From The Plot Against America to Hunters: Can Only Jewish People Play Jewish Characters?
Jewish actors have played Jewish and non-Jewish characters since Hollywood's early years. But is it different when the story is about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism?Photo Courtesy of HBO TV Features The Plot Against America
Spoiler alert: This story discusses plot points involving all of the Amazon series Hunters and some of the HBO miniseries The Plot Against America.
Amazon Prime Video’s Hunters, which debuted February 21 on the streaming service, is a flashy revenge thriller about Jewish Holocaust survivors and others who seek and destroy the former Nazi soldiers who tortured them and are now living in hiding. In what Paste’s review calls an “unsatisfying liberal revenge fantasy,” these vigilantes devise elaborate take-downs that may include building grenades out of matzo balls or turning showers into gas chambers.
Hunters creator David Weil told the Jewish Journal that it was important to him to cast Jewish people as Jewish characters, hiring talent like a nearly unrecognizable Josh Rador as an actor who assimilated into Hollywood by changing his name, and Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek as married survivors still grief-stricken over what they saw, and who they lost, while in a concentration camp. Logan Lerman stars as Jonah Heidelbaum, a comics and movie-obsessive accustomed to dodging bigoted insults who learns about the clandestine group of Nazi hunters after his grandmother (Jeannie Berlin), an Auschwitz survivor, is murdered in their home.
“I really wanted to see a Jewish superhero on screen and have a Jewish person play that. It felt like the right thing to do,” Weil, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, told that outlet. (Taking all of this into consideration, the casting of the not-Jewish Al Pacino as lead Hunter and Auschwitz survivor, Meyer Offerman is in fact a spoiler for the finale).
Conversely, there’s The Plot Against America, which premiered March 16 on HBO and is an alternate history that doesn’t seem so alternate right now. Told mostly through the eyes of a Jewish family in post-World War II Newark, New Jersey in what Paste describes as a “riveting, relevant ride down bigotry’s slippery slope,” it depicts the actual rise of xenophobia in our country by positing a scenario where noted anti-Semite, isolationist, and national hero Charles Lindbergh has beaten Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.
But co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns didn’t share Hunters’ casting viewpoint for their miniseries, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel. Winona Ryder and David Krumholtz are among the Jewish actors who play Jewish characters in Plot, while their co-stars Zoe Kazan and John Turturro discovered they have an amount of Jewish ancestry thanks to the wonders of DNA testing. Others, like Anthony Boyle, are not.
Simon told journalists during the show’s winter Television Critics Association press day panel that he’d originally thought that “everybody’s got to be Jewish; all the actors [have] got to be, all the department heads are going to be Jewish.” But, “by the time we were done, by the time we were done actually assembling the best cast, okay we had some of the tribe” because sometimes you can’t ignore quality talent.
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary thought. Jewish actors have played Jews, non-Jews, and maybe-Jews since Hollywood’s early days. And it has long worked in reverse as well; Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shaloub have won Emmys for their roles in the decidedly Jewish Amazon comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel even though they themselves are not.
But both of these decisions come at an interesting time. More and more shows are striving to accurately cast other minority groups, such as The CW’s Jane the Virgin’s need to make the character of Rogelio was Mexican-American because Jaime Camil, the actor who played him, is Mexican or NBC’s This Is Us casting Carl Lumbly as the father to Susan Kelechi Watson’s dad in part because they both have Jamaican heritage. (Editor’s Note: The second season of The Terror was also a gold standard in casting actors of Japanese descent to make sure they told an authentic story of World War II camps in America.)
I asked Hunters actor Rubinek to weigh in on this. He’s played a wide range of characters, including and in particular here, a wide range of characters who happen to be Jewish (studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, who he portrayed in Amazon’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Last Tycoon, probably wouldn’t have much in common with his Hunters character, Murray Markowitz, besides their shared heritage). He has also made the film So Many Miracles, about his own Jewish parents’ experience hiding in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
Rubinek says it’s one thing “when you’re talking about Asian, Latino or African American characters, where you can tell the difference because of skin color” and “it is a trickier question when talking about a gay or lesbian or trans character … and there’s no easy answer to that.” But, he says “should Jewish actors not be playing Christian roles when there’s a Christian background to the character? Should no Jewish actor ever play a priest as long as he’s believable as that priest?”
There is also the added factor that, while works of fiction, both Hunters and Plot tell stories of anti-Semitism—a movement that is, quite frighteningly, again on the rise in the United States. Is there an added pressure for casting authentically when you are telling a story about, say, the Holocaust? Is not doing so proof of how some Jews can, and have, assimilated into the country? That we’re white? That there’s a larger divide in the difference being culturally Jewish and practicing the religion of Judaism?
I also spoke with actress and writer Shoshannah Stern, who is both Jewish and deaf. Not all of the characters she’s played have been Jewish, but she will always play deaf person. She tells me through a conversation on Google Hangouts that “I’ve always wondered why authentic casting seems to be a big deal to some minority groups but not all.” She adds that, while both of her grandmothers survived the Holocaust, she thought our society had evolved and “that being Jewish wasn’t really that big of a deal anymore.” Then the Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.
“I always say disability is not a costume; it’s not something you can take off at the end of the day,” Stern says. So, by that logic, “if you’re shooting a show about the specific Jewish experience and someone is using that experience as a costume at the end of the day, I think the opportunity for truth and authenticity may be lost.”
In regards to staffing, she says “it’s important that education happens organically.” Stern and (also deaf, also Jewish) actor Josh Feldman created the Sundance TV series This Close. They hired both people who understood American Sign Language and those who didn’t, many of whom eventually learned how to sign. She says “there’s a fine line between making that experience inclusive and being too exclusive, because then the opportunity to learn from members of that community is lost.”
Rubinek makes the valid point that these casting choices “would be like saying, should I only cast Nazis who are German or only cast thieves who are thieves?” Hunters has cast people like Lena Olin, Dylan Baker and Greg Austin as the villains. They’re, of course, not actually Nazis. They’re just really good at being scary.
It works, says Rubinek, because “the job of being an actor is to find that humanity that is common to us. The better the actor, the less you’re going to think about it.”
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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