Importing the “Stars”

Last time I wrote a post that ended up sliding — not altogether deliberately — into being partly about the idea of hiring non-Canadian actors for “Canadian” movies. I say “not” deliberate, because it was really just part of a bigger theme, but ended up getting a lot of focus.

So today (and probably over a few subsequent posts!) I wanted to think about that for a bit. And I mean that — toss some ideas back and forth, from hand to hand, like an apple, to get a feel for it. Not really to say: “This is right/this is wrong!” but just to say: “here’s different ways of looking at it.”

Now the thing is: there is a wonderful advantage to drawing upon the international talent pool even when casting Canadian movies. It gives you a peak in on the global culture (and you can see this as an extension of my recent series of posts about linguistic diversity within Canada). Multi-national casts can provide rich and vibrant performances and expose you to actors you otherwise might never have been aware of.

I recently watched a British mini-series from a couple of years ago called Any Human Heart (a quirky dramedy about the eventful life of an Englishman). Its cast was primarily British, but with a ex-pat Canadian (Kim Cattrall), an American (Richard Schiff) and a few others in the cast. French actress Valérie Kaprisky was in a part of it. And watching this (and already thinking about the idea of international casting) I found myself reflecting back, trying to recall just why I knew Kaprisky — because, ironically, I’m not sure I’d ever seen her in an actual French film. Actually, I think she had been in a Hollywood remake of Breathless, but that was years ago. And I realized that I knew her mainly because of some Canadian films (or Canadian co-productions) — the French language Mouvements du désir and the English-language The Lover (in which she starred in a bio-pic about Czech writer Milena Jesenská) And I realize there are plenty of international actors I’m familiar with, but often have never seen in a movie strictly from the country of their origin. Indian actor Om Puri I know from some British and some Canadian productions, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him in an Indian film. I ended up watching a very good British mini-series a few years back called White Teeth, in part because Puri was in it. He was the main “name” I recognized (well, him and British actress Naomie Harris — actually it was seeing Harris that got me to pause while channel surfing…though her part diminished after the first episode — awww)

So if we Draconically said only Canadians could star in Canadian movies, that global element would be lost. Not just that there would be international actors with whom I might never become familiar, but there have been international actors where I first see them in a Canadian movie, then, when I see their name in a “foreign” film, I might decide to try it, because I now recognize the actor (whereas I might pass it by otherwise, it lacking a familiar face — an “in” into the production).

At the same time, there’s also a slightly different perception to hiring an actor from India, or Europe, or wherever, than a Hollywood “star” — because you can genuinely believe they were cast for their talent, rather than simply to have a name to put on the marquee. Whereas looking to Hollywood for actors can, sometimes, seem like it was less art, and more artifice. Bur even then: there are plenty of American actors who I like, who I’m familiar with, ironically more because of their Canadian work than their American work. It was great seeing David Marciano in the current US TV series Homeland…and that’s because I remember him fondly from Due South.

All this is to say that, for all my grumbling about importing actors, I wouldn’t want a Canadian film and TV industry that couldn’t make use of the international talent pool. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if I can get a better glimpse of the global acting pool watching Canadian movies than I can watching, say, Hollywood films. Of course, that’s partly because a lot of these films are considered international co-productions.

Which then raises an interesting question. In many cases, these actors are cast partly to satisfy the needs of an international quota. That doesn’t mean they aren’t great actors, or don’t deserve their roles — anymore than my suggesting casting a Canadian would automatically require a producer to lower his standards. What I mean is, it’s perfectly legitimate for the various partners involved to request a certain on screen representation. I believe both The Lover and Mouvements du désir (starring French actress Kaprisky) were co-productions with France. Even Due South was a co-production with America (indeed, when the Hollywood money dried up, it reverted to an almost all-Canadian cast).

But that’s kind of the point. There’s nothing wrong with various partners wanting one of their stars in the cast — and that holds true of Canada as well. Perhaps the key is to make sure there are a few good, meaty, choice roles on the table. The problem so often is that there will be two or three good roles, and then a lot of supporting parts and filler roles, and the imported actors get the good roles, and the Canadians get the filler.

In my last post I made a slightly sarcastic comment where I suggested some of the best performances in Canadian movies came from imported actors…I just couldn’t think of any at the moment. That was, admittedly, meant to be a bit snide. But taking a moment, there are plenty of imported performances I could single out as noteworthy — whether they were “better” than a Canadian might have done is irrelevant. I just mean, great performances. But where these work best is in movies where it’s a mixed cast, and there are equally good roles going to Canadians, so you really can believe the part went to the best actor, even if they were not Canadian, rather than it went to them because they were not Canadian.

As well, it helps if the movie (or TV show) itself feels comfortable in admitting it’s Canadian. There’s a decidely different vibe to, say, having American actress Michelle Borth starring in Combat Hospital, playing a Canadian, at a Canadian field hospital, surrounded by an ensemble of mainly Canadian actors…than a movie where all the “good” roles went to non-Canadians in a story set in, say, New York. (And yes, it’s safe to assume Borth’s casting was partly to satisfy the American co-producers as much as the Canadian casting was to satisfy Canadian content).

Indeed, when the debate about importing actors comes along, often the other side will be quick to pounce and point out that Hollywood uses non-American actors all the time. Which is fair. Except, as I’ve pointed out before (and I’m sure I will again) often these “foreign” actors…live in Los Angeles (or at least have a second home there) — they aren’t foreign actors, imported to bolster a movie’s cast, and then they fly away again. They are, essentially, part of the Hollywood crowd. But as well, as I say, it depends a lot on the optics and the distribution of the roles. Whether you believe the roles went to the best actors…or whether they were deliberately earmarked for imported stars.

I just recently caught the American comedy The Brothers Bloom on DVD (a very funny, very clever riff on the potentially over-used con artist idiom — maybe went on a bit long, but still, well worth seeking out if you’re looking for quirky). It starred a mix of American, U.K., Japanese and German actors — a nice multinational ensemble. But of the actual “principal” roles, two went to the American actors (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo), and one to a British actor (Rachel Weisz) — adopting an American accent, and all three were playing Americans. (Though as much as they were all great, I’d argue Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi was the scene stealer….impressive given much of her role was pantomime). My point? I’m not really suggesting the producers necessarily specifically ear marked the leads for American actors, or wouldn’t have considered someone else (though they might not have) but I’m just saying there’s a bit of a different dynamic to that use of an international cast, than a Canadian movie where all the principal roles go to non-Canadians, playing non-Canadians.

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