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Why Hollywood Is Slow to Anoint Multicultural Movie Stars

Why Hollywood Is Slow to Anoint Multicultural Movie Stars

Tom Hiddleston vividly recalls what it was like to audition for big roles in Hollywood. Last week when he was in town promoting AMC Emmy contender “The Night Manager,” he recalled consistently being one of three finalists for breakthrough movie roles — and not getting them.

Why? “We went with an established name,” casting directors would tell him.

Finally, Kenneth Branagh insisted to Marvel’s Kevin Feige that his “Wallander” costar Hiddleston was the perfect casting for Thor’s Norse God nemesis Loki. And so the British actor was on his way, with multiple “Avengers” installments growing his global cachet and bankability. Now his name gets movies made.

Every star has a story of that one studio chief or director who believed in them and gave them that big break, whether it’s John Wells putting George Clooney in “E.R.” or Kathryn Bigelow casting Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in “The Hurt Locker.” But if it’s tough for even gifted and athletic hunks like them to break into movie stardom, it’s exponentially tougher for women and people of color.

Sure, there are plenty of parts for ingenues hanging on the male lead’s arm, listening sympathetically, or screaming in terror. Older women get to play (often) emasculating wives, mothers, or authority figures. And then there’s the romantic/family comedy ghetto, which the likes of Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock have struggled to escape.

Some actresses have stayed at the top of the food chain by winning Oscars and escaping the constrictions placed on them, from Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep to Helen Mirren. (Watching 1976 Oscar-winner “All the President’s Men,” which opened the TCM Classic Film Festival last week, I was struck by how male-dominated that world was.)

But few compete on a level playing field with the men, who enjoy a far wider number — and range — of roles from which to choose.

Women quickly figured out that action roles are the key to any hope of gender parity. Sigourney Weaver scored in the “Aliens” franchise, Charlize Theron delivered with Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and Angelina Jolie added action to her roster with “Tomb Raider,” “Salt” (written for a man), and “Wanted,” all franchises she could have sustained had she chosen to do so. While protests surround Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander’s ascension to the “Tomb Raider” reboot, the Swedish actress is just playing the game.

Jolie has pursued the one-for-me, one-for-them paradigm, balancing big studio roles with more artful nurturing ones, and like many other stars, has added directing to her skill set. Emily Blunt held her own with Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” Jennifer Lawrence drove the “Hunger Games” franchise, Jessica Chastain broke out of the box in Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and in “Interstellar” (in a role written for a man). She made another attempt at the action genre, less successful, in “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.”

Scarlett Johansson dramatically increased her stardom with the global Luc Besson action hit “Lucy” ($457 million worldwide), which she carried alone (always a test of true marquee value), buttressed by her five “Avenger” appearances as kick-ass Russian-trained Black Widow (Marvel has yet to give her a standalone). And now she’s going to star in Paramount’s latest franchise bid, Rupert Sanders’ English-language take on “Ghost in the Shell,” playing a cyborg based on the popular Japanese manga.

The outcry against her casting is loud, and understandable. There are many popular and gifted actresses in Japan — but they aren’t on Hollywood’s list of established female stars with global bankability. “Pacific Rim,” “47 Ronin,” and “Babel” feature the wondrous Rinko Kikuchi, the first Japanese woman to earn an Oscar nomination in 50 years, but could she carry a global action franchise? Her title role in micro-indie “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” reveals her limited command of English; she uses a translator for interviews.

Even in Japan, Kikuchi is considered an art-film actress, not a marquee movie star. “She is not perceived by distribution and marketing departments,” said one producer who assembles overseas financing, “to have the marquee value to hold a $50 million budget. When you’re doing a high-budget movie that needs to have an American audience, people in middle America are less motivated to go to the movies by actors from outside of the country.”

READ MORE: Hollywood’s Asian Whitewashing Problem: Why It Happens So Often and Why It Must Be Stopped

That logic doesn’t hold, however, when you are assessing a global marketplace.

India, China and Hong Kong have grown several global movie stars, from Aishwarya Rai (“Guru,” “Devdas”) and Gong Li (“Miami Vice,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) to Bai Baihe (“Monster Hunt,” “Go Away Mr. Tumor”) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” action stars Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Any of them would make credible casting for the Yoda-like The Ancient One, who trains Marvel’s Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a role written as a Tibetan male that went to Tilda Swinton, the androgynous 55-year-old Anglo-Scottish actress who defies categorization and gets cast in movies because she can do anything. She can wield power and authority (“Michael Collins,” “Snowpiercer”) and play comedy (“Burn Before Reading,” “Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Hail Caesar!”) as well as alluring vulnerability (“Only Lovers Left Alive,” “A Bigger Splash”). In short, she’s cool.

“Tilda Swinton has a hip quotient with audiences,” said indie producer Dan Lupovitz. “That makes the movie more robust as a cinema-going experience. Swinton has more visibility in the popular culture now than Michelle Yeoh.”

The since-withdrawn suggestion that Marvel may have been avoiding alienating the huge Chinese market with a Tibetan role is plausible. And Marvel has every right to defend their “very strong record of diversity”— they tend to define characters with their casting — and stated to Mashable that “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.”

For her part, Swinton told Den Of Geek that she read a script that “did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It all will be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”

In other words, it’s great that women are nabbing these parts. But it sucks that there are so few Asians even in the running for such roles.

Like everything else in Hollywood, times are changing — but at a snail’s pace. Money drives fear, risk avoidance, and the reluctance to take chances. There’s plenty of evidence that diversity is working, especially in television — where series often boast sprawling ensembles, pilots test commercial worthiness, and characters have time to build popularity. There’s a smattering of Asian stars across the channels, from Margaret Cho, Ming-Na Wen, and Maggie Q to Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh and Priyanka Chopra. (Indian stars have the advantage of being superb English speakers.)

“All of the networks have a diversity agenda,” said casting director Marcia Ross. “More then ever, broadcast media wants viewers to see people who feel familiar —  who reflect what is going on in this country and how we live. Film studios do too, but their international marketing concerns create different casting pressures. Because TV is not as dependent as movies on reaching a global audience, it doesn’t need the same kind of big stars for marketing. TV is able to take more chances in who they cast.”

On the movie side, Universal is the model studio, showing the righteous way to go with massive global returns on the multi-racial “Fast and Furious” franchise as well as the more modestly budgeted “Straight Outta Compton” ($161 million domestic vs. $40 million overseas, reflecting the conventional wisdom that African-American content plays best stateside).

Casting directors are dealing with people who are often afraid to take chances. “The other issue for me is that because the studios are now making so many less films, there’s less opportunity for new talent to emerge,” said Ross. “That further limits the chances for diverse actors and actresses to be cast in breakthrough roles.”
So how can Hollywood make it possible to make more diverse choices? “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said James Schamus, the former Focus Features chief who’s now a full-time producer-writer-director (“Indignation”) and who wrote Oscar-contending global hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ($213 million worldwide) for frequent collaborator Ang Lee. “Nor is there a magic wand. I can’t say how to fix it exactly. For one thing, we are paying attention to it, which is positive.”
Schamus is optimistic that following the money will ultimately turn things around. In other words, Chinese money is already flooding into production. Examples include Fosun International’s financing of Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, China Film Carnival’s $500 million investment in Dick Cook Studios, Warner Bros. and Brett Ratner’s RatPac deal to make films in China, Wanda-owned Legendary, and Universal’s $500-million pact with Perfect World Pictures.

According to Schamus, investment by corporate giants such as Alibaba and Wanda in U.S. theater chains now represents some 50% of North American theatrical revenues. And China, which is expanding its theater-building exponentially and churning out global hits such as “The Mermaid” ($552 million worldwide), is poised to outpace historic box office champ North America as the world’s box-office leader.

So, Schamus argues, it will finally be in Hollywood’s interest to do more than shoot a sequence in Asia or add the odd martial arts name to pull audience interest.

“By osmosis, there will be a sense of self-interest,” said Schamus, “If you’re interested in this audience being part of your business, the answer is in front of you. If you want to make more money, you’ll figure it out. The kinds of entertainment that move across borders can afford to populate themselves with diverse bases of talent. There’s an optimistic and hopeful future of finally seeing themselves on screen.”

So what’s taking Hollywood so long? “It’s taking a while for local production cultures to breed talent in a systemic way,” said Schamus. “But the industry is already well in the process of adapting to current market conditions. It takes time. There’s a painful lag, and you can throw in things like racism and stupidity that we’re all not immune to. It takes a while to the end of the days. It’s a business, and that business often results in movies that for each generation would be incomprehensible to the prior generation.”
And so Hollywood producers, financiers, and execs just have to raise their consciousness, roll up their sleeves, and stop letting inertia and old habits impede their progress into a richly diverse casting landscape. When we first saw “Blade Runner” back in 1982, Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision of a smog-enshrouded Asian Los Angeles with gigantic electronic billboards was sci-fi fantasy. Now it’s real. In the word of one wise man: “Seek and ye shall find.”

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