The Business of Show Biz: Feminism vs. Career
Thursday, July 10, 2014
By Velina Brown
Q: I am a young, white woman in my 20s and I am a feminist. My problem is I am mostly cast as victims of some sort—domestic violence, rape, etc. For some reason this is how directors see me. I don't want to continue to play these roles. I want my work to show more positive images of women, but I also don't want my career to come to a screeching halt while I wait for the few strong women's roles to come around. What do I do?
Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: It's a dilemma. But let's take a less judgmental look at your work to date.
So far you've availed yourself of the opportunities that have come along, but you're becoming aware of the impact that your work can have on audiences' perceptions of women—or any topic, really. So, you want to branch out from the kinds of roles you've been playing lately.
As an actor, it's difficult to address the kinds of plays that theatres are choosing to produce. Those decisions are up to artistic directors. For example, Marissa Wolf, artistic director of Crowded Fire, after noticing a recent preponderance of shows that have had dead women in them, has placed a moratorium on producing such plays. The slogan is "no more dead girls." Knowing this, you may want to make sure to audition for shows that Marissa is directing or producing.
In the meantime, read each piece for which you have the opportunity to audition and listen to how you feel. Though I rather like Wolf's "no dead girls" moratorium, in your case as an actor, I would advise against a hard-and-fast rule such as "no victims," because sometimes by strictly adhering to such a rule you may end up passing on something that is really great. I shudder to think what would've happened if Lupita Nyong'o had turned down 12 Years a Slave because of a "no victims" rule. Her character was raped and tortured repeatedly. But it was to illustrate a part of America's history in one of the most important films ever on slavery.
L. Peter Callender of California Shakespeare Theater was once coaching a young African American woman who told him she was turning down an audition for Dorine in Tartuffe because she had a rule, "no maids." Obviously, she didn't know the play. Callender advised her to read it before saying no. Once she did, she quickly realized that Dorine is a great role and was happy to audition for it.
However, there may be times that after carefully reading a piece you'll want to politely pass.
Peter Dinklage (Station Agent, Game of Thrones), in a New York Times interview (March 29, 2012), spoke about refusing to play Oompa Loompas, elves and leprechauns because he didn't want to do roles that were demeaning to dwarves. In his early years as a struggling actor he left a fair amount of money on the table when he passed on projects that supposedly were "perfect" for him. But he decided, "You can say no. You can not be the object of ridicule." Today he is recognized as a fine actor and not just someone you call when you are casting Santa's elves in all those holiday ads.
And you can never tell what that role's gonna be. Check out the YouTube clip in which Denzel Washington speaks about a film he refers to as The Nigga You Couldn't Kill (not really the film's name). In it a black man is accused of raping a white woman, and when they try to execute him "hilarity ensues." They try to electrocute him but he survives. They try to hang him and that doesn't work. It's supposed to be a laugh riot! Washington didn't find it funny. However, the money was tempting. So, he called his mentor Sidney Poitier for advice. Mr. Poitier declined to tell him what to do but did explain that the first few films an actor does determines how that actor will be perceived in the industry. Washington turned the film down, and six months later he got Cry Freedom, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Washington says with a cautionary tone, "My career could have gone a whole different way." Good call, Denzel.
But listen: don't make a big stink about why you aren't taking a role. Just politely pass.
Some might say you have to take everything. But the bottom line is, you have to live with the ramifications of your choices. If the idea of doing a project doesn't feel good to you, don't do it. Sure, you'll have to make tough choices at times. We all do. But you can be a feminist and have a career.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.