Are Sci-fi and Fantasy Helping to Level the Acting Playing Field?
Actor Sam Otto explores how fantasy and science fiction could be leading the way in creating space for racially diverse performers.
By Sam Otto
There’s been something of a paradigm shift over the past few years in our media in terms of racial inclusivity. Battered into the cultural consciousness by political movements such as #MeToo, #OscarsSoWhite and BLM, and spotlighted by the global quarantine when everyone was shut away alone, forced to really think about the possibility of impending death, we promised ourselves that we’d tackle these issues if we just got through this. Well, we’re almost through it, and we’ve all had plenty of time to think about our society’s baked-in biases and prejudices.
As more and more voices joined the clamour for change, it seems the granite heads of the great media powers raced to the conclusion that there are stacks of cash to be made in actually reflecting their audiences and acknowledging their voices.
In the age of international online streamer dominance, where TV shows and films beam out to the screens of every country in the world simultaneously, thrown up against the backdrop of a boiling stew of cultural awareness and a bringing-down of some seriously broken systems, those audiences have become at once both truly global, and rather discerning in more ways than one.
Fairy tales, magical beasts, and a galaxy far, far away
Fantasy and science fiction might be leading the way in creating space for those of us who are ‘non-traditional’ performers. As ridiculous as it might sound, it seems easier for a Eurocentric audience who is used to white heroes to accept ‘other’ heroes in a world that’s clearly fantastical, than in a world reflective of the real one. Even so, sci-fi and fantasy has been a white man’s world for all of its existence, so, in order to catalyse the minutiae of changing expectations, an initial, what could be considered ‘brave’, choice has to be made by those with the power to do so. Many have traditionally cheerily shimmied by those potential choices, whilst others are standing up and affecting change. They’re causing tiny reverberations that, through the amplification of time and political movements, have bestowed value on performers of colour, and it’s this value that has the power to change the landscape.
When I talk about 'bestowed value', I mean the way in which Rege-Jean Page can now front an Armani campaign and star alongside Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans, following his stratospheric success in Bridgerton – a traditionally white-dominated story. I mean the rise of my castmate and friend Daveed Diggs, leading our show Snowpiercer and becoming a showrunner and superstar in his own right, following his breakout performance and Tony award in Lin Manuel Miranda’s retelling of the history of the Founding Fathers in Hamilton. I mean Temuera Morrison returning as Boba Fett in Disney’s The Book of Boba Fett, because of a choice made by George Lucas and Casting Director Robin Gurland back in 2001 for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. This one is particularly interesting because this single, inspired casting choice defined the look of the race of Mandalorians within the Star Wars universe. It spawned not one, but two complete TV shows being led by darker-skinned actors, a full twenty years later. What may seem like simple creativity at the time ultimately holds immeasurable value, revealed in the ripples that pass down the timeline, opening door after door for a new generation of talent.
Then there are book adaptations
When reading, we will naturally each form a unique idea of a character’s appearance and personality in our imaginations. But once they appear on screen, that’s who they are, and who they will remain in the memories of viewers and fans for all time. Try reading Lord of the Rings and not seeing Ian McKellen every time Gandalf pops up with a morsel of wisdom, or reading Harry Potter and not seeing Emma Watson spouting a book quote as Hermione. Reading Game of Thrones and not imagining Peter Dinklage manipulating his way through Westeros is completely impossible. So many cult favourites in popular written fiction are dominated by white characters, potentially alienating performers from other backgrounds through adaptation. But what happens when source material is adapted using an actor who’s different to their original description?
So many ‘colourblind’ casting choices can easily slide into tokenism or come across as a box-ticking exercise. Shadow and Bone is an example of a show that has done a brilliant job of reimagining a key character from page to screen. By casting biracial actress Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov, not only did they re-establish how the character looks, but by acknowledging her race, they enriched her backstory and her role within her world. It allows viewers to genuinely empathise with her, rather than having to pretend that race doesn’t exist.
There’s value to be found out there, friends
Let’s go out and hunt down the value we deserve. Let’s build it, cultivate and craft it, whether that’s in space, during a futuristic ice age, or in an alternative history altogether. And then slowly but surely through the channels that we carve together and by those who have gone before us, we’ll be able to tell our own stories within the actual world in which we live. For, as we well know, it’s ours as much as it is anyone else’s.
Actor, singer and writer Sam Otto made his television debut as the male lead in Peter Kosminsky’s explosive BAFTA nominated drama ‘The State’, just out of drama school, leading to recognition by Screen International as one of their ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ for 2017, before undertaking a series regular role in TNT and Netflix’s Emmy nominated ‘Snowpiercer’, recently wrapping its fourth and final season, to air at the beginning of 2023. Sam will next be seen on stage in James Graham’s Olivier-nominated play ‘Best of Enemies' at the Noel Coward Theatre, after a sold-out run at The Young Vic. Alongside acting, Sam can often be found singing original and adapted songs on his Instagram @_samotto.
Photo Credit: Camille Kuo / iStock
Headshot by Jack Alexander.