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Entries in casting (3)


Diversity in Film Casting 


August marks 18 years since I left England behind and made the Bay Area my home. 18 years since my carefully-crafted English vowels started blending into the North American ones; 18 years since I started no longer sounding like the Queen of England; 18 years since no bus driver has said “what?!” to my “Sutter/Stockton” or a flight attendant “say that again?!” to my pronunciation of “water”.

18 years since those days, but more like over 20 years since I am a woman in the arts trying to “fit in” linguistically or physically. In the XXI century, we talk about diversity, we want to acknowledge it, but can’t seem to find a way to genuinely understand it beyond the concept of a box of colored crayons or ticking some boxes to satisfy some quota. Surely there must be a lot more to diversity than drawing some superficial conclusions.

Even though I knew it wouldn’t be a small feat, when I arrived to San Francisco with a VHL demo tape under my arm, a black and white theatrical headshot and a decent CV for an actress who started in her teens, I had every hope to find an agent. But the first comment when I was finally in front of an agent after an on-camera audition of what seemed to be a tongue twister of the /θ/ sound in a “Thrift” drugstore, I was told I was “too ethnic” and hard to put in a category. This is exactly what I didn’t want because, to me, being an actor’s actor means the ability to be whomever needed. Why pigeon-whole ourselves? I understand that in casting there is a need to create “categories”. However, if we don’t allow actors to show range, to play characters, to become unrecognizable from one part to the next, what has been the meaning of years of training, human study and the ability to be a chameleon both physically and vocally?  

I look back at the journey left behind and wonder about the one ahead as I transition from yet another category and navigate the uncertain waters of casting in film and theatre hoping for a day when actors will be allowed to be exactly what they are. And while sometimes it will be ‘handy’ to have an actor play ‘themselves’ (be of the same origin as the role) it will ultimately be a joy for them to be considered actors with the freedom and ability to create personas without being solely restricted to the narrow pool of what their looks and nationality seems to those in charge of casting. After all, if we don’t break free from this small pool directly into the ocean, how could we successfully shift perceptions and increase awareness of the multicultural world we live in today?


The Healing Power Of Drama

We had returned in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war and I was inconsolable, pining for my friends back in Spain. Then acting happened and the effect of theatre and film in my life was more potent than any imaginable potion. It kept me afloat, gave me hope, the motivation to carry on until I’d see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Once I had traced back my father’s steps in the Stanislavski system and rigorously completed an acting program, I was offered a part in what came to be the biggest blockbuster after the revolution. Even though I was never to conceive, from that point, I was destined to play mother after mother even at an age when this would not have been plausible.

This photo was taken by Goga Bayat (unrelated to me) on the set of "The Little Bird of Happiness" (directed by Pouran Derakhshandeh, produced by Sirous Taslimi) with Homa Rousta and Amin Tarokh.  

Fun fact: My friendship with Homa Rousta was not born out of our first film, but later on the set of "Tigh-e Aftab" in which we played mother-daughter and shared a suite in Esfahan for three months.




Accent coaching for actors


The role of accent coaching in creating a character

Any film set in another country inevitably involves the need for accent coaching whether there are native English speaking actors involved who have to sound convincing in another language (Sir Ben Kingsley in The House of Sand and Fog or Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice) or casting native speakers of the foreign language in question (Persian speaking actors in Argo -commonly referred to as “Farsi”– though this actually is the word used in Persian to refer to the Persian language).  

Ben Affleck’s latest feature film, Argo, tells the story of the beginnings of the Iranian revolution and its impact on the American embassy and its employees in 1979 Tehran. When background artists (aka extras) were in charge of chanting slogans in Persian, it was somewhat believable and those multitude scenes worked. However, in some of the minor speaking parts, Persian and Dari became indistinguishable (for instance, the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper’s name, Sahar, spoke Dari; yet we were never given any hint throughout the film that she was from Afghanistan and not Iran). The devil is in the details. Or, suddenly, one of the revolutionary guards had a Dari accent instead of a Persian one. The audience member able to tell the difference was left wondering if Hollywood cared about such subtleties as much as the importance of continuity or location-hunting. This is when an accent coach on set becomes of utmost importance because in a sense they are the keepers of continuity in language and speech, not to mention delivery (accent).

In The House of Sand and Fog directed by Vadim Perelman, Sir Ben Kingsley plays the part of Bahrani, the Iranian general who goes to all lengths to maintain the life style and dignity that displacement in the form of exile ensures is stripped away from him.  Sir Kingsley has very few lines or words in Persian (most of his lines require that he speak English with a Persian accent). However, towards the end of the film, he has to utter a word twice when his teenage son is shot. At this point, he is to howl out of grief and despair: “PEsaram! PEsaram!” (“My son! My son!”).  Instead of placing the word stress on the first syllable and potentially continuing to be believable (something a native speaker would do without thinking), the utterance sounded the opposite “pesarAM”, with the weight of the word at the end of the word rather than the beginning.  At that moment, Sir Kingsley’s eternally-revered talent, at all times capable of taking us with him on any journey, from Ghandi to Don Logan, came to a screeching halt. Why? Because we ceased to believe; because if we, the audience, understand, pardon and accept certain necessities for the movie industry to continue existing with its set of standards (having to use a star name to play a part for which native talent exists for financial reasons) we accept it, ride along and even enjoy and applaud the performance with awards.  After all, aren’t actors supposed to challenge themselves? Play parts that are as different as possible from them? Work on acquiring the accent needed to sound convincing in a foreign language? And, aren’t production companies aware that the need to hire seasoned accent coaches to work closely with actors is paramount to the overall success of the project at hand? That it is a part of the filmmaking process that can’t be left behind?

The same is true of The Stoning of Soraya M. How are we to believe the protagonist is indeed a villager who is a native speaker of Persian when she suddenly speaks with a western foreign accent?

Here is the ultimate question: Shouldn’t attention to speech and accent coaching on set be an integral part of building a character, of the film process? If so, why do we see such inconsistencies in Hollywood productions? Just like costume, set and make-up designers are an important part of the filmmaking process, in charge of their field of expertise, we need to ensure an accent coach is present to help actors get closer to the intonation, pronunciation and word stress that will complete their performance  and ultimately benefit the film as a whole. The future of filmmaking might have this prediction in store.


Photo: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicole in Sophie's Choice (1982)