Earlier this week, an audio recording of L.A. based acting coach Lesly Kahn coaching a non-Hispanic actress on how to pose as a Latina in order to get Latin roles.
The audio is quite something, to say the least. It was sent to Oscar-nominated director Lexi Alexander who posted it on her Twitter:
The website Deadline was able to capture the transcript of the audio. On the recording the exchanges take place:
The tape begins with Kahn telling a class of acting students that the young woman should come with a Hispanic name “that will absolutely convince people that you’re Latin.”
“OK,” the student laughs. “OK.”
“Any other ideas?” Kahn asks the students.
“Fernandez?” a female student suggests.
“Ah,” Kahn says approvingly to general laughter. “I can’t be the first person that suggested this.”
The young actress responded: “Yeah, you are. I get ethnically ambiguous all the time. I took a 23 and Me (the DNA ancestry company), and I’m 100% Ashkenazi Jewish. … But yeah, no one’s ever told me to change my name.”
“I 100% thought you were Latin when we came here,” another student tells the young actress.
“Yeah, I get that. I’m Armenian,” she replied.
“Fuck the Armenian, that’s not going to help you,” Kahn said. “The Latin could actually get you interviews for representation. Just the fact that your name is Rosa Ramirez is gonna get you a meeting. … So you might try it. … Go to the headshot shop and tell them you’re Latin. Wear something fucking red. Wear some fucking sparkly earrings. Change your goddamned name, and let’s just do an experiment. You know what I mean? Just fucking come up with most Latin name you can come up with, and I mean I don’t know what we’re going to do if they ask is she’s really Latin. I don’t know how we’re going to handle that. Maybe no one will ask. … Aren’t we allowed to change our names to whatever we want to change our names to? And she already looks it. So stop admitting to being a huge Jew. OK? That’s not going to help you. Speaking as one, it’s not going to help. As a Jew, it doesn’t help. … So just try it … and keep us posted, like the saga of Rosa Ramirez.”
Then she added, “Make sure before you change it to Rosa Ramirez that there isn’t already a Rosa Ramirez in SAG, and if there is, we try a slightly different name.”
Ok, so let's dig into this. I shouldn't have to explain to you this is bad advice, right? I shoudn't have to remind you that lying about your race isn't a good practice for any type of job interview situation, right? (cough Rachel Dolezal cough)
And I also shouldn't have to explain to you how disrespectful Kahn is being to multiple ethnicities here, right?
Please tell me I'm right.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let me say that while I'm shocked by Kahn's words, I'm not shocked that things like this are being said in Hollywood because I've heard them many times before.
Since I've started doing this blog almost four years ago and began addressing topics like these, I usually get forwarded about a dozen incidents a month of college professors, directors, casting directors, acting coaches, voice teachers telling their students basically the same thing. However, this is the first time where I've heard an acting coach go as far as to say one should change their identity in order to get a role written for a person of color.
Yes, when ethnically ambiguous actors are cast in roles of color, that is a decision that was made by the director or casting professionals. However, if a student is taught to cheat the system and pretend to be a person of color, that's a whole other level of dishonesty and unethical behavior. The fact that Kahn so gleefully recommends it here is a bit disturbing and dangerous to these young performer's careers.
Let's say the young Armenian actress followed Kahn's advice and was cast in a major Latina role and it was found out that she wasn't actually Latina. From the resulting backlash, it would be discovered that she lied about her identity to get a role of color and more than likely she would never work professionally again. All because of some ill-informed advice she received from her acting coach.
The day after the audio recording was posted and the backlash began, Kahn released a statement on her social media pages:
I'm glad to see she apologized but there are a lot of things wrong with her statement. The first is that it came after the backlash which means she wasn't necessarily sorry she said these things but more that she was sorry that she was caught. Secondly, in her statement, she doesn't follow her own advice. Kahn tries to familiarize herself with marginalized groups by stating her Jewish religion, but in the recording, she told her student to "stop admitting to being a huge Jew. OK? That’s not going to help you."
It's one thing to try to become an ally to the people you just disrespected but to pick and choose when you want to use your religion to deflect criticism is something else entirely.
Thankfully the Twitter response jumped on this on pretty quickly. Theatre Advocate Howard Sherman was the first:
And it didn't stop there.
The number of roles for performers of color(POC) on both stage and screen are limited at best. However, thankfully, I'm starting to see more and more casting professionals become aggressive in finding POC talent for roles of color. However, they can't do their job if people are faking their ethnicities to get these roles. Having acting coaches teaching their non-POC students to pose as POC's and to do it by using racial stereotypes is a monumental step backward in the path to casting equality. What Kahn is teaching here is moronic at best and destructive at worst.
I also don't buy her apology one bit, especially at the end. She doesn't truly value and respect people of all ethnic backgrounds because if she did, she wouldn't be encouraging this. Remember, this video isn't being taken out of context. Kahn's not being coaxed into saying any of these things, she's saying them freely from her heart. If there had been no recording of this, no backlash, it's more than likely she would have kept teaching this practice for years to come. Who knows how long she's been doing it already?
Which calls into question how this audio was captured in the first place? Did a student in the class record every session they attended? Or did Kahn have a history with saying these sorts of things and this was just the latest example? Who knows.
My final gripe with this whole thing is that Kahn somehow felt that encouraging a student to done "brownface" in order to get a role wasn't as offensive as asking someone to do the same with "blackface". Thankfully, 2018 America almost always sees "blackface" as an extremely offensive act that should occur. However, this country has been slower to universally agree that the same applies to other races including Latin, Middle Eastern and Asian populations. In fact, that is why I'm sure some of you might not have a problem with what Kahn is saying here.
That's where the biggest change needs to happen. We need to understand that faking or donning any type of "face" in order to get cast or to portray a role is wrong. Yes, actors are chameleons, but we're chameleons when it comes to the circumstances regarding the characters we play, not the race they're supposed to be.
Lesly Kahn should take notice.