Finding actors to play Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz for Amazon's "Being the Ricardos" was a tricky proposition, according to writer and director Aaron Sorkin.
But it got very un-tricky quickly, says Sorkin, when Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman expressed interest in playing the husband and wife team, who starred together in the classic sitcom "I Love Lucy" from 1951 to 57.
"When Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem ... say they want to do your movie, your casting search is over," he explains in a new interview in The Hollywood Reporter. "You start out making graphs and charts and this and things like that, and then suddenly it gets easy."
Sorkin has lots to say on that topic in the interview. First, he notes that their Latina casting consultant was "fine with it." But, he adds, "I don't want to use the casting consultant as cover. I want to tell you my opinion on this and I stand by it, which is this: Spanish and Cuban aren't actable, OK?"
By which he suggests that an actor doesn't "act" any different whether he's playing a person from Spain or Cuba. Sorkin adds, "By the way, neither are straight and gay. Because I know there's a small movement underway that only gay actors should play gay characters. Gay and straight aren't actable. You could act being attracted to someone, but most nouns aren't actable."
It's an interesting take, and one certainly up for discussion, though the optics aren't great coming from a non-Latino, straight man. Stories about historically-ignored minorities have been scarce on the ground until very recently. Simultaneously, non-white and non-heterosexual actors often find themselves passed over for roles they can closely identify with.
Accuracy, down to the ethnic background of the actor, matters a lot — especially now that the roles available to them are finally opening up. Simultaneously, the choice not to cast a matching ethnicity (or orientation) for a real-life person who is known to be, say, Cuban-American, can carry class and race inferences.
"To some observers, it seems that Hollywood prefers casting Europeans as Latinos because Hollywood sees Europe as more 'sophisticated' than Latinidad," wrote Andrea Reindl for Latino content website mitú in January.
Failure to acknowledge this particular sensitivity, at this time in Hollywood history, can seem like willful blindness, no matter how many consultants are on the set.
Sorkin, however, says Bardem's casting doesn't trip over those wires. "We know when we're being demeaning... Having an actor who was born in Spain playing a character who was born in Cuba was not demeaning. And it wasn't just the casting consultant who agreed, Lucy and Desi's Cuban-American daughter didn't have a problem with it. So, I'm very comfortable with it."
Lucille Ball, meanwhile, was a whole different question; Sorkin says he's fine if Kidman doesn't call to mind the "Lucy" of "I Love Lucy" for two reasons: there's only a few minutes of the sitcom recreated for the movie, and that Lucy Ricardo really didn't look much like Lucille Ball.
"Lucille Ball was more of a Rita Hayworth, Jessica Rabbit-looking actress," he says. "(Nicole) does an incredible job of mimicking Lucy.... So, finding an actress who looked like Lucille Ball wasn’t important to me, especially because I was excited by the idea that Lucille Ball doesn’t look like Lucille Ball — and that every time we're seeing Lucille Ball not as Lucy Ricardo, she should both literally and metaphorically let her hair down."
Sorkin adds, "Let her be what she's not allowed to be on TV in 1952 on CBS. Let her be a woman. Let her be sexy. You weren't allowed to be sexy on TV (then)."
"Being the Ricardos" will have a limited theatrical release on December 10, and on Amazon Prime December 21.