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Lou Diamond Phillips says that when it comes to actors taking roles that don’t match their ethnicity or race, it’s not the same for white and nonwhite Hollywood talent.
In a recent interview with Esquire reflecting on his career and various role opportunities, the Ambition writer and Prodigal Son star questioned the increasing scrutiny around actors playing characters outside their own race or ethnicity.
“You have to wonder why certain people want to draw such harsh lines on authenticity when it comes to the ethnic community,” he told the magazine. “When it comes to authenticity or trying to justify yourself in a role these days, it’s almost like you have to have your American Kennel Club card.”
The actor pointed to his work on La Bamba and a recently renewed focus on the film, which was released more than 30 years ago, as an example of how culture has become more critical of casting decisions around characters of color and the actors who play them. Phillips said he sees as an inconsistent demand for authenticity, and it’s part of why he takes issue with it.
“I’m not Latinx, but Louis Valdez and I did a number of interviews recently because La Bamba was put back into the movie theaters 34 years later, and once again, he was justifying his casting of me,” Phillips said. “He cast the actor he thought was best for the role, and some people go, well, he’s Filipino, he’s not Mexican-American. But those same people don’t go, Esai Morales is Puerto Rican, not Mexican American. Elizabeth Peña was Cuban, not Mexican-American. So, where do you draw the line?”
Phillips continued to defend his past role as Ritchie Valens, the rising rock and roller who died in a plane crash in 1959 at the age of 17, as well as his portrayal of Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne man, in the AMC-turned-Netflix series Longmire.
“For La Bamba, Louis Valdez introduced me to Cesar Chavez. I marched with Cesar, and I fasted with him. I go straight to the community, and I ask for their blessing. And I got the family’s blessing,” he said.
“With every Native role that I’ve played, I’ve tried to do the same thing. For Longmire, even before we filmed the pilot, I contacted our technical advisor, Marcus Red Thunder, who became a very dear friend of mine and still is, and said, ‘I need to go to the Rez. I need to go hang out a little bit,'” he continued. “So I flew up on my own dime to the Lame Deer Reservation in Montana, and sat with the tribal chief and did ceremony with the elders and visited the high schools and visited the old-age homes.”
It’s those immersion and research efforts, Phillips said, that make his work more sensitive of the cultures and communities he portrays — and different from other actors playing odutside their race or ethnicity.
“I think that when people look at my body of work, when I’m given a role, I think that they know I am not looking to exploit that role. I am looking to amplify that role for a community and to try to bring some respect and some dignity to the characters that I play,” he concluded.
As for white actors playing characters of color, Phillips has a different take, which highlights for him why it’s different for white and non-white performers.
“I happen to agree that casting Caucasian people in what are supposed to be ethnic roles is not kosher, mostly because there is an authenticity issue,” he said. “But also because it’s a matter of opportunity. You cannot compare the level of opportunity that we get, you know?”
Proof for him is in a current project, “the first Filipino American comedy made by Amblin Entertainment.” A film representative of America’s Filipino diaspora and “with a largely Filipino cast,” Phillips points to it as both progress and evidence of “how long it’s taken since I wrote Ambition.“
During the interview, the Courage Under Fire star pointed to his own upbringing as playing a significant part in his decision to appear as characters outside of his own identity.
Phillips told the magazine that despite only ever playing two explicitly Filipino characters throughout his career, he’s felt “privileged to a certain extent that I’ve crossed over and played roles where ethnicity did not matter.” He explained that he’s also not bothered by it because “he grew up as an American kid” going to school at various Navy bases with multiethnic classmates.
It was an environment, he said, where he wasn’t defined majorly by his race or ethnicity, but by other elements of his identity, such as being a “good student, being an athlete, being in drama club, student council.”
It wasn’t until he got to higher education and then professional acting that “all of a sudden, I was put in a box that I didn’t know existed.” Unlike his early life, being Filipino became a defining element of who he was for other people, and ultimately, for himself.
“I ate Filipino food and had Filipino relatives, but I was very Americanized. When I got older, first in college and then quite honestly, in Hollywood, it was like — explain yourself. What are you? Where are you from?” he said. “And so now, why would I limit myself by waving Filipino-American — that’s all I am.”
Phillips says that actors of color face an increased responsibility that their white counterparts don’t in having to represent specific yet entire communities, and it can be stifling. Especially for any Hollywood talent, like himself, who simply want “to be an Actor with a capital A.”
“My aim from the beginning was to be an Actor with a capital A, and you’re hearing this from other actors now who are being given the mantle of responsibility of representation. A lot of them are going, hold on a second, I’m an actor. You keep trying to put the hyphen in front of me, you know?” he told Esquire. “I’m an American and everything that that means.”
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