Joseph Fiennes on Playing Michael Jackson: We Need ‘Colorblind Casting at All Levels’

Fiennes — a white, British actor — will play Michael Jackson in the upcoming Sky Arts production, “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon”

Joseph Fiennes explains playing Michael Jackson
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White actor Joseph Fiennes understands why “people are up in arms” over his portrayal of Michael Jackson in the upcoming Sky TV comedy “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” but he takes the outrage as a reminder of the importance of “colorblind casting.”

Fiennes recalls seeing a play in the National Theatre, where a black woman portrayed Marilyn Monroe in “After the Fall.” He also recalls critics refusing to even see the play because of the casting choice.

“From that moment, I realized how important colorblind casting was, and when I went to drama school and went through my career in theater, I’ve known nothing but colorblind casting,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It might offer something new and fresh and funny; as long as it doesn’t become disenfranchising, racial or rude or stereotypical — then it’s the wrong place. But if it’s offering something else that’s positive in discussion, we have to entertain colorblind casting at all levels.”

The Internet was buzzing with outrage when news broke that Fiennes — a white, British actor — is playing Michael Jackson in the upcoming Sky Arts production, “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon.” However, Fiennes believes that the only reason the casting is an issue is because of the current Oscar diversity debate, sparked when the Academy failed to nominate a single person of color for the second year in a row.

“It’s an important conversation I want to go into in depth because it demands that — that I shot this last autumn, and the Internet had the information at the end of last year, for a long time,” he said. “It was only in doing a little publicity that it got caught up in the whole Oscar conversation.”

However, Fiennes doesn’t want to dismiss the importance of having that conversation, and believes that debates like this “shape our industry.”

“I think outrage is good, as long as it doesn’t get into a violent shouting match,” he added. “These conversations are really important and they shape our industry. It’s vital to have them. I kind of welcome it. You can’t do this and not welcome it.”

In the past, Fiennes has said that he didn’t see anything wrong with the idea of playing a black man while he himself is white. At a junket with TheWrap for his upcoming film “Risen,” Fiennes said, however, that he admittedly did have some reservations when first approached about the project. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I think someone’s got this wrong. I mean, really?’” Fiennes recalled with a laugh.

Now, he adds that “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon,” a dramatization of an urban legend about Jackson, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor escaping New York City via rental car following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, focuses more on Jackson in his later years, when he “did look quite frankly rather differently.”

“It’s not a biopic, and it’s not Michael in his younger days. It’s Michael in his last days when, I have to say, he did look quite frankly rather differently than when we grew up with him in the ’80s or earlier. So it’s Michael as we last remembered him and how he looks. The decision with the casting and the producers — I wrangled with it, I was confused and shocked at what might come my way, and I knew the sensitivity, especially to Michael’s fans and to Michael’s family. It doesn’t negate who he was.”