Joseph Fiennes defends being cast as Michael Jackson, suggests people use imagination

Joseph Fiennes, left, will play Michael Jackson in an upcoming TV comedy short.

Joseph Fiennes, left, will play Michael Jackson in an upcoming TV comedy short.

( Left, Evan Agostini / Associated Press; right, Junko Kimura / Getty Images)

Outraged about Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson in the upcoming “Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon”? The actor would, it seems, suggest that you check your upset and look at it from a different perspective — that of colorblind casting.

“This is territory that is sensitive,” he told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “One must determine if this portrayal is one that is going to be positive entertainment and one that will not bring about division and put anyone’s noses out of joint, so I went with the mind that this was a positive lighthearted comedy.”

The half-hour TV comedy “Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon” — part of a series looking at unlikely events in the arts and cultural history — is a look at a cross-country road trip supposedly undertaken by icons Taylor, Jackson and Brando while air travel was shut down after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


“This is not a movie; it’s a small television 20-minute sketch. It’s a very sweet comedy that looks at Michael, Marlon and Taylor,” Fiennes told the AP. “I wouldn’t be the guy for the job,” he said, if the project were anything more than what it is.

Still, news of the white Brit playing the black pop star in a half-hour TV comedy emerged at what the L.A. Times described in late January as “a time of heightened sensitivity around the issue of race in popular culture prompted by the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations” — during #OscarsSoWhite, for short. Outrage was inevitable.

At the time, the “Shakespeare in Love” star told Entertainment Tonight, “I’m a white, middle-class guy from London. I’m as shocked as you may be” about the show’s casting choice.

“[Jackson] definitely had an issue — a pigmentation issue — and that’s something I do believe,” the actor continued. “He was probably closer to my color than his original color.”

(At this point, dear reader, you may either be thinking, “You go, dude!,” or cringing. The choice is yours.)

Fiennes explained during his AP interview: “I deal in imagination, so I don’t think imagination should have rules stamped on them. If it promotes stereotyping, then it’s wrong. I made a distinction that the Jackson project doesn’t do that.”


Earlier in his career, he said, he’d been confused by what he saw as a couple of theater critics’ lack of flexible thinking when it came to a black actress being cast to portray a famous white woman.

“Twenty years ago I worked for the National Theatre as a dresser,” Fiennes said. “I saw a brilliant actress do Marilyn Monroe. Two critics refused to see it because she was black. I was working it from behind the stage and I couldn’t understand it because she was Marilyn for me. It was a lack of imagination on their part.”

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