In Brief

Should able-bodied actors play disabled characters?

Guardian writer questions whether it is acceptable for Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Eddie Redmayne won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and has today been nominated for an Oscar to boot – but his casting has raised questions about who should play marginalised roles on screen.

Writing in The Guardian, Frances Ryan points out that while "blacking up" is greeted with outrage, "cripping up" is still greeted with awards.

In both cases, actors mimic someone from a minority group, take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic and perpetuate that group's under-representation in the industry, she says.

Ryan accepts that, on a practical level, Redmayne needed to portray Hawking before he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. But she says for many disabled people in the audience, watching an able-bodied actor play such a role is like "watching another person fake their identity".

Others have argued in the past that this is the very point of an actor's job.

"The essential art of acting consists in being that which one is not: the shy man pretends to be debonair; the arrogant man feigns humility," writes theologian Adrian Hilton. "The Greek word for actor is ὑποκριτής ('hupokrités', from which we derive 'hypocrite'), meaning dissembler or pretender."

Previous films have prompted similar debates. Untouchable, The Sessions and Rust and Bone all won praise for their sensitive portrayals of the disabled protagonists. But critics, including Victoria Wright, said it was a "pity they forgot to hire disabled actors to play the leads".

Writing in The Independent, Wright argues that real-life disabilities, far from a detraction, give performances an edge that no CGI could replicate.

"Disabled actors could save Hollywood studios millions of dollars because they wouldn't need to CGI us," she says. "For we have been CGI'd by GOD!"

The debate is not limited to disabilities either. Jared Leto's role as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club won him an Oscar nomination, but many people argued that the part should have been played by a trans actor.

"Hollywood has a fetish for letting privileged people attempt to portray marginalised people," says Prodigal, a trans woman blogger for Jezebel, who condemns Leto's character as a "veritable Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Megazord of obnoxious stereotypes".

In The Independent, Paris Lees tells Hollywood "for truly accurate portrayals of trans people, cast trans actors". She points to the trans character of Sophia in Orange is the New Black played by trans actor Laverne Cox. "She can act too," says Lees. "And the more audiences see Laverne and other trans actors – Harmony Santana and Jamie Clayton, for example – the less impressed they'll be with transgender pretenders such as Leto."

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