October 02, 2013

Director: Native actors lack "charisma"

'Jimmy P.' Director: 'I Was Obsessed With Not Betraying the Community'

By Dominique GodrecheThis is the second part of our interview with Arnaud Desplechin, director of Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, which stars Benicio Del Toro as a Blackfeet Indian suffering post-traumatic stress after returning home from World War II.

Did you choose Benicio Del Toro as Jimmy because you needed an actor capable of supporting the production, or had you also thought of a Native actor?

For economic reasons, I needed to arrive in the United States knowing which actor I had chosen. So I had to do the casting through watching Native actors in movies that my assistant brought me back from the United States. It was very difficult, as I could not find “Jimmy,” or anyone with enough charisma to play the role. Then I remembered The Pledge, and Benicio Del Toro‘s great performance as a Native; and it appeared to me that with this background of a Hispanic from Puerto Rico, settling in the US, and achieving such a career, he could have something in common with the Native people. So I brought him The Exiles, by Kent MacKenzie, and told him: “You would be the best Jimmy.” And strangely, with Benicio Del Toro, Jimmy appeared. So the decision really came from me; it was not just a production issue. Benicio liked the role of Jimmy, and found some common roots with the Native experience.

How did you cast the Native actors? Did you find directing them different from your previous experiences as a film director?

No, it was very easy; other than cultural differences, it was like working with any actors. I told them I knew nothing [about Native American culture], and asked them, “Do you agree with this, or that?” I was obsessed with not betraying the community. We discussed where to shoot and how to develop the dialogue. When I saw the movie Frozen River, I understood that Native Americans could represent themselves; I knew Misty Upham from Frozen River, and wrote the role [of Jane] for her. And the presence of Gary Farmer at the beginning of the movie, as a mythical figure, was important to me.
Comment:  Summing it up, Desplechin was obsessed with not betraying the Native community, but he couldn't find a Native actor with charisma, so he hired Benicio Del Toro. Okay, wow.

Natives scoff

Some reactions to this posting on Facebook:I'm sorry, but what a stupid statement to make: "Couldn't find a NA actor with charisma." You really should keep statements like that to yourself.

Yes it was a dumb thing to say there are lots of Native Americans who can act and have charisma.

Guess they didn't look too far for a NA actor to play the roll. Poor excuse. Sometimes covering up an "oops" becomes a bigger "oops."

He picked Benicio because he could sell the movie. Not because of charisma, what bullshit.

It all comes back to money. There are tons of Native actors with 'charisma' out there. But the reality is, if you want your movie to get made and be seen, name recognition is hugely important. Sad as it is to say, if he'd cast an unknown native actor this film might not have been made. That's the way the film industry works. I dislike that reality as much as any of you, but I'd rather have a great actor like Mr. Del Toro playing the role and having this important story being told to millions of non-natives than not being told at all. And yes, he took the easy way out because of financial reasons. I'm certainly not endorsing that or apologizing on his behalf. Just saying, we need to keep that in mind.
Del Toro has name recognition, certainly. But his films haven't made a lot of money. I don't see the point of hiring a "name" if he isn't a proven money-maker.

To reiterate, Desplechin said he couldn't find the right actor. Hundreds of Native actors in the right age range have professional experience, but none supposedly have the necessary "charisma."

Okay, but Del Toro explicitly said it was a money issue. Desplechin couldn't make the movie without him because investors wanted a "name" actor. So why exactly was Del Toro cast: for creative or financial reasons?

These comments represent a basic conflict that we see over and over. Producers and directors say they tried and tried but just couldn't find any qualified Native actors. Which sounds like a racist argument given all the movies with Native actors.

Then they switch and say they had to hire non-Native actors because of the bottom line. Which sounds like a racist argument given all the movies that flop with non-Native actors. And which contradicts the previous claims about the lack of Native actors.

Dishonest claims

I might respect someone who said, "There are dozens of qualified Native actors but the investors forced me to hire a non-Native." Or, "It has nothing to do with earning a profit; Native actors simply lack the necessary skills." These statements would be morally dubious, but at least they'd be honest.

But to my knowledge, no one has ever said anything like that. Hollywood people use whichever argument they think they can get away with--whichever one won't get challenged. If you raise the "qualifications" argument, they say it's about the bottom line. If you raise the "bottom line" argument, they say it's about qualifications.

Either way, it's really about racism. Which you can kind of see in Desplechin's comments if you read between the lines. He knew little about Native cultures other than what he read in a couple of books. He knew little about Native actors other than what he saw in a couple of movies. He didn't even realize Natives could represent themselves until he saw Frozen River.

When he thought about Native actors, nobody came to mind. Then he remembered Del Toro, who looks vaguely Native and may have played a Native once. Voilá! A "name" actor who's sure to placate investors and critics. Everyone thinks Del Toro is talented enough to play any role. No need to look any further for a Native actor.

In short, Desplechin believed non-Natives could do the job but Natives couldn't. I'd say this is basically a racist train of thought. He can dress it up with talk about qualifications or the bottom line, but he's distinguishing between actors on the basis of race. That's the definition of racism.

For more on casting decisions, see Del Toro: Redface Is "Tradition" and What's Wrong with Del Toro and Depp?

Below:  "Jimmy P. co-star Benicio Del Toro, director Arnaud Desplechin, and co-star Mathieu Amalric."


Anonymous said...

Film has always been a contentious mix with native peoples from King Kong to Dances With Wolves. Hollywood consistently fails. This role has been done before with Graham Greene in films like "Ishi: Last Of His Tribe" and "Pow-Wow Highway". Adam Beach practically shreds his soul in "Flags Of Our Fathers" but not so much a peep in awards while his counter parts remain front and center credits. Even Will Sampson bleeds his heart in "One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest". There are untapped artists and performers Hollywood executives refuse to accept as faces of AMERICA? It is no accident comedy romances and comic films are stuck in repetitive cycles! And they are boring as hell! Remaking 1970 TV shows tells me Hollywood has ran out of writers of independent thought processes and are replaced by cage fight audiences. This is ignorant, stupid and racists plain and simple in major American film cinema from the native actors that are on the big screen treated with regards equal to the native janitors that sweep the studio floors, but it is acceptable racism. This is why Canadian and South American independent films equal and surpass American films when it comes to indigenous involvement and input. Native actors remain in the eyes of the American people, its media and major networks, the extras and background set. Luckily, the internet is making a $50.00 overrated noisy and expensive popcorn bucket theater visit obsolete.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget about Will Rogers, Cherokee actor, statesman, humorist and well-loved American. He played lead roles in many Hollywood movies.

And many peole forget that Jay Silverheels of Lone Ranger TV series played in more than 30 films.

Chief Dan George, Native Canadian, was nominated for his role in Little Big Man. And another Native Canadian Graham Green in Dances With Wolves was also given an Oscar nomination.

August Schellenberg received an Emmy nomination as well.

Don't forget them!