“Modern Love: The Podcast,” WBUR and the New York Times’s relatively new audio series, enlists acclaimed actors to read essays that have been previously featured in the New York Times column of the same name. It’s a sonic experiment with often surprising results. Jason Alexander’s reading of an essay about grief and a dead goldfish is deeply affecting. Michael Shannon’s interpretation of a piece about a son’s relationship with his Alzheimer’s-diagnosed mother is unexpectedly funny and beautiful. I’m always interested in the series, but rarely more so than when the actor’s race differs from the author’s, as was the case recently, when Lance Reddick, best known for his performance on “The Wire,” read Benjamin Hertwig’s essay about working through the betrayal of his wife’s infidelity.
The reading is powerful and affecting, like most of the performances in the series. Any strong actor could have voiced it, but Reddick’s casting seemed to lend the work more texture. Reddick, often cast as tough, authoritative types, in part because of his gravelly, composed tenor, is telling a story that requires a great deal of vulnerability. Hertwig talks about crying and longing, being petulant and petty, and taking a long time to forgive. These are emotions Reddick doesn’t often get to explore on-screen. That listeners have an opportunity to see what he’d do with this sort of role is a gift that only inspired voice casting could provide.
A recent episode of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” spent a few minutes discussing race and voice casting, within a larger conversation about the importance of strong voice work in cinema. The panel cited a joke Chris Rock made at the 2012 Oscars, where he presented the award for Best Animated Feature: “I love animation because in the world of animation you can be anything you want to be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.”
The joke was meant to shed light on the ways in which racial bias has, historically, entered the realm of vocal casting as much as it does on-screen casting. Because there are far fewer human roles for animated characters of color, black actors have mostly been cast as comic relief-dispensing animals. That trend is slowly changing, as more animated features are being produced with characters of color in starring roles. 2015’s “Home” and the forthcoming Disney film, “Moana,” are examples.
It takes forward-thinking casting directors to challenge existing norms. Actors of color could be more-often cast as white, human, animated characters. (Cree Summer is a testament to this, having pioneered this practice in the role of Penny in the 1983 cartoon series, “Inspector Gadget” and Elmyra Duff in the 1990s series “Tiny Toon Adventures.”) And the rise of more storytelling podcasts such as “Modern Love: The Podcast” offer far more opportunities both to diversify the voice-acting field and to offer frequently typecast screen actors the chance to play against type.
A broader range of voice-acting work may be a minor corrective, but it doesn’t entirely remedy the ongoing issues actors of color face. And for all it’s wonderful to hear Lance Reddick’s voice on “Modern Love: The Podcast,” it doesn’t mean that audiences will match the wonderful voice with Reddick’s face. But smart casting directors should be listening and considering what actors like Reddick can do when they’re given the chance.