Brian Cox, star of Succession, has become the latest actor to express concerns over today’s casting process. He claims that so-called authentic casting, in which roles go to actors with the same lived experiences as the characters, ignores ‘the craft of acting’.
Scarlett Johansson made a similar argument to Cox in 2019. She said that, ‘as an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job’. This sounds like a rational criticism of the woke politics of casting today. Acting, by definition, is pretending to be what you are not.
However, it is important to stress that acting and casting are two very different things. Acting is an individual’s professional ability to make physical and emotional choices that create a character. Casting is the deliberate and creative choice of certain actors to play certain roles in order to convey particular meanings.
There is no denying that, to a degree, these two skills complement one another. An actor’s acting helps to create meaning. But there are also meanings that are outside the skill of any actor to create. The role of Sherlock Holmes has a different meaning depending on who plays him. Audiences understand the character very differently when he is played by Henry Cavill compared with Will Ferrell. Both are great actors – they make interesting, engaging choices – but they convey different meanings to an audience from the first second they appear on screen.
It is this distinction between an actor’s skill and an actor’s symbolic meaning that is being obscured by today’s culture war. This works in two ways.
Firstly, both sides assume that casting works in the service of realism. So the woke side insists that no one can play a disabled person more authentically and therefore realistically than an actual disabled person. And likewise, the anti-woke side insists that no one can play Winston Churchill or James Bond other than a white man. And so on. Both sides agree that anything other than culturally correct casting is inauthentic and will make a film unbearable to watch.
Secondly, both sides see audiences as being culturally determined – that is, shaped and formed by the cultural products to which they are exposed. The culture war over casting is a fight over what kind of ‘correct’ role models the audience’s supposedly impressionable minds should be exposed to – a trans actor playing a trans role or a white, male actor playing James Bond.