Right: let’s roll up our sleeves and dive into one of acting’s biggest debates. Can any actor play any character, regardless of their identity? I bet you had an answer to that question almost as soon as you read it. That’s okay: lots of actors do—usually one more knee-jerk than keenly considered. However, there are a number of layers to where these knees (or jerks) come from, and it is worth examining where such opinions originate. By reading this article, we’re not necessarily asking you to change your mind, simply to examine where your viewpoint might come from and how it’s been formed.
Actors may play characters that differ from their own identity/race/background/gender, particularly in contexts where the originating material is antiquated and is being interrogated and/or challenged. With consideration and respect, actors may find themselves portraying somebody wildly different to themselves. However, consideration and respect are key factors: just because an actor can play somebody doesn’t necessarily mean they should.
Some actors worry that opportunities to work diminish as casting shifts to better representation. They bemoan limited chances to play roles that may once have gone to them, sometimes claiming that, as actors, it’s their job to play people different to themselves. However, these actors usually find themselves delivering a performance that is limited in nuance and understanding of a character’s lived experience: and denying an opportunity to an actor of that actual background whose current representation on stages and screens may still be marginalised.
Breaking The Mould
Shakespeare never saw women perform any of the incredible female roles he wrote. Is wrong to let women play them four hundred years later? I’d say not. Ian McKellen was in his eighties when he played Hamlet in 2021. Not quite what the Bard had in mind, but it worked a treat!
Diversifying the pool of actors who play certain roles, especially roles from older canon texts, is a fascinating way of keeping these plays relevant. In this context, playing a character different to your own identity can open up the more universal themes—and draw in an audience that may previously have felt like they were excluded from that space. Remember that when the majority of theatrical and filmic texts were created, the straight white man was so dominant—so hegemonic—that he was considered the default setting: a blank canvas on which characters could be layered.
As a society, especially in the creative industries, we’ve moved beyond the concept of every character being white, or heterosexual, or male until proven otherwise. And what has it done? Kept our art form alive and brought in people (and, let’s be honest, paying customers) who would never have shown up before this. Everybody benefits, everybody wins. So bring on the queer Falstaff, the black Willy Loman, the 12 Angry Jurors!
In a Class, In Private Study
As a long-time acting coach here at StageMilk’s Scene Club, I am asked about this issue a lot by the performers I work with. In an educational context—which is to say in the context of a class or self-tape you’re creating for the sake of honing your skills—my advice is to ignore certain character traits and focus on what draws you to the character.
A gender swap, an age up or down is more than acceptable when it’s your accent, or projection, or action plotting you’re working on. You may even simply want to do a deep-dive on a character whose themes or motives intrigue you. And, yes, the character may go against your natural type. But a class is not a casting, and there is no reason not to experiment and see what you’re capable of.
Most actors I work with completely understand the different circumstances of the educational context. It is completely different if you’re going for a professional job, but it’s unlikely that the casting director (or your agent) would even let you in the door. Sending a self-tape for King Lear if you’re 25 years old is just silly. Any serious actor would know that doing so would look like a huge ego trip.
Where is the Line?
So where do we draw the line on playing a character different to you? What is and isn’t acceptable?
I’m not here to tell you where that line can be drawn: that’s entirely up to you. But I would suggest that line you do so with respect and consideration. Think beyond your own career and opportunities, just for a moment, and ask yourself some questions. Start with: how might my casting benefit this role?
Will the part be better off if the role is played by somebody different than how it was written? Does it enhance the text, or challenge the original in some way? If you were to play this role, would it seem like stunt casting? A cop-out? Like the producers couldn’t be bothered to find an actor more closely identified with this character?
Questions such as these (and there are plenty more) are important, because they take you out of the equation. And while that might sound counter-intuitive to your actor’s journey towards fortune and fame, it may also help you from making a fool of yourself in a role you have no business playing.
The Actor’s Lived Experience
We hear more and more about this concept in the “who can I play” debate. More and more, an actor’s relationship to their lived experience or background is having a bigger part to play in casting.
It’s the argument against casting a cis- performer in a trans or non-binary role, or somebody of a different racial or cultural background to portray a figure written as being of a specified culture.
Is there an upside to this? Absolutely! Characters are portrayed with far more understanding and truth by actors with a comparable lived experience. They can tap into cultural understandings an ‘outside perspective’ could never hope to bring to the role. Such representation on screen and stage can inspire a next generation of actors who may not ever have considered they had a place in a mostly-Western-centric entertainment landscape. This can equal new audiences, new viewers, new ticket holders.
Most importantly, respecting the lived experience of an actor can lead to new stories being told. Voices are found and amplified that have been silent for far too long. What a treat for audiences convinced they’ve seen all film and television and theatre can offer.
Is there a downside to this? You might not get the job this time. That’s okay! If you’re worth your salt you’ll book the next one…
“bUt It’S mY jOb!”
Let’s address the counter-argument. It’s a popular one: spewed by everybody from that resentful actor friend you know who never quite books it (be honest, you know exactly who we mean) to the great ScarJo herself. “If it’s all make-believe, why can’t I play somebody from a different background, or gender, or race? Isn’t that what acting’s all about?!”
The problem with this position is that it seldom rears its head in a context that serves the casting—the nuts-and-bolts portrayal of the character—as much as it does the actor behind the complaint. Actors who take this position usually do so in response to the casting of an actor of lived experience over them. They might not mean to sound bitter, but they do. ’cause that’s exactly what it is.
The elephant we’ve yet to address in the room is the overwhelming demographic of actors who take this position: caucasian, cis-gendered straight men. Is there something inherently evil or begrudging about this group of artists? As a member of this group, I’m relieved to report no. But the reason they so often fall into this category is they have the most to lose.
If you find yourself asking this question, let me prompt you to read over the above paragraph about the benefits of such casting decisions. While it might not further your career, today, it will strengthen the industry around you. Plan for the long game, and cheer on your peers!
As an actor, you may well have the talents and abilities, the tools in your actor’s toolkit, to play anybody. Or anything. Perhaps the embodiment of spring, or a hubcap on the highway. And yay for you! You should always feel confident in your craft, and look for challenging roles that push you out of your comfort zone and into new characterisations.
So set your talents aside and consider the ethics of who you play. If it really doesn’t bother you personally, I respect your opinion. (Even if I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot in the long run.)
But as a parting point to be made, let me say this: I have been offered professional jobs that were not right for me. I could do them technically, artistically—not to mention I could have benefitted from them financially! But they weren’t my stories to tell. I made this point to the producer, and proceeded to help them find the best person for the job, usually a friend of mine I was keen to elevate.
There is no better feeling than stepping aside for the sake of the work, for the truth of the story, for the opportunity to put somebody in a position to tell their tale. As I said above: there’s always another job. And when it’s right, when it clicks … you know it’s yours to run with.