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Plays Great Ethnics
"I never get the girl. I always get the country."
— Attributed to Anthony Quinn

Do you know Peter Stormare? Yes, you do. He's that Swedish actor who is so versatile that he can - and will - play any nationality, even his own, as long as it's non-Anglo-Saxon and therefore foreign. Fake Nationality is his bread and butter but it's not his defining quality as he could perfectly well play a Swede and still fall under this.

This refers to casting practice, and in the case of Trope Codifier Peter Stormare it has even achieved the status of Casting Gag. It refers to "international" or "ethnic" - at any rate not American or British - actors who are considered to somehow look or be able to act so vaguely but conspicuously foreign that they can be used for any nationality. It's As Long as It Sounds Foreign and Gratuitous Foreign Language applied to casting. However, But Not Too Foreign is often in effect because you'll want someone who speaks good English (even though intentionally accented) and rather panders to viewers' expectations than give an accurate portrayal of a specific ethnic identity which also means that the character's background might be very vague as long as it's foreign. Note that Plays Great Ethnics can have the same Unfortunate Implications as Mistaken Nationality.

In many cases - particularly if the actor is British - these types don't even have to look a certain way. They study the accent and dress in ethnic clothing, and use theatrical makeup. In such cases, the hiring studio will often be criticized for effectively stealing the role from other performers who actually belong to the ethnic group and are offered acting roles less frequently than white actors; others state that this defeats the purpose of acting, where the goal is to portray someone other than yourself.

Often these actors were originally successful abroad before they were discovered by Hollywood. Might result in Classically Trained Extra. Some have achieved Hey, It's That Guy! status. May be played with by having the character himself be of ambiguous heritage or appearance. Sometimes they will make use of Blackface, Yellowface, or Brownface.


Examples:

  • Invoked in The X-Files when one of The Men in Black claims that Saddam Hussein is in fact a character actor with a background in dinner theater who "plays great ethnics".
  • Swedish actor Peter Stormare has played a German "nihilist" in The Big Lebowski, a Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, an Italian mercenary in The Brothers Grimm, a drunken and violent Frenchman in Chocolat - the list goes on.
  • Christopher Walken is of German and Scottish descent, and quite pale-skinned. However, he was born in Queens and sounds like it, so due to the Big Applesauce trope he is often cast as a character of just about every white ethnicity to be found on America's Eastern Seaboard, including a Russian-American steelworker in The Deer Hunter (for which he won an Academy Award) and various Italian-Americans.
  • Mads Mikkelsen is Danish, but only when in Denmark. His perceived indeterminate ethnicity fits his role in Casino Royale as Le Chiffre is stateless according to Ian Fleming and "probably a mixture of Mediterranean with Prussian or Polish strains" and apparently has "some Jewish blood". In the film, MI6 believes him to be Albanian. He plays the Lithuanian Hannibal Lecter in the 2013 NBC series Hannibal, Greek Draco in the 2010 Clash of the Titans film, Sarmatian (Iranian) Tristan in 2004's King Arthur, and a mysterious Viking (that is, maybe a Dane) in Valhalla Rising.
  • Hungarian-born Peter Lorre played Le Chiffre, too. His article in the other wiki has the phrase "frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner" in the first sentence.
  • Born in Casablanca to Spanish parents, Jean Reno is successful in both European cinema and Hollywood, appearing as French, Armenian, Russian, Italian, Polish, German...
  • Yugoslaviannote  actress Mira Furlan plays a Frenchwoman on LOST. Her cute accent was a plus in her role as the Minbari ambassador Delenn.
  • Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini covers all countries where a Romance language is spoken, preferably Mediterranean. And also the Padishah-Emperor.
  • Alfred Molina (Italian and Spanish heritage) does all those plus Russian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and Peruvian - when not portraying Americans or Brits.
  • The Jewish American-British Andrew Garfield is possibly one of these. He's well-known for playing the Brazilian Jew Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, but has also played standard-issue Brits and Americans in movies like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Amazing Spider-Man. Also, he is slated to star in a biopic of the Hungarian Jewish, Spanish war photographer, Robert Capa.
  • Tony Shalhoub was born in Wisconsin but has a Lebanese background. Hollywood doesn't need too many Lebanese characters so why not branch out to Italian characters when you have the looks? Often, his characters' ethnic backgrounds are intentionally vague - but definitely somewhat foreign (lampshaded in Galaxy Quest). Adrian Monk is of Welsh ancestry, in case you wondered. For a more complete breakdown of Shalhoub's roles see Hey, It's That Guy!.
  • Italian-American John Turturro is probably more well known for his various portrayals of Hispanics (The Big Lebowski, Collateral Damage, Mr. Deeds), and Jews(Barton Fink, Quiz Show, Miller's Crossing) than when he actually plays Italians (mostly in Spike Lee movies).
  • Egyptian Omar Sharif is a classic example. He is so well established as an international actor that nobody questions his ability to play practically any nationality. His most famous role is in Doctor Zhivago as the titular Russian.
  • Sudanese-English actor Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi (better known as Alexander Siddig) is a preferred choice for characters from anywhere in the Arabic world, especially if you don't want a terrorist. He also played the Carthaginian Hannibal.
  • Rade Serbedzija, the actor who played Boris the Blade in Snatch, is Croatian, but he's the go-to guy for characters from anywhere in Eastern Europe, whether they're evil or not.
  • Titos Vandis, Greek, who played (among others) three unrelated characters of varying ethnicities on Barney Miller, none of whom were Greek; there was a Puerto Rican, a Gypsy, and another one.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!-guy Udo Kier is from Germany. Based on Hollywood's use of him, you'd think his passport states "Evil Foreigner" as his nationality.
  • Back in the days when Yellow Face was still considered apropos, Henry Silva, a man of Spanish and Italian descent whose ethnicity, he jokes, had been "assumed to be everything" made a career playing Yellow Peril characters in movies like The Manchurian Candidate and whatever other ethnic heavy the studios wanted him to.
  • London-born actor Ritchie Coster (whose ethnic origins are Dutch) is dark haired, dark eyed, and has spent his career playing non-English characters of various types. He was The Chechen (a Chechen, naturally) in The Dark Knight, Mister Zoric (a Hungarian) in Let Me In, Simon Matic (a Bulgarian) in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Joey Sadano (an Italian) in American Gangster, Jorgan Stern (a Pole) in Law & Order, Fazal (a Saudi Arabian) in Traffic, Nicolai Trepov (a Russian) in Hack, and the list goes on and on and on. One can count the number of times he's played English characters on both hands.
  • Indian-born American actor Erick Avari has made a career out of this: he's played British characters, Arab characters (even an alien arab in the original Stargate movie and the follow-up TV show), Egyptians, Russians, Spaniards, and so on. He's even occasionally played the odd American here or there. The Other Wiki, in point of fact, says that he's "portrayed representatives of more than 24 different nationalities".
  • Cliff Curtis, a Maori from New Zealand, has played characters who are Latin American from multiple countries, Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Iraqi, Spanish and Chechen in addition to Maori.
  • Swedish-born actress Lena Olin has played a Frenchwoman in Chocolat (where, funnily enough, she's married to Peter Stormare's character) and Casanova, a German in The Reader, an Egyptian in Queen of the Damned, a Czech woman in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Russians in Alias and Romeo Is Bleeding
  • Anthony Quinn played Greeks, Portuguese, Arabs, Ukranians, Jews, Englishmen, Italians, Latin Americans, Eskimos, and just about everything else you could possibly think of. In reality, he was a Mexican with significant Irish ancestry (hence the name).
  • Over his long and illustrious career, the Welsh Anthony Hopkins has portrayed Brits, Spaniards, New Zealanders, Americans, Greeks, Germans, and even a black guy... twice.
  • Taika Waititi is Maori, but has played Indians, Romany, Vietnamese, and Inuit.
  • Naveen Andrews is mostly known for playing an Iraqi in LOST and an unspecific-Middle Eastern president in 24. Before, he did mostly his actual Indian ethnicity (such as The English Patient), and also an African in Mighty Joe Young.
  • Christopher Lee, though British-born, has played all sorts of foreigners (including Arabs and Chinese, with the possible zenith being Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan). His facility with languages and part-Italian ancestry may be a factor.
  • Orson Welles, an American of Scots-Irish ancestry, played a wide variety of Americans, Brits, Italians, Frenchmen, Slavs, Africans, and Hebrews over his life. This was aided by the fact that he absolutely loved using makeup.
  • Pretty common on Saturday Night Live, due to the show's extremely limited pool of talent and relative homogeneity. A few examples:
    • Fred Armisen plays characters of nearly every race on Saturday Night Live, most notably Barack Obama. He's half Venezuelan, one-quarter German, and one-quarter Japanese. A Parks and Recreation episode in which he played a Venezuelan delegate is probably the closest he's ever been to playing his real nationality.
    • Molly Shannon (Irish-American) portrayed celebrities as diverse as Anna Nicole Smith (Scots-Irish/"Anglo"-American), Monica Lewinsky (Ashkenazi Jewish), and Michelle Kwan (Chinese-American).
    • Maya Rudolph plays just about any race on Saturday Night Live.
  • Mark Dacascos. His ancestry is very varied - Filipino, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Irish - and apart from all kinds of Asian characters he's also played a Magical Native American.
  • Lou Diamond Philips is of Scots-Irish, Cherokee, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian descent. As you might expect, he plays characters from a variety of races, though most often Latinos.
  • German/Austrian actor Moritz Bleibtreu, who played e.g. Abdul from Knockin' on Heaven's Door and Tarek from The Experiment.
  • In Soviet cinema, actors hailing from the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were a favourite choice for playing Western foreigners of any type. For example, Donatas Banionis has played Americans, Englishmen, Swedes, Germans, and Italians, to name just a few.
    • Similarly, Central Asians, especially Kazakhs, would often play native Siberians.
  • Sibel Kekilli is a German-born actress of Turkish heritage who has played Turks, Italians, Germans, and the Non-Specifically Foreign Shae on Game of Thrones.
  • Yul Brynner (of Swiss, Russian and Siberian ancestry) played King Mongkut of Siam, Pharaoh Ramses of Egypt, a Russian, a Cajun, a Native American chief, a Cossack, a Mexican, and many other "ethnic" roles.
  • French-Armenian Simon Abkarian has played Arabs, Greeks, Israeli, Afghani, Iranians and Gypsies.
  • Ben Kingsley was born in England of an English mother and Indian father. His roles have included several Jews (of various nationalities) as well as many other Middle Eastern characters, Indians (one of which was his breakout role and won him an Oscar), Americans, Russians, Italians, at least one Frenchman (Georges Méliès), a Maori, and an Egyptian (Potiphar). In Iron Man 3, he plays a Middle Eastern terrorist who's really a British actor who looks foreign enough to pretend to be a Terrorist, lampshading this trope.
  • John Rhys-Davies and Catherine Zeta-Jones are both Welsh, but because of their coloring they often get cast as Hispanic or Middle Eastern characters.
  • African-American actress Juanita Hall played Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in the 1958 film of South Pacific and Madame Liang in Flower Drum Song on stage and screen.
  • Omid Djalili (Iranian, but emigrated to Britain as a child) is usually roped in on British TV to play anyone vaguely Middle-Easten, North African or even south European- he played a Greek cabbie in My Family and Other Animals in 2009. He's sneaked into a number of seriously big hollywood films as a result of this including The Mummy 1999 and The World Is Not Enough.
  • Mark Strong has Austrian-Italian heritage, lending him to roles from the Med.
  • Ian Mc Shane has a rather swarthy olive-complexion meaning he doesn't look out of place as more Mediterranean roles and he can also do a fine Russian accent such as in The West Wing and as Mr Bobinsky.
  • Mila Kunis, the Jewish Ukrainian who is apparently neither Ukrainian- nor Jewish-looking enough to get cast as one. She was cast as Mexican, instead. Lampshaded a few times in films she's done when Non-Specifically Foreign whilst she can play any sort of American you like on TV.
  • The only films in which Ricardo Montalban played his actual nationality are the dozen he made in his native Mexico while caring for his sick mother after establishing a career playing generic 'Latin' characters on Broadway. Montalban frequently complained that Hollywood would cast him as any nationality other than Mexican. Consider his best-known roles: Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek and the presumably supernatural Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island. The most extreme case, however, was in his guest roles on Hawaii Five-O where he portrayed an Italian race car driver and a Japanese businessman in two separate episodes (thankfully not in the same season).
  • If you have watched a crime drama since the mid-noughties, chance is that you have met Ivo Nandi at some point, playing an Italian, French, Russian or any kind of Hispanic character. The only thing the roles have in common is that they are foreign-accented and usually thugs.
  • Warner Oland played a number of East Asian characters by wearing Yellowface including Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan.
  • Sessue Hayakawa, a prominent Japanese-American actor from the early 20th century, was cast to play several different ethnicities.
  • Israeli Oded Fehr played not only Mossad agents and Arabs of mysterious or outright malicious disposition, but also a Frenchman, a Greek and a Brazilian mercenary.
  • Jewish Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre seldom ever played an actual Austro-Hungarian or Jewish character during the height of his career. He was usually cast as ambiguously foreign. One of his first starring roles was as a Japanese Charlie Chan rip-off named Mr. Moto.
  • Arnold Vosloo is a South African actor best known for playing Arabs (and Ancient Egyptian pharaohs.)
  • Hungarian (or Romanian - his birthplace used to be part of Hungary, but is now part of Romania) actor Sandor Tecsy was best known for playing Russian or Albanian characters.
  • French actor Louis Jourdan has played Spaniards and other Latin lovers. He's also played the Romanian Count Dracula as well as an exiled Saudi Prince in Octopussy. He's proven that he can do American accents that fool even the most American of Americans on a 1950s episode of What's My Line?.
  • Rosario Dawson is mixed race and so she can play a variety of races in films. She passed herself off as Middle Eastern in Alexander and Greek in the Percy Jackson film.
  • Jenette Goldstein is Jewish-American but has been able to pass herself off as numerous different nationalities - her IMDB page even describing her as "a true chameleon". Her most famous role has her playing a Mexican and she played another hispanic in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. She also played Irish in Titanic and The Preisdio, a caucasion blonde in Near Dark and she finally got be Jewish in Lethal Weapon 2.

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