by Jen Chau
Backstage, the weekly paper for actors, actually devoted a good-sized article to the discussion of acting and how mixed-race people fit into the field (thanks to Jarrad, my actor friend for the heads-up! I didn’t even realize that it had come out yet! :)). The article questioned whether “racial categories help or hurt actors.” I was asked to comment as part of the article, and was happy to see that many mixed actors and actors of color were also included in the discussion of this topic.
Chau explains….”I definitely think that there’s that struggle with, ‘Do I try to get roles that I actually identify with culturally, or do I just fit into what people think that I am?’” she says. “How much do you really fight that as an actor or actress? I think that in some ways Hollywood is a little bit behind the times; they see people in very defined categories. Within those categories, you’re supposed to look a certain way. It’s very limiting. I personally think that it isn’t until people force it a little bit more that Hollywood is going to change.”
Actor Coby Bell, son of Broadway actor Michel Bell, is multiethnic — African American and Caucasian — and admits that casting directors see him differently than he sees himself. “I’ve always been put into the category of African American as far as Hollywood goes. I’ve never had a problem finding work, so I’ve been lucky in that sense,” he says. Bell’s résumé includes Half & Half, Third Watch, Girlfriends, A.T.F., Smart Guy, and, most recently, a starring role in the new CW series The Game. He says it’s rare to find a project in which race isn’t an issue.
This is an interesting conversation that we have been having more and more lately. How do you negotiate the difference between what is already available to you in Hollywood as an actor, and where you would like to see things go (if you are indeed concerned with realistic representations and want actors to be able to play characters true to their own ethnicities in real life)? Some actors care and feel the responsibility…others consider the small opportunities afforded them, and take the good roles they can get (no matter what ethnicity they are asked to portray).
This brings up a lot of questions — is it important for actors to truly represent the characters they play (latinas playing latinas, middle easterners playing middle easterners, etc.)? Do we want to go in that direction? This raises questions of authenticity, responsibility…who is accountable for these images? And what exactly are we prioritizing when an actor is matched up with a character to play? Is the most important thing their ability to tell the story? Or is it to make sure that they truly represent the ethnicity of the character they are playing? Perhaps one matters more to some, while the second matters more to others. It’s interesting to think about as more and more actors of color are on screen and speaking about this issue… thoughts?