Foreign Bodies

I was privy to an interesting discussion recently among a group of professional actors, all fiercely committed to their craft and to fighting for an even playing field in casting. Some were from an ethnic minority background, and there was talk about how unfair the casting process can be, with several bemoaning the fact that despite being British, their ethnic background was often held against them and seemed more important than their talent or suitability. Then a foreign national actor in the group spoke up, completely agreeing with how unfair that was, and adding that it was sometimes a similar situation for non-British performers. “Oh, that’s completely different,” was the response. “Foreigners can’t speak English well enough, so of course they shouldn’t be seen.”

Being a foreign national in the UK acting industry has always been a challenging path to follow. A few people stride it confidently, leap the hurdles with ease, and find doors open. For most, though, strange preconceptions such as the one above can serve to restrict opportunities. The USA and Canada are both nations built on immigrant communities which have proudly passed down names — if not languages —  through the generations, not necessarily reflecting the accent or culture of the child on whom they are bestowed. And yet, woe betide the American actor who turns up on these shores with extra syllables in their name. I myself have often been told that I speak English well for a foreigner. “Thanks,” I always reply. “I learned it in the States.” There is also the hilarious misconception that we North Americans can’t do accents, since we already have an accent – according to the British ear, anyway – and you can’t put an accent on an accent, right? And yet, sometimes these myths are enough to keep us out of the casting suite.

With the storm cloud that is Brexit looming on the horizon, our nationality is suddenly becoming pertinent in a more sobering way. At first glance, it might seem that it shouldn’t make a difference to AAUK’s North American membership; some people even hope that it might thaw the notoriously strict immigration regulations around Americans, especially. Nonetheless, there are issues to worry about. To begin with, many of our membership are in the UK on EU passports, and wait in anxious limbo while the government tries to figure out what to do with us. Secondly, there is little sign that the immigration rules for non-EU nationals will be relaxed. Keep in mind that the author of the legislation which now deports non-EU nationals after five years if they do not consistently earn over £35,000 a year (a figure set to rise over the next few years, by the way) is none other than Ms. T. May herself, pushed through when she was still just home secretary. Self-employed, freelance actors who sometimes earn a lot and often earn a little are not the kind of foreigner she has in mind when she proclaims a desire to only allow in  the world’s “best and brightest.”

A further concern is the recent appearance of casting notices which state, “British nationals only.” This isn’t just offensive, it is against the law, until March 2019 in any case, and most likely even after that. If you are here as an EU national or have Indefinite Leave to Remain or a valid visa, you can work, and it is unlawful to be barred from being considered. If you do see something like this, contact Equity and let them know.

For those members who are UK citizens, you will still be able to audition for and accept jobs that involve you going to continental Europe – up until March 2019, that is. After that, it gets a whole lot murkier. Heaven only knows what will be the fate of the English Theatres in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Vienna; or worse, those short notice ad campaigns that shoot in Valletta or Budapest.

Everyone will have to decide what is best for them; in these unsettled times, there is no one clear solution bobbing to the surface. Some people will take out new citizenships, some will decide to move back or abroad, some will decide to stay put and wait. Time will tell. However, in the meantime, we can all work here, and our nationality should not be a barrier. Equity’s new Manifesto for Casting and brand new Play Fair Casting Questions card should help with some of the other hurdles we face in looking for work. For more information go to www.equity.org.uk/manifesto-for-casting and www.equity.org.uk/play-fair