The Complications Of Casting White Actors As Asian Characters

Apr 1, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Meet the star of one of the biggest movies opening this weekend, a cyborg based off a Japanese manga series called "Ghost In The Shell."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOST IN THE SHELL")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Major) Everyone around me, they feel connected to something - connected to something I'm not.

SIMON: But this cyborg is played by Scarlett Johansson, the latest in a string of A-list white actresses who play Asian characters. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team wondered if that presented a challenge in marketing the movie.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: It's not just Scarlett Johansson. It's also Emma Stone and Tilda Swinton who have recently been cast in parts originally written as Asian. LeiLani Nishime is a professor at the University of Washington.

LEILANI NISHIME: It's not like this happened once, and so everyone's freaking out. I mean, this has been a long-standing problem. When they're selling the movie, they're not thinking about Asian-Americans as an audience. They weren't thinking about it when they cast it. And I don't think they're thinking about it when they're advertising it either.

KEITH CHOW: There's this idea that Hollywood doesn't see color, that the only color Hollywood sees is green.

KAT CHOW: That's Keith Chow who started the blog The Nerds Of Color. He points to the unfortunate case of the "Ghost In The Shell" meme generator based on the main character's name Major Motoko Kusanagi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOST IN THE SHELL")

JOHANSSON: (As Major) This is major. I'm on site.

KEITH CHOW: They had this website you could go to where you could upload a photograph and write like a, you know, a phrase but the phrase had to start with the words, I am. I guess the tagline is, I am Major.

KAT CHOW: The Internet had a field day. People uploaded images of Johansson and wrote phrases like, I am not Japanese, or used photos of Asian actresses accompanied with text like, I am the actress that should have been cast.

So how does a studio deal with this kind of racial baggage when trying to sell a movie? Jon Yokogawa is vice president of interTrend Communications, which specializes in Asian-American marketing. He also spent his early career marketing for big movie studios. He points to what the people behind "Passion Of The Christ" did when they ran into controversy with various religious groups.

JON YOKOGAWA: They invited the feedback from community leaders or leaders of whatever segment was maybe opposed to the movie to come and see it and give their feedback.

KAT CHOW: And hopefully become advocates for the movie. Still, Yokogawa says, from a marketing standpoint, it's not too hard to sell a movie like "Ghost In The Shell."

YOKOGAWA: I have a feeling that this movie was really about international appeal because the box office draw in Asia is so huge.

KAT CHOW: The thinking, which many folks in Hollywood have echoed, is that, in Asia, it's actually good for a white famous star to play an Asian character because it means more money. Recently, Paramount sent Scarlett Johansson to "Good Morning America" where she said her character has no race.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

JOHANSSON: She is a human brain in an entirely machine body. She's essentially identity-less. I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously.

KAT CHOW: Obviously? Another argument about the character Major Motoko Kusanagi is that she's racially ambiguous. But Keith Chow doesn't buy that argument either.

KEITH CHOW: What I find interesting is that, like, the term racial ambiguity always seems to default to white. Like, if a character is racially ambiguous, then it's OK to cast a white actor. Like, I don't understand. Why doesn't it ever go the other direction?

KAT CHOW: One could say Chow's thinking might be too futuristic for this cyborg.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GHOST IN THE SHELL")

JULIETTE BINOCHE: (As Dr. Ouelet) You're not invulnerable.

JOHANSSON: (As Major) Maybe next time you can design me better.

KAT CHOW: Choice words from Johansson's character, Major. Kat Chow, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILVER MAPLE'S "SUPERIOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.