Why it’s perfectly fine for non-Jewish actors and actresses to play Jewish roles


Nicole Rivelli

Amazon Studios

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Once upon a time, Bryan Cranston played a quadriplegic in a film. In real life, Cranston isn’t a quadriplegic, but should that have dismissed him from playing the role in “The Upside,” a decent American remake of a beautiful French film (“The Intouchables”)? The answer is the same for the crowd wondering if non-Jewish actors and actresses should play Jewish roles: No, because it’s called ACTING!

The fuss began in September, when a Time magazine article examined the duress behind Kathryn Hahn (not Jewish, but she played a great one in “Transparent”) was cast in the role of the late Joan Rivers, whose life was being made into a Showtime television series. Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman later mentioned on a podcast that actresses like her weren’t getting first dibs at Jewish roles, and the Hahn casting came up. Silverman wasn’t taking aim at Hahn, but complaining about the rigid dichotomy in show business. I wonder if Silverman watches the hit series that millions love, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

The star of that show, Rachel Brosnahan, isn’t Jewish–her parents are of American, British, and Irish descent. So, should we stop production on the latest season and offer the part to Silverman or Scarlett Johansson, simply because they fulfill the Jewish birthright quota? No. These aren’t documentaries; they are movies. Hahn is a great actress who can adapt to just about any role or part; she would have made a great Rivers. This is the same reason that Meryl Streep has collected award nominations from playing Jewish characters. The whole point of art is to transform yourself and see how far down the creative rabbit hole you can get without embarrassing yourself. Actors play people and personalities they are not, mostly on purpose.

Fun fact: Adam Driver may look Jewish, but he’s actually NOT jewish. But I bet if he was cast in a Jewish role, the noise around that casting wouldn’t be as large for the simple, yet hollow, fact that Driver looks more Jewish than say…Vin Diesel. Driver played a Jewish character in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” even sporting a Jewish star around his neck at one point in the film. I don’t think Lee or his producing team wondered if he was convincing enough to inhabit such a soul. Believe it or not, the guy whose mom is from Indiana pulls off many types of characters quite well.

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When you start putting laws on who should play what part in Hollywood, you start hindering the art form itself. This applies to religious/ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation, at least for me. Should a gay actor play a straight person on film or television? Yes. All you have to do is look at Showtime’s old series, “The L Word.” Directors and studios aren’t going to see something like that as a blockage; all they need to know is if that person can inhabit that role.

Earlier this year, Rachel Sennott played a Jewish woman in the indie hit, “Shiva Baby.” In real life, Sennott is not Jewish, but that didn’t destroy my opinion of the film after I screened it. She was terrific. My reaction would be a shrug of the shoulders, because Sennott thoroughly convinced me (via the non-magical pill of acting) that she was, in fact, Jewish in the movie. Felicity Jones played Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a recent (not that good) biopic, but a flat Armie Hammer and history lesson-type formula felt dry. In other words, I didn’t scream at the screen that Jones wasn’t Jewish like Ginsburg. The movie just didn’t work.

I could go on and on with examples, but the message is clear: Jewish and non-Jewish actors and actresses should get a chance to play the part. If you start micromanaging the natural selection process of show business, you begin to undermine its power and effectiveness. Should we start tabling the market on non-Italians playing Italians on film? No. The performer with the most talent, and the one that the filmmaker believes in the most, should get the role. A birthright shouldn’t guarantee anything. Sorry (not really though), Mrs. Silverman.