Your Periodic Reminder That Dressing Up as a Latinx for Acting Work Is Not Okay
Because apparently this is something that requires a reminder?
A word of advice to any aspiring actors out there who come to Hollywood and are looking for additional acting training: Stay far away from Lesly Kahn and Co. Not only does Ms. Kahn not know what she’s talking about when talking about the industry in which she supposedly works, but she apparently loves to sprinkle all of her classes with a light dusting of racist comments.
Someone slipped me this recording of an acting class by an apparently well known, popular acting teacher. Please do not do what she advises here. It is not okay to pretend you are an ethnic minority if you are not. This ( plus the comment about Armenians) is completely unethical pic.twitter.com/XKYJJoFC9o
— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) February 25, 2018
An actress named Dani Fernandez leaked a recording she received of her acting teacher, Lesly Kahn, giving a female Jewish student some offensive, horribly inaccurate and unhelpful career advice to “prepare” her for a Hollywood acting career. You can listen to the recording above, which Lexi Alexander shared with her own thoughts on the matter. Fernandez’s original post, which appeared on her Facebook page, has since been deleted. For those who can’t listen to the above, here is what she says to the student:
KAHN: I can’t be the first person that suggested this.
YOUNG ACTRESS: Yeah you are. I get ethnically ambiguous all the time. I took a 23 and Me, and I’m 100% Ashkenazi Jewish… But yeah, no one’s ever told me to change my name.
OTHER VOICE: I 100 percent thought you were Latin when we came here.
YOUNG ACTRESS: And I get that. I’m Armenian.
KAHN: Fuck the Armenian, that’s not going to help you. The Latin could actually get you interviews for representation. Just the fact that your name is ROSA RAMIREZ is gonna get you a meeting.
She then doubles-down on her Latinx-as-costume advice when the actress says that her headshots are old and that she needs new ones. Kahn advises her to “tell them you’re Latin” when she goes in to get her pictures taken, then:
“Wear something fucking red. Wear some fucking sparkly earrings. Change your goddamned name and let’s just do an experiment. You know what I mean? Just fucking come up with most Latin name you can come up with, and I mean I don’t know what we’re going to do. if they ask is she’s really Latin. I don’t know how we’re going to handle that. Maybe no one will ask. Aren’t we allowed to change our names to whatever we want to change our names to? And she already looks it. So stop admitting to being a huge Jew, ok? That’s not going to help you. Speaking as one, it’s not going to help. As a Jew, it doesn’t help. So just try it, and keep us posted, like the saga of Rosa Ramirez.”
Her advice is insulting, because it’s encouraging a racist solution to an already racist problem. This advice just feeds into the misconception that Latinx only have one look. There are Latinx of all races, skin tones, hair types and personal styles. There’s no such thing as “dressing Latinx,” because there’s no one way to be Latinx.
Also, I love how her Latina costume is “something fucking red” and “sparkly earrings.” Because…that’s what Latinas wear. All the time. Every one. That’s all being Latina is, actually. Wearing red and sparkly earrings. Speaking Spanish is actually a distant second, and being born to Latinx parents is a distant third.
Being Latinx is not a costume you can just throw on. It’s an identity. Would she tell a male student “Oh, with all this Time’s Up stuff going on, you should totally dress up as a woman for all your auditions, because that’s going to get you in the door. Being a man? That’s not going to help you. Go full Tootsie, change your name and everything.” No, she wouldn’t tell a male student that, because that would be ridiculous.
Not only is proposing “being Latinx” as a costume choice ridiculous, but actually having students enact this solution would be actively harmful to Latinx actors! As we’ve covered before, Latinx make up 18% of the U.S. population and 23% of frequent moviegoers, but only about 3% of speaking characters in films during the last decade.
Now, imagine that paltry 3% of speaking roles being divided even further between Latinx and folks playing dress-up to win a role. Oh wait, we don’t have to imagine that. Or rather, I do have to imagine someone doing that on purpose, but there are plenty of examples where non-Latinx actors get cast as Latinx characters, because they “look” Latinx. Whatever that “look” means to Hollywood.
The Hollywood hierarchy is using racism to pit actors, who are already Hollywood’s most vulnerable population, against each other for work, and this teacher is supporting that system, while at the same time misunderstanding how it works. Because it is actually more likely that a non-Latinx will be cast in a Latinx role than it is that a Latinx will bump a non-Latinx out of a job. And with only 3% of speaking characters being Latinx anyway, it’s not even that many more jobs that a non-Latinx person would be “promised” by acting on her solution anyway.
In another life, I studied drama at NYU and pursued an acting career in New York. I remember going in for an open call audition, and I was the darkest woman in the room for that particular role. Unless there were white Latinas in the room that I wasn’t aware of, I was the only woman of color there. The young woman sitting across from me and I struck up a conversation, and at one point she said, “You’re so lucky.”
I said, “How do you mean?” She said, “Because you have such a unique look! Just look at this room! Everyone else here all looks the same, but you stand out. We’re all a dime a dozen.”
I knew she meant well, and that this was something she genuinely believed. She actually thought I had a better chance at getting this part than the other white women in the room because I was Latina and “stood out” in the crowd. Never mind all the factors contributing to the fact that I was the only person of color in the room auditioning for this role in the first place. Never mind that this room being filled with all white girls was telling in and of itself.
I didn’t mention any of that. Instead, I just said, “We’ll see.” I didn’t get the part.
Another time, I was auditioning for a production of Twelfth Night. I knew I wasn’t enough of an “ingenue” to play Viola (also, my rack is a lot to hide during the “Viola cross-dresses as a man” stuff), but I figured I at least had a good shot at Mariah, the OG sassy best friend. At this particular audition, the director was pairing different combinations of actors to read scenes, and I got paired with this tall, alabaster-skinned model-goddess with long, curly red hair. She was freaking stunning.
But when we read the scene, her Shakespeare…well, let’s just say it needed work. She had zero sense of the language, almost as if she’d never read Shakespeare before, and was auditioning for this play on a lark and because she saw that actors like Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio did Shakespeare, so it must be cool.
The thing that topped it all off was at the end of the scene, where she read the word EXEUNT in the script as if it were a line she was supposed to say. I leaned over and whispered, “That just means you leave.”
After the audition, the director made it a point to stop me afterwards and thank me for my audition, saying “It was so refreshing to hear you read these words. You really have a feel for the language, and hearing you say these lines…it sounded like this is how you naturally speak, the words just rolled off your tongue. Thank you so much for coming in.” I was thrilled! And I figured I was a shoe-in. After all, if my competition was Exeunt Girl, surely there was a part in here for me somewhere right?
Weeks went by, and I knew I didn’t get cast.
Cut to a couple of months later when I went to see the production of Twelfth Night to see how it’d turned out. GUESS WHO WAS CAST AS VIOLA, A.K.A. THE LEAD ROLE IN THE PLAY UPON WHOM EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE ELSE DEPENDS?! That’s right. Alabaster-skinned model-goddess, Exeunt Girl. I’ll say this for her: she looked beautiful in the costumes.
The only thing standing in the way of white actors getting roles are their sheer numbers, and their individual talent levels or appropriateness for a particular role. Trying to turn a revived interest in parity and more inclusive representation into a sign that all these Latinx are getting all the jobs so you need to “look like them” to compete is absurd, ignorant, and racist.
(via Latino Rebels, featured image: United Artists)
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