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The tree jokes are flying across social media after actress Scarlett Johansson's latest comments on casting backlash. Johansson has faced whitewashing accusations for Ghost in the Shell and most recently backed out of a role playing a transgender man, Dante "Tex" Gill, in the movie Rub & Tug.
She initially responded to the Rub & Tug casting controversy by directing critics to the trans roles recently played by Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. However, that defense didn't go over well, so she dropped out of the Rub & Tug movie completely.
Now, in a new interview with As If magazine (via Daily Mail), Scarlett Johansson shared further frustration with the "political correctness" in modern casting.
You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job. I feel like it’s a trend in my business and it needs to happen for various social reasons, yet there are times it does get uncomfortable when it affects the art because I feel art should be free of restrictions. I think society would be more connected if we just allowed others to have their own feelings and not expect everyone to feel the way we do.
UPDATE: Scarlett Johansson responded to how the Daily Mail published her As If magazine piece, saying her conversation was edited for clickbait and taken wildly out of context. Here's her statement:
The question I was answering in my conversation with the contemporary artist, David Salle, was about the confrontation between political correctness and art. I personally feel that, in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness. That is the point I was making, albeit didn’t come across that way. I recognize that in reality, there is a wide spread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to. I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included.
Back to original story:
Scarlett Johansson is now being defended or criticized, depending on your point of view. Some people are joking about giving her tree or animal roles, while others agree with her larger point about the role of actors being to play people who are not themselves.
Many agree with the idea that art should be free of restrictions, but the interpretation seems to be in contention. To some, like Johansson, that means she should be able to play someone who is trans, for example, or traditionally Japanese in manga. Also, her star status helps projects actually get made and gives them a better chance of doing well (unless there's backlash and the movie suffers).
To others, art being free of restrictions means freeing casting away from mostly white, straight, cisgender stars like Scarlett Johansson. It means freeing your mind to give roles to other less represented people around the world, allowing them to get the kind of exposure that creates A-list stars like Scarlett Johansson. It also means supporting greater representation in media by allowing trans actors to play more roles, including (but not limited to) portraying a real-life trans person on the big screen.
Scarlett Johansson is not the only actor to defend the idea of actors being able to play anyone. Bryan Cranston recently talked about that when facing (very mild) backlash for playing a disabled man in The Upside. Here's part of what Cranston said about that:
I think being cast in this role as a quadriplegic really came down to a business decision. As actors, we're asked to be other people, to play other people. If I, as a straight, older person, and I'm wealthy, I'm very fortunate, does that mean I can't play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can't play a homosexual? I don't know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that? I think it is worthy for debate to discuss those issues.
That's not too different from what Scarlett Johansson has been trying to say. And his note about "a business decision" likely means Bryan Cranston already has star power and can help sell the movie alongside Kevin Hart. You could argue a disabled actor could've gotten a showcase to become a star alongside Kevin Hart, but that's part of the debate Cranston is encouraging.
I think whenever you cast someone, someone's going to be critical of it. To me, I stand by my decision. She's the best actress of her generation, and I was flattered and honored that she would be in this film. So many people that were around the original anime have been vehemently in support of her because she's incredible, and there are very few people like her.
Andy Serkis also passionately defended Scarlett Johansson against the Rub & Tug casting backlash:
I absolutely disagree. I really, vehemently disagree. Actors should be able to play anything, and that's why I love this [performance capture] technology. What should be the point is that whatever color your skin is, whatever shape you are, whatever height you are, whatever your makeup is as an actor, you should have the ability to play anything.
Scarlett Johansson does seem to be singled out as the poster child for casting backlash, despite the other examples she herself initially mentioned for Rub & Tug. She's in a position of great influence as a Marvel Cinematic Universe star, as well as a respected dramatic actress, and the highest-paid actress in the world. So the Black Widow star is held to a higher standard than many others.
Plus, she's had this come up more than once. And instead of doing what, say, Ed Skrein did for Hellboy (boy did he make the right call to skip that movie), she doubles down on her initial positions ... but then, in the case of Rub & Tug, backs off anyway. The market for a Rub & Tug movie would probably need the support of the communities Johansson turned off with her comments, so dropping out was probably the only move there.
There's no single way to look at this, but one thing is clear: Scarlett Johansson has people thinking and talking about the current reality and future evolution of Hollywood casting.