Ben Affleck Addresses 'Argo' Casting Controversy Within Latino Community

By Maria Nieto for El Blog de HOLA

There has been controversy over the film Argo and its choice to have lead character Antonio "Tony" Mendez played by Academy Award-winning actor-writer-director Ben Affleck, who also directed the film.

At a recent industry screening of Argo, I asked the film's director and lead actor, Ben Affleck, and screenwriter, Chris Terrio, the following question during the screening's Q&A portion: "As a Latina writer, I've been following some of the issues that have been raised around your playing Tony Mendez and I'm wondering if... in the conversations between yourself and Chris-- and Tony Mendez himself-- was the ethnicity of the character essential to the role?" Affleck candidly responded as follows: "That's a good question. You know, I obviously went to Tony and sought his approval...was the first thing. And Tony does not have, I don't know what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent, of any kind really, and... you know you wouldn't necessarily select him out of a line of ten people and go 'This guy's Latino.' So I didn't feel as though I was violating some thing, where, here's this guy who's clearly ethnic in some way and it's sort of being whitewashed by Ben Affleck the actor. I felt very comfortable that if Tony was cool with it, I was cool with it." Chris Terrio then added, "He's fourth generation. Which was another interesting thing for me... to say that there are Latinos in this country... who... he was here long before my family was, certainly, being Italian-American and Irish-American. It's funny that, at least in my mind, you hear the name Mendez and you think New American... at least I do living in New York. But, in fact, Tony has American creds that go much deeper into American history than I do."

Affleck further added that "it raises interesting casting points I haven't heard, I don't think, enough [of] but the question is... 'What makes an American?' question, the 'How do you cast people... a guy... who, as you [Terrio] say his family's been in this country for a long long time?' It raises issues of assimilation, and 'What are our goals?', 'What are we shooting for?' and 'What sort of integrity do we have to have with playing parts that are of other ethnicities?' Obviously, there are ways where it's obvious it can be ridiculous, but that's not what we're talking about ... but actually I don't think you have to be Croatian to play Croatian. I think the most important thing... the two most important things... about this issue are: 1. We do have to maintain a strong presence of Latino roles, African American roles in our national culture of drama and 2. that those parts don't become... minimized or indeed marginalized... And, I think those stories are interesting and need to be told. And for me I was like, as an actor, Ben Affleck, I just wanted to play the part so much, because it's such a great part." Affleck ended his response on a humorous note adding, "And I was sleeping with the director,  so...", which was greeted with a round of laughter. After the screening ended, I had a chance to speak briefly with Affleck and thanked him for addressing the issue that was so important to the Latino community. He replied that he was happy to do so and that, in accusations of whitewashing ethnic characters, he would hate to be accused of something which he is so adamantly against.

Whether you agree with them or not, Affleck and Terrio's responses offer a true insight into the ways that "Latino" is viewed by those outside of our Latino community. For me, the most interesting and unexpected aspect to their conversation was that of Mendez's American nationality and the way in which that seems- at least for them- to be a different and separate issue from his Latino heritage. Affleck's reference to not having to be Croatian to play Croatian seems to make the case for nationality vs. race vs. ethnicity. It is a triple issue that is particularly meaningful for Latinos given that we are not of any one race, but rather of an "ethnic origin" that can- and does- belong to any number of nationalities... including American. Further, given Mendez's long roots in this country it would seem to make him more "American" and, possibly, less truly Latino than some New Americans, in their eyes.  What seems to be implied here is that in being such a true American, one with very far-off, distant roots to his Latino heritage, he is able to be played by any other American- so long as he had not retained any particular ethnic accent and/or a specifically "Latino Look." It seems to be understood that if he had retained some aspect of ethnicity either in physical bearing or in a spoken accent, then that would definitely be understood to be a "whitewashing" and would be deemed both ridiculous and contemptible. I am not sure where that distinction of nationality came into the conversation of appropriate casting but it seems one tailor-made for the Latino issue. It can therefore be reasonably deduced that for African Americans, Asian Americans and certain others their "ethnicity" will always hold up under scrutiny- despite their American nationality or the number of generations that their families have been in this country- and thus be respected.  The same does not appear to be true for Latinos or, it would seem, Croatians.

And it is here that we come to the sticky part of the question, the question that lays bare the responsibility that we as a community have failed to adequately examine and explain- even amongst ourselves. And that question is "What is a Latino?"  How do WE define when and how our ethnicity, race, nationality overlap with our Latino heritage? What is an ethnically "Latino Look?" And, for those light-skinned Latinos with no discernible accent who would not be known as Latinos were it not for their Spanish last names, are those roles "up for grabs?" Further, what is our responsibility- as self-identifying Latinos- to ask, and demand if necessary, that Latino roles preferably be played by Latino actors?

Further, we must also keep in mind that in asking that Latinos be played by Latino actors we wield a double-edged sword. If we are saying that in those instances where a non-Latino could physically bear a similar enough resemblance to play the Latino role but yet should not be cast, then we could also face the inverse of that request. Can then a Caucasian person also ask that only a culturally Caucasian actor play their roles as well?If an actor's job is to embody the spirit of a role, what are we saying about their ability to bring to a life roles outside their own culture or personal experience? Further, if Zoe Saldana were darker skinned should she still have been denied the role of Nina Simone for the fact that she is a Latina and not culturally African American? These are neither simple nor easy questions to address. But address them we must. The issues and answers are already being discussed and arrived at without our participation and it is my guess, based on past and current experience, that we will not like the outcome.

In this particular instance, I will echo what I first stated on social media when this issue first came up- the moment that Tony Mendez gave his blessing to Ben Affleck to play him in the movie, we as a Latino community were left out of the conversation. I cannot blame Mr. Affleck for walking through a door that Mr. Mendez left wide open. As a savvy director and actor, he would have been a fool not to do so. It seems obvious to me that Mr. Mendez does not self-identify as a Latino or does not do so to the extent that he would have a problem with a non-Latino playing him in a movie.  That, coupled with the fact that Mendez has neither an accent nor a typically "Latino Look" made it possible for Ben Affleck to embody the role without any moral qualms.

I believe Affleck's sincerity when he states that he is against the whitewashing of any ethnic character. I also believe that we as a community have not given the entertainment community at large nor the casting community in particular any tangible guidelines on which to base their decisions.  We have not answered these questions amongst ourselves and in doing so we have allowed the answers come from outside our community. The time is long overdue for us to ask the sticky questions and to arrive at the desired solutions on our own behalf- whether or not they are agreed upon 100%. And, most importantly, when we do arrive at a consensus, however imperfect, we must then hold the line and refuse to bow down to pressure. If we do not create our reality, it will be created for us, and it is my belief that when they do - we will not recognize ourselves in the mirror.

Maria Nieto is a Colombian-American writer and multi-platform producer (film-web-television-theater-live event) who is passionate about creating opportunities for Latino entertainment. For more information, click here.