The Only 'New' Thing About Cross-Cultural Casting Is Who's Getting The Roles Dev Patel as a knight of the Round Table, Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn, the mostly nonwhite casts of Bridgerton and Hamilton — all belong to a tradition that has its roots in live theater.

The Only 'New' Thing About Cross-Cultural Casting Is Who's Getting The Roles

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1016048049/1017012923" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Social media has been buzzing about unconventional casting choices in film and TV - Mindy Kaling playing Velma in a "Scooby-Doo" spinoff, Black Jamaican actress Jodie Turner-Smith playing the doomed wife of Henry VIII in the British miniseries "Anne Boleyn."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANNE BOLEYN")

JODIE TURNER-SMITH: (As Anne Boleyn) My dear sister-in-law holds a loose tongue in her head.

KELLY: So does this sort of diverse casting violate some unspoken rule about realism? Well, critic Bob Mondello takes a long view. He says cross-cultural casting has always raised eyebrows, even though it's as old as casting itself.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the fifth 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 King Richard III) 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 am 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.

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.

TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Brick) We married into society, Big Daddy.

JONES: (As Big Daddy) Crap. Why do they 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 to. 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...

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: My poor mom - she's like, one day you're going it. Don't mind them. I was like, mum, 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, "THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD")

DEV 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.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) 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 there. 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 is practicing is one way to counter that. Another is color-conscious casting, where roles are assigned non-traditionally 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 waistcoats 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 Basset) 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 Sir 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

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

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

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Cherokee Bill) You know, he might could have 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 1800s, had to wear white makeup to play - progress long incoming tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.