In Va., Casting About For Mongolian Actors

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."

McCartney jumped ship last month -- "scheduling conflicts with his music tour" -- and was replaced by "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel, a Brit of Indian heritage.

The fan base kept simmering. The switch of just one cast member "reeks of tokenism," wrote the proprietor of Online news stories and blogs have been clogged with comments accusing the production of dismissing the series's Asian aesthetics.

Three weeks ago, the prominent Los Angeles-based theater organization East West Players wrote a letter to an "Airbender" producer to express dismay over the casting call for the four principal roles (which sought actors of "Caucasian or any other ethnicity"). The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) wrote a similar letter lamenting the loss of a "historic opportunity to give Asian American actors a chance to shine in a big-budget film franchise."

"As far as I know, three of the four leads are still white," says MANAA's founding president, Guy Aoki, over the weekend. "And the Dev Patel character starts off being a bad guy. The three white people are heroes. It's confusing to us. They're supposed to be leading a band of Asian- or Inuit-looking people."

Aoki says he talked with Paramount's VP of communications, who said she would relay concerns to Shyamalan, but the studio has issued no response. Paramount declined to comment for this article and declined on behalf of Shyamalan.

"When you take a beloved story that has a fan base, you'll never be able to make everyone happy," says Ricketts, the casting director, who was not involved with the casting of principal roles. "There's been some talk that we're casting authentic Asians as a response to the backlash, which is totally wrong because our world is multi-ethnic and the 'Avatar' world will be multi-ethnic.'"

In January, someone in the Web movement designed T-shirts to sell online. One shirt reads, across the chest, "Asian People: Heroes not Extras."

* * *

Back in the multi-purpose room of the River Place apartments, a couple dozen Mongolian Americans trickle in, get their photos taken, fill out blue information cards.

"What's my 'special skills'?" asks Chinguun Ganbold, 7, pen in hand.

"Hmm, 'playing video games,' " says his mother, Fairfax resident Oyun-Erdene Bold, on hand to translate during the open call. After an hour, Bold mentions that it's Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian lunar new year, and much of the community is setting up for the festival at the Wilson School, which is also home to the Mongolian School of the National Capital Area on Saturdays.

So the crew relocates down the street around noon. They set up camp in a classroom -- point-and-shoot camera, blue information cards, culturally ambiguous costumes -- just as school lets out.

"The movie people are here!" yells one boy, and a bunch of excited 11-year-olds lines up to fill out cards and look sternly at the camera.

"What does 'ethnicity' mean?" asks another boy.

"Asian," says Bold.

"If you're Mongolian, put 'Mongolian,' " Ricketts says.

Down the hall, the small gym is canopied with red streamers to suggest a yurt, the circular domed shelter common in inner Asia. The community elders are taking their seats at a table on the raised stage. Later, 16 towering Mongolian American wrestlers spar like warriors in the middle of the gym floor, butting heads, clawing at each other's skin, hurling themselves toward the hard ground. The crowd whoops.

It's nice that the casting team can experience authentic Mongolian culture here, says Fairfax resident Iveelt Tsog, an organizer from the Mongolian Community Association of Greater Washington. "I guess the community is interested in any film where Mongolia will be featured," he says.

Truth is, the cultures in "The Last Airbender" are fictionalized composites. Mongolians may be featured, but only in the background.

The casting crew leaves through the side door and heads for another call, this one for Cambodian and Laotian Americans at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater. Around 3:30 p.m., a quintet of friends wait to be draped in a smock (brown-colored this time) and photographed. They're here partly for kicks, partly because it was noteworthy to get a film-related call for Cambodian Americans.

"Other than through Angelina Jolie, you don't hear about them," says Socheat Hul, 28, of Leesburg, referencing Jolie's adopted Cambodian son.

Do they know anything about the movie?

"Yeah, I read about the controversy," says Melanie Thong, 24, of Annandale. "I mean, Jesse McCartney? If it's an Asian movie, you should have an Asian cast."

"If you watch the show, all of them are our skin color," says Liso Neou, 23, of Tysons.

"You can't even name five Asian actors," says Thong, rhetorically.

"Chow Yun-Fat . . . Jackie Chan . . . Jet Li . . . " says Neou, and stops.

"Kids need to know there's more diverse actors out there," Thong says, her point made.

The friends reach the front of the line and stifle smiles as they take turns posing for the camera. "Here, this will erase any trace of Virginia," says the casting director, wrapping Neou in the brown smock.

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