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Why Americans Don't Play Superheroes

In the late 1970s, David Prowse, the imposing actor who physically portrayed Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, was told he couldn’t audition for the role of Superman when Richard Donner was casting his now-classic film. The reason? Prowse was not an American.

How times have changed.
 
British actor Henry Cavill, who has just been cast as the iconic -- and very American -- Superman, is the latest in a string of foreigners who have been chosen to play key movie roles by Hollywood. But since Superman is so quintessentially American, this latest casting has triggered a wave of soul-searching as yet another sought-after part has been outsourced.

“This casting is fundamentally anti-American,” wrote one commentator on Ain't It Cool News. “It's disgusting casting to the highest degree, and I will never ever see a movie with a Brit as Superman.”

But British, as well as Australian and Canadian actors, appear to have cornered the market on most of the leading action roles in the Hollywood movies that will be rolling out this year and next. They will be portraying the kind of caped crusaders and take-charge guys that once belonged to men bearing the “Made in the USA” label.

Andrew Garfield, raised in Britain, is portraying Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Brit Christian Bale is about to start his third Batman movie. Australian Chris Hemsworth will be seen as Thor this summer, following in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Hugh Jackman (prepping for a new outing as Wolverine) and Eric Bana (who played Bruce Banner in Ang Lee's Hulk). Not to be left out, Canada is represented by Ryan Reynolds, who will patrol space sector 2814 as the Green Lantern.

Australia’s Sam Worthington has claimed the lead in movies ranging from Terminator: Salvation to Avatar to Clash of the Titans. And the casting British actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming Steven Spielberg biopic could cause a crisis of confidence among American actors. [Pictured clockwise from top left: Bale, Worthington, Garfield and Reynolds]

A similar invasion is occurring in TV, with lead roles in AMC’s comic book adaptation The Walking Dead, NBC’s superhero show The Cape and ABC’s medical drama Off the Map all going to non-Americans.

Despite a 3-1 population advantage -- America’s 308 million easily outnumber the combined 107 million population of England, Canada and Australia -- accented actors currently enjoy an edge.

“America doesn’t produce strapping actors anymore,” said one Oscar-nominated producer, who declined to be named, pointing out that American action stars at this stage consist of thespians with more boyish appeal such as Leonardo DiCaprio, who fought his ways through dreams in last summer’s Inception, and Shia LaBeouf, palling around with giant robots in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

“I hate to say it: They’re better actors,” added one talent rep who had a client in the early running early for the Superman role.

NEXT PAGE: CHRISTIAN BALE ON FOREIGN SUPER-HEROES.

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Some theorize that British actors enjoy the advantage of a classical training. But that isn’t true in the case of Batman Bale, who had no formal training and who also discounts any suggestion that there’s a conspiracy at work.

“Whatever one’s best for it, you pick ’em,” Bale told The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday night at the SAG Awards, where he was rewarded as best supporting actor for his work in The Fighter, set in Lowell, Mass. “And that’s it. Do I think there’s a pattern? Sounds like a pattern. But to me personally, I feel like it’s going for each individual guy who has the chops for it, whether they’re British, American or Australian. I don’t think there’s anything special happening in England that’s making a lot of superheroes. To me, I’d put it down to coincidence.”

But others see other forces at work. If Superman traditionally represented America’s role as a global policeman, they argue that Cavill’s casting is symbolic of  America’s decline as a superpower. USC professor of cultural history Leo Braudy said the current debate is part of a long-standing struggle between the ideals of American acceptance and assimilation and those of American purity and isolationism. In a globalizing world, even culture has become an export.

“American heroes have become the world’s heroes," Braudy said. "They are international, not just local. We’ve merchandised out the ideas of superheroes to the world, and now they’re taking their turn."

There may be a simpler, if even more powerful, influence at work: namely, the Internet.

“The reality is that access to actors all over the world is greater because of the Internet,” says Marcia Ross, exec vp casting at Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Ross cast Cavill in his first American studio project, Disney’s 2002 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Thanks to the Net, Ross said, casting directors can now e-mail sides (script pages) to the most remote of locales, then record auditions they will show directors and producers.

Not only does that level the playing field, it also saves money on far-flung casting calls. “We as casting directors want to be thorough, and now we can,” she said.

Another way the world is coming to America is via YouTube and cable TV. With shows, be they English, Spanish or Indian, available on widely seen channels such as BBC America or Telemundo, foreign actors are getting more face time here than ever before.

“It’s really been in the last 10 years that we’ve expanded exponentially our pool of talent,” Ross said.