It is not my preference to go after actors in the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite and the Hollywood diversity crisis. (Want to be depressed? Read this super sad and regressive study of diversity within industry ranks from the studio C-suites on down.) But actors are usually the most visible people connecting a film to the general public, so they inevitably get asked about this, especially if they themselves are caught up in a whitewashing casting controversy. The latest target in the crosshairs is Rooney Mara, who played Tiger Lily in the disastrous Pan last year.
Mara’s casting was controversial from the outset, prompting a petition that garnered 96,000 signatures asking Warner Brothers to recast the role with a more ethnically appropriate actress. They didn’t, of course, and Mara appeared as a yarn-strewn fantasy hippy, the leader of a multi-ethnic tribe that never speaks unless it’s to cheer on their white saviors. It’s as bad as it sounds.
In an interview with Deadline, Mara addresses the controversy in a wishy-washy way that blatantly reads as, “Please don’t do this to me, I’m trying to stay employable.” This is part of why I don’t care about actors weighing in on these topics, because they will never say anything truly honest about the situation because they have to maintain the kind of controversy-free façade that keeps them employable—especially women, for whom opportunity is already limited. Everyone an actor meets is a potential employer—even the third assistant at their agent’s office may one day be the agent sending them scripts. As an actor, you can’t alienate anyone. So you can’t be honest, not when it’s your name and face attached to the words.
You can see that same attitude reflected even in the way the writer asks Mara the question: “When we start casting actors according to their ethnic background, doesn’t that start curbing creativity and art?” That’s a TERRIBLE frame for this conversation. And it’s a deliberate misdirect meant to absolve studios and producers of any responsibility in these casting choices. They’re not racists! They’re ARTISTS, and your insistence on inclusion is LIMITING THEIR ARTISTIC FREEDOM! I’ve seen this through-line A LOT in the coverage of #OscarsSoWhite and it’s such a f*cking cop out it makes my head spin.
Mara agrees, though, because what else is she going do? The “inclusion limits creativity” argument is the trapdoor to a non-threatening response aimed at communicating to all future bosses that Rooney Mara is not going to show up at your door with a pitchfork and torch. That’s for the plebes who don’t work in Hollywood. Rooney Mara, Hollywoodian, knows how to play the game. She says, “Yes, I do think it curbs art and creativity, and I also think that if you’re going to go by that, you have to be able to…it has to go both ways. It can’t just be that you don’t want a white girl to play a certain part. It has to be both sides.”
I’m not sure what “both sides” means, unless she means there are roles people of color shouldn’t play? Hamilton is making a great f*cking case otherwise, but I think she’s getting at the ole “what about a black woman playing Scarlett O’Hara” chestnut, which is a cousin to the “inclusion limits creativity” complaint. These are deliberate misdirects meant to maintain the status quo. You want to say Tiger Lily doesn’t have to be American Indian? Okay, but then, why did she have to be white? Why not Asian? Or Pacific Islander? Or black, or Latina, or any combination thereof? There are SO MANY other options—why does it always come down to white? Why is the “creative” choice ALWAYS THE SAME?
Casting could be a lot more inclusive simply by not assuming that white is the default setting of the whole world. Look around the world, look at how different the people around you are. See it? Good, now cast your productions like that. Which brings me to the other reason I don’t like pressing actors for explanations about the state of Hollywood diversity. Go back to that USC survey I linked to at the top. This problem starts at the highest levels of the industry and trickles down to the seediest casting offices. Producers, directors, studio chiefs, they look around their world and it’s a sea of same faces reflecting back at them.
Rooney Mara isn’t going to give us a straight answer on diversity, and she’s not the one I want to hear from anyway. I want to hear from director Joe Wright; or Greg Silverman, President of Production at Warner Brothers; or Brett Ratner and his partners at Rat-Pac, who co-financed the movie. I want to hear from the people who actually made that choice. They’re the minds that need to open up to a world wider and richer and more diverse than their own. But this entire conversation was engineered to let them off the hook.
Attached - Rooney Mara out during New York Fashion Week last week.