Diversity Onscreen Is Essential Today—But Where’s the Line of Race + Representation?

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Photo Source: Spencer Alexander

There’s a difference between acting and lying. Acting is when you inhabit a character using the information a writer has given you. Lying is when you’re not telling the truth.

I know a lot about the art of fibbing because it’s part of my job. I rarely lie outright, but there are times when I have to stretch the truth. For example, I might exaggerate the size of a role one of my clients booked because that will help create more opportunities. I might also lie a little bit about how much a client made on his or her last job because that could help raise the actor’s quote. But there’s one thing I will never lie about: someone’s race or ethnicity.

READ: It’s Time for Actors to Stop Complaining About ‘Reverse Racism’

We’re living in a golden era of casting, and the industry is obsessed with diversity. It seems like every pilot this season did its best to put together a cast that reflects all the colors of the rainbow. And that’s a good thing. Our entertainment should reflect the world we live in.

Now here’s where life gets tricky. Recently, a well-known acting teacher named Lesly Kahn advised an ethnically ambiguous Jewish student to change her name to something that sounded Latinx because it would help her get meetings for those roles. Well, the social media community lost their collective shit over that, and the teacher had to apologize. She quickly learned that being Latinx is what allows you to play those roles, not changing your name
to Gonzalez.

One of my agent friends recently found himself in deep doo-doo when he told a casting director his client Kimberly was Native American and perfect for a part she was casting. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. The girl was Italian. The jig was up when the casting director fell in love with Kimberly’s audition and gave her a callback to meet the director, who was a Navajo filmmaker. The guy figured out she wasn’t the real deal in a New York minute and he accused her of wearing blackface. She left the room in tears.

There was a time when no one cared about this sort of thing. Two of the whitest actors in history, Charlton Heston and Robby Benson, darkened their skin so they could play Mexican roles. And little Mickey Rooney notoriously pretended to be Japanese in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” But that would never happen today.

READ: Is Diversity the New Normal?

We live in woke times. That’s not going to change. The way I see it, the majority should never pretend to be a minority. But I would like to pose a question: Where’s the line?

Is it wrong for a Vietnamese-American actor to play a Korean-American character, as Lana Condor does in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”? Can an able-bodied performer portray someone who is disabled, as Bryan Cranston did in “The Upside”? Is it now inappropriate for a straight man to play an LGBTQ character, as Timothée Chalamet did in “Call Me by Your Name”?

It’s a tricky situation that seems to be evolving, so consider this column food for thought. And while you’re at it, there are more questions you should mull over: Can you pass for another race, ethnicity, or similar identity qualifiers? Would you do it? And how would that make you feel?

I always turn to the movies when I’m looking for life advice. Do you remember what Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park” said when he learned they had genetically engineered dinosaurs? “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Still today, he gives us something to think about.

This story originally appeared in the March 19 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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