We Are (Not) What We Perform: Identity and Casting

Adam Driver has been nominated for pretty much every supporting actor award there is - including the Academy Award -  for his performance as Flip Zimmerman in BlacKkKlansman, my favorite film of 2018. (Don't worry, I'll get to theatre soon.) His performance is phenomenal - the amount of information he is able to communicate from the slightest changes of his facial expressions is just awe-inducing.

In the film, Flip is a Jewish policeman who goes undercover with Ron Stallworth, a black policeman, to gather information about the Ku Klux Klan. Not only is Driver portraying Flip, but he is playing Flip undercover, knowing that if his Jewish identity is revealed there could be violent or even deadly consequences. Driver shows not only Flip's fear but how he suppresses it, a multilayered performance of a Jewish man undercover in the KKK. But here's the thing: Adam Driver isn't Jewish.

This isn't the first time Driver has played a prominent Jewish character, either. He played Louis Ironson in Signature Theatre's off-Broadway revival of Angels in America back in 2011. It's important to note that Driver is also not gay. So he does not match up with two of the defining factors for Louis's identity. Right?

My relationship to Judaism and Jewishness is complicated, but the fact of the matter is the first time I found my experiences articulated was in BlacKkKlansman, specifically in a monologue after Ron confronts Flip about why he doesn't seem to see their work as anything other than a job despite being Jewish. Flip responds that throughout his own life he felt separated from his Jewish heritage, able to just not talk about it and pass as a WASP. But now, faced with hate and constant references to the importance of heritage, it is a part of his identity he can no longer ignore.

And there I was, in the front row of the movie theater, on the verge of tears, thinking, "Oh my goodness. That's me."

This scene has led me to question and develop my identity and how it connects to Judaism for months after the fact, to this day. The question is, does knowing Driver isn't Jewish affect my experience of his performances in these roles? Can I chalk up the authenticity solely to the two Jewish screenwriters, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, or playwright Tony Kushner?  

To explore those questions, I have to move beyond just these roles and pieces and my own experiences. The fact of the matter is that identity and its effects on casting are multifaceted and varied.

So, back to Tony Kushner's masterpiece, Angels in America. Angels won the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Andrew Garfield also picked up the Best Actor in a Play award for his performance as Prior Walter. As far as I can tell, the general public doesn't know what sexuality Garfield identifies as. There was some controversy when Garfield said he was "gay without the physical act." It seems he was referring to playing Prior and his experience channeling the character.

What about him? Assuming Andrew Garfield isn't gay, does that void his performance as Prior? Even when so many people found solace and hope through his work?

The answer to those questions has to come through yet another question: what counts as crossing the line when it comes to identity and casting? I think we can all say that white people acting as people of other races, especially with the use of any kind of yellowface, brownface, blackface, or redface is unacceptable. And there is now an increasingly prevalent push to have actors with disabilities play roles with disabilities.  

Here's the thing: for the most part, things like race and disability tend to be more immediately apparent. But not all markers of identity are easily gleaned from a person's appearance, mannerisms, or way of speaking. All of these things can also be altered within a performance. Most of these things are indeed altered for any performance, regardless of a character's identity.

Here's another thing: good characters should not be easily boiled down to one facet of their identity. Yes, Louis Ironson is Jewish and gay. But he is plenty of other things: outspoken, politically active, and suffering from overwhelming guilt over his decision to leave Prior. That last part is how Driver found his way in: “the first thing I connected with in the play was the guilt,” he said. He was in the Marines, but before he could be deployed he was injured. All the people he had trained with went off to the Middle East and risked their lives, while he ended up at Juilliard. This left him with intense survivor's guilt that took years to overcome.

In my opinion, that is a valid and direct way for him to connect to Louis and therefore embody the role. That kind of matching, understanding and articulating, is key in most acting training in America today. Actors strive for authenticity within given circumstances. They pull from emotional memories and learn to live in the moment. Sometimes this means pulling from direct, almost identical experience. Sometimes it means looking elsewhere to fill in the gaps.

And is it right to ask actors to list those elements of identity that might not be immediately apparent? Is there a place for that within the larger world of casting? Honestly, I don't know. It's difficult to say. In a perfect world, people of marginalized identities would always play roles of those same identities without any fuss. But there are so many things casting directors have no way of knowing, and a million other facets that come into play.

Right now, I know where I stand. I'm okay with straight people playing roles where their characters are lesbian, gay, or bi. I'm okay with an atheist playing a Christian. I'm okay with a gentile playing a Jew. I'm okay with these things, granted that these roles and identities are treated with respect and humanity.

As an industry, I fully believe we should strive for authenticity and raising up voices of marginalized people whether they are writing the script, behind the scenes, or on the stage. But at the same time, people should not be required to list every invisible facet of their identity just to get a job. Nor should those who don't fit these identities perfectly be immediately invalidated on that note.

Let's work towards a more perfect world. But let's also understand the way things are now.

(Michael Urie and Adam Driver in Angels in America. Photo by Joan Marcus.)