Watching "Lost" last night I got to thinking about the actor who plays Sayid--Naveen Andrews. As we know, Sayid is supposed to be Iraqi, though Andrews is a British actor of Indian (curry, not casinos) background. This sort of thing--actors playing characters of different races or ethnicities--isn't uncommon. Robert De Niro, an Irish-Italian-American, played Jewish characters, such as Ace Rothstein in "Casino". Laurence Olivier, a British actor, played the Mahdi of Sudan in "Khartoum". John Wayne, who certainly isn't Mongolian, played Genghis Khan in "The Conqueror". Yet, only the last example--Wayne's--resulted in a controversial box office mess. And a stink was made when Saturday Night Live decided to use Fred Arminsen to play Barack Obama--Arminsen is a mix of white and Hispanic and Asian background, and the only other regular black castmember on SNL is Keenan Thompson, who is far too heavyset to play a convincing Obama. (I'd argue it's far more racist to force Thompson to play Obama, since it implies that all blacks could play each other, when clearly Arminsen can pull off the impression by simply adding fake hair. In any case, the SNL controversy seems to have died down, basically because the impression Arminsen does is fairly accurate and doesn't involve any racial stereotyping as say, an impression of Tracy Morgan would).
There seems to be an easy guide for which actors can portray characters of other races:
1) Italians and Jews can play Italians and Jews, or Hispanics
2) Hispanics can only play Hispanics, though sometimes Asians
3) Asians are screwed. They can only play Asians.
4) Blacks can play blacks, and can also play whites but there's no reason they'd want to.
5) Whites can play blacks, but only if they're portraying Obama. Or can do a really good Bill Cosby.
6) Anyone from Egypt to Bangladesh can play each other.
7) Sean Connery can only play people with Scottish accents. Even his Irish characters have to have Scottish accents.
8) Robert Redford can never play an Italian. I mean seriously!
9) Eskimos can get a free pass to play anyone.