Dickens? Preposterous - until it happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

PATEL: (As David Copperfield) I'm David Copperfield from the rookery. I've been ill-used and put to work not fit for me. And you're the only family I have.

TILDA SWINTON: (As Betsey Trotwood) Come inside. Come inside.

MONDELLO: Director Armando Iannucci decided on colorblind casting for last year's personal history of David Copperfield - Black, aristocratic mothers of white sons, Asian fathers of Black daughters, which gives the film's world far more diversity than even mid-empire London would have possessed. It interferes with the storytelling not at all and, says Iannucci, offers opportunity even-handedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMANDO IANNUCCI: There is such a lot of talent that. I mean, Dev himself said, normally in a film like this he'd be carrying the tea tray and standing at the back. And for a man of his talent and ability, that's just tragic to think that that's a possibility.

MONDELLO: Colorblind casting of the sort Iannucci's practicing is one way to counter that. Another is color-conscious casting, where roles are assigned nontraditionally to make a point. That's what producer Shonda Rhimes did in the Emmy-nominated "Bridgerton," desegregating costume drama by using the real Black ancestry of Britain's Queen Charlotte to imagine a Black British aristocracy in waist coats and petticoats.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

ADJOA ANDOH: (As Lady Danbury) We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.

MONDELLO: Lady Danbury sees this as evidence that love conquers all. Her nephew, Simon, who's been dallying with the show's white leading lady, is skeptical.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

REGE-JEAN PAGE: (As Simon) The king may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty. And at that same whim, he may just as easily change his mind.

MONDELLO: And there's always the risk that something similar could happen with nontraditional casting, which is why the last few months have been so bracing - "Bridgerton," "Copperfield," British TV's Black "Anne Boleyn." Soon, Dev Patel will be sitting at King Arthur's Round Table in "The Green Knight."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

PATEL: (As Gawain) Honor, that is why a knight does what he does.

MONDELLO: A star-studded Black cast will try to reclaim the western...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That ain't no way to board a train, you damn, stupid...

MONDELLO: ...In "The Harder They Fall."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Cherokee Bill) Well, he might could've said nincompoop.

REGINA KING: (As Trudy Smith) We ain't no nincompoop.

MONDELLO: And before year's end, Denzel Washington will star opposite Frances McDormand in a presumed awards contender, Shakespeare's "The Tragedy Of Macbeth." Macbeth is a role that Ira Aldridge, that first Black Othello in the hundreds had to wear white makeup to play - progress long incoming tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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