“I think that controversy is a legitimate one. I think fat phobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm.”
Times are a-changing, and actors (as well as the world in general) are (mostly) a lot more cognizant of what’s offensive, and characters they should and should not portray.
And yet…it still happens. It’s especially bad when they actually put on a “costume” (including makeup and hair) when portraying someone different from them. It’s totally fine for an actor to transform for a role, but sometimes, they “transform” into a member of a marginalized or often-stereotyped community, which takes away the chance for people actually apart of that community to be cast. Also, their portrayal often ends up being pretty offensive.
This usually involves race — things like wearing yellowface or blackface — but also involves wearing “fat suits” and even costumes that are supposed to be reserved for religious or tribal meanings.
Here are eight times actors wore one of these offensive costumes, and at the very least realized their mistake, and nine times they doubled down and got defensive:
DOUBLED DOWN: When Mickey Rooney, a white actor, was told his portrayal of Asian character Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was offensive, he said, “I wouldn’t offend any person, be they Black, Asian, or whatever,” and said the criticism “broke his heart” and that he felt bad for “the people taking offense.”
“They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it,” Rooney said. “Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it — not one complaint. Every place I’ve gone in the world, people say, ‘ … you were so funny.’ Asians and Chinese come up to me and say, ‘Mickey, you were out of this world.'” He did say if he’d known people would be so offended, he wouldn’t have done it — but instead of apologizing, he said he “forgave” those that didn’t like it.
APOLOGIZED: Gwyneth Paltrow starred as the plus size love interest of a man who was “cursed” to see women not based on their looks, but based on how good they were on the inside, in problematic film Shallow Hal, which she has since called “a disaster.”
DOUBLED DOWN: Robert Downey Jr. played an actor in blackface in the parody film Tropic Thunder. Though he admitted to having reservations about taking the role, he called it an opportunity to “be Black for a summer in my mind” and “hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion.” By playing an actor who thought it was okay to do blackface, it seems Downey Jr. felt it was more of a critique.
“It was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie. 90% of my Black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great,’” he continued. “I can’t disagree with [the other 10%], but I know where my heart lies. I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time, but to me, it blasted the cap on [the issue]. I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, ‘Yeah, I effed up.’ In my defense, Tropic Thunder is about how wrong [blackface] is, so I take exception.”
APOLOGIZED: Model Karlie Kloss made waves when she wore a Native American headdress — which is traditionally worn during special occasions by men who have done brave deeds in battle — during the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
Both Victoria’s Secret and Kloss apologized (with Kloss saying she was “deeply sorry”), and the outfit was cut from the broadcast of the show, a decision Kloss said she supported.
“The song kind of has that almost Hindu feel, that tribal feel. I kind of wanted to translate that,” Gomez said in defending her actions. “Plus, I’ve been learning a lot about my seven chakras and bindis and stuff. I’ve learned a lot about the culture, and I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s fun to incorporate that into the performance.” She also said if you educate yourself on a culture, “you should have the freedom to enjoy it.”
APOLOGIZED: Eddie Redmayne played Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to undergo a sex reassignment surgery in The Danish Girl. While his performance was acclaimed and won him an Oscar nod, he says he wouldn’t take the role today. “I made that film with the best intentions, but I think it was a mistake,” he said.
“The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table. There must be a leveling; otherwise, we are going to carry on having these debates,” he continued, addressing feedback that the role should’ve gone to a trans actor.
DOUBLED DOWN: For Renée Zellweger’s role as Pam Hupp in The Thing About Pam, she wore a fat suit. Speaking about the decision, she emphasized the need to look as much like Pam as possible: “Because she seems so familiar; she seems like someone that we recognize and we know.”
“In order for you to better understand how possible it might be that people would project onto her who they are sure that she might be or what kind of person she might be, it just seemed really important that we got as close to that as we could,” she continued.
APOLOGIZED: To portray Linda Tripp in American Crime Story, Sarah Paulson gained 30 pounds and wore a fat suit. She acknowledged the criticism and said the “controversy is a legitimate one. I think fat phobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm, and it is a very important conversation to be had.”
However, she also said that the decision to wear a fat suit wasn’t only hers, and that she felt she was cast because she was right for the role. Paulson says she should’ve known backlash would follow, though, and that she regrets “not thinking about it more fully. And that is an important thing for me to think about and reflect on. I also know it’s a privileged place to be sitting and thinking about it and reflecting on it, having already gotten to do it, and having had an opportunity that someone else didn’t have. You can only learn what you learn when you learn it.”
DOUBLED DOWN: Iggy Azalea donned a sari and bindi for her music video for “Bounce.” While some found it to be a fun Bollywood-inspired affair, others felt the video was an example of cultural appropriation — claims that Azalea never directly addressed.
However, according to BRTHR, who directed the video, care was taken to hire an Indian producer and Indian locals. And while Azalea did not address these specific accusations of appropriation, she did speak on general ones in 2019, calling cultural appropriation “subjective” and saying, “I’m still going to make the same type of music and still be ridiculous and larger than life. So I can’t be that fucking sorry about it.”
APOLOGIZED: Greta Van Fleet frontman Josh Kiszka became pretty well-known for his Native American-inspired costumes onstage. After being publicly called out, he apologized this year, also making a donation to the nonprofit First Nations Development Institute, which assists Native American tribes.
Speaking about his deep appreciation for the Chippewa tribe established during his childhood in Michigan, Kiszka wrote on Instagram that he recognized “the harm that ignorance can have on marginalized communities,” saying he’d never want to perpetuate it. “Hate, disrespect, and prejudice of any kind are not welcome in this community. As I’ve come into adulthood, I’ve been able to grow and learn. This growth has not stopped and will not stop here.”
DOUBLED DOWN: Katy Perry garnered controversy when she performed her song “Unconditionally” at the American Music Awards as a Geisha in a kimono. She chose the costume because she loves Japan and “spectacle,” and felt Geishas fit the message of the song. “I was thinking about unconditional love, and I was thinking: Geishas are basically, like, the masters of loving unconditionally.”
In response to criticism, Perry said she felt people misunderstood. “All I was trying to do is just give a very beautiful performance about a place that I have so much love for and find so much beauty in, and that was exactly where I was coming from, with no other thought besides it.”
APOLOGIZED: Fisher Stevens, a white man, played the role of an Indian man in Short Circuit and its sequel. However, he had originally been told the role would be a white man. “They rewrote it, and were like, ‘Can you play it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can do it. Let me learn.’ Stevens said he was a young actor trying to get his break when it happened, and he said he tried his best to learn about India and its culture before filming.
Fisher said looking back on the role now, “It definitely haunts me. I still think it’s a really good movie, but I would never do that part again. The world was a different place in 1986, obviously.”
DOUBLED DOWN: Jared Leto, a cisgender man, played a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club. His performance was critically acclaimed (earning him an Oscar), but many felt a transgender actor should’ve been cast.
Speaking to a heckler who said he didn’t deserve awards for the role at a Q&A, Leto replied, “Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part? So you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian — they can’t play a straight part? … Then you’ve made sure people that are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art.”
APOLOGIZED: Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry in 1999. While she has doubled down on the decision to cast her, she says the same choice would not and should not have been made today.
At the time the movie came out, Swank says, “Trans people weren’t really walking around in the world saying, ‘Hey, I’m trans. Twenty-one years later, not only are trans people having their lives and living, thankfully, [although] we still have a long way to go in their safety and their inclusivity, but we now have a bunch of trans actors who would obviously be a lot more right for the role and have the opportunity to actually audition for the role.”
DOUBLED DOWN: C. Thomas Howell played a white Harvard student dressing as a Black man to get a scholarship reserved for Black students in Soul Man. In a 2013 interview, Howell said he’d recently rewatched the film and was “shocked at how truly harmless that movie is, and how the anti-racial message involved in it is so prevalent.”
“I still don’t understand, and I guess this is just my own ignorance, the fact that certain people really hate the whole blackface idea, because this isn’t a movie about blackface,” Howell continued. “It’s not like I’m Al Jolson in blackface singing ‘Mammy.’ … It’s 180 degrees from that. It’s an innocent movie, it’s got innocent messages, and it’s got some very, very deep messages. And I think the people that haven’t seen it that judge it are horribly wrong.”
DOUBLED DOWN: Jenette Goldstein, who is Jewish and of Russian, Moroccan, and Brazilian descent, played a Latina woman in Aliens. Her skin was darkened using makeup for the role.
In a 2016 interview, Goldstein acknowledged that the same casting probably wouldn’t happen now, and that “there should be, obviously, roles available in a wide range of ethnicities, I think.” However, she also emphasized that there are Latino Jews, and suggested that you shouldn’t only be able to play your own ethnicity: “I have never been cast, or given the opportunity to audition for a short, freckle-faced Jewish girl who is half-Russian and half-Moroccan and Brazilian. So I don’t think I would work very much if that’s all I was able to read for.”
And finally, APOLOGIZED: Eiza González wore blackface for a role in the 2000s Mexican telenovela Lola, érase una vez, and apologized in 2020 when images surfaced on social media, saying she was only 15 at the time and was pressured against her will. “I am deeply sorry and ashamed about having worn blackface makeup shown in the images circulating,” she told Page Six.
“With no negotiating power, I could not advocate for myself in the situation. I wish I had the voice and knowledge then that I have now,” she continued. In contrast, she defended her use of yellowface on a trip to Japan, saying she had been told by her host it was “considered an intercultural exchange to dress up in their traditional clothing and makeup” and that it was “seen as an appreciation of their culture,” though out of context, she said it did call “for a dialogue about contemporary cultural appropriation.”