I need 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 best-actress 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 like 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 artists 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 wannabe 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?