'Snow White' Casting: Should Dwarfs Play Dwarfs?

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Actors with dwarfism, along with an advocacy organization for little people, are protesting the new film “Snow White and the Huntsman” for using normal-height actors instead of employing dwarfs for several roles.

In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert noted that “The magic of CGI has provided the faces of familiar British actors such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. While this technique is effective, it nevertheless deprives eight working (real) dwarves with jobs, which isn’t really fair.”

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There is even a protest march planned against Universal Pictures.

“Rather than hiring little people to act out the roles of the dwarves, the film’s producers cast normal-sized actors and either digitally shrunk their bodies or transplanted their faces onto the bodies of little people…. Matt McCarthy, a 4’1” self-described ‘midget,’ announced the protest to Universal Chairman Adam Fogelson with an angry letter…. McCarthy said that casting tall actors as the dwarves ‘is the equivalent of Universal casting a white actor to play a role written for an African-American person and digitally changing the color of their skin.’”

A representative with the organization Little People of America agreed, pointing out that the movie industry should be actively casting little people: “This means both casting people with dwarfism as characters that were specifically written to be played by little people, and other roles that would be open to people of short stature.”

Snow White and the Huntsman was hardly the first to do this. The stars who played short-statured Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were not little people, yet were cast in leading roles. (Though the Harry Potter series did use dwarf actors for some roles.)

Should Tall Actors Play Dwarves?

While it’s true that actors with dwarfism have difficulty getting employment in TV and film roles, does this mean that tall (or able-bodied) actors should not play short (or disabled) roles? Where do we draw the line? Should Gary Sinise not have portrayed amputee Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump”? Sinise’s legs were digitally removed with special effects, an illusion so convincing that some audiences thought the actor actually had no legs.

Should film studios be required (or pressured) to cast disabled actors for roles as disabled characters? There are many excellent little people actors, but what if the best person for the role is a tall actor? (Of course there’s a vicious circle involved: such actors are limited in the types of roles they can play, which limits the amount of work and acting experience they have, which in turn limits the roles they will be offered.)

Then there was the case earlier this year of actor Cleo Berry, whose image appeared in New York City advertisements warn of the dangers of diabetes — as an amputee. He had posed for a stock image photographer, and the ad agency had airbrushed out one of his legs.

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According to an article in The New York Times, “Mr. Berry, 27, said he supported the city’s efforts to educate people about the dangers of diabetes, but he said he disagreed with the use of a manipulated image of an able-bodied person, instead of an image of a real victim of the disease.” Many public health advertisements do use real victims of diseases—to discourage smoking, for example. This controversy has echoes of the truth-in-image campaigns against airbrushed and digitally altered fashion photographs, where images are being criticized for not reflecting literal reality.

Of course photographers and filmmakers have no legal or ethical obligation to use one actor over another, but little people’s concerns over the casting of dwarfs are understandable. Ideally, Hollywood should expand the breadth of roles offered to little people, far beyond dwarves, trolls, and leprechauns. The 2003 film “The Station Agent”(starring Emmy-winning “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage), is a perfect example: a film that cast a dwarf as leading man, without relevance to his height.