Hollywood on Alert: Actors' Ethnicities Under Scrutiny Amid Heightened Sensitivities

Hollywood on Alert: Actors' Ethnicities - H 2015
AP Images/Invision; Courtesy of Everett Collection

Hollywood on Alert: Actors' Ethnicities - H 2015

Emma Stone as part Chinese, Rooney Mara as 'Pan's' Tiger Lily: The casting of racially specific characters puts studios on the defensive. Says one producer, "You can't throw down the DNA gauntlet."

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Warner Bros. set out to make a live-action Peter Pan, it wanted to avoid the racial insensitivities of J.M. Barrie's play and Disney's 1953 animated film, which infamously featured the song "What Made the Red Man Red?" So the filmmakers reimagined Tiger Lily not as Native American but as a character of no particular ethnicity to steer clear of Barrie's portrayal of the island's tribe, now considered rife with offensive stereotypes.

But choosing Rooney Mara — an actress of Irish, German and French-Canadian ancestry — to play Pan's Tiger Lily prompted an outcry, with 90,000 people signing a Care2 petition in protest. Now, as Pan heads for an Oct. 9 release, it enters a cultural landscape of increased racial sensitivities around film and television casting and a social media environment that amplifies those concerns. Warners, ironically, has been branded as insensitive for attempting to offer a color-blind, modern Pan.

"There's a misconception about the ethnicity of the original character and we felt no obligation to perpetuate that misconception," says an insider on the project. "We looked at Native American actresses. We looked at African-American actresses. We looked at African actresses. We looked at Middle Eastern actresses. White actresses. After a very exhaustive casting process, we ultimately went with the best actress for the part."

Warners isn't alone in fielding criticism over the casting of a racially specific role. Even before Sony released Cameron Crowe's Aloha, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans blasted the film for "whitewashing" Hawaiian culture, and when it was discovered that Emma Stone plays a woman who is one-quarter Hawaiian with a half-Chinese father, the criticism grew louder. "Why couldn't they find someone who's part Asian, part Pacific Islander?" asks Guy Aoki, a co-founder of MANAA. "Cameron Crowe's a guy who purports to love Hawaiian history and culture, but could you have cast at a worse level if you hated Hawaiian culture?"

On his blog, Crowe issued an apology June 2 to "all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice," explaining he based the character on a woman he had met who did not look like her background.

Many producers say that a similar outcry would be well-deserved in the past — back when Al Jolson sported black face in The Jazz Singer and Mickey Rooney played an Asian stereotype in Breakfast at Tiffany's. But it mostly is unfair today, they say. "The fundamental rule is, you get to hire the performer who can best convey the spirit of the part," says producer Doug Wick, who witnessed the uproar when Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang landed the lead as a Japanese woman in 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha. "There is certainly a history of insensitivity. And you have to ask if it's part of a dangerous pattern. But you can't throw down the DNA gauntlet, and you've got to be able to cast for artistry and in the spirit of the character."

Another veteran producer, who declined to be identified because of the hot-button topic, says much of the controversy surrounding off-race and off-ethnicity castings is naive because studios are putting faith in proven stars rather than excluding particular types of actors. Recent examples have included Exodus (a mostly European cast played Middle Eastern characters), Rosewater (Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal played real-life Iranian Maziar Bahari), A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, who is half Afro-Chinese-Cuban) and Selena (Jennifer Lopez, of Puerto Rican descent, as the late Mexican star). Johnny Depp, who identifies as being of Native American heritage, was adopted into the Comanche Nation while playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger, heading off possible backlash.

"If you're going to wait around to find the perfect actress who is a quarter Asian, and not just a quarter Asian but a quarter Hawaiian Asian, you will never cast your movie," says the producer. But that hasn't stopped fans from trying to influence the process. Another Care2 petition has called upon Disney to cast Chinese actors in its new live-action remake of Mulan. Even films that cast in an ethnically accurate way can run into problems. Native American actors walked off the set of the Adam Sandler comedy The Ridiculous 6 in May over the movie's portrayal of the culture. That prompted Netflix, which will release the film, to defend it as a "ridiculous" movie with "a diverse cast that is not only part of but in on the joke."

And even comic book characters aren't immune from criticism. In an April interview with New York magazine, blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates took issue with the casting in X-Men: Apocalypse of half-black actress Alexandra Shipp as Storm, whose mother in the comics is a Kenyan princess. "I'm still holding out that we get a Storm who looks like Storm," he said. For Aoki, alarms went off when THR reported that Marvel is casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. "The Ancient One is an old Asian man," says Aoki. "We're trying to get ahold of [Marvel owner] Disney to say, 'Come on, you guys.' I'm a comic book fan. But when they have characters who are Asian in the comic books, Hollywood is turning them white. In Batman, Ra's al Ghul is Middle Eastern and his daughter is half-Chinese, but [in The Dark Knight Rises] they made her French."

Still, some insist Hollywood is making a real effort to cast accurately. Another producer says there has been an uptick in sensitivities "given how prominent race issues are in the U.S." On TV, hits like Empire and Fresh Off the Boat are showing that diversity attracts an audience. And NBC sidestepped controversy with its Peter Pan Live! by featuring an actress of Cherokee descent as Tiger Lily. But Warners could find with Pan that stepping around the issue only makes it worse.