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.