NEWS - PRI: The Fight to Belong in Hollywood
Reported by NCZ on Mon Nov 20 2017

To listen to an audio version of this article, with an additional discussion by reporter Rupa Shenoy at the end, please click this link for the original source:

As part of her podcast Global Nation, focusing on the stories of immigrants and members of various ethnic and culutral groups in the United States, PRI reporter Rupa Shenoy has written a feature on the voice acting process behind Disney's film, Moana. As part of the investigation, she interviewed Polynesian voice actress GK Bowes, who provides additional voices to the movie along with narrating its audiobook. We are also given an overview of the casting process that led to Disney's decision to cast new actress Auli'i Cravalho in the title role.

Original article (as reported):

Moana — the main character of Disney’s movie, Moana — grows up on a Polynesian island, surrounded by people who accept and include her. G.K. Bowes had pretty much the opposite experience, growing up in the tiny town of Weed, in northern California. 

“Everyone had their place and knew who they were,” she remembers. “Except for me.” 

Bowes has roots in the Polynesian area, as well as a lot of other places, including being part Native American. People take her for a lot of ethnicities, and when she was a kid, that meant she didn’t fit in anywhere. 

“Every day I prayed to God before I went to bed that I would wake up with blond hair and blue eyes, and that he would make me white,” she says. "I thought God must not like me because I'm brown and because I'm treated so poorly by everybody." 

Bowes felt like she found another version of that in Hollywood, when she was trying to become an actor. She says casting directors wanted her to fit into just one category. 

“I tried identifying as an African American woman for a while when I first started acting on camera,” she says. “Awful. It just was just — I felt like such a fraud.”

Voice acting seemed different. Bowes saw a white woman voicing the character of a young black boy, and at first she thought that was weird, but then Bowes realized that also gave her permission to be whatever she wanted to be. 

“I could be a unicorn. I could be a pony,” she says. “I could be a princess. I could be a dragon.”

Or she could be Barbie. And for years, Bowes was the official voice of Barbie.   

“Getting to do blond haired, blue-eyed Barbie. I was like ‘oh maybe this is God's way of answering that prayer, all these years later,’” she laughs. 

But lately, things seem to be changing. Bowes says casting directors seem to care now about finding voice actors of the same ethnicity as the characters they’re playing. 

“I recently auditioned for a character who is African American. And they even called my agent and they said ‘is G.K. African American? Because we really liked her for this character, but we really want to cast an African American for this character. We know she's Polynesian,’” Bowes remembers. “And I was just like, why can't she be Polynesian?”

That, though, is just one anecdote. 

Stacy Smith and her team do a yearly analysis of representation in the top 100 films. And Smith says, overall, Hollywood hasn’t really made much progress. For example, for the thousand movies that made the top 100 films of the last 10 years, only 4 percent of directors were women, and only a small fraction of those were from underrepresented groups. Another example: In the top 100 films last year, 34 had a female lead or co-lead. Just three of the women who played those leads were from underrepresented groups. 

“I wish it was a different pattern based on our data, but our data present a fairly condemning picture of the lack of motivation and follow-through of this very progressive Hollywood community,” Smith says. 

Their numbers show, in 2010, of the animated films that made the top 100 movies, 1.5 percent of characters came from underrepresented groups. In 2016 that shot to 49 percent, but only because of two films focused on underrepresented groups. One was Moana. 

“We’re making movies for the whole world and it’s not that easy actually to convey in the right way the essence of a character,” Shurer says. 

For Moana, they decided they wanted someone who was authentically near their main character’s age — so Bowes was out of luck. They also needed someone who could sing. All that made finding the right person tough. 

“Oh boy, did we get lucky,” Shurer remembers. 

They put out a worldwide casting call, listened to hundreds of auditions, and still didn’t find her. Then the casting director in Hawaii remembered someone she’d heard while helping a local nonprofit find people to sing a jingle. 

“She just remembered this young woman. There's something about her,” Shurer says.  

That was Auli'i Cravalho, a Hawaiian high schooler. She came in for an audition. 

“I have to tell you it was so moving,” Shurer says. “First of all, she was amazingly good. And then when I took a photograph with her after the audition, and she was near our already designed Moana character — she looks like her.”

That maybe sounds more like the on-screen world that Bowes gladly left behind. But there was a happy ending for her too. Bowes still got to play Moana — in the audiobook version. 

The job got her on the cover of Polynesian People Magazine. And Bowes finally had proof she belonged somewhere, and that some group claimed her. She showed that magazine off like crazy. 

“Like ‘I told you I wasn't black, I told you I wasn’t Puerto Rican,” she recalls. “I’m Polynesian, it says right here — Polynesian People Magazine!’”

So does Bowes think casting directors should find voice actors who authentically represent the characters they play, or not? She says she has no idea.



Add a Comment

said at 4:03 PM on Tue Nov 21 2017
 3 Shout Outs!
It's good that they actually try to bring in a person of the right heritage to voice the main character of the movie that is celebrating their culture. Now if only they had done the same thing for Aladdin they could've prevented a huge internet controversy...
NCZ (Admin)
said at 4:43 PM on Mon Nov 20 2017
 12 Shout Outs!
I really appreciate getting to hear GK's side of the story here. I think, in voiceover, issues like this are never going to really have one clear-cut answer. In live-action work or theatre, then I think it's obvious. Unless there's some kind of deliberate choice to create a jarring artistic effect, an actor's ethnicity, in my mind, should always match the character's whenever possible. In voiceover though, I have to admit it's a much greyer area since you don't really see the actor. From that perspective the main argument there is giving more opportunities to actors who would ordinarily have a tougher time getting them.

I think that, in voiceover, while maybe you could say there isn't as immediate a need for such a match, I do definitely have to give points for any casting directors or productions that do try to go for authenticity. I was really impressed when I was working on Genji that the people behind that game actually made a point to cast authentic actors of Japanese descent. Here GK notes that there seems to be an element of empowerment, of being able to feel comfortable in your own shoes as an actor, being cast in such roles, as well as the fact that such roles exist to begin with. So the way I see it, while there are situations in voiceover where bending an actor's race, age, or any other such factor can be right for a role, I don't think that takes away from the fact that when authenticity is achieved, it is a really cool feeling for everyone involved.
said at 8:10 AM on Tue Nov 21 2017
@NCZ Yeah, I'm a bit torn about the subject when it comes to VO. I think it was the Laura Bailey/Nadine thing that brought this up, but a lot of people were saying that ethnic background doesn't matter at all in voice acting. The thinking there is that a good actor will be able to bridge any disconnects, however large. Obviously good acting's a huge part of things, but I do think people underestimate how much authenticity can influence and improve performances.

Imagination can only do so much, especially on the schedules that most VO projects run on. I think every actor without experience with a culture can get the broad strokes, but it's the little things that aren't obvious, that only affect a person after they've been immersed in the culture for a period of time, that get missed. But to be honest, I don't think most roles are nuanced enough to benefit from that kind of authenticity – especially not most games. Overwatch is just a big but pleasant exception, even if the characters aren't all equally fleshed out.

I dunno, though. My mom and most of her side of the family is indigenous Mexican, yet I look completely white, have a white name, and grew up thousands thousands of miles away from most of my family. It's caused some cultural identity confusion, but overall, I can't help but think that I lucked out, especially with issues of diversity and representation being adopted at such a glacial pace.
NCZ (Admin)
said at 5:58 PM on Tue Nov 21 2017

Yeah, Laura as Nadine is one of those examples that I think about a lot, and one that I think brought that debate to the forefront. I'm sort of in two minds there because I do think she improved in Lost Legacy, and had good chemistry with Claudia and Troy, but in UC4 I kept thinking they should have gone with an authentic South African. I suppose there was only so much they could do there since ND admitted they only decided Nadine should be South African after Laura was cast.

I think it can be trickier when the need for those influences isn't apparent as you say. I think in dubs for example, you can sort of get away with it because, to be frank, a dub actor didn't really create the character. Their job is basically to convey a similar essence as the original actor. No matter what you do something is going to be lost in translation, so that's why I think it might be easier to give leeway to the obvious question of "what about all those Japanese anime/games that have white/non-Japanese actors?"

I can relate pretty hard to the cultural identity confusion you mention too, both the way you and GK talk about it. People used to think I was Middle Eastern or South Asian, and from a cultural perspective aside from having a massive afro I pretty much feel as white as you can possibly get. And then the stuff I'm interested in is basically a hodgepodge of different countries and cultures. It's a weird feeling where you can be thankful that a melting pot like that is able to exist, but then it's weird when placing your sense of self in that pot feels like throwing darts.
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