Gary Sinyor
Film and TV Writer/Director

Being flexible is part of the creative process

Dame Maureen Lipman
Dame Maureen Lipman

It’s interesting that the debate about casting Jewish people in Jewish roles has come from actors. Maureen Lipman has suffered a Twitter pile on for saying she disagreed with the casting Helen Mirren as Golda Meir. What she actually said was “the Jewishness of the character is so integral. I’m sure she (Mirren) will be marvellous”.

This then became in the Daily Mail Twitter feed. Jewish Actress Maureen Lipman blasts Dame Helen Mirren. Blasts. Blasts??? Yes Blasts. And this tweet from the Daily Mail was re-tweeted by the Uber Editor of the JC, Stephen Pollard.

And yet where did this quote originate? In the very same Jewish Chronicle in an article about the ongoing debate about Jew-Face. What a loathsome expression that is. Have a look at Mark Frankel the star of Leon the Pig Farmer. Look at Gal Gadot. Now look at Philip Green. And tell me what is a Jew-Face?

Have a look at Isla Fisher who converted to Judaism.

If someone has had a nose job are they still a Jew Face?

Do you know who was voted the sexist man alive recently? Paul Rudd. A Jew Face.

People who use the phrase are  clearly referencing a particular type of Jewish face. Perhaps a particular type of body image? A Woody Allen-esque shlub. Ashkenazi? Certainly.  Short? Balding? Hook nose?  Even J K Rowling was dragged into this because of the goblins in Harry Potter because Jon Stewart made a joke in a podcast. Picked up, taken out of context, and she too is accused of antisemitism.

The Goblins of Harry Potter look Jewish do they? We’re not talking about Sacha Baron Cohen here are we?

Perhaps the goblins look a bit like Doron the lead in Fauda then? Is he not short, balding and with a big hooter? No we’re not talking about that Jew because he’s an Israeli Jew and he plays a hunky hard hitting no-holds-barred soldier. What about Michael Aloni the charismatic and gorgeous star of Shtisel? Do the goblins look like him?

The JF phrase is so offensive, so trite, that I would never use it. I could happily talk to an agent about Blackface because the two words do the talking. Black and face. Jew and face? Incomprehensible. More likely, offensive.

I’m currently casting series 2 of Hapless. Where there are Jewish characters, I think hard about who should play them. But it’s not based purely on religion. It’s based PARTLY on religion. Religion, upbringing, understanding of the character, nuance, comedic ability all have their place. Anyone who brings the part to life and takes it from the written word into a performance. Yes, I sometimes search Spotlight with specific filters looking for women who can speak Hebrew because with some characters that feels right. Especially if I’m casting an Orthodox Jewish role. At other times, I’ll search for Middle Eastern because I don’t want every Jewish person in the series to be Ashkenazi. If I’m trying to cast an Asian woman I turn on the Asian woman filter. I find that to represent a multi-cultural society I look at BAME actors. Equally, sometimes I know I have written specifically for a white non-Jewish male and there is zero chance of me casting someone Jewish in that part.

Directors and producers take responsibility for the casting of roles and they decide that the best person to play a role, given a host of variances, such as commercial value, talent and the ability to portray the role in the best possible way. That is their call. The decision is still only partly the actor’s. They have the chance to accept or turn down a part. But they can’t turn it down if it’s not offered to them. I have a part in series 2 of Hapless of a blind woman. I tried, I really tried,  to cast an actual blind actress. But I couldn’t find one that I thought would do justice to the part. So then I have a choice: to forget about the episode or to cast a sighted actress to play a blind woman. I have cast a sighted actress. I take responsibility for that decision.

The reality in my career has been this. There are no rules. Rules hamper creativity.  Creative people don’t follow rules. That’s why they are creative. They follow instincts. They change their minds. There are certain characters in Leon the Pig Farmer that had to be Jewish. Leon and his parents and his brothers. That was never a question in my head just as much as it was obvious that the Pig Farmers had to be non-Jewish. For those who say it’s ALL about the acting, imagine if Brian Glover had played the father in Leon and Janet Suzman his non-Jewish Yorkshire “mother”. There isn’t a writer director or producer on the planet who would have called that good casting. Clearly clearly clearly, looks count. If you’re an actor and you don’t think looks count, get a different job.

When it works, when De Niro put on weight to play an out of shape boxer in Raging Bull, fat blokes don’t complain. On the contrary, the actor’s desire to change their image is lauded. We love their commitment. And acting genius isn’t to be taken lightly.  In My Left Foot Daniel Day Lewis  portrayed a man with cerebral palsy which not only earned him an Oscar but portrayed total joy in a character that had audiences cheering. I literally leapt out of my seat when he saved a football with his head.  John Hurt’s breathtakingly sensitive portrayal of The Elephant Man must have involved hours and hours of make-up each day. Would you rather the Elephant Man was made as a film or not, because that is what it boils down to. It’s perfectly feasible that some creatives in the industry may say “you couldn’t do that today”. But don’t put all of us in the same box.  I for one would be in line to watch both films if they were made anew with the same cast and story. I saw The Irishman in which the actors were made to look younger with CGI. If it had been me, I’d have made the film with younger actors. But I’m not Scorsese and his film won Best Picture at the Oscars.

The more society sets rules the less interesting creatives get.

So what do we have here?  Given that Miriam Margolyes signed an open letter with Maureen Lipman in 2019 criticizing the casting of non-Jews as Jews and came in for not a peep of criticism, why is Maureen’s opinion so wrong that the Editor-in-Chief of the JC – the very organisation which started the ball rolling with its original article  – has gone on Twitter in  to say that he disagrees with her. Not that he disagrees with Sarah Silverman who said the same thing and was quoted in the same article.  Not that he disagrees with David Baddiel who also condemned a Jew Face and only this week tweeted about Bond baddies looking like Jews. Which is of course rubbish in the context of his definition of Jew Looking (balding, short, hook nosed? Try and find one),  but perfectly reasonable if you take on board my definition of Jew Looking which would be wide enough to incorporate Sean Connery.

What we have is hypocrisy of the highest order. Where is the support from Baddiel and co. for Maureen Lipman? Nowhere. Have a guess at why? Could it be that Maureen Lipman is a supporter of the Jewish State in principle? Damn right. The Twitter pile on is full of people using the word Zionist to describe her. So our left-of-centre intellectuals are nowhere to be seen because…because…well because they’re conflicted. They agree with what she said, but don’t want to be seen to agreeing. Ah yes conflicted. I remember that word. Nuance. I remember that one too. They’re the words that go by the way side when our papers and social media platforms thrive on aggression. This is what happens when attention-grabbing out-of-context polemic becomes the overriding reference point for discussion of complex issues.

Maureen Lipman simply didn’t say enough, wasn’t given the chance to say enough, to justify the storm that is being created. She did say she thought Mirren would be marvellous as Golda Meir. I’ll go further. I have no doubt she’ll be brilliant and that the film will be brilliant too.  And that is what matters.



About the Author
Gary Sinyor is a multi award-winning writer director and producer of Films and TV based in the UK.
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