Noises Off: casting director Nina Gold on English roles going to foreigners

So what if the Canadian actress Ellen Page has been cast as Jane Eyre? No one fussed about Australian Cate Blanchett playing Queen Elizabeth

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All the fuss about Ellen Page being cast as Jane Eyre for a BBC film is misplaced. I think she's got the part because she's a really good actress and the producers must think she's the best person for the part. Not to cast on the basis of her being the wrong nationality would be mad. Page has shown her range not only in Juno, but also in her breakout role in Hard Candy, where she played a young girl with an internet stalker who is not as innocent as she seems.

I think we, the British, feel very proprietorial about Jane Eyre, and the fact that people associate Page with a very young culture is another hurdle for them to get over to allow her to be a classical heroine – but I reckon she's got a lot more than just the Juno string to her bow. She can really act.

In terms of casting for major films, the world is a tiny place these days and the film industry is international. For casting directors, it's natural to look wider than just within Britain.

In all the furore about Ellen Page, it's funny how so many people have forgotten about other non-Brits playing Brits. Cate Blanchett (Queen Elizabeth, above, right) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma top, right) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones) come to mind. There was a fuss initially, but these actors quickly proved that they can pull it off, so we've got over it; the rules have been waived for them. In fact, we've slightly appropriated them as honorary Brits.

What doesn't get talked about, apart from the odd compliment on their skills, is the reverse – British actors playing Americans. It's hypocrisy, really. It dates back to Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, but recently there's been Dominic West playing a Baltimore cop in The Wire, plus Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Damian Lewis, Jonny Lee Miller and Matthew Rhys all playing American in various television dramas. At the moment Anna Friel is a convincing Yank in Pushing Daisies. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Americans all the time and we accept him because he's so bloody good. He's a good example of someone who does their homework.

What defines any actor playing "foreign" is that they must be exceptionally brilliant to pull it off – you don't want to get into Dick Van Dyke territory. The actors have to work harder because to get into the character they have to get into their voice – which means they have to get to grips with the accent and then be able to speak in that accent without thinking about it. If they are hardworking and talented, then good luck to them.

It maybe easier to play Jane Eyre than a contemporary British character because there's a cultural foundation. It's not just about the accent; there's a whole culture to absorb and put into the character. However, there are challenges for any actor playing a 19th-century character, whether it's Ellen Page or Emma Thompson.

I recently cast the Australian actress Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in the Jane Campion film Bright Star. It's about Keats (who is played by the young British actor Ben Whishaw) and his star-crossed love, Brawne. Of the actresses I saw, Abbie Cornish was the one who could really find all the different complexities of the character. She's Australian, but who cares?

The traditional view of American film acting is that it's less technical and that there's a certain amount of the actor just being themselves, whereas British actors are thought to be more about their craft and stepping into a character. That's a generalisation, of course, but it makes one wonder where does that leave Canadian Ellen Page? Able to get on with the task, I hope.

We have a wealth of brilliant acting talent here in Britain, without a doubt. I don't want to underestimate that. You do always think it would be great to cast with only British people but sometimes you can't ignore somebody really brilliant who happens to be from America, Canada or somewhere else entirely.

Perhaps there is something else going on with the casting of Page. Film producers want stars that can "open" a film, and it's a hard fact of movie-making that economics are important. Even if you want to make the film with a little-known but brilliant British actress, if no one will give you the money to do that, then the film just doesn't get made. But having said that, luckily Ellen Page is very much up to the task, as well as being a name.

Nina Gold is casting director to Mike Leigh, David Cronenberg and Robert Zemeckis, among others. She cast 'The Edge of Love', about Dylan Thomas and starring Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley, which is out on 20 June

Do you have an issue to raise in Noises Off? Email us at: noisesoff@independent.co.uk

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