I’d recently written a few things about actors and casting, including unveiling my “33 hottest Canadian Babes” list simply to make a point about actors, stardom, and that sort of stuff. So I just wanted to continue that for the next couple of posts before moving on. Today musing about the tendency to hire non-Canadian actors to star in Canadian productions…and next time, to muse upon the pitfalls of actually hiring Canadians!
“Stardom” is a curious label and is sometimes a completely artificial and contrived process (as I wrote about here and here). And this all kind of relates to my recurring points about importing stars too often to star in Canadian productions. Occasionally — sure, but not when the majority of films seem to lean on that crutch. To use a recent example: I don’t object to American actor Nick Stahl starring in the Canadian movie Afghan Luke (particularly as he plays a Canadian). Not at all. What I object to is when you can point to six Canadian movies and four of them star an imported actor (and in some cases, many of the other major roles in the production!) — that’s when it becomes problematic.
Stars are a central aspect of movies — their signature, if you will. We often define movies more by who’s in them than even their titles. So if you’re talking about building and sustaining an industry, and you’re always relying on importing stars (and, for that matter, trying to disguise the fact that your film or TV show is Canadian) you’re not really building anything.
As well, there’s the brutal truth that often Canadian movies can’t afford the big stars anyway, so you’re slamming the door in the face of the Canadian talent …in order to import an actor who isn’t very big and, sometimes, isn’t even very good. And then the producers wonder why their movie performed poorly and was badly reviewed. For every Canadian movie that imports a, say, Rachel Weisz or Alan Rickman…there are a dozen others that import a “star” who, well, let’s just say they are playing for a minor league team.
I’ve probably commented before (or speculated upon) the reasons non-Canadian actors are used. After all, usually the producers will sniff derisively and insist the only criteria was who was best for the part, and that to insist they hire a Canadian is nothing but crassest tribalism (even as they are asking for Canadian funding grants to make their movie). Yet then they will also admit they “needed” a Hollywood actor to appease production partners — and often specifically a non-Canadian Hollywood star, implying that if nationalistic tribalism is at play…it’s not only Canadians who are guilty of it (ie: American partners are demanding an American star).
But I also suspect a lot of it is because it’s “hip”. If a Canadian filmmaker hires a Canadian actor, even one who’s big in Hollywood, the filmmaker still feels as though he’s stuck in a ghetto making “Canadian” movies. But if he can land an American actor…well, he’s running with the cool kids now! So I sometimes wonder if the decision to hire non-Canadian actors has nothing to do with who was best for the part, nor even pressure from investors…but simply the Canadian’s desire to hire a “real” (read: American) actor…regardless of how good they are.
Should I name names? What the heck — let’s be rude.
I watched a Canadian comedy called Breakaway — a movie I’m sad to say I thought was pretty bad. Sad, because I genuinely went into it hoping for the best, but just found it wore away my enthusiasm as the minutes dragged by, with a loose plot, unoriginality, and lack of big laughs. Anyway, for a movie that was selling itself as quintessentially Canadian (being about hockey) a lot of the cast were imports, including American actor Rob Lowe (who was actually quite good). Also in the cast, as the love interest, was an actress named Camilla Belle whom I didn’t recognize and who I thought was kind of, well, bland. Pretty, to be sure, but nothing special as an actress (at least in the role as it was written — as I mentioned, I wasn’t impressed with the movie in general, so it’s not like she can shoulder too much of the blame). Because I didn’t recognize her, I assumed she was an unknown — and I assumed Canadian. I assumed after blowing their casting budget on Rob Lowe, Russell Peters and a few others, basically they just cast the first pretty face that showed up at the auditions. So I was surprised to discover Belle…was an American actress, specially imported to co-star in this film, selected above all the local Canadian actresses.
Now, obviously — this proves nothing. It was just my opinion (nor am I saying Belle might not be brilliant in something else). But it shows my perspective on these issues. Having no idea who Belle was, having never seen or heard of her, not knowing if she was American or Canadian, and therefore with no bias for or against her…I didn’t find her that compelling and just assumed she was an unknown hired more as an after thought. I wouldn’t have guessed she was an American starlet the producers coveted and courted and flew all the way up to the Great White North because she, and only she, could embody the role.
Huh! (As the Global TV promos would say)
So that’s the thing. I don’t object to importing actors, as long as I believe the producers really did go for the “best” actor. I’ve said before if I were a filmmaker I could easily produce a list of a couple of dozen (or more) names of non-Canadian actors I’d love to hire for my film (many not exactly box office stars). But it’s when you aren’t entirely convinced they were the “best” actor, when it seems as though the producers weren’t even looking among the Canadian talent pool (nor even among the ex-pats making it in Hollywood), when it still seems as though the majority of productions reserve the lead roles for imported actors — it becomes an issue. And there’s also the other optic: a clearly Canadian movie, set in Canada, about Canadians, that hires an imported star has a different vibe than one where it’s set in the U.S. and so clearly trying to pretend it’s not Canadian that hiring a non-Canadian star was probably first on the producer’s “to do” list.
With all that said: casting Canadians can also have its dilemmas…which we’ll look at next time…