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Gael’s Hot, But Iranian He’s Not: ‘Rosewater’ and What Triggers Casting Outrage

Gael's Hot, But Iranian He's Not: 'Rosewater' and What Triggers Casting Outrage

Like many of you, I’m an Iranian-American Muslim lady comedian/filmmaker and one of my all-time heroes is Jon Stewart. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s into social justice, he does that falsetto thing with his voice. The heroism doesn’t stop there because he agreed to be in my film, "The Muslims Are Coming!" where he speaks out against Islamophobia, a dangerous and distinctly stupid form of bigotry festering in the U.S. today. But hold up! Jon Stewart’s wonderfulnisity doesn’t even stop there because then, THEN he up and made "Rosewater," a movie about Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution. Say WHAT?

READ MORE: Here’s What It’s Like to Screen "The Muslims Are Coming!" Around the Country

When he announced "Rosewater," there wasn’t an Iranian-American comedian, actor or writer, myself included, who wasn’t chomping at the bit to be involved, to audition, to promote, to link and to be generally excited because holy cow, Jon Stewart, fake journalist and esteemed statesman of comedy was making a movie about Iran! Even my little immigrant mother called me to A) gush about JStew and B) ask why I still don’t have a thousand babies.

"Rosewater" is about an Iranian journalist who was covering the uprisings in Tehran, a story that desperately needed to be told. BUT the one thing that seemed…well…odd, was that Jon Stewart cast Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal to play that Iranian journalist. Now, I’m not saying that Gael Garcia Bernal isn’t Iranian. But I am saying that he’s definitely Mexican. If you asked him where he was from, he would say "Mexico." If you were to say to him, "Please translate ‘donde esta el bano?’" he would go, "that means, ‘where is the bathroom?’ Now please stop asking me questions. I’m Mexican."

I understand why Jon Stewart cast Bernal – he’s talented, he’s a celebrity, he’s hot, he’s really good looking and he’s cute. My point is, I have a crush on Gael Garcia Bernal. Oh no wait, that’s not my point, my point is that while I understand why Jon Stewart made that choice, maybe he even had to – who’s going to fund a movie with an unknown Iranian actor as the lead? – what I don’t understand is that the internet didn’t seem to care that a Mexican was playing an Iranian. Or that Danish and Greek actors were also playing Iranians in Rosewater. Where is our threshold when it comes to authenticity in casting?

Are we moving into a brave new world of casting? Is Margaret Cho going to play Oprah in her biopic? Is Denzel Washington going to play Paula Deen in hers? Gael Garcia Bernal is no stranger to biopics, he played Che Guevera in "Motorcyle Diaries." But what would have happened if Kal Penn played Che Guevera, would that have been "cool, no big deal?" doubt it because last time I checked the internet was more than willing to jump on a rage binge for casting decisions. But only certain casting decisions.

If it was a white American playing any African-American part, it’s safe to say there would be outrage! Or a white American playing a Latino, or a Korean, or probably half a dozen others ethnic groups. There would be Jezebal article upon Gawker rant. We would unleash the most severe internet cast shaming! There would be public Twitter apologies! Donations made to historical societies! Someone would lop off one of their own limbs for atonement! 

Why does the internet express rage at some of these choices but not others? Where is the rage-ometer dial? What’s on it? And who’s reading that dial? When the public was outraged over the lack of a black female cast member on "SNL," I joined in. Like most Iranian-American comedians, I have a Master’s degree in African-American Studies so this was in my outrage wheelhouse and I honestly thought it sucked. Or remember the major commotion over Zoe Saldana in the Nina Simone movie? People wanted Zoe out because she’s not as dark-skinned as Simone was, because she had Latina roots, because they had to use skin-darkening makeup. That outrage seemed understandable.

But to another group of casting choices we say "meh." For example, why did we stop at black female cast members on "SNL"? Why aren’t we outraged about Chinese-American cast members? There’s never ever been a Chinese-American cast member on "SNL," not one. And yet, we’re not that bothered by it.

Oh and don’t worry, authenticity rage seems to go the other way, too. Remember back in 2011 when there were talks of Donald Glover playing "Spiderman"? The internet jumped on that REAL quick! Glover had his supporters but the naysayers, they were loud and abundant. A black Spiderman would break continuity with the comic books!, they said. Spiderman is supposed to be an "everyman," they said. Donald Glover got death threats. And the role eventually went to a white British dude. 

What makes one minority group’s needs "popular" and worthy of outrage? It seems we have an unofficial "no-one-gives-a-shit casting category." Middle Eastern characters have generally failed at getting any kind of casting authenticity. Bill Maher variously refers to laws coming out of Saudi Arabia as being part of the whole region. He views the Middle East (and maybe parts of the Near East and South East Asia?) as one big brown violent blob and that kind of thinking infiltrates the way we cast movies and TV shows. 

No one cared when Ben Kingsley was cast as an Iranian in "House of Sand and Fog." A lot of people like to say "oh but he’s part Indian," which just makes me throw my lady paws in the air because India and Iran, while similar in spelling, are two totally different countries.

I get called in to audition for Arab and Indian parts all the time. I also get called into audition for Iranian parts. No matter what I’m going in for, I see Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, actors from various Arab countries, and Iranians. We all just get thrown into the pot and mixed up. Add some saffron and you got a dish!

I realize it ain’t easy A) being green and B) making a movie. Which is to say, it’s hard enough making a movie, maybe authenticity in casting is just a bridge too far. When you’re making a movie, you’re constantly making compromises. I’ve made three feature films myself so I know how rough it is.

But when I step out of my sympathetic filmmaker pants and into my regular audience pants, I can’t help but worry. Is it the fate of the Iranians – and other Middle Easterners and Native Americans and probably Belgians – never to achieve authenticity in mainstream media because we’re such a small-time minority? Or because we’re not sufficiently popular or vocal? Is it because people don’t always know the difference between these ethnic groups? Are we supposed to just be okay with it?

You know what, I might actually be okay with it. Gael Garcia Bernal did a terrific job in "Rosewater." Sure, he his accent had some off moments but, the guy is a great actor. And I’m grateful that Jon Stewart took this on – that he was brave enough to do it. But what about that little Iranian-American kid, somewhere in America, going to see this movie? Wouldn’t it be nice if the hero on screen reflected him? Wouldn’t it be nice if he had an icon to look up to?

READ MORE: Watch: John Oliver Hosts "Rosewater" Episode of "The Daily Show"

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Comments

Peter Gregorius

The writer misses the whole point in her rant.THAT’S WY ACTORS ARE ACTORS, They are ARTISTS, they portray character, people of different backgrounds, etc. Vincent Van Gogh was Dutch, so are you then going to tell me he could only paint about Holland landscapes and not France!!! Farsad needs to get a life!!!!

Elle Miller

"Why do some casting choices create universal outrage while others just get a "meh" response?"

Um, maybe because most people haven’t heard of ‘Rosewater’. Whereas The Last Airbender, Exodus and the Prince of Persia were more mainstream.

Jane

I hear you.

May

Well if an Iranian got tortured for saying jokingly that he was a spy in an interview, can you imagine what would happen to the iranian actors ( or their family living in Iran) acting on a movie that openly criticize the Iraninan government? Maybe Jon Steward didnt want to cause more trouble to anyone else, but he couldn’t openly admit that. So he decided to cast an actor with no ties to Iran. Have you thought about that?

acmebaobab

Lovely, funny, righteous writing!

Mohamed

RE: Mario Cruz – I actually googled your stat and is 10h35m to Paris from Mexico and 9h25m to Buenos Aires.For some reason I couldn’t sleep until I posted this. Good night.

XDG

I think sometimes people just LOOK and may even NEED *something* to be "outraged" about. I’m sure that — like any film production decision— casting selections are made for many various reasons.

Stop trying to dream up motives behind the choices made by the producer & director…and just enjoy the show!

Clan Kinraithe

I always fail to understand why it is that some people get outraged about the ethnicity, biography, or whatever of an actor, in terms of the rôle he or she is engaged to play. The whole point of acting is to convincingly play the part of someone who that actor _is_not_. How successful their performance of this is what, therefore, the actor should solely be judged upon. Whether Bernal should be cast should only depend on him successfully carrying the part of Bahari, not whatever nation’s name is stamped on his passport.

Anais

Since your a filmaker, you could actually just redo the movie with whatever actor that would please you

winkster

@Mario now you know how we feel when big roles in American films and TV series are handed out to British, Australian, Scottish, Irish, Canadian and NZ actors. This happens ALL the time, despite the many thousands of out of work actors we have here in the US. But you’re probably just as outraged about that too, right, because that also implies that the English speaking countries are all "the same"…right?!?

Marianne C

Not every ethnic actor faces the same recriminations from his homeland that an Iranian actor probably would for having filmed this movie. My God, look what they did to a journalist who was just there to cover the elections! You think they would hesitate to retaliate against an actor who was part of making the brutality and insanity of their reaction public?

Cyrus Manz

A hot Iranian actor would have been much more authentic.

marie

Why every time a minority has to make a point they have to bring African Americans into the conversation. Im sorry but most people probably didn’t know the actor wasnt Iranian because he isn’t a household name to most. But I think he shouldn’t have been cast and i understand the outrage

Stephy

i thought he was great, i myself being mexican thought it was a good choice, he’s not just an actor he is deeply political and has always been it’s not a new thing. In an interview Maziar Bahari stated he was happy with Gael, he has been a fan of his work for years.

Rick

All these people are just playing make believe. Shouldn’t the line be if they can pass as a certain race? An Irish actor will play a German character. A Korean actor will play a Japanese character. So, it doesn’t seem that weird to me that a Turk or Pakistani might play an Iranian. GGB seems to share some features of Iranian people, I feel like that should be enough for acting anyway.

FP

Okay,so the question is – which is more important? That the film get made with GGB playing an Iranian, or not being at all? Gun to your head – one or the other?

Jon Stewart is successful enough, knowledgeable enough, talented enough to know how ridiculous it is to cast a Mexican actor in an Iranian man’s story. Given how much he understands that region and its players, making it seem otherwise does no one a service. And by the way, I assume you’re going to level a huge F You to Ridley Scott next month when Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Egyptian pharoah Rameses.

The larger point is clear, but 2014 is a boom town for diverse casting compared to 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago. That’s factual. For sure, diversity where leads are in discussion, those numbers are down, significantly, and that’s a problem. Women only having one-third of the speaking roles is a problem. Minorities relegated to sidekick roles for diversity sake is tokenism and should be addressed. Those are real issues, and while hearing the Iranian perspective on this film is necessary, it feels punitive to tag this as the project to hang these issues upon when a significant number of Iranian actors including an Oscar nominee were cast.

A. Khatibi

Well-written, well-said! The last line of the article is what did it for me. I am so tired of seeing inauthentic casting when it comes to minorities, and the lack of minority characters to begin with. (And if the accent is a little off, it really detracts from the movie for me.)

P

I have worked in casting in New York for years and I sympathize with the writer. Casting is a political process, investors, distributors and everyone who handles financial aspects gives opinions about creative issues like casting. I do think people should be outspoken about it because not many roles are written for Iranians so if you don’t even cast them in roles they actually fit, then what opportunities do they get? By the way this also applies to a Transgender actors and actors with disabilities who don’t even get cast in the very few roles written for them. The issue isn’t credibility, a fine actor will do a fine job, the issue, I think is opportunity (lack of thereof).

Harry Hamlin

Why does it seem that the majority of writers who are women constantly choose to disclose how "hot" an actor is (and that they have a crush/in love with etc.) where this serves no particular purpose at f’@#%$ all to the overall point that is trying to be made? From many movie critics to this type of pop journalism. It’s so ridiculous and inane.

uriha

reading these comments I haven’t seen this…."welcome to the Hollywood Liberal racism club" now grab a seat. you’ve had your say signed The rest of ethical world living America

Skippy

Auugh! Typo alert–I meant "casting service used by "many actors," not "man actors."

Skippy

Long before GGB was cast, I saw casting notices for Iranian or Middle Eastern actors on a casting service that’s used by man actors, especially unagented ones. So I think that at some point in the process they did try to cast someone who was at least in the ethnicity ballpark, but I just guessed that the finance people stepped in and said, "No way are we casting an unknown in the lead role of this movie. We need some kind of name." (Then they probably said, "How about Brad Pitt?") So I really do think it was a money thing. As for the lack of Internet outrage, well, some of that may be due to the fact that although Jon Stewart is a big name in some circles, in the end, it’s still just a small scale indie political movie and therefore below the radar of many. And there probably was something else for Twitter to scream about last week. I forget what, but there usually is.

Mario Cruz

Argentinians were outraged that GGB played El Che, bc GGB is Mexican and Guevara was Argentinian. My guess is you see Mexico and Argentina as "the same" when they are completely different countries. It’s a shorter flight from Mexico City to Paris than to Buenos Aires.

Sarah

There has been some social media chatter about the casting decision, and it’s mentioned in most reviews. The mild reaction may have been influenced in this particular case by the fact that it was Maziar Bahari (closely involved with both script-writing and filming, now appearing in promotional interviews with and without Stewart) who talked Stewart out of being strict in his casting selection. The systemic problem that you outline still remains, of course, but it’s hard to point to this instance as a case of the director simply not caring about authenticity.

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