Can any actor play any role?

Scarlett Johansson is only half right. Even the best actors can’t credibly represent every character.

Maren Thom


Hardly a week goes by without attempts to police which actors can play certain roles. There is fierce debate over what kinds of parts should be played by what sort of person. Should Bryan Cranston play a disabled person? Can 007 be a black woman? The underlying question is always: can any actor play any role?

A few weeks ago, Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson was interviewed by artist David Salle in As If magazine. In the interview, they discuss trends in acting and how art changes when it is judged primarily on a moral basis. Johansson says 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 statement caused outrage among the Twitterati and self-selected cultural gatekeepers. Johansson had already aroused suspicion after playing an Asian character in the science-fiction drama Ghost in the Shell. And last year, after public pressure, she stepped down from a role as a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. Her critics disagreed very strongly that she should ‘be allowed’ to play characters with a racial or gender identity different to her own. Following the interview, Johansson quickly put out a statement, saying that her words had been taken out of context and that she unequivocally supports the need for more diversity in Hollywood casting.

So can an actor play any part? And how much should the personal life of the actor align with the character? The most common argument in favour of actors playing all roles is the idea of acting itself. The craft of the actor is itself a pretence. Actors represent something they are not. They emulate and inhabit another person’s humanity.

Actor Simon Callow has written a passionate defence of Johansson, defending acting in the process: ‘As actors, we give ourselves over to other lives. We stop being ourselves and start to think the thoughts of other human beings.’ This is the actor’s craft: to have the skills to pretend to be someone else in such a way that it does justice to the drama. From this point of view, the idea that actors can only play people who share their identities and social experiences is an anathema.

But playing a role is not the same as creating dramatic meaning. Certainly any actor can – and should be allowed to – play any role. But this is only part of the story, and not even the most important aspect. What an actor cannot control is how his or her persona is understood and read by the audience or how this fits into the logic of the drama he or she is acting in. No amount of acting skill can dictate what a certain actor’s presence signifies to the audience. Moreover, if an actor’s persona clashes with the logic of the drama, the suspension of disbelief is broken and the audience can no longer invest in the unreal world of the narrative.

This is where the cultural gatekeepers have a point. An actor cannot believably represent any and all characters. But what these critics get wrong is that audience interpretation is beyond their control.

Take the ongoing discussion about who should play James Bond after Daniel Craig leaves the franchise. The Bond archetype in both the books and the films represents more than just a cool spy. He is a member of the British upper classes. He is inescapably a product of British imperialism. Racism and class snobbery are integral to his character. Bond will always be about race, and an actor cast in this role should represent this. Casting Idris Elba, as is often suggested, would undermine the logic of what Bond is, whether one likes the Bond archetype or not. Elba would be an anti-Bond – his casting would be a comment about the character itself.

The casting of black actress Lashana Lynch to play the new 007 also seems to be a comment on the dated nature of the Bond character. But there are no dramatic reasons why ‘007’ can’t be a title handed down from agent to agent, and that the next one cannot be a black woman. She is not literally James Bond, and so the dramatic logic holds up. It might even be a smart, if cynical, way to continue the franchise.

The problem with the woke critics is that they have an entirely moralistic view of art. The moralists of old would judge a piece of art by its violent or sexual content. Today’s moralists judge art by whether it represents diversity. Actors are understood first and foremost as representatives of identity groups – as women, white men, black men, etc.

But for the audience, there is no top-down, prescriptive process that can tell us to think in this way.

Maren Thom is a writer based in London.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Poose Taine

11th August 2019 at 12:09 pm

I cannot believe that the assertion that because an actors portrayal must needs be a component of a larger perspective tonally then therefore the debased postmodernist identity politics purveyors have a point is anything other than intentionally fatuous. It certainly cannot be the product of sober analysis. It’s possible I have misinterpreted the point so I’m more than happy to be rectified

Terence Ballard

9th August 2019 at 3:15 pm

Someone recently told me about a ballet they’d been to see about Queen Victoria.

She was played by an Asian and Prince Albert was black.

These are well-known historical figures.

If there was a ballet about Nelson Mandela and him and Winnie were portrayed by white ballet dancers the left would go crazy.

Jerry Owen

8th August 2019 at 3:51 pm

I would quite like to see Kylie Minogue play Tarzan complete with small suede loincloth.. indeed her gold hot pants would suffice !

Jason Daves

7th August 2019 at 11:00 pm

Would 007 fans be interested in a film about ‘identity politics’ and ‘social justice’? Probably about as much as Ghost Buster fans were interested in a all female film about the same. Hollywood films are tanking by forcing their local hangups on Americans. While MSM praises it, the silent majority are turning away.

Jim Lawrie

7th August 2019 at 7:15 pm

There are limits, as pointed out ever so delicately in the following sketch, which would not be made today, and if it were, would incinerate the twitterati by the million.
Here’s to you, Mr Spigot;

Christopher Tyson

7th August 2019 at 1:56 pm

It used to be the case that America did glamour and Britain did acting. The beautiful people became movie starts and the thespians became character actors. My brother a veteran supporting actor (extra) tells me that if that was ever the case it isn’t now, those movie stars have to be able to act too. But movies are a visual medium, people pay to see beautiful people or at least ‘interesting looking people’ on the screen. No doubt there are many who would pay good money to see Johanssen do anything. But this is the crux of the matter, we are no longer allowed to admit that some people are more beautiful than others. There have been rows about the TV show ‘Love island’ where people are fancying the wrong person. Society is now deeply suspicious of instinct, we have to second guess ourselves, we have to excavate our unconscious biases, our first impressions are now believed to be inherently untrustworthy. So we will end up paying good money to watch unattractive people doing implausible things, convincing ourselves that we are having a good time. When we can no longer we sure who we fancy or feel pangs of guilt for fancying the wrong person that will be the final nail in our coffin, the completion of our self-estrangement. Of course porn continues to thrive, physical type and gender difference continues to be essential for porn for now, give it time, you may be watching the wrong kind of porn.

Philip Davies

7th August 2019 at 1:33 pm

The only question concerning whether an actor can play a role is, are they believable? If they are, they can play it.

It’s because they wouldn’t be believable that, for instance, a white actor couldn’t play MLK, or a black actor Winston Churchill, or a woman play James Bond. Acting is only about believability, it is not about social engineering

David Margison

7th August 2019 at 12:18 pm

Every actor should be able to take on any role, even a role that for example portrays a very well known character such as James Bond, Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandella. What counts is public opinion which undoubtably will be reflected in the productions takings or lack of! I very much doubt that a white Nelson Mandella or a black Winston Churchill would go down well. In other words the issue would become self regulating. Too many people today are clamouring for rules and regulation over every minuti of life.

Spelling police, please refrain (typed on my mobile)

Captain Scott

7th August 2019 at 9:11 pm

You’re correct, but the problem here is the BBC. They get the telly tax so they can make woke shows with black actors playing people who would have been white and we can refuse to watch but we still have to pay.

Captain Scott

7th August 2019 at 11:01 am

In the recent BBC Les Miserables the chief of police was played by a black man. Whilst he was evidently a brilliant actor who stole every scene in which he appeared, his presence also jarred because historically no black man would have held that role in France at that time. They may as well have given him a Ford Focus rather than a horse. It spoiled the drama and I felt that I was being preached to again.

The 007 argument fascinates me. We are constantly told that there are so many fascinating black stories. If so, let’s see some and let’s stop trying to shoehorn black leads into old white stories.

Ed Turnbull

7th August 2019 at 1:30 pm

Shoehorning black actors into white characters is, undoubtedly, ‘cultural appropriation’, and isn’t that a cardinal sin in the intersectional canon? Oh, silly me, I forgot the left’s doctrine for any ‘sin’ is “it’s ok when we do it”. Double standards, without them the left would have no standards at all.

Mark Bretherton

7th August 2019 at 10:52 am

“What an actor cannot control is how his or her persona is understood and read by the audience or how this fits into the logic of the drama he or she is acting in. No amount of acting skill can dictate what a certain actor’s presence signifies to the audience. Moreover, if an actor’s persona clashes with the logic of the drama, the suspension of disbelief is broken and the audience can no longer invest in the unreal world of the narrative.”

er, have you seen Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot?

Dean Laccohee

7th August 2019 at 10:22 am

During the fuss over non-Asian casting at the Print Room a couple of years back, an Asian actor/activist talked on BBC radio about the actress Gemma Chan and how eventually she would be able to play any character (example given I think was Queen Victoria) because audiences would just see ‘an actress’. However his protests suggested that this should not be permissible in reverse. I think this article hits the nail on the head – of course actors should be able to play any role (an all-black female production of Richard II at the Globe recently, for instance) and it’s important to acknowledge that playing a part does not mean you are ‘representing’ an entire race/sexuality/gender/disability group, etc. Just as an actor should never ‘judge’ the person they are playing, but only portray them as truthfully as possible, informed by the words of the playwright & nothing else. Comments such as ‘this is so relevant today because this character is so much like Trump/blah blah blah’ are judgements made by the actor/director, not necessarily (& certainly not in the case of Shakespeare) by the author.

Jerry Owen

7th August 2019 at 9:28 am

I disagree with this writer about James Bond. Not one single Bond film shows one iota of racism .. and we are talking film here not books ( that could be another topic ) . Further perhaps the writer may be interested to know that there are other 00 spies the 007 tag is specifically for James Bond, therefore no woman or black man can legitimately play the role of 007.. 007 is for a white male heterosexual tough male. Your argument falls flat. You could have a black 009 or a female 005 or even a disabled 002. But then it wouldn’t be a James Bond 007 film would it ? it would be another film based on James Bond.
If 007 is cast as a woman or a black/ brown/ gay/ LGBT character I will not watch it and I suspect it will be a flop. This isn’t because of any prejudice, it will be my way of saying that I do not subscribe to having liberal / left ideology rammed down my throat.
In short much of your article is based on a big misunderstanding of James Bond 007.

Jerry Owen

7th August 2019 at 9:32 am

Further to my last post , I believe it is Quantum of Solace where we see an MI5 computer rolling through various dead 00 agents, some white some brown, some black. Which proves my point.

Sophia Vitkovitsky

8th August 2019 at 7:56 pm

Or maybe “If it ain’t woke …”

Dean Laccohee

7th August 2019 at 10:40 am

I agree Jerry. Why not start a franchise about a black female 008 agent? There is a theory amongst some Bond fans that the name James Bond is a code name and the different actors that have played him are in fact different agents all using the code name ‘James Bond’. I guess if that were the case then you could argue that a black actor could play him but I think that would take a lot of explaining from the script writers!

Jerry Owen

7th August 2019 at 12:21 pm

I suspect the easiest solution is to leave well alone.. if it ain’t broke….

Jonnie Henly

7th August 2019 at 12:39 pm

Once James Bond retires however, the 007 tag passes to someone else.

So you could cast someone else in that role.

“it will be my way of saying that I do not subscribe to having liberal / left ideology rammed down my throat.”

Who said anything about liberal / left ideology? You brought that up out nowhere. Why do you feel the need to invent reasons to justify you not seeing such a film?

Paul Metcalfe

7th August 2019 at 8:16 am

Why do the Twitterati never see the contradiction in being outraged when a white woman plays a fictional Asian character while at the same time insisting that a black actor should be able to play a fictional white man such as James Bond?

John Hall

7th August 2019 at 12:09 pm

They don’t see it because their racist: non-whites are higher up on the hierarchy than whites, so a non-white can play a ‘white’ role but not the reverse.

Jim Lawrie

7th August 2019 at 7:51 pm

Yip. One way exclusions, that exclude one race.

For all the talk of a non-white James Bond, the studios, like most of us, don’t fancy it.

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

7th August 2019 at 7:45 am

If any actor can play any role, could a white woman be cast as Martin Luther King?

Jim Lawrie

7th August 2019 at 7:17 pm

Only if the content of her character was judged to be correct.

Ven Oods

15th August 2019 at 2:07 pm

King, no. Martin Luther Queen, yes.

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