For Asian Faces, M. Night Shyamalan Comes to Virginia

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

Hollywood searching for Mongolians in Northern Virginia . . .

An odd premise, but it explains why a casting director is draping a beige smock over a cute Mongolian American boy in an apartment building in Rosslyn.

"We'll make you look like a warrior," the casting director with dirty-blond curls tells the boy. She holds up a camera and says, "Now don't smile."

"Smile!" calls the boy's father, who was born in Ulan Bator.

"No, he shouldn't smile," a casting assistant tells him. "They don't like people to smile because it's not how you really look."

On Saturday, a casting team was bouncing around Arlington -- home to several thousand Mongolians -- seeking potential members of the Earth Kingdom, a tribe in the animated TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender," which director M. Night Shyamalan (known for gotcha-ending thrillers like "The Sixth Sense") is turning into a live-action film.

What do members of the Earth Kingdom look like? Like they're from Mongolia. Or Cambodia or Laos. Something like that. Exotically Asian, at least. Like they could be an extra in a movie that's based on a series that's inspired by many Eastern traditions, from Japanese anime and Tibetan Buddhism to kung fu cinema and yoga.

"Night doesn't know what it is he wants, but he'll know it when he sees it," says DeeDee Ricketts, the casting director. At the least, it's a chance for locals to get on the set of a major motion picture. But this is Shyamalan, so there's a twist.

In December, the lead "Airbender" characters of Zuko, Aang and Sokka were filled by a trio of young white males: pop singer Jesse McCartney, newcomer Noah Ringer (a karate whiz from Texas) and "Twilight" star Jackson Rathbone.

Those character names again: Zuko, Aang and Sokka. Played by a Jesse, a Noah and a Jackson.

"I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan," Rathbone told, presumably just before his publicist sat him down for a chat about political correctness. "It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."

But the only thing some fans will suspend are their plans to see the movie when it opens in summer 2010. Forums online including LiveJournal have spearheaded letter-writing campaigns to object to the casting. More than 2,000 people have joined a Facebook group titled "Save the 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Movie from an All-White Cast."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company