Ethnic Ambiguity

Back Stage, NY
July 19 2004

Ethnic Ambiguity
More Roles, But Still a Mixed Bag

By Simi Horwitz

With the high visibility of such cultural icons as baseball player
Derek Jeter, singer Mariah Carey, and action hero Vin Diesel, it’s
not really a big surprise to learn that talent agents, casting
directors, and talent management firms are now receiving requests for
actors who are “ethnically ambiguous,” of “mixed ethnicity,” or have
a “global look,” especially for commercials, films, and television

“Within the past three or four years, it has become a growing trend
across the board,” says Jessica Schoenholtz, a talent manager with
the New York City-based J. Mitchell Management. “In theatre, the
casting still tends to be a little more traditional, although the
ethnically ambiguous actor may be cast when directors or producers
want to do nontraditional casting.

“I believe producers, but especially advertisers — in fashion,
phones, and fast food, for example — are getting wise to the fact
that the world is changing,” she continues. “It’s a smaller place,
with lots of intermarriage, and the diversity is only going to
increase. A network like Nickelodeon often looks for ethnically
ambiguous actors. Ensemble casting routinely includes the ethnically

Carole Russo of New York’s Agents for the Arts agrees, adding, “There
is more opportunity for actors who are ethnically mixed than ever
before. I often get requests for actors who are biracial. Sometimes
it’s very specific, like African-American and Caucasian; other times,
the request for biracial is broadly nonspecific, leaving it wide
open. The breakdowns for many musicals now include ‘all ethnicities,
unless otherwise noted.’ ”

Back Stage talked with several actors who are indeed ethnically mixed
for their spin on the new opportunities available to them and the
concomitant obstacles. Most acknowledge more accessibility to roles.

Joanne HartsHorne, who is biracial (African-American and Caucasian),
says, “I don’t like labels. But being ethnically ambiguous has helped
me. I certainly get a lot of calls, so I’ve come to accept terms like
‘ethnically ambiguous.’ I sometimes think the term means almost
anything other than all white, which is also another way of saying
there’s a lot of competition for those roles.”

She adds that she is often cast as a Latino. In fact, HartsHorne has
had a recurring role as a woman of Brazilian descent on “As the World
Turns” for more than a year. “They specifically asked for a
light-skinned African-American to play a character who was half

Actress Alexea Lawson, who is of African-American, Native American,
Hispanic, and British heritage, has had similar experiences. “I’m
multiracial and have very little Spanish blood, but producers see a
Spanish girl when they look at me. They also continue to have
stereotypical notions of what an African-American looks like. They
don’t seem to accept the idea that a black person can have blue eyes
or blond hair. But if the casting notice says ‘ethnic,’ that changes
the picture. I then become ‘culturally unique’ and that character
description has opened doors for me in casting.”

However, within the parameters of “ethnic ambiguity,” she hones her
image depending on the specifics of the role. “If they want ‘ethnic
and funky,’ I’ll wear my hair curly. If they want ‘ethnic and
preppy,’ I’ll straighten it.”

By contrast, HartsHorne refuses to “second-guess what producers are
looking for, although they seem to have clear ideas of what a young
black girl looks or sounds like. I just go to an audition as me. But
when the character is African-American, I’ve been asked more than
once, ‘Can’t you look and sound more street?’ ”

Filipino performers have traditionally faced casting problems in
mainstream theatre, observes actress Ching Valdez-Aran. “We are of
mixed blood — part Hispanic, part Asian — and when I started in the
theatre in 1983, producers had no idea how to cast us. Many producers
thought of Asians as being Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. I don’t look
like any of these and I don’t look Hispanic either. I have never
heard the term ‘ethnically ambiguous’ or the ‘global look,’ but I
think it’s great. And I do think there are more casting opportunities

South Asian actors Back Stage has interviewed in the past echo the
viewpoint [See Back Stage, May 14, “The South Asians Are Coming…In
Fact, They’re Already Here”]. Undoubtedly, there are more roles today
for South Asians: Consider “Bombay Dreams.” But they are also being
cast as characters from the Middle East. Actress Sarita Choudhury
enjoyed a featured role in Betty Shamieh’s “Roar,” a play about
Palestinians. Similarly, Bombay-born actor Aasif Mandvi took on the
featured role of Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler, in Trevor Nunn’s 2002
production of “Oklahoma!”

This was a groundbreaking bit of casting. For starters, Mandvi was
among the first East Indians to be cast in a major part in a Broadway
musical. But equally relevant, until this production Ali had been
played as a Jewish vendor pretending to be Persian — feeding into
notions of Mideastern exoticism — and speaking with a generic
Mideastern accent. It was a Borsht Belt interpretation. Clearly, Nunn
was dead set against that vision, determined to present in its stead
a realistic portrayal of a Persian peddler, admittedly within a comic
framework. Still, a Persian was not cast in the role but rather a
South Asian who could “pass” for an Arab.

Interestingly, while producers and directors have become very
concerned with accuracy in language, dialect, and accent, they may be
a little less stringent in their casting. Stereotypes persist.

Actor Josh Levin-Soler — part Caucasian Jew, part Hispanic — says,
“I have European features, but I’m olive-skinned with dark hair. I’m
not exactly Latino looking, but I’m certainly not all-American
looking either. I could probably be cast as an Italian-American,
although so far I haven’t.

“Recently I got cast in a TV ad for AT&T Wireless,” Levin-Soler
continues. “They were looking for four Hispanics, three from Latin
America and one from Spain. [The latter] was me. I probably got that
role because people from Spain may be more European looking than
those from Latin America. I like the idea of ethnically ambiguous
casting. I’m sure for some actors it has opened up opportunities. For
me, it has been more limiting.”

Nora Armani, a performer of Armenian-Egyptian-American heritage, has
not been restricted by her mixed ethnicity, at least not for the most
part. Still, she recounts one stunning episode: “A movie
writer-director who wrote a character in a script based on me would
not cast me in the role because, he said, ‘You are not ethnic looking
enough.’ He wanted a more stereotypic Armenian look than I have. I’ve
lived abroad and speak with a British accent, but I look Eastern
European or Mediterranean.”

Armani also talks about the intangible influences of milieu and
culture. “I somehow look and sound different depending on where I am.
When I’m in Hollywood, I become more California. When I’m in Europe,
I’m more ethnic. I think that’s because it’s valued there. New York
is the best place for me. I can be who I am and accepted for it.”

In the byzantine world of casting, Armani feels that great strides
have been made and she is optimistic about the future, as she is
about the evolution of the species.

“There are so many mixes and matches today that we are now creating a
new breed. I foresee a time when many white actors will not really be