The Hits and Misses in The Globalization of Casting

Even before the advent of sound, when Hollywood became a dream factory and was beginning to make films known the whole world over, it has not been uncommon for those in film from the world over to emigrate when they’ve reached a certain status and want to continue to hone their craft at a significantly increased salary.

Just a quick look for evidence shows you as much. “Garbo Talks!” blared the one sheets when Great Garbo, the austere Swedish star made her debut in sound. So the world coming to Hollywood is not new. Hollywood going abroad and making attempts to represent other cultures more accurately hasn’t been going on quite nearly as long.

Such practices as white washing, and basic stereotyping, thrived for years in large part due to prevailing social mores. The last bastion of political incorrectness in cinema, for better or worse, was in the 1980s. Since then films have become more PC, but also have come closer to incorporating the globalizing mindset that hit other industries first.

The foreign-born stars are still present, except now many simply keep their names rather than Americanizing them. Foreign world premieres are more prevalent as well as Hollywood films opening overseas before they open in the US. Whereas the British accent was once the standard Hollywoood code for “these people speak foreign,” that is not as heavily relied upon anymore. Thanks in large part to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds foreign dialogue and subtitles are now more common in mainstream American cinema.

Inglourious Basterds (2009, The Weinstein Company)

While there are two sides to everything, most of those things are just fine. I’d dare say recent global box office returns more than justify the overseas first strategy; even when it becomes irksome. For some it’s not a matter of jingoism but simply what makes sense. For example, Tintin opening in many markets all over the world before the US makes perfect sense. The only reason I knew who Tintin was growing up was because I’m a first generation American. But when things like Iron Man 3 go abroad first, as opposed to a universal release date, it can get under our skin, but I for one will live.

The one place in which the shift to a globalized game of cinema seems to have skipped a step is in casting. This was something that was recently brought to my attention by a Facebook post written by a friend of mine, which gave me a different frame of reference other than my own.

Films have gone from a place where caucasians born in the US can and do play any and every ethnicity or race to a place that’s more mired and perhaps a specific casting stop was needed. The hard thing about arguing for literal casting choices is that casting, as well as writing, is a creative enterprise and it’s impossible to enforce policies or try to set quotas with regards to it. However, it is something that can and should be discussed.

Love Actually (2003, Universal)

Here’s my frame of reference being a dual citizen of the United States and Brazil: In the past decade or so I have been very pleased to see a few more Brazilian actors break through onto the world scene.

The first one I noticed was Rodrigo Santoro. Now, I never watched Lost, so I give him a pass for being part of an annoying couple, but in film terms I thought it was a rather progressive step that he was in Love Actually and he wasn’t cast because the character was written as the “dreamy Brazilian” guy, but he was just supposed to be an unrequited love.

Another encouraging step I found was Alice Braga’s involvement in Predators. Now characters written as Brazilian have been cast by actors of different Hispanic ethnicities before, but this was the first time I saw a Brazilian actress playing a character specifically designated as being Hispanic.

Predators (2010, 20th Century Fox)

Of course, this where characters as speaking English the whole time anyway. The next threshold to cross would be to see if someone like Wagner Moura will break through into lead roles or significant supporting characters written for any and all comers.

Here’s where the issue becomes complicated, and here’s where my friend’s Facebook post comes in, you’re casting people for an American project who are supposed to be from another country and speaking another language. His specific example is of a recent episode of Veep wherein it takes place in Finland and instead of finding actors who speak Finnish (They exist! There are Karusmaki films to prove it!) instead a Canadian and British actor are hired and taught their lines and likely pass for American audiences but it just seems like a waste of resources especially for guest spots. I like Dave Foley a lot but that choice seems like the kind where, even as much as I like an actor, the oddity of the decision would’ve taken me out of the moment as a viewer. Maybe someone saw the Feelyat skit one too many times.

If you’re directing a film and you’re convinced an actor can nail the lead role, even if they have to learn a language to do it, like Alicia Vikander did for A Royal Affair, that’s one thing, but to take a fairly small role and teach someone a language when you can easily find someone who won’t have that hurdle standing in their way just seems silly.

La Vie en Rose (2007, Picturehouse)

There are plenty of actors who work in many languages and accents. However, many are clearly stronger in one over the other. Gerard Depardieu and Marion Cotillard in French films are a inordinately better than they are in English-language ones. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that a Finn, who is also a trained actor, would be more capable of performing a role than English-speaking actors who were taught a language for a part; a language mind you that is siphoned off from the Germanic tongues of the other Scandanavian countries and is more akin to Hungarian?

Of course, if the film good you get a pass, but it’s risky. For example, in a vaccuum would I have preferred a Brazilian play Eduardo in The Social Network? Yes. However, I never heard someone nail a Brazilian accent like Andrew Garfield did, and he was absolutely robbed of an Academy Award nomination.

So in closing, yes, it’s a creative field and any decision can be justified, especially if the end product is well received. However, sometimes things that make more sense work. Keep it simple. And if you want to question what happens when the shoe is on the other foot? I have a perfect example: The Brazilian film Four Days in September is about a US Ambassador held hostage during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Did the producers of said film get some no-name Brazilian actor who could speak English and looked “American”? No, they got Alan Arkin because he’s American and he’s money in the bank. That’s a casting choice you won’t second guess. Case closed.