Ability Over Appearance
aka: Race Blind Casting
Casting agents usually have a very specific appearance in mind when casting actors to play their characters. When holding auditions there will usually be descriptions noting what the character should look like, for example blonde hair, frail frame, not too tall etc. This is also the case when casting actors in adaptations of books and video games.
But sometimes, an actor who is completely different from the physical description shows up for the audition and nails the role. The casting directors throw the description out the window and hire this actor because of their performance.
This may lead to tropes such as Race Lift
, Adaptational Attractiveness
, Hollywood Homely
, and Hollywood Pudgy
. In rare cases, can even trump a character's original gender
. Used to be used frequently as a justification for Blackface
Compare Colorblind Casting
for when appearance isn't a factor in casting at all.
Note that it isn't an example of the trope if the actor works hard to resemble the physical description of the character
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Real Life Examples:
- The character of Lisa in Saved by the Bell was written as a Jewish princess with the auditions calling for white females only. Lark Voorhees (African-American) got the part based on the strength of her audition.
- Another example is that Mr. Belding was originally conceived as being black and over 50yrs old. Dennis Haskins won the part despite being neither.
- Producers were reluctant to cast Amber Benson as Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer because they wanted someone with the same slender build as Alyson Hannigan. Specifically, they needed someone to take Willow's place as The Woobie, since Willow was becoming too powerful to convincingly put in any real danger. However, Benson quickly won them over with her ability to play awkward and vulnerable.
- When casting Julia in Party of Five producers wanted a relatively young actress (the character was 15 at the time) but ended up casting the 19-year-old Neve Campbell due to her strong attitude during the audition.
- Shelly of Northern Exposure was written to be Native-American but Caucasian Cynthia Geary ended up getting the part.
- Given the time-period and the fact that Guinevere means "white" or "fair one", there were some raised eyebrows over mixed-race Angel Coulby getting the part of the future queen on Merlin. The producers said that they had looked at hundreds of potential Guineveres, but Angel Coulby was the only one that could nail the quirky, clumsy servant girl, but also "bring the queen" when the occasion called for it.
- Series author Elizabeth George was openly displeased about the casting choice for Barbara Havers of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries - The BBC cast the lovely Sharon Small in the role, whereas Barbara is distinctly unattractive. Then George saw Small's performance in the pilot, in which Sharon absolutely nailed Barbara Havers in all her awkward, bitter, broken glory, and changed her mind. To this day Small's performance is lauded as one of the best aspects of the series.
- Happened twice in Criminal Minds. Garcia was originally written as a middle-aged Mexican man, but when the white, blonde and very female Kirsten Vangsness was introduced to the producers they had to have her and changed the part. (Her last name was later explained as coming from a stepfather.) Aaron Hotchner was supposed to be a blonde Mormon from Utah, but the part eventually went to the dark-haired Virginian Thomas Gibson.
- Steven Moffat was adamant that he'd had enough of young Doctors in Doctor Who, and was going to cast an actor who was at least middle-aged. And then the 26-years-old-but-still-looks-like-he-should-be-in-school Matt Smith auditioned, and that was that.
- The creators of Elementary have said the part of Joan Watson was race-neutral, and it went to Lucy Liu because she was the best woman for the part. Which makes the claims about the decision stemming from a desire to pander to minorities even more ridiculous.
- Grey's Anatomy has always been known for Colorblind Casting (leading to one of the most diverse casts on television,) but that doesn't mean that they didn't have a general idea of who to cast. Miranda Bailey (nIcknamed "The Nazi"!) was intended to be a blond, white woman until Chandra Wilson got a hold of the part.
- Kaylee from Firefly was originally intended to be Asian, but Jewel Staite's audition impressed Joss Whedon enough that he decided to give her the part anyway. This did have the awkward side effect of leaving no major characters of Asian descent in a universe heavily influenced by Chinese culture, however.
- In The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, originally the parts of Maddie and London were inverted, with the blond Ashley Tisdale playing the obvious Paris Hilton expy London Tipton, and Brenda Song playing Maddie. However, when it was revealed that Brenda Song has a natural affinity for playing The Ditz, the roles were reversed.
- They had fun with this in one episode during an alternate universe where Maddie and London's roles were reversed.
- Chase was originally intended to be British, but Jesse Spencer gave such a brilliant audition that he was made Australian instead.
- Director Bryan Singer put a ban on non-American actors for the title role after hearing so many badly-done Fake American accents in auditions. So how did Hugh Laurie get the role? His flawless Boston accent convinced Singer that he must be American.
- When Pauline McLynn first auditioned for Mrs. Doyle on Father Ted, she was rejected for being too young and pretty (McLynn was in her early thirties; Mrs. Doyle was a middle-aged widow). She supposedly showed up for another audition with a bad cold - and got the part.
- Nickelodeon had a show planned in the mid-1990s to be titled "The Mystery Files of Shelby Wink" about a teenage white girl who solves crimes, but Asian American Irene Ng impressed them so much with her audition that they re-named the show "...Shelby Woo" and altered the premise accordingly.
- Fonzie of Happy Days was originally envisioned as a tall Italian man, based on a friend of the shows creator. While he is of Italian descent at 5'8 Henry Winkler is notably much shorter than series lead Ron Howard, but he performed the role so flawlessly they knew they had to have him.
- LOST took this trope to its logical extent, by not only amending characters to get the best actors on the show, but flat-out creating new ones for the same reason. Sun-Hwa Kwon, for instance, was written for Yunjin Kim after her impressive audition as Kate.
- Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation was originally conceived as a Latina character, with Marina Sirtis cast in the role. When Denise Crosby was cast, the character's name was changed to fit the actress' appearance.
- Enid Nightshade of The Worst Witch is a Huge Schoolgirl with dark blonde hair. The TV series cast Jessica Fox who is petite and brunette, but captures Enid's mischievous nature and spunk perfectly.
- The creators of Red Dwarf originally imagined Lister as 41 years old and white: in their words, like an "English version of Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim on Taxi." When they sent the script to Craig Charles (23 years old at the time and mixed-race), asking if he thought the part of the Cat was racist, he said it wasn't and also asked to audition for Lister. He got the part.
- Tess from Beauty and the Beast was initially written as a firey Irish-American cop, but Nina Lisandrello's performance impressed the producers enough that she was changed to a Latina instead.
- Joss Whedon initially conceived Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a white woman named "Althea Rice", but the role was changed after going to Chinese-American actress Ming-Na Wen.
- The casting directors for The Brady Bunch wanted three brown-haired boys to play Mike Brady's sons, but chose the red-haired Mike Lookinland to play Bobby after being impressed by his audition. For the first few years of the series, Mike had his hair dyed dark brown to compensate.
- Slade Wilson is American in the original DC comics. However, for Arrow, Manu Bennet so impressed the creators that the character was changed to be an Awesome Aussie.
- The TV adaptation of The Dresden Files had a Hispanic actress playing the part of Lt. Murphy, who's blonde in the books, and a blonde actress playing the part of Susan Rodriguez. The Powers That Be said that they were originally brought in for the roles they more resembled but were much better at each other's roles and so the two characters get a Race Lift. Karrin Murphy becomes Connie Murphy, presumably short for Consuela. Susan... just doesn't look much like a Rodriguez.
- The casters for Hustle had intended for Michael Stone to be white, like the rest of the main cast, but Adrian Lester's preformance impressed them.
- While the prototype of a modern pro wrestler is still that of a huge guy with bulky muscles, quite a few who fail the "eye test" have been wildly successful thanks to their tremendous abilities in the ring and on the mic.
- CM Punk is relatively short, not particularly bulky, and covered in tattoos yet still set the record for the longest WWE title reign of the past 25 years.
- Shawn Michaels had a Hall of Fame career despite being a full head shorter than most of his opponents thanks to his tremendous ability in all aspects of being a great wrestler.
- The 5'4, 175lb Rey Mysterio has held multiple titles in his career and is probably the most famous luchador-style wrestler in America.
- One important thing to remember is that this “eye test” is really only enforced by a select few people at the top of the chain: namely Vince McMahon, who seems to have a definite fascination with big, muscular guys. Vince is believed to be the reason “body guys” such as Ultimate Warrior are pushed far beyond their skill set, and why Hulk Hogan wasn't allowed to do any of the moves that made him a success in Japan and was forced to wrestle a more generic “big man” wrestling style. With the exception of Shawn Michaels, most of the wrestlers who have achieved any kind of lasting success in WWE did so after achieving success elsewhere and generating enough Popularity Power that it would be downright impossible for Vince to ignore them, such as WCW (Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio) or on the independent circuit (CM Punk, Daniel Bryan.) Notice that guys that Vince is trying to make stars himself are still overwhelmingly big guys (John Cena, Sheamus, Ryback.)
- Despite fears that Triple H (who is married to Vince's daughter and, by all appearances, heir to the WWE empire,) would be just as bad about the “big guys and eye-candy Divas” problem, seeming to share Vince's bodybuilding fascination (to the point where Stephanie got him framed photos of all Mr. Olympia winners for Christmas,) he definitely seems to be adhering to this trope even more. Two of his first major acquisitions were Sin Cara (a luchador, who are traditionally more slender guys) and Brawn Hilda Kia Stevens (also known as Amazing/Awesome Kong.)
- Patrick Stewart, Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins have all played Othello, the Moor of Venice. Gambon and Hopkins played the role in blackface. Hopkins played Othello in 1965, when blacking-up was still acceptable; Gambon played Othello in 1990, and his blacking-up was a delibrate artistic choice. In Stewart's case, the entire play was cross-cast (Othello's white, everyone else's black), making an interesting social experiment.
- Although Hamlet is a young college student, his constant change of emotion makes him one of the most challenging roles an actor can play. Because of this, he is almost always played by a much older, more experienced actor.
- Jafar of Aladdin is, in animation, a Lean and Mean villain. He is voiced by Jonathan Freeman, who is slightly chubby but got so much into the spirit of the character that his expressions and gestures were worked into the animated role. When the work came to live theater, they just cast Freeman in the part of Jafar as is.
- Similar to the Hamlet example, a lot of Opera roles are usually subject to this, most notably Madame Butterfly (supposedly 15-17 but with a voice most singers don't perfect until at least 30). Salome is another such role.
- There is a film version of Wagner's Die Walkure where a black woman and white man are cast as twin siblings. Their voices work for the roles, though, so no one cares.
- Similarly, Wagner's tenor roles are mostly supposed to be teenage boys (or at least early twenties), but most men can't sing these demanding roles until they're in their forties.
- The 2008 concert performance of the musical Chess had Mexican-American David Bedella performing the role of a Russian, Molokov.
- Community and school theaters as a rule tend to do this, since good actors (or actors, period) are often quite limited.
- When doing the casting for the role of Hades, the villain of Hercules, Disney wanted someone who was similar to Jafar, who was a villain with a deep voice and spoke with a sophisticated tone. When James Woods auditioned, the character was changed completely solely because James Woods was so good at the role. He even played the role in the TV series, Kingdom Hearts, and is on record as saying it's a role he will always play when given the chance.
- When holding cheerleader auditions in Bring It On the cheerleading squad wants a girl who fits the typical cheerleader image. When tomboy Missy gives the best tryout they are reluctant to let her on the squad but she gets on anyway.
- Which, technically, she does; thin, atheletic, hot. It was only her attitude and non-girly that turned them off.
- Played depressingly straight in both the film and comic of 300 involving the deformed Spartan that is rejected by Leonidas: while the Spartan king admires his fierce loyalty despite being cast aside as an infant, and admits he's got a strong arm, his inability to fit properly into a Phalanx line makes him a liability to the necessary tactics. If only he was facially malformed but could stand up straight...
- Of course Leonidas' reason for rejecting him — the fact that he can't properly hold a shield to protect the man to his left — doesn't really ring true since the Spartan theory of war seems to be to break formation immediately after initial contact with the enemy and have everybody fight man-to-man. Or they could have simply put him on the far left of the front line where his inability to properly lift a shield wouldn't have been a problem.
- A strange case with Bridget in 8 Simple Rules when she ends up getting the part of Anne Frank in the school play despite looking nothing like her. She reads the book and ends up giving a fantastic performance.
- John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars has the titular agent represent a young starlet, Michelle Beck, who wants the lead in a Holocaust drama. Despite his serious reluctance to help get her the role, and with a little help from a space alien, Michelle ends up giving an Oscar-worthy performance that silences even her harshest critics:
I set down my own fork and massaged the bridge of my nose. "Michelle," I said. "if you had brown hair, you still wouldn't look a 40-year-old Eastern European Jew. You'd look like a 25-year-old Californian Aryan with hair dyed brown. Look at yourself, Michelle. You're blonde. Naturally. You have Newman Blue eyes. And you have a body shape that wasn't even invented until the 1980s."