Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps it does. But no matter how good the acting ability of the players in movies and television, ranging from many of the characters in the 1935 movie Charlie Chan in Egypt to the character Gwen in the more recent (and, admittedly, highly modified in other ways) 2008 television show Merlin, one can’t help but wonder why the actors cast are not of the same ancestral/cultural backgrounds as the characters themselves. It isn’t as though there are too few of every kind of actor/actress to go around.
So, how important is cultural/physical accuracy in casting, really? Let’s explore the history of this for a minute. In live theater, especially in English Medieval era to Renaissance era companies, all the characters (including women) were played by males. Because women were not allowed to perform in theater, young boys always filled the roles of female characters. I’m sure some of these boys were very fine actors, but I’m also sure that mildly observant members of the audience were probably occasionally distracted from the play by thoughts like “Hmm, that Juliet sure has some unusual bone structure. . . plus her voice keeps changing.” Although women were allowed to play female roles some time in the late 1600s, the long-standing tradition of casting whatever actors were already around to play every ethnicity continued. With the limited numbers in a theater company this is somewhat understandable, but once the motion picture industry really got rolling there weren’t quite so many excuses anymore.
My favorite example of this, probably because of the famous so-called “crying indian” commercial (a “Keep America Beautiful” commercial), is Iron Eyes Cody (the son of two Italian immigrants whose real name was Espera DeCorti). Although his false portrayal as a Native American was self-perpetuated, the casting of an Italian, Mexican, etc. to play a Native American has always been pretty common. Aside from Cody, there are actually still many actors who almost never play a character of their own ancestral/cultural background. For example, Anthony Quinn (an Irish-Mexican who also played Arabs, Italians, Greeks, Chinese, and Hawaiians), Eric Avari (an Indian who almost always plays middle-eastern characters), and Tony Amendola (who plays Greeks, Mexicans and Arabs). Even Sir Laurence Olivier played a Moor (an archaic term for several different ethnicities) in the 1965 movie version of Othello.
Some people try to make an emotionally-charged racism issue out of the whole thing. In some cases, it probably is. But in most cases it’s probably just laziness on the part of the casting agents, directors, and so on (and possibly the influence of a limited pool of actors – as with the repeatedly reused contract players owned by studios during Hollywood’s Golden Age). On the one hand, these actors generally do a good job. They convey a the character in a way that is emotionally genuine and are relatively consistent. Peter Lorre, for example, did an excellent job in the role of Japanese man-of-mystery Mr. Moto. On the other hand, this kind of casting takes parts away from perfectly good actors who are actually of Native American, African, Irish, Indian, etc. backgrounds and their physical appearance often makes their characters less believable – if only sub-consciously. Be honest, how often have you thought to yourself “boy, that’s a fake-sounding Irish accent” or “That guy looks about as (insert ancestry other than your own here) as I do!”
There is a third, and somewhat odd, point of view about this issue: that casting someone to match the ethnicity and/or gender of a character is some kind of an -ist (racist, sexist, ?-ist). As anyone who has taken a social science class knows, there is currently a popular theory amongst particularly silly people that gender, race, age and everything else is purely subjective and has no basis in reality. Therefore, some people have stretched this opinion to include casting of actors/actresses. In other words, in theory at least, the filmmakers holding this opinion could believe that casting a 16-year old Chinese girl to play Martin Luther King Jr. in a movie about the late 1960s should not in any way diminish the believability of this character’s portrayal in a movie. If you have an imagination so powerful it verges on the classification of a visual and auditory hallucination, perhaps that’s true. Otherwise, one would tend to believe that verisimilitude depends, at least to some degree, on the similarity of the player to the part being played.