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Did Jared Leto Steal Someone's Part?

I first "noticed" Jared Leto in Oliver Stone's "Alexander." Not because he's dreamy - which he is. Hephaistion has always been one of my favorite "characters" in the Alexander story. Leto was wonderfully heartbreaking as Alexander's friend, companion and lover.  Just a great, great actor.

I studied acting for a small portion of my life a very long time, and I know a great actor when I see one. It's more about performance. They expose our own messy, beautiful humanity to us in a way that is both comforting and uncomfortable.

Anyway, enough acting theory. I haven't even seen "Dallas Buyers Club" because I'm very committed to catching up on "Supernatural" and I'm only on season 3 and commitment requires priority, etc. Apparently,Leto plays a transgendered character, and heated discussion has resulted from this casting of a straight (is he? I have no idea) man as a transgedered person. Man. I really, really want this to be a world where straight people can play gay people and the other way around.

Where a Democrat can play a Republican.

A Latino can play a Middle Easterner.

White can play black.

Wait. Scratch that.

We don't live in that world, though. The biggest indication of this fact is that we're still talking about it, and we're still talking about it because the casting of "privileged" individuals in the roles of minority characters continues to resonate poorly with those minorities. It underscores the feeling of not being seen, not being represented and thereby being invisible even when when attempts are made at making us visible in the movies.

When I was fifteen, I auditioned for "The Miracle Worker". I read for the part of Annie Sullivan. If you're unfamiliar with the work, Annie is the young, blind woman who teaches Helen Keller how to read and write.

She was also Irish.


I didn't get the part. It wasn't because I wasn't a good actress. Because I was. May still be. The United States' was sparse on Middle Eastern looking women in those first few years after the Civil War, so that was the real obstacle. The beautiful, pale complexioned, auburn haired girl that was cast as Annie ended up playing the part really well, so all's well that ends well. (See what I did there?) 

But, you know what? If we'd done a production that was set in India, I don't know which play that would be -- let's say an adaptation of The Far Pavilions -- most of the actors would've been white because the majority of Indian people would've been busy being doctors and IT Managers and that'd leave some parts uncast. The white folks would've worn tastefully darkened their make up and perhaps donned darker wigs. Their elegantly fashioned costumes would have helped propagate an adequate suspension of disbelief and after all that, and nobody would have even noticed that they weren't Indian.

Except actual Indian people. They would notice because even the best make up in the world cannot make you something that you are not. It will only offer the suggestion of what you're supposed to be representing.

There is an undercurrent of a point being made about how those who inhabit the fringes of visual hierarchies are simply offered as "suggested" members of the broader reality being constructed. A whispering bubbles beneath the darkened eyeliner, the painted face, the boy in a dress, "Acknowledge their presence, but you don't have to think about them as actual real people if you don't want to."

Jared Leto is a fine actor -- an incredible actor. I'm glad he won an Oscar because that guy had me at Hephaistion. My admiration for Mr. Leto aside, though, I maintain his casting is a highly evolved, very subtle version of black face. You can say he's a bankable actor and there are financial considerations. You may be right, but I seldom find a speck of integrity or compassion in arguments that rely on "it's about the money" as the strongest point for their case. It may be about the money, but we should take a firm stand on whether we feel it's right or not.

The money ends up following our convictions at some point. 

Reader Comments (15)

your thoughts on neil patrick harris, openly gay actor, playing barney stimpson, woman slayer? seriously.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterhellohahanarf

Fisher Stevens may not be Indian, but he was the bomb in Hackers, yo!

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterB.E. Earl

Here's my thing. Richard Chamberlain was neither a priest nor a heterosexual priest who had an affair in early 20th century Australia. He is, in fact, a gay American. But, he played the part of Father Ralph de Bricassart VERY well. I mean, acting is the ability to play something you're not. Now, does that mean we bring back blackface? Absolutely not. Makeup won't do it. But what's the point of acting if you can't convincingly pull off something you're not? Let's look at the Norse god Heimdall. I'm fairly certain if you went back in time to around 900 CE and asked a Viking what Heimdall looks like, Idris Elba would not be his twin. And yet, there he was, cast as a Norse god/superhero. And played the part swimmingly. Twice.

I think that with acting, there needs to be a bit of stretching of the imagination. For me, it's about the story, how engrossed the actors can make me, how interesting the story is and how it can capture my imagination. I'm not worried about actors' faces and who they bang IRL. I just want to know can they carry that story, that character. And if they can, then bully for them.

Did any of that make a lick of sense?

@B.E. Earl: But his character should have been Indian. ;)

@CMG It makes perfect sense. I agree with you completely *in principle*. I think the case of Idris Elba is an exception, though. It was a brilliant, awesome exception -- but it rarely happens. Obscure as it is, I'm thinking of when Kenneth Branagh cast Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing, too. That was cool. The problem is that the roles for actors who occupy minority status (visual or otherwise) are not high in number. So, I feel like maybe they should be considered as casting choices first. In the end, the best actor should get the job -- but I think the idea to even consider some of these lesser knowns who are authentically that identity isn't on the radar of the people in charge. Or I could be wrong. I don't cast movies. YET.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

I think that we are at a point where we could accept anyone playing anything in the theater, because the very idea of the theater is that the actor transform himself and that you are watching a stage. If a woman played King Lear, few would blink. The cinema adds an additional element -- photography, and the semblance of realism. Rather than knowing we are watching a flat image, we want to lose ourselves in the story. This makes it more difficult to accept a female King Lear unless it was an avant garde production, or the makeup and acting was so well done that the audience buys it as reality. So, the real issue is not so much about the politics of who gets the roles, but who we believe. Since there is no specific look to someone gay or blind, anyone can play that role. Honestly, if makeup was done so well that someone was transformed into another race, why not? Seems like a big effort for not a big payoff. Accents are also a problem, unless someone can be dubbed or learn to change their accent.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNeil

I can't put sll this into a cogent line of thought. So I'll do it lazily.
1.James Whitmore
2. The gay actor who complains he's stereotyped. "why do I always have to play the gay guy?"
3. Demeaning insult vs. honor. 50 words or less.
4. Reverse the order & stay away from my jitterbug
5. Make Othello white & everybody else black.
6. Ben Kingsley
7. And speaking of Mohandas, whatever happened to when he said "I am Hindu. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew."?
8. Citizen of the world
9. Now tell me, Faiqa. Should I also turn off the first-person in The Younger Brother?

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRW

What RW said, minus the parts that make no sense coming from me.
But, really- if someone (actors) can make me forget who they are, in the broadest sense, then they've done their job well and I'm just fine with it. I just can't stand the actors who play the same character, over and over, and so I assume that means they suck and they're really playing themselves (Keanu). I like going against the expected, though.

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSybil Law

Well, my dear Faiqa, I could not disagree more. The essence of a post-racial, post-sexist, post-ethnic, post-queer America (the America that I would like to live in) is that the race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation of an individual should not matter at all. Whether a president or an actor, the individual should be judged solely on his/her ability to perform the task. We can't have it both ways: claiming that race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation SHOULD NOT matter in evaluating a person's qualifications to do a job and then insist that race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation MUST matter in evaluating a person's qualifications to do a job.

Black face this is not, for black face was employed not simply to portray black Americans but to mock them: the coloring of the face was joined with "black" speech patterns, mockery of "black" walking and acting, and inversions of black culture for white audiences to laugh at. When a straight man plays a gay man in the movies, not mocking or diminishing the integrity of the gay man, he is hardly employing "black face" in form or meaning.

I don't disagree with your point about peoples on the fringes of visual hierarchies, but your example of the white actors in an Indian play is structured as a situation out of necessity not entitlement. Yes, Indian peoples would know the difference, just as any cultural group would recognize an individual trying to "pass." Yet, you applaud the casting to Denzel Washington in a non-black role in Much Ado About Nothing, without recognizing that he too was passing as a Spaniard. So, it is not the race or ethnicity of the actor that is the issue, but her/his ability to adequately represent the role that matters. I just return to my opening thought: We can't have it both ways: claiming that race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation SHOULD NOT matter in evaluating a person's qualifications to do a job and then insist that race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation MUST matter in evaluating a person's qualifications to do a job.

March 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

@Nei: That is an interesting point about the audience's part in believing the role. For me, I think it is more than just believability. My point, which I'm realizing I made poorly, is that actors are passed over who are just as talented as well as being authentically a particular identity for actors who are not. I don't think that's fair and I think it *might* be discrimination.

March 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

Okay, Professor --- here's the test back. Hope I get an A.

1.James Whitmore : Um. I'm not eld enough to understand this reference, apparently.,

2. The gay actor who complains he's stereotyped. "why do I always have to play the gay guy?"

Does that actually happen? Let's say it did. First day of college level acting class lesson-- know your look, know your type, audition for that..And better to be "always cast as the gay guy" than never get a part because they're always casting straight guys.

3. Demeaning insult vs. honor.

I think we covered that pretty well on Facebook. I don't think Leto's casting was an insult -- that's not my point in bringing it up.

4. Reverse the order & stay away from my jitterbug

I assume this relates to last night's FB thread. Clever!

5. Make Othello white & everybody else black.
I like this idea. I have seen this idea done. It worked..

6. Ben Kingsley

Is half Gujrati, so lucky him for being able to authentically pass for a white guy, Jewish guy or a Gujrati guy.All that's left is a transgender....

7. And speaking of Mohandas, whatever happened to when he said "I am Hindu. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew."?

Didn't they shoot that guy? It's my understanding that this quote had more to do with his highlighting the similar threads of all of these identities. But, make no mistake, Mohandas Ghandi was a Hindu. Except for that time he converted to Christianity in college. We all get crazy. Again, this post is about separation, it's more of a "why pass over the actual identity in favor of someone doesn't have it"

8. Citizen of the world
Proudly so.

9. Now tell me, Faiqa. Should I also turn off the first-person in The Younger Brother?
This is the question I will answer with more care. No, you should not. Because this is not the same thing as what I'm talking about in relation to this post. I don't buy into the nuances of the arguments of cultural appropriation or the overly used post colonial rhetoric that accompanies it. Keep your first person. It works. It honors. It's respectful. It's just fine.

March 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Craig: Well, I could not disagree more with your disagreement. :) There are too many "posts" in that comment. We don't live in a "post" anything. While we seem to agree that race, gender and orientation should not matter, you and I diverge on the remedy for how to get to the place where that is a reality. It has to matter until it doesn't anymore - in the case of jobs, acting or otherwise. Is it completely ridiculous to say that it's okay that Idris Elba and Denzel Washington's casting in Thor and Much Ado About Nothing are okay because they are members of a group who have typically struggled to be represented? Fair is not everyone be treated the same, fair is making sure everyone gets what they need. Black actors need to be represented in film -- and in my opinion this is very different from a white, hetero actor being cast in roles that are outside of his identity when there are other options available. Furthermore, the situation to which I'm referring here in the post illustrates how audiences and producers will accept substitutions without question and without reservation. I understand the point that the best man or woman for the job should get it, but I feel this sentiment is too premature. As for the casting of the Indian play, my point wasn't made very well. My point is that those roles would be filled with white people even if there were Indian people available. In fact, tt still happens. Jake Gyllenhall in Prince of Persia? You're telling me there were NO Persian-ish looking men available for that part? Irangeles is full of them. Come on.And because this still happens it is all the more important to take the actual identity of an actor into consideration ALONG with whether they're the best person for the job.

March 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

Lots of good points being made here.

What I think the crux of it is, is that it doesn't make sense to give these parts to cis (non-transgendered) actors when there are transgendered actors lacking for work. The same would hold true for any other under-represented group. What would we think if middle-aged men were being cast as middle-aged women while actual middle-aged, female actors couldn't get jobs?

Men used to play the parts of women on stage - but women were barred from acting. I doubt that would happen now - if it did, would we accept it? Jared Leto playing Rayon (which he did beautifully, by the way) is akin to Jared Leto playing a cis woman. It's drag, which is different. Playing the money card in this instance is bullshit because it was Matthew McConaughey who was the draw. I don't know that Jared is as well known to the general public.

Once there is room in the acting world for all types of actors, then we can play around with parts. Right now it just sticks out to much.

March 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

James Whitmore starred in the very controversial 1961 feature film called "Black Like Me" (qv). Undoubtedly uncomfortable now, but the subject matter was astoundingly sentient in 1961.

Of course I have no way of knowing if "i always play the gay guy" is an actual thing, but actresses of all ages have made the comment, and I don't think it's a stretch to imagine. But I do recoil in horror of your college acting quote. I never took acting in college, but when I was a paid actor in Chicago in the era of Malkovich and Steppenwolf, we would have NEVER accepted that as axiomatic. Everybody talked about "range" when I was in the biz, and wouldn't accept that kind of limitation on their own career. maybe that's a college thing?

RE: jitterbug (rock n roll, etc.) - there's a corollary to this though. The jitterbug, and to a large degree rock n roll, found their DNA in the black communities. White kids stole the idea. (Appropriated?) But if the people with disposable income didn't, say because the artists and dancers hedged against white kids using their stuff, "appropriate" where would the "black" contribution to the wider American culture be? If black people said "sorry, Jazz is ours and you can't do it" that would be bad. This is not the issue from your post here, of course, but hey you know how I work - it takes me 47 rewrites to put it all together. And even then it's still not all connected like it should be.

Aha! On Ben, who is also a Quaker did you know, the connection I was making was to his role as a Jewish accountant in Schindler's List. Should Jews be mad? Maybe Jewish actors got passed up for this role because Ben kicks ass as an actor. Which addresses the next to last question of "separation."

And thank you for your last note. but then, in case you haven't noticed, Ahmed never does get down and do his prayers. Ever. Hmmm, what did RW mean by doing that? :-)

March 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRW

i swear i commented on this post. am i getting stuck in your spam filter?

March 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterhellohahanarf

When I see actors like Jared Leto playing a transgendered role, I think of how versatile an actor can be to play a role that is outside their normal self. A character actor. I've not seen Dallas Buyers Club yet, but I have seen many character actors over the years and they have blown me away with how well they can transpose themselves into a role. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind when he played Truman Capote. Ever mannerism that he took on for that role. And like Leto, he won an Oscar for that.

I think the lines get blurred from a acting perspective, which for many of us, we embrace those transformations for the 2 hours we view them taking place on the big screen.

March 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermartymankins

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