By Joseph Hammond
In a secretly recorded session, one of Hollywood’s top acting coaches recently told one of her white Jewish students to pretend to be Hispanic to land roles–touching off a firestorm in studio offices and anonymous actor’s online forums. Some were outraged that Lesley Khan, a costly coach who is seen as the key to success for comedy actors, would violate political correctness so blatantly, while others vented frustration for being repeatedly passed over for auditions because, they believed, they “are white or Jewish.”
Kahn “should be deeply ashamed of herself,” the National Hispanic Media Coalition said in a statement to the media, while demanding a meeting to discuss the covertly recorded audio file and “diversity in the entertainment media.”
Kahn has formally apologized online and in person.
“Stop admitting to being a huge Jew, ok?” Lesley Kahn told a student in front of dozens of acting students, in a session taped by one of the participants. Kahn, who is Jewish, suggested the young woman adopt a Hispanic-identity. “The Latin could actually get you interviews for representation. Just the fact that your [new] name is Rosa Ramirez is gonna get you a meeting. … So you might try it. … Go to the headshot shop and tell them you’re Latin. Wear something f*cking red. Wear some f*cking sparkly earrings. Change your goddamned name, and let’s just do an experiment.”
In the recording, Kahn also makes offensive comments after a student tells her people think she is Armenian.
“F*ck the Armenian, that’s not going to help you. The Latin could get you interviews for representation.”
Kahn, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama who has trained scores of aspiring actors, has apologized for her remarks on Twitter. “I sincerely apologize for my recent comments. I believe in diversity and inclusion in the arts and in all areas of life. As a Jewish woman, I understand the pain that can come from being discriminated against.”
Alex Nogales, the president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition condemned the remarks and asked to meet with Lesly Kahn to discuss the sensitive issue. His group says only 3.1% of speaking roles in Hollywood go to Latino actors. He is planning a protest on Saturday at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood to protest the lack of Latino representation in Hollywood. The theatre is scheduled to host the 90th Academy Awards the next day.
The comments have struck a raw nerve as Hollywood continues on its rollercoaster ride regarding race and gender. The industry has been plagued by sexual scandal since allegations arose concerning producer Harvey Weinstein’s harassment and assault of women. In the months since, dozens of other stars have been accused of misconduct.
More recently, however, the entertainment industry has been drawing accolades from reviewers for its sensitive portrayal of minority issues in the film “Black Panther. “
The comments by Kahn, who is widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s major acting coaches, returns the spotlight to Hollywood’s dark side. “Hollywood rightly received much acclaim for the recently released ‘Black Panther’ which defied racial stereotypes,” said Alberto Arellano, a communications expert in Hollywood. “This scandal also comes as most people in Hollywood are trying to turn their attention to the Oscars.”
Arellano added, “Forcing a non-Latina student to change her name to a Latina name sends the wrong message about promoting diversity, this can cause outrage in the Hispanic/Latino community. No matter who we are and what we, we must acknowledge everyone’s ethnic background including our own.”
Sahndra Fon Dufe, an actress-author-activist from Cameroon, said Kahn’s remarks highlight a troubling reality often obscured by the bright lights. “As an African actress I remain concerned even after “Black Panther,” she said, “There are still limits on the roles I can play because of my color, accent, and gender. So find out people in trusted positions are trying to take away finite opportunities from certain groups of actors is frightening.”
Other Hollywood insiders point out the irony of Kahn’s suggestion that her student pretend to be a minority. Not long ago it was common for famous actors to play ethnic minorities, such as John Wayne’s 1956 portrayal of Genghis Khan, the 13th century Mongolian warrior who founded the Mongol Empire. In the past Hispanic actors often changed their names in hopes of getting better parts. Martin Sheen was born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez. Rita Hayworth one of the most prominent actresses of the 1940s and 1950s was born Margarita Carmen Cansino.
“[Kahn’s remarks] demonstrate the reverse racism in Hollywood,” said a Hollywood senior producer who declined to comment on the record due to the sensitivity of the matter. “White actors are being told to fake being ethnic to get roles and have a shot at careers.”