Acting Ethics: Why We Don’t Want Actors Being Too Picky About Their Roles


In the strange ethics category of “Conduct That Isn’t Exactly Wrong But That Will Have Nothing But Bad Consequences To Society If There Is A  Lot Of It” (CTIEWBTWHNBBCTSITIALOI for short) is actors rejecting roles because they have philosophical or political disagreements with the script.

We’ve had two high profile examples of this occur lately. All we can do is hope that it’s a coincidence. The first was when about a dozen Native American actors, including an adviser on Native American culture, left the set of Adam Sandler’s first original movie with Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six,”a western send-up of “The Magnificent Seven,” claiming some of the film’s content was offensive.

Really? An Adam Sandler movie offensive?

The second and more troubling was in LA,  where five actors quit the cast of the new play “Ferguson,” which consists entirely of dramatizations of the Michael Brown murder grand jury testimony, because the actors apparently felt that it did not appropriately support the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” narrative.

That’s really stupid, but I’m not getting into that again.

We don’t see many examples of professional actors doing this for several reasons. One is that they can’t afford to. Acting, except for the top fraction of a per cent, is anything but lucrative; it’s a subsistence level job, redeemable because it is, or can be, art, and tolerable as long as the actor doesn’t have a family to support, or has a trust fund.

The main reason this is unusual, however, is that an actor isn’t responsible for the content of the play, movie or TV show he or she acts in, but only the skill with he or she helps present that content to an audience. Actors—and technical artists like costume and light designers—are the conduits through which a writer’s work of performance art gets to live. They don’t have to like a show, agree with it or understand it, which is a good thing, since many excellent actors don’t have the  education, experience or intellect to understand complex and profound works. As one realistic actor friend once told me, “If we were that smart, we’d be smart enough to be in another profession.”

This also protects the actor, who knows that audiences won’t hold him or her accountable for what a character does and says. You don’t have embrace the values of Hannibal Lector, Simon Legree, Mister Hyde, Captain Ahab or Hitler to play them, you aren’t a racist because you perform in “Mississippi Burning,” and you don’t advocate killing Muslims if you appeared in “American Sniper.”

Actors like those walking out on Sandler and “Ferguson” are unwittingly setting up a definition of acting accountability that would cripple entertainment as well as make the actor’s profession even harder and less lucrative than it already  is. Do they really want to create an ethical obligation to refuse to act in a work with which they personally disagree? I don’t think so. I think these actors were grandstanding, which is their right, but were hardly thinking about the broader implications of their actions. It was still a foolish thing to do, and in one respect, unethical.

Lawyers can reject clients whose causes they oppose, but they are also exhorted by tradition and the values of the legal profession to provide all citizens, even the worst,  access to the law for his or her own purposes, not the lawyer’s. Lawyers are the means whereby non-lawyers get to use the law for their protection and the advancement of their interests—that’s an attorney’s  job: facilitator, the means to their client’s ends.

An actor’s relationship to a writer’s dramatic or comic works is similar. It usually isn’t the actor’s message or art that is being presented by a performed work, it is the author’s, the playwright’s or screenwriter’s. Actors enable the art of others, and their function is to help present works so audiences and critics can judge it. The actor’s opinion does not, or should not, matter.

Nevertheless, actors, like lawyers, are free agents. If they only want to perform in works they sympathize with, that’s their choice, and they have a right to make it. By making it, however, Kant’s Rule of Universality decrees that they are pointing to an artless future where playwrights can’t get unpopular or controversial ideas on stage or screen because they can’t find high quality actors who agree with its message. In such a system, “Blazing Saddles” would have never been made. That alone makes such conduct deplorable.

The actors who quit  “The Ridiculous Six” and “Ferguson” weren’t exactly unethical, just unprofessional.

I think they are in the wrong line of work.

22 thoughts on “Acting Ethics: Why We Don’t Want Actors Being Too Picky About Their Roles

  1. Conversely, the strident, self-important but dim-witted George Clooneys of the world present the complementary problem: Actors (who eventually become producers only God knows why) who ONLY do work that comports with their ideological obsessions, which generates a world worse than one bereft of art — a world filled only with propaganda.

    • Also bad art. Jody Foster, once she became powerful and rich enough to only do movies and roles that expressed her mother-centric, uber-feminist interests, has barely delivered a decent film in 20 years—a tragedy, since she’s a wonderful actress.

      • I’m guessing what makes her movies bad art is they’re propaganda instead of art. I had wondered whatever happened to her. She seems to have been reduced to nothing more than a darling of … I’m not sure who.

  2. Did you notice the following misleading phrase? “…some witnesses and physical evidence…” It suggest that the word ‘some’ modifies both things. A more accurate wording would be ‘physical evidence and some witnesses’. I know you weren’t going to delve into the shooting again, but I think the phrasing chosen is evidence of bias. The author may be unaware of it though, and he mostly did a decent job of reporting the facts. I have to wonder if the playwright had more to say than just the single line quoted in the piece.

    I’m not even going to touch the idiocy of “truth is totally subjective”….

  3. “Do they really want to create an ethical obligation to refuse to act in a work with which they personally disagree? ”

    I think they do, at least for “The Ridiculous Six” group, if you replace ‘they personally disagree’ with ‘political correctness disapproves’. I see this as an extension of the University censorship that is too common. Unpopular speakers are banned or booed off campus because their message is considered “hate speech”. You can’t spend 22 years training people to believe that ideas that aren’t officially sanctioned must be suppressed and then expect them to understand freedom of expression once they graduate.

  4. Jack,
    God knows there are few thngs more lefty than ‘Anna and the King.’ I’m confused. Because she plays strong female leads who are often single mothers, she’s an uber-feminist? Outside of the characters, no part of ‘Flightplan,’ ‘Panic Room, the ‘Brave One’ nor ‘Inside Man’ otherwise had anything to do with feminism, maternity, or family life.

    Which one is a propaganda piece that I’m not seeing?

    • What???? WHAT??? “Panic Room,” about a single mother trying to protect her diabetic daughter from home invaders and outwitting three male thugs? “Flightplan,’ about a single mother who battles an airplane crew and a corrupt sky marshal to save her daughter who mysteriously vanishes? “The Brave One,” about a self-empowering rape victim who sets out to shoot male predators before they can harm more women? (Jody was a minor player in “Inside Man.”)

      What AREN’T you missing?

      • Wait, I’m confused by your rationale. Jodi Foster takes good, meaty parts where she is the center of the action, and that counts as being enough to make her some sort of radical feminist? What actor wouldn’t prefer those parts over being the doting spouse, sidelined at home? Or if she had the same roles, but was married, then it wouldn’t count as feminist? Only single women count as feminist? Still confused.

        • That’s not what I said. She ONLY takes roles with Mama Grizzly or feminist perspective. I said uber-feminist, not radival feminist. UBER, according to the Oxford Dictionary, denotes an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing. Jody is exactly that. I didn’t say radical, and I didn’t mean radical.

          You’re confused because you have a chip on your shoulder and are putting words in my mouth. My point was and is that Foster, by only seeking projects with a feminist/mother spin, has severely limited her range and the kind of projects she can accept, and it’s boring.

          Sounds like you’re the one bound by sterotypes here—so that’s the only alternative to playing a single woman warrior? A doting spouse, sidelined at home? Check out the range of roles Jennifer Lawrence has played recently. Like, she’ll play an unstable idiot, like in “American Hustle.”

          Back off, and quit putting words in my mouth. Foster’s can do the movies she wants to, but her self-limited range is well-understood in Hollywood. I didn’t make it up, and obviously she doesn’t care. Be confused if you want to.

          • Also note:

            deery, as of late, decried “American Sniper” as just another repetitive movie with a repetitive plot and repetitive character archetypes, nothing spectacular or meaty.

            Yet, Jodie Foster’s roles are meaty and gripping and ground breaking….except they all fit repetitive plots and archetypes also.

            What a chump.

  5. “It usually isn’t the actor’s message or art that is being presented by a performed work, it is the author’s, the playwright’s or screenwriter’s.”

    Functionally, isn’t it the director’s version of that message? Or is that where the “usually” comes in?

    • Usually. An ethical director is guided by the author’s vision and intent. The text comes first. The director frames the author’s intent, but if he or she contradicts it, that’s wrong. Albee and Beckett, to name two, have gone to court to block directors who tried to do this.

      • Got it, even if the playwrights you mention didn’t have the most coherent intent. Didn’t Beckett once tell a director. ”If I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play?”

  6. Read several of the articles about Ferguson-the-play — eventually staged without further foofaraw (including a main character who was cast that morning, rehearsed in the afternoon, and performed that same evening!), none of which mentioned names and seemed vague about details. Which makes me curious to read the play and to wonder how close it came to actual evidence in terms of forensic and witness (or proven non-witness) testimony.

  7. Most telling thing about this is that the play IS NOT EVEN AN EDITORIAL OR OPINION PIECE. It is WORD for WORD from the transcripts…

    Anyone bailing because *reality* doesn’t fit their agenda is admitting utter stupidity and untrustworthiness…

    This is a watershed, much like asking someone their opinion on Israel- the option selected reveals whether or not they are truly stupid.

  8. As an actor, though, I have to say I have turned down scripts I didn’t like and haven’t ever submitted for political spots. I am self-limiting, but I know it. But there was a strange anti-hysterectomy play I did once, and it was just SO strange it made me pickier later. Producers, etc. can do the shows/scripts they want, but some will be without me.

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