Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Special effects are leading to more discrimination, not less

A PRESSURE group called Little People in America is very unhappy about the film Snow White And The Huntsman, in which computer-generated special effects are used to turn Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins into dwarfs.

According to actor Danny Woodburn, this is “akin to blackface”.

Strong words, but is being robbed of the chance to play a figure of fun in a fairytale movie such a terrible thing for a short actor? It seems a little like a gay actor complaining about a straight actor bagging a role as a stereotypical mincing drama queen. Not getting the job is perhaps not the main issue here. But Little People in America are genuinely aggrieved – work for short actors is so scarce that this is a genuinely damaging snub.

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The film’s producers say this was “a casting decision, not a body-type decision” but, as any actor knows, these things are rarely separate. For short actors, all casting decisions are body type decisions. As Woodburn put it, if short actors were getting parts that could just as easily be played by a tall person – a character in The West Wing, say, whose height was irrelevant – then fair enough. But they’re not.

In a fair world, anyone should be able to play anyone and, in theory, special effects can make this happen. They allowed Brad Pitt to play a baby, a child and an old man in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and Jeff Bridges to become a younger version of himself in Tron.

The world isn’t fair, though, and films like Snow White And The Huntsman suggest special effects are leading to more discrimination rather than less. When James Cameron was looking for someone to play a paralysed, wheelchair-bound soldier in Avatar, he could have decided that only a disabled actor would have the experience and empathy to bring the role to life – and made that actor into a huge star in the process. But he didn’t; he chose an able-bodied (and mostly unknown) actor instead: Sam Worthington.

Was this akin to blackface? Arguably yes. But Hollywood is far more interested in money than equal opportunities. Occasionally there are nice surprises – Idris Elba getting to play a Norse god in Thor, for example. But Elba won that kind of star power by playing a drug dealer in The Wire – a great role, yes, but also typical of the kind of thing black actors are mostly offered.

If a short actor becomes famous enough, it’s easy to imagine them using their celebrity to get a role as a special-effects-generated tall person. And Hollywood would love it – think of the headlines! But they’ll probably have to play dwarves first. And if Ray Winstone is getting the dwarf jobs, that’s not going to happen. So Woodburn is right to complain.

• Last week Andrew... finally started watching The Killing. Yes, I know, everyone else is three Scandinavian crime dramas ahead of me now. Am watching Sebastian Bergman at the same time to catch up