“Olympus Has Fallen” is a classic Hollywood action film featuring an all-star cast – including Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Basset, Ashley Judd and Dylan McDermott – thrust into a tension-filled situation when the White House is suddenly attacked by armed terrorists. When the life of the president of the United States is subsequently at stake, all attention is on the government with Vice President Charlie Rodriguez at the helm.
That’s right: there’s a Latino in this fictional White House, but the man playing him is Caucasian actor Phil Austin.
“I read for several different parts in the film and then my agent called to tell me I had been cast for the vice president role,” Austin told NBC Latino of his supporting role. “I never read for it and I did wonder if they would change the character’s name. I’m straight up Caucasian and there was no attempt to play any sort of ethnic spin. The script did say Charlie or Charles Rodriguez, but the fact I wasn’t Hispanic was never discussed or brought up on set.”
“We do not have a comment at this time,” said a representative from “Olympus Has Fallen” domestic distributor Film District.
Austin says that in his experience, scripts with specific characters – say, a middle-aged Asian woman or blonde Caucasian male in his 30’s – often end up being cast entirely differently.
“It’s very common that actors will get cast for something that wasn’t initially in the script breakdown. It happens all the time,” says Austin, who ventured into acting in 2006 after a career in commercial real estate (“the kids were getting older and I told my wife I wanted to start something different,” he explains).
As Austin explains it, casting directors often will make decisions based on the chemistry between actors, rather than “the initial thoughts of the screen play.”
“I really don’t think it’s a slight against one ethnicity over another,” says Austin, whose on-screen credits include television shows like “Scandal” and “Breakout Kings,” as well as films like “The Host.”
The phenomena of non-Latino actors cast as Latinos is nothing new in Hollywood, says Charles Ramírez Berg, a Latino film and media studies professor at the University of Texas-Austin. In fact, it’s a practice that dates back to the production of the entertainment industry’s oldest films – and one that’s still very prominent today in films like “Olympus Has Fallen.”
“Think about how white actors would use blackface to play African-Americans, like in the 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation” and more recently, how Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez in ‘Argo,’” says Ramírez Berg. “Hollywood has always used Caucasian actors to play ethnic characters. On the other hand, the definition of acting is playing someone you’re not. Anthony Quinn wouldn’t have been a star if he had been restricted to Latin roles, which during his time were nearly non-existent.”
Because there are a limited number of roles featuring Hispanic characters in film and television available to Latin actors, the blow delivered by a Caucasian actor playing a character such as Charles Rodriguez in “Olympus Has Fallen” cannot be underestimated, says Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA).
“Hollywood has long made a practice of ignoring our image and presence,” says Sanchez, whose post on the topic on the NHFA Facebook page quickly sparked a conversation on identity, race and film. “But fictional diversity in films by creating an illusion that Latinos are included – when they are actually absent – is something we cannot accept.”
According to a recent Nielsen report, Latino moviegoers accounted for 25 percent of all movies seen in 2012, although they are just 18 percent of the U.S. movie going population. Hispanics also watch more movies than any other demographic group: statistics, says Sanchez, which should make the Hollywood movie industry pay more attention to the way Latinos are portrayed in film.
Adding further offense to the situation says Sanchez, is the fact that “Olympus Has Fallen” was filmed under the supervision of African-American director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day).
“I find it difficult to see how an African-American director could be so insensitive about portrayal,” says Sanchez. “How could he think this type of casting decision was anything less than unacceptable?”
The casting of Austin in the role of a Latino character underscores the need for more Latinos in Hollywood’s most prominent positions, says Ramírez Berg: think directors, executive producers, writers, casting directors and high-profile actors.
“Someone like Antoine was probably concerned with protecting the presentation of African-American actors in ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ because his interests lie with that group,” says Ramírez Berg. “And there’s nothing wrong like that. But it would seem like there weren’t any Latinos associated with this film in a position to do that with this character and protect the interests of Hispanic audiences.”
“Creating a Latino character in this type of high-profile film was one step – but we’re at a multicultural stage where casting does matter.”