Non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors bring au­then­tic­ity, but what hap­pens after the cir­cus moves on?

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - JO­HANNA SCHNELLER

The trend of thrust­ing non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors into the spot­light comes with po­ten­tial prob­lems

Ineed to say up front, I ad­mire the films I’m about to dis­cuss. I think the film­mak­ers made the right cast­ing choices, and those choices en­riched their movies in the ways they’d hoped. But I’m read­ing a lot of praise at the mo­ment for the bril­liance of non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors. Some­thing about the breath­less­ness of said praise is mak­ing me ques­tion when non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors are em­ployed, and how we laud them.

Ev­ery year or so, a non-pro­fes­sional ac­tor catches fire. In 2013, it was Barkhad Abdi, who went from be­ing a chauf­feur with no act­ing as­pi­ra­tions to bark­ing, “I’m the cap­tain now,” to Tom Hanks in Cap­tain Phillips, to be­ing nom­i­nated for an Os­car for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. Be­fore read­ing for Pre­cious (2009), Gabourey Sidibe was study­ing psy­chol­ogy in Brook­lyn; she wound up a bestac­tress nom­i­nee. The same swept-off-their-feet heat hap­pened to Keisha Cas­tle-Hughes for Whale Rider, Qu­ven­zhane Wal­lis for Beasts of the South­ern Wild and the casts of Amer­i­can Honey and The Florida Project.

This noise this year is es­pe­cially loud, thanks to two per­for­mances from two very dif­fer­ent new ac­tors: Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born, and Yal­itza Apari­cio in Roma. Both are be­ing show­ered with plau­dits and award nom­i­na­tions; both are favourites to walk the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences’s red car­pet in Fe­bru­ary. For Gaga, the leap isn’t so big. Like Madonna in Des­per­ately Seek­ing Su­san, she may be new to fea­ture films, but she’s no stranger to per­form­ing.

Apari­cio is a dif­fer­ent story. A teacher in ru­ral Tlax­i­aco, Oax­aca, Mex­ico, she was so un­fa­mil­iar with moviemak­ing that when she was au­di­tion­ing, she had no idea who her direc­tor, the in­ter­na­tional su­per­star Alphonso Cuaron ( Grav­ity), was; for a minute, she feared the whole thing might be a hu­man-traf­fick­ing scam. Cuaron cast her as his lead, Cleo – the de­voted nanny to a posh Mex­ico City fam­ily – who is based on his own child­hood care­giver. Now crit­ics and au­di­ences are go­ing crazy for her un­forced nat­u­ral­ism.

But here are the things that give me pause. First, why do we nat­u­rally as­sume that a non-pro­fes­sional ac­tor is go­ing to be more “au­then­tic” than a trained or ex­pe­ri­enced one? Isn’t all that train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence de­signed to get the ac­tor out of their own head, so they can in­habit the char­ac­ter? Aren’t the screen­play, the direc­tor’s notes and the ac­tor’s own re­search valu­able? There’s some­thing con­de­scend­ing here, both to trained ac­tors (we as­sume they can’t be this real) and to un­trained ones (we as­sume their re­al­ness can’t be act­ing).

The film busi­ness has a split per­son­al­ity: It’s both a lib­eral, in­clu­sive place where ev­ery­one tries to do the right thing and any­one can be the next big star; and a grasp­ing soul-suck where in­no­cents are snapped up, drained dry and tossed aside. Again, I’m not say­ing that peo­ple such as Apari­cio, Abdi and Sidibe shouldn’t be cast in films – on the con­trary. But I do won­der if there isn’t a bit of a dis­con­nect be­tween these new ac­tors and the hard, shiny world they’re sud­denly pulled into. I think directors such as Jonah Hill or Gus Van Sant have only good in­ten­tions when they cast real skate­board­ers or high-school stu­dents in their films (re­spec­tively, Mid90s and Elephant). There’s no ques­tion that the per­form­ers’ sto­ries, di­a­logue and un­fil­tered be­hav­iours add to the films. But I do won­der what hap­pens to those kids after the cir­cus moves on. Have they been given a valu­able break? Have they been used? Both?

To be clear, I’m not talk­ing about su­per-low-budget films, with fledg­ling directors who have no money for any­one but new­com­ers and un­knowns. I’m talk­ing about peo­ple who can af­ford to hire pro­fes­sion­als and choose to hire non-pro­fes­sion­als. Of course they want the best for their story. But they also want a good story to tell on talk shows, and they want to look good for hir­ing some­one so real. I agree that Apari­cio was a great choice to play Cleo. Yet I think Cuaron also could have elicited a ster­ling per­for­mance from a trained ac­tor – as he did with Ma­rina de Tavira, who plays Sofia, Cleo’s em­ployer.

Be­cause here’s the next un­com­fort­able truth. Aside from a few chatty cameos – such as the women’s cir­cle in Jerry Maguire, where the ac­tresses are friends of the direc­tor, Cameron Crowe; or Su­san Or­lean’s (Meryl Streep) writer friends in Adap­ta­tion, who are New York artistes in real life – most non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors are hired to play peo­ple of lower in­come, peo­ple of colour or both. It’s much more likely that un­pro­fes­sional ac­tors will be cast as Rio slum-dwellers ( City of God), child sol­diers ( Beasts of No Na­tion) or wanna-be crim­i­nals ( Go­mor­rah) than, say, posh teens in High School Mu­si­cal, or su­per­heroes in the Mar­vel uni­verse.

It’s true that Sidibe, Wal­lis, Abdi and Cas­tle-Hughes have gone on to be­come pro­fes­sional ac­tors with nu­mer­ous cred­its to their name: Sidibe in The Big C, Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story and Em­pire; Wal­lis in 12 Years a Slave and the ti­tle char­ac­ter in An­nie; Abdi in Eye in the Sky and Blade Run­ner: 2049; and Cas­tle-Hughes in Game of Thrones. And that’s great; that’s as it should be when some­one is tal­ented enough to catch the eye of a cul­ture. But it’s also true that non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors, even when they suc­ceed, will play So­mali pi­rates a lot more of­ten than they’ll play Cap­tain Phillipses. The risk is, they’re such “au­then­tic” slum-dwellers, they never get to play any­thing else.

As of this writ­ing, Apari­cio’s IMDb page lists one credit (ac­tress, Roma) and a one-line bio (“Yal­itza Apari­cio is an ac­tress, known for Roma”). Will she have a ca­reer (if she wants one, that is)? Will fu­ture directors see how won­der­ful she is play­ing Cleo, and cast her in other roles? Or will they see only Cleo?

This year, two very dif­fer­ent per­for­mances from two very dif­fer­ent new ac­tors have re­ceived in­dus­try ac­co­lades: Yal­itza Apari­cio, top, for her role in Roma, and Lady Gaga, above, in A Star is Born.

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