- Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting by Amy Cook
With the announcement that Halley Bailey, a black R&B singer, would portray Ariel in an upcoming live-action remake of Disney's The Little Mermaid came the now sadly familiar social media backlash. The hashtag #NotMyAriel began trending on Twitter. News outlets generated handwringing think pieces about the state of the national conversation around race and racism. Freeform, a cable network owned by Disney, issued a statement: "Ariel … is a mermaid." "Spoiler alert," wrote Freeform, "the character of Ariel is a work of fiction." Similar social media firestorms, news frenzies, and studio responses followed revelations that a 2016 Ghostbusters remake and a 2018 Ocean's Eleven spinoff would feature all-female leads, that new Star Wars sequels would include people of color in leading roles, and that in 2014 Sony Entertainment briefly considered casting black actor Idris Alba as James Bond. To unpack how factors such as age, race, gender, physical attributes, historical and personal information, and reputation make an actor feel "right" or "wrong" for a role, theatre history and performance studies scholars can now turn to Amy Cook's Building Character: The Art and Science of Casting. The book uses cognitive science to understand how "we build the characters of others from a sea of stimuli." Cook argues that "the process of watching actors take on roles improves our ability to 'cast' those roles in our daily lives" (1). While the above examples might appear trivial, the stakes of casting are incredibly high. Consider the chilling grand jury testimony of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson who described Michael Brown, the black teenager he fatally shot in 2014, as "Hulk Hogan" and "a demon." Cook's intervention into the discourse of casting suggests that "we can investigate, think through, and alter our categories" (28). This central insight makes Building Character prescient, vital, and even hopeful.
Building Character is at its most fascinating and provocative when it causes theatre history and performance studies scholars and practitioners to reconsider their models of how the brain thinks. Through five compelling chapters, Cook finds that "cognition is not some disembodied process that happens in the brain: cognition is embodied" (29). She continues, "We do not just think differently because of the bodies we have, we think with and through the bodies we have" (29). As disciplinary ambassador, rather than tourist, Cook brings cognitive scientists into conversation with humanities scholars and vice versa with startling results. In "Building Titus: Compressing the Complex into the Essential," she explores the idea of compression, a means through which our brains reduce complexity to "decrease cognitive load, increase associations, and facilitate memory" (38). Using Hollywood movie trailers as her case studies, Cook ably [End Page 116] demonstrates how celebrity bodies, as well as our past associations with actors and knowledge of their personal histories, aid our brains' character-building and narrative-constructing processes. For example, Anthony Hopkins brandishing a knife and wearing a chef's outfit in the trailer for Julie Taymor's Titus recalls his iconic turn as the cannibal Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Kenneth Branagh's celebrity persona, holds Cook, performs differently from Ethan Hawke's, telling our brains how to perceive their respective portrayals of Hamlet.
Cook further develops this argument in chapter 2, "Building Characters: Seeing Bodies," which focuses on the actor's body as a compression site. Following Rick Kemp's Embodied Acting, she posits two distinct actor categories: "transformational" for those, like Daniel Day-Lewis, who tend to disappear into their roles, and "persona" for those, like Tom Cruise, who essentially play different versions of themselves (80). But Cook notes that Kemp's categories neglect the reality that "some bodies do not disappear into a role" (83). She rightly points out that many of the narratives surrounding so-called "non-traditional" or "color-blind" casting assume the neutrality and invisibility of whiteness. "White skin in America is a privilege," writes Cook, "to insist that acting can perform away that...