Simon Callow Defends White Actors Using Black Makeup, Cisgender Actors in Transgender Roles

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"The great point of acting is that it is an act of empathy about someone you don't know or understand."

Though Simon Callow's recent interview with The Telegraph was meant primarily to promote his new film, "Golden Years," the conversation turned controversial when the 66-year-old actor, who, in 1984, was the first well-known British actor to publicly come out as gay, dismissed the opinion that cisgender actors should not be playing transgender roles and that white actors should not use makeup to play black roles.

"This is madness. The whole idea of acting has gone out of the window, if you follow the logic of that," he says.

"To say it is offensive to transgendered people for non-trans people to play them is nonsense. Because you have to have been a murderer to play Macbeth, you have to be Jewish to play Shylock. It's nonsense."

"I continue to defend Laurence Olivier's performance as OTHELLO."

To play Shakespeare's Moor in a 1964 National Theatre production, Olivier wore black makeup and used a thick Caribbean accent. He repeated the performance for film but along with acclaim he also received a great deal of criticism from those who saw his performance as a caricature.

'The criticisms of Olivier's OTHELLO were very complex and confusing," says Callow. One of the things they most held against him were that he studied, admittedly, Caribbeans rather than Moors, or Moroccans, or whatever Othello is and found they have certain patterns of physical movements. Well, why wouldn't they? Is that offensive? It's true that not all black people walk in a snake-hipped way, but there are some that do."

He compares Olivier's use of makeup to change his physical appearance for OTHELLO to Robert De Niro's weight gain to play boxer Jake LaMotta in the film RAGING BULL.

"We always admire Robert De Niro when he puts on weight to play a boxer, and we believe him completely as a boxer. But then you're suddenly not supposed to believe that because the character is black?"

When asked if he would consider playing Othello in black makeup, even though the practice is widely considered offensive, Callow responds, "Is it so offensive? I don't know. People say it's offensive because it reminds you of the black and white minstrel show. But, it's a different thing altogether."

But despite not believing the practice to be offensive, he does agree with his union's discouragement of hiring white actors to play roles of different ethnicities, recognizing that discrimination has kept non-white actors from these roles.

"I totally accept it was the right thing to do to put a moratorium on white actors playing Othello, to allow black actors to fill those giant boots," although he notes, "I cannot say that the principle is a correct one."

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Photo credit: Piers Allardyce

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From This Author Michael Dale