Understanding, Acting, Empathy and Closed Comments

I recently discovered on the Huffington Post that there is an area where all of my past comments on stories are archived.  I decided to take a little time and go back through what I had commented on in the past.  I don’t have a memory of the details of most of the stories.  One comment, however, caught my eye.  It was a reply to one of my comments that I had not seen back in the day.  I immediately wanted to post a reply, but because it was a story from 2009 and the comments are closed, I could not.  This created enough of a sense of frustration that I decided to post here.

The story in question was about a film or theater production, I do not recall which, that had angered the deaf community by casting a hearing person in the role of a deaf person.  As I recall, without re-visiting the story, I agreed that the producers had probably made the wrong decision in this case.  That there are many excellent deaf actors available who could have embodied the role with skill and who could have brought all of their experience to bear in bringing the character to life.

What I took issue with, however, was a sentiment I saw expressed repeatedly in the comments of the story that only an actor who has a particular life experience should be allowed to play a role.

Let me be clear, there are two issues here.  The first has to do with a kind of institutionalized prejudice, and this is wrong and is, I believe, what most people are actually reacting to in this story.  There was a time when it was traditional for a white actor to play the role of Othello, largely because it was assumed a black actor could not be found with the depth and skill to carry it off.  The problem in casting a white man is less to do with his ability to empathize or create the character but with the assumptions behind the casting choice.

In the story about the hearing actor, the real problem is that there were presumably actors available who could most likely do a better job at the part.  They would naturally embody the habits and understandings of a deaf person more than any hearing person could. It would be easier for them to be convincing and on point.

Getting back to the other issue, though, of whether an actor needs to live the life of the character he plays I would say emphatically no.  As I wrote in my comment on the site:

“…acting comes down to depicting a life experience that is not your own. So I couldn’t make a hard and fast judgment that casting a non-disabled actor, for example, is by definition the wrong choice. When it comes to casting, the person who can best convey the emotion the story teller is trying to get across is the best choice. In many cases the person with the same life experience may be that person, and it would be a shame to overlook that. But if an actor who has never been a soldier can bring a war film to life, then they can probably convey other life experiences as well.”

As with most comments on a blog, this was hastily written as a quick reaction to what I was reading in the comments section. 

So perhaps I could have better emphasized that I was not saying that the right decision had been made in this case or that hearing actors would be better for deaf roles or spelled out what I did just now about the separate “Othello question.” 

What I am saying, and I have posted it often here in relation to writing, is that writing what you know and acting what you know are not literal.  If writers could only write about their own social categories and experiences and actors could only perform their own social categories and experiences every writer could create only one book and every actor play only one role.  Empathy and imagination are ways of “knowing.”

With all of this background, I now get to the response to my original post.  A fellow reader was offended by what I had to say and replied:

“Life experiences??

Do you know what it is like to be taught how to speak with no real concept of understanding what sounds are?? Do you know what it’s like to be linguistically delayed because the focus is entirely on how to speak words correctly rather than understanding how the language is structured?

Do you know what it is like to be dependent on someone else to talk, to understand those around you?? I mean, come on, even when you are on your deathbed, you are afforded the right to speak to those who you love around you without aid.

Do you know what it is like when your family rejects you from the dinner table because you cannot chew without making so much noise and not know about it? Do you understand what it’s like to be delayed in school because your peers had the privilege of being able to hear the teachers while you have to toil and work in reading all the materials, hoping that the teacher didn’t say something outside of it? Do you understand what it’s like to be told that the language you’re signing isn’t a real language and makes you look like an idiot??

No hearing person can EVER understand what it is like to be Deaf. There is NO life experience that a hearing person can go through that is remotely similar to the Deaf.


So let me say what I would have posted in reply had I known about this comment at the time.  Obviously the poster feels passionately about this issue and, I assume that he is deaf himself and felt that I was minimizing his experience, which was not my intention.

I cannot know what any of that feels like first hand.  Nor can anyone who has not lived it know what that feels like or how he might react or behave in response to the situations he describes. 

What I was trying to say was that the job of the actor is not to live another life but to embody a character who is different from himself.  To better illuminate this idea, I want to give some other examples of life experiences, the ones that come to mind involve crimes so I want to make it clear from the outset that my intention is not to equate having a disability with being a victim.  Rather the point is that these are experiences that anyone who has not lived would be foolish to claim he fully understands.

There are many excellent movies about the holocaust, actors are called upon to play victims of Nazi persecution.  Can they claim to know what it was like to be rounded up for being of the wrong ethnicity and living in a concentration camp?  Of course not.  Can a person who has not been raped claim to know what it is like to be the victim of rape?  Or can someone who has not lost a child know what it is like to lose a child? 

Playing a role is a different thing than living a life.  I think there are few people who would argue that an actor should have lost a child to play a grieving mother. 

In my original comment I began by saying I was ambivalent about the question of whether hearing actors should ever be allowed to play deaf characters.  My ambivalence comes down to this:  there is a social aspect in the casting of a role as I explained earlier with Othello.  It seems most likely that a deaf actor, all other things being equal, would be the best candidate for the role.  And it is quite likely that there is a bias at work here in a false idea that there must not be deaf actors out there who would do the job as well.  This has to be accounted for and corrected. We should always try to be aware of our biases and correct them.

On the other hand, if things are not equal, that is, if one actor is clearly more skilled than the others who are within the available pool of actors, then she might to better service to the character and to the audience’s understanding of the character than a less capable deaf person would. But if the choice is between a mediocre deaf actor who knows what it feels like to be deaf but can’t express it as well to the audience, and a tremendous hearing actor who doesn’t actually have first hand experience but can really convey to an audience “what it is like when your family rejects you from the dinner table,” then I think the drama and understanding is better served by the second actor.

It might help to get away from deafness to make it clearer.  A less talented actress who has actually lost a child might actually be worse at making an audience understand that loss than a more talented one with healthy, living children.  (Or even for that matter a more talented childless actress.)

My point, leaving aside the specifics, is that an actor who has an experience that he is not able to express well is not better than an actor who can imagine and convey well an experience that he has not personally lived.

So, as with most any debate, I am the voice saying context matters.  That “it depends” is a better answer than “they never should” or “they always should.”

All of this, of course, brings up more interesting questions of social identity.  Which social categories do we feel comfortable with actors transgressing and which don’t we?  Is it OK for a white actor to play a Native American?  How about a man playing a woman (as in Shakespeare’s day)?  A straight actor playing gay?  Thin playing fat?  White playing black?  What does it mean that we single these categories out?  Does it feel different if one of the social categories is your own?  (As a fat girl, I hated the casting of Rene Zellwiger as a woman with a weight problem in Bridget Jones’s diary.)  Does it feel different when it is reversed and the member of the social group with less power plays the one with more social status?  Black playing white for example?  A woman playing a man?  Gay playing straight?  Deaf playing hearing?  Those are all interesting questions for what they say about our society.  Questions that I’ve been babbling too long to address here right now.  Talk amongst yourselves.