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The girls that cannot play Juliet

Silvana Mihai & Alexandra Lulache

Casting, typecasting and the way female roles evolve

Here at F-sides, we wanted to find out more about the work of actresses: what types of characters they play, how the work relations are on set and backstage, as well as  anything else they would like to tell us about. Enter the stage: Silvana Mihai. She is an actress as well, and she agreed to talk to them for us. This text is part of an ongoing series of interviews with actresses; the result of conversations between Silvana and a few women whose work in the Romanian theatre or cinema brings us joy; held outdoors or while having a cup of coffee or a beer. It’s a small collaborative research project between the people from the F-sides community, and we hope to keep it up in the future. This time, we’ve talked to Ana-Maria Guran, Anda Sârbei, Ilinca Manolache and Diana Cavallioti. We’d like to thank all of them for their time and their openness. 

This may be a subjective opinion, but Juliet’s character can be perceived as boring, as too weak and naive compared to the girls we’d like to empathise with in 2020. But, apart from this, Juliet is a feminine archetype that proves your worth as an actress as well as a woman. Juliet, contrary to the vagrant type, is a construct of the good and desirable woman. It’s a major role through which you can prove yourself on the scene. In and of itself, Juliet is not a boring character per se. She is, after all, a woman who fights for what she wants. But, because it’s such a fundamental role, Juliet must be a character type that is easy to digest, to like, and the public can have empathy for her from the start and still follow her through 5 acts. Many of the actresses I’ve talked to said they were told they were not meant for this role. Some of them still played her, changing what people thought would be a contre-emploi into an extension of the characteristics that can constitute Juliet-the-perfect-woman. Others continued to judge themselves according to the physical pillar against which their femininity is defined.


If you’re short, thin, and you play those roles, be it Juliet or whatever, you’re ingenue. If your physical characteristics are not in line with what is normal, beautiful, then you can play Sonia, which everyone says is not as beautiful. If you’re tall and masculine, there will be issues, because you won’t get any roles. (IM)


Pornind de la asta ne-au venit câteva întrebări: cum arată tipologiile de femei care se joacă în România, care sunt caracteristicile și emoțiile care nu se prea joacă, ce spune asta despre percepția socială asupra feminității, și cum se negociază profesional dinamica între ce fel de femeie este cineva în viața reală și potențialul său actoricesc.

If you’re short, thin, and you play those roles, be it Juliet or whatever, you’re ingenue. If your physical characteristics are not in line with what is normal, beautiful, then you can play Sonia, which everyone says is not as beautiful. If you’re tall and masculine, there will be issues, because you won’t get any roles. (IM)

1.     Casting and typecasting

It’s much more likely to be cast in the same type of roles again and again , than to be given the opportunity to try out something new, especially in the independent film industry, where risks are avoided. The roles in which these 4 actresses got stuck were mostly women who cry a lot, naive women or mean and bossy women. Sometimes, the funny woman comes along, but it is clear that she isn’t the same as the beautiful woman. An approximate timeline would look like this: teenager roles can even be played by women 30 or older (ex. Dana Rogoz who played a teenager in MO, dir. Radu Dragomir), after that there is not much left to play, and then you get the mom-characters. In order to show your versatility as an actor and to get a variety of roles, it sometimes feels like you are fighting the windmills of casting. Diana Cavallioti had the chance to work in a wide variety of roles, thanks to directors who had the imagination to see her make these transformations, which can mean longer preparation and financial investment. Even though the transformation of an actor is a common practice, in Romanian cinema it’s much easier to find a ready-made actor, and it becomes a question of pure chance for an actress to be able to showcase her versatility. 

Diana Cavallioti în Ana mon Amour, de Călin Peter Netzer

They want to play it safe, and I feel like this is killing the industry. When I started this whole acting thing, I didn’t think that it would be that varied or that someone would take me into consideration for roles other than “Aha, you look ingenue, and you have a deep voice, would you like to play a pregnant 18 year old who lives in a ghetto?”. When I see the film’s cast, I already know what the film will be like, because I know how the actors act, and we are always cast for the same roles. There’s rarely a change, and it becomes extremely uninteresting. There’s no creativity, and nothing new will happen if they keep casting me in the same roles. AG


After a film director sees you in a certain role, you keep getting cast in the same roles, but in different contexts. The same way I’ve been playing little girls for ages now. SM


After a film director sees you in a certain role, you keep getting cast in the same roles, but in different contexts. The same way I’ve been playing little girls for ages now. SM


I think this relates to the director’s creativity as well, who can see something else in you as well. For example, when I played Gertrude [Hamlet, dir. Laszlo Bocsardi], my first role –  I was quite young, my first MA year – I looked like a little girl, and, despite this, he cast me in the role of a prostitute with white hair. In Ana, mon amour, I was paid to go the gym for 3 months, because the director didn’t like the way I looked in the sex scenes. I would go to the gym for other roles as well, but this means that the director and the producer have to get out of their comfort zone, and that he has to invest in you and to have an imagination. This is very rare, because most of the time you take what you need from the start; you don’t fight to make a certain person fit a role.
DC

In order to get out of the pattern she’d fallen into, Ana Guran tells us that she changed her day to day appearance to better mimic her desired feminine ideal. Even though her qualities as an actress hadn’t changed at all, the fact that she was wearing different clothes and had changed her make-up style created the imagination exercise necessary for her to be seen as appropriate for roles other than that of the young girl with issues. 


The character types and the casting process are rooted in gender stereotypes that favour either “a real girl” or “a girl that isn’t a girl”. The casting process offers parallels to the way women are seen in our society, but the conclusion is that classical is better or, at least, easier. The most frequent stereotypes are related to what you communicate from a physical or sexual standpoint.


The character types and the casting process are rooted in gender stereotypes that favour either “a real girl” or “a girl that isn’t a girl”. The casting process offers parallels to the way women are seen in our society, but the conclusion is that classical is better or, at least, easier. The most frequent stereotypes are related to what you communicate from a physical or sexual standpoint.

This is more or less what Laura Mulvey was saying in her manifesto about the male gaze: unfortunately, female characters are positioned in such a way as to be objects of desire, either from the position of the male character or of the spectator. Her concept of the “real” woman” – what she looks like, the way she acts, and if she is desired or not – has its origins in society and it manifests itself in film and on the scene.

I still remember what they told us in school: you can’t play Juliet because you have a deep voice and short hair. They said to me: “Let your hair grow long, if you don’t want to be stuck playing weirdos.” SM


Does this mean that, if I have dreads and my hair isn’t blonde and long – reaching to my lower back – I am not a woman? If you’ve shaved your head, you’re no longer a woman? If you have dreads, you’re a freak. You can’t play Elena Andreevna in Cehov or Hermia in Shakespeare. A woman that has tattoos is troubled or “a drug addict” that has lost all control and is in distress. While the tattooed man is strong, scary and attractive. But even before I had the tattoos, I still couldn’t play the role of a “normal” woman; there always has to be something more twisted. IM


Adică, dacă eu am niște dreaduri și părul meu nu e lung Does this mean that, if I have dreads and my hair isn’t blonde and long – reaching to my lower back – I am not a woman? If you’ve shaved your head, you’re no longer a woman? If you have dreads, you’re a freak. You can’t play Elena Andreevna in Cehov or Hermia in Shakespeare. A woman that has tattoos is troubled or “a drug addict” that has lost all control and is in distress. While the tattooed man is strong, scary and attractive. But even before I had the tattoos, I still couldn’t play the role of a “normal” woman; there always has to be something more twisted. și blond până la șale nu sunt femeie? Dacă ești rasă-n cap înseamnă că nu ești femeie? Dacă ai dreaduri ești o arătare, nu poți să joci Elena Andreevna din Cehov sau Hermia din Shakespeare. O femeie care are tatuaje e troubled și „o drogată” care a cam scăpat frâiele, este într-o degringoladă personală. Pe când un bărbat [cu tatuaje] e puternic, fioros și atragator. Dar și cand nu aveam tatuajele nu puteam să joc un rol de femeie „normală”, mereu e ceva mai twisted. IM

Ilinca Manolache în Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari de Radu Jude

Your appearance counts very much. This is a problem, because all women will want to be skinny bitches, because that’s the only role they will ever play. I mean, why shouldn’t there be some variation? DC

At another casting, they put all of us women in a circle, and we had to come to the center and make a pirouette, so that they could see us in all our splendour. They said that actresses need to have tits and ass and, back then, I was really skinny. I only had 47 kilograms. When it was my turn, I went into the middle and said: “I look the same from all angles!” AG

The reasons why actresses end up playing the same roles are complex, and they include the gender stereotypes we were given by society, as well as the budgets and the limited time of the creators. But let’s say we solve the issue of typecasting by miracle and you, as an actress, get all the roles that had been inaccessible until then. What do the available characters in the Romanian theatre and film industry look like? Until now, we looked at who the women behind the roles were, but who are the fictional women in front of the public? What are the emotions and the stories they play the most?

2. What kind of roles are being played?

It seems to me that we are mostly cast in this manner: you are a woman, you are emotional, you have to cry, to love, to throw hissy fits, just like a woman. That’s what a woman does: she cries, shouts and falls in love passionately. And that’s about it. I still remember that, when I was in university, it was very hard for me to cry, and I had to cry in most of the plays I was in. IM

I was put in situations that were way too much for me. I had to throw chairs, get angry, shout. And no one would have really done that; it was too much for that kind of situation and not what my character would do anyway. AS

Anda Sârbei în sezonul 3 din Vlad, regia Jesus del Cero, o productie PROTV

Especially in theatre, there are way more male than female characters (for example, only 16% of the characters written by Shakespeare are women, according to a study published by The Guardian), and if we look at who has written most of the plays in the last hundreds of years (spoiler alert: men, for the most part), this fact is not at all surprising. But, apart from the sheer quantity of characters, a problem with female characters is that they are written to support the masculine score. Another problem is that many female characters tend to be underdeveloped and extreme.

This is one of the reasons I started F-sides: to look at movies where the women on the screen are more like the women in reality.

I don’t like those simple roles, where the women are simpletons compared to the men.


I think that everywhere, not just in my case, there’s this thing where the woman becomes hysterical, and she doesn’t want the man near her anymore. There’s always a woman shouting or crying hysterically, and I’m like: “Yes, people (in general) get hysterical, but not only women.”AG


I think that everywhere, not just in my case, there’s this thing where the woman becomes hysterical, and she doesn’t want the man near her anymore. There’s always a woman shouting or crying hysterically, and I’m like: “Yes, people (in general) get hysterical, but not only women.” AG


I was given a lot of crying before, but that’s no longer the case. I don’t want it, and I don’t need it. I think that directors are running away from meanness, from women who raise their voice, even though I don’t understand why, because this is something that is normal around us. Dan Chișu, for example, let me be mean in 5 minutes. DC


I realised that femininity for them is about not asking questions, about being very sweet and swooning over them, as if they were some kind of absolute gods. I don’t understand where this idea that a woman is beautiful and attractive when she plays stupid came from. AG

The good girl, my typecast, annoys me. If there’s no time on set to build the character, it goes into a single direction, and you ask yourself what that girl is playing. You realise that she isn’t playing anything, that she could have some space to go in different directions, but because of various reasons the character is just a filler and not touching at all. AS

I was given a lot of crying before, but that’s no longer the case. I don’t want it, and I don’t need it. I think that directors are running away from meanness, from women who raise their voice, even though I don’t understand why, because this is something that is normal around us. Dan Chișu, for example, let me be mean in 5 minutes.DC

There are many women who don’t realise that they only get roles where they are accessories or stupid beauties and where they are reinforcing misogynistic stereotypes without realising that they could say: “Wait a minute, a beautiful woman is not necessarily stupid, why should we make her this idiotic?” IM

This doesn’t mean that this situation is an absolute rule. Two-dimensional female characters don’t only appear in theatre or film, but in literature as well, and we are very happy to see that there are stories about increasingly complex women. This is reflected in the experience of the actresses I’ve talked to as well, from stories of abuse that do not repeat the discourse that blames the victim to nuanced queer characters.

In The World is mine, the connection to the director (Nae Constantin Tănase) and the way he presented my character were really cool. I think everyone was rooting for Larisa; this girl who starts to become obnoxious at some point, but everything was about the way this girl fights everything coming at her. I was feeling powerful, because everything was about who she is and what she feels, and because my character led the entire film. AG

Ana Guran în Lumea e a mea de Nae Constantin Tănase

I’ve played various stuff in theatre as well as in film, from abused prostitutes to independent and rich women, to teenagers who cry because of their dramas. From this point of view, I’m satisfied. DC


This doesn’t mean that this situation is an absolute rule. Two-dimensional female characters don’t only appear in theatre or film, but in literature as well, and we are very happy to see that there are stories about increasingly complex women.


In Umbre (HBO Season 2) I was cast in a role in which, at first look, there were actresses that would have been better suited to play the role, because they conveyed that type of seduction in real life. It was a pleasant surprise to see that I was given that chance, that they saw the potential for me to be that character, even though I’m not like that in real life.  SM

Silvana Mihai în sezonul 2 din Umbre de Bogdan Mirică, o producție HBO

The goal would be for these roles to keep getting written and played and for these women to be represented in their complex reality, deconstructing the platitudes we’ve become accustomed to. But sadly there is a category of roles that is missing from the female repertoire. 

3.     What types of roles aren’t being played?

A general fear among actresses is: what will I play, when I can no longer choose between young girls and mothers?

I feel like I’m in a dark zone. The film industry doesn’t offer  any roles written for young, active women; even Ana, mon amour was a gift from God. From the age of 30 to 40, no one is writing any roles for you. At 40, you have an issue, and they feel that’s interesting. They have character types such as the divorced woman, the woman who wants a divorce, the woman with children, and it is closely related to the patterns of Romanian films. 30-40 is probably a part of life they don’t really know how to transpose into a character. That’s the way I feel, as if I were in a dark zone. DC


The lack of roles for certain age groups is not a Romanian problem. It’s sad that we don’t know what stories to tell about those who have already crossed that period of innocence and sexual exploration and before they become disillusioned with life. However, that is an open subject, but we hope to explore it in further detail in the future.


The lack of roles for certain age groups is not a Romanian problem. It’s sad that we don’t know what stories to tell about those who have already crossed that period of innocence and sexual exploration and before they become disillusioned with life. However, that is an open subject, but we hope to explore it in further detail in the future. 

In conclusion, we don’t want to get caught into an absurd relativism where we say that any character can be played by anyone or that there isn’t any contre-emploi. What we want to say is that oftentimes the full potential of actresses to explore and develop their abilities is being limited. On the one hand, it is limited by the casting process and by gender stereotypes, mostly physical, that do not allow them to discover new directions. On the other hand, their potential is limited by the reduced variety of roles. Being a woman is something that is complex, and we need to have the courage to represent it.