When news broke in last month that Scarlett Johansson was set to star as a transgender man in the massage-parlor drama Rub & Tug, one had to wonder: had her agents learned nothing from what happened with Ghost in the Shell? In the not-too-distant past, it was possible for a studio to tap a straight, white, cisgender actress to play a queer figure or a Japanese cyborg without facing too much vocal public criticism. But given the power of social media and the shifting cultural climate, the industry nowadays has to work harder to fix its problem of under-representation—and it cant simply blame “international markets,” where nonwhite faces supposedly dont sell movies as well, every time theres casting backlash. That itself has become bad business.
“Its a very touchy time,” said Joanne Wiles, a partner and agent at ICM, whose clients include Trace Lysette (a vocal critic of Johanssons Rub & Tug casting), Mark Duplass, and Sean Baker. “You cant be asleep at the wheel.”
Talent agents, the players at the center of casting deals, have always had to talk through the pros and cons of a role with a client. But where that once meant discussing, say, the value of working with a particular director, now it also means vetting a project with the potential for controversy in mind.
“There are about 200 more questions that you ask about a project now than there were two years ago,” said one industry figure—lets call them Insider A. For example, if your client is considering a role in an adaptation, you should probably find out how that role is described in the source material. Was the character originally imagined as Asian, but your client is white? You may want to weigh the consequences accordingly. Just ask Ed Skrein.
“There used to be the sense of, like, Hey, is this really our issue?” said an agent at a top-tier firm (Insider B). “If this project has been vetted by the producer, the studio, the filmmaker, and all of the other people involved—and they feel comfortable moving with the role in this creative direction—then who are we to say, Guys, this is a problem? I dont think thats the case anymore; you cant rely on other peoples vetting.”
If agents are treading more carefully, its not just to avoid stoking Internet outrage: industry-wide, inclusion has become a growing (if still vastly underserved) priority. “I think everyones aware now that we cant just cast whoever we want,” said Insider A. “We have to be sensitive. Its taken us a little while to catch up, but its part of every conversation now.”
That shift is motivated, in part, by money. Hollywood knows now that movies starring diverse leads can be box-office hits in the U.S. and overseas (see: Black Panther). But theres also a growing moral imperative among the industrys decision-makers, especially as more women and people of color come up in the business.
“Everyone involved in casting—the studio exec, the producer, the actor, the manager—used to be of the same background, generally,” said a former agent at a Big Six firm (Insider C). “But as the workplace gets more diverse, environmentally, it becomes a lot easier to go in and be like, You cant do that.”
As Insider A put it: “The more the studio, producer, and agency system look the way the world looks, the more people youll have to strategize and fight [for inclusion]. Its all simple math.”
Theres also a greater sense among younger talent that certain roles are simply not meant for them. Recall earlier this year, when Amandla Stenberg revealed that she took herself out of the running for Black Panther because she believed she was too light-skinned to play an African character.
Similarly, Insider B remembered a script going around Hollywood last year that called for a young Native American woman—and actresses who were not Native, but could plausibly “quote, unquote, play Native American,” according to the agent, refused to so much as audition for the part.
“They were like, We shouldnt even be up for consideration,” Insider B said. “There is an awareness now, especially among actors who have grown up in an age of the iPhone and social media, who speak the language of L.G.B.T.Q. and racial sensitivity.”
The anecdote sits in stark contrast to Johanssons Rub & Tug casting controversy, which the actress herself initially dismissed (via a representative) in tone-deaf form: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffmans reps for comment,” she said in a statement to Bustle, referring her critics to other cisgender actors who have famously (and controversially) played trans characters.
When the backlash refused to die down, though, Johansson eventually withdrew from the role, telling Out, “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and Ive learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive.”
“I think Scarlett is a genius actor, and I think she could have been fantastic,” said Wiles. “But I understand why, at this moment in time, she did what she did, and why the movie is going through the process its going through. Were in the thick of [a social change], and I think shes being mindful of the trans community and also her own career.”
Johanssons defenders have suggested she was shamed out of the role, and that her withdrawal might mean movies like Rub & Tug or Philadelphia or Brokeback Mountain—movies that have typically called upon big-name actors to stretch themselves in service of a story that might otherwise be overlooked by mainstream Hollywood—wont get made at all anymore.
But the sources I spoke to generally argued that the answer to this sort of backlash isnt to avoid telling stories about marginalized people altogether, they said—its to do the complicated work of strategizing differently. “I think the traditional way of casting a star in a lead role in order to get a movie going is kind of becoming antiquated,” said Insider A.
“When someone says, We need a lead, and the only bankable person is a white person, I think everyone has to look at, How do you qualify bankable?” said another agent from a top firm, Insider D. “Because the reality is: nobody is that bankable anymore.” Given that so few of todays actors are indestructible at the box office, its hard to argue that casting authentically is overly risky.
“Its [a matter of] thinking: How do we build a movie so that people of color, trans people, any minority group, can be front and center—while understanding the business, giving the business what it wants, which is a marketable piece,” Insider A said.
A film can, for example, put a lesser-known actor in the lead and cast bigger stars around them; thats how many projects that revolve around a child protagonist get made. In other cases, the marketable piece can be the intellectual property itself. Warner Bros.s adaptation of the best-seller Crazy Rich Asians is also the first Hollywood studio film in over 25 years to center on an Asian-Americans story. Even that movie hasnt been without its own casting controversy: when the film was announced, there was some backlash over the fact that Henry Golding, who plays romantic lead Nick Young, is of mixed British-Malaysian heritage. By and large, though, the film has been celebrated for featuring a cast of Asian and Asian-American actors who will now have the opportunity to break out in a big way—and for not kowtowing to studio suggestions to make its main character white. “It was a very quick conversation that I shut down,” Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan told New York magazine.
Its not a coincidence that Crazy Rich Asians comes on the heels of Asian actors like its lead, Constance Wu, and Margaret Cho and Maggie Q speaking out against whitewashing and the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood. Once a community has a mouthpiece (or several) and a groundswell of support, the industry kind of has to take notice.
Thats currently whats happening with respect to trans visibility in Hollywood. “Were hearing about it because people are raising a stink,” said Insider C.
And out of that stink might eventually come change. “Theres going to be an educational process, and its going to be a lot of trial and error, and people are going to have to get mad. Thats how Hollywood is going to self-correct.”
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