Actors of Color Who Have Played Roles Originally Written as White

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who Played White Roles
Photo: Marvel. The CW. Design: Allison Kahler/STYLECASTER.

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It’s no secret whitewashing is a problem in Hollywood. Even in 2018, directors are still casting white actors to play characters who were supposed to be people of color. And though whitewashing isn’t the only problem in Hollywood when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, there have been recent moves by actors and audiences to portray more diverse stories on screen, starting with casting actors of color in roles originally written as white.

MORE: How ‘Grown-ish’ Star Francia Raisa Broke Free of Latina Typecasting

From Marvel movies to modern reboots, more and more directors are using their power to race-bend roles and cast diverse faces in recognizable franchises. Almost none of these roles are tied to race, so why can’t someone who’s Black, Asian, Latinx or any other person of color play them? Having actors of color play characters originally written as white won’t end whitewashing, but it’s a start. Ahead, read about 10 characters who were originally written as white but later played by actors of color.

Quvenzhané Wallis: Annie (2014)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Annie"

Columbia Pictures.

In 2014, Wallis starred as Annie Bennett in the contemporary remake of 1977’s Broadway musical Annie. The role, once played by Sarah Jessica Parker, has been historically done by white actresses with red curly hair. In a 2014 interview with Elle, the film’s director, Will Gluck, talked about casting Wallis in the role and why the themes of the story, which follows an orphan taken in by a billionaire, were universal, regardless of race. “We just wanted a modern girl,” Gluck said. “And when you see the movie, it’s not about her race. It’s just about a headstrong girl who cares about everyone around her. And that’s Quvenzhané.” The film also race-bent the role of Will Stacks, played by Jamie Foxx, the billionaire who takes Annie in.

Camila Mendes: Riverdale (2017)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Riverdale"

The CW.

In the Archie Comics, Veronica Lodge is white with pale skin and dark hair. But in its TV adaptation, Riverdale, the character is played by Mendes, who is Brazilian. Given Veronica’s breakdown, Mendes expected the character to be played by a white actress (think Krysten Ritter), which is why she almost didn’t bother auditioning. “When I got the audition, the thing I was most excited about was that they were making Veronica Latina,” she told Coveteur in 2017. “In the beginning, my agent and I saw the breakdown and before they had even announced that they were looking for someone multicultural, my agent said, ‘Oh, you know they are probably going to cast a Krysten Ritter type.’ A white pin-up-looking girl. I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right!’ So I disregarded it.”

It wasn’t until later that Mendes learned the Riverdale creators were planning for Veronica to be Latina, which is when she called her agent immediately to get her an audition. “I was like, ‘Ugh! I wish I could audition for that.’ And then I meet with one of my girlfriends and she is super Latina and she is, like, going out for Veronica and she was like, ‘They’re making her Latina!’” Mendes said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ So I call my agent immediately and I was like, ‘You need to get me in that room!’ She told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re on it.’”

Melonie Diaz, Madeleine Mantock, Sarah Jeffery: Charmed (2018)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Charmed"

The CW:

The original Charmed, which ran on the WB from 1998 to 2006, centered on three white sisters who were witches. In 2018, the show was remade with three actresses of color in the lead role. Diaz, who plays Mel (based on Holly Marie Combs’s Piper), is Latina. Mantock, who plays Macy (based on Shannen Doherty’s Prue), is Afro-Caribbean. Jeffery, who plays Maggie (based on Alyssa Milano’s Phoebe), is African-American.

Michael B. Jordan: Fantastic Four (2015)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Fantastic Four"

20th Century Fox.

In the Fantastic Four comics, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) is a white man. The character was also played by a white actor, Chris Evans, in 2005’s Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel. But when it came for the franchise to be remade in 2015, the director looked at Jordan to fill the superhero’s fiery shoes. In a 2015 essay for Entertainment Weekly, Jordan responded to criticism over his casting, explaining that the world—and Hollywood—is more diverse than it once was.

“The world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961. Plus, if Stan Lee writes an email to my director saying, ‘You’re good. I’m OK with this,’ who am I to go against that?” he wrote.

Priyanka Chopra: Quantico (2016)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Quantico"


Quantico‘s Alex Parrish was Chopra’s first starring role on TV in the United States. But before the Indian actress was cast, the directors originally saw the character being played by a white actress. In an interview with Fader, Chopra talked about the role originally being written as a white woman and why it made sense, story-wise, for her character to be half-Indian and still be half-white.

“You see her relationship with her father. The story hinges on her relationship with her dad. At that time, when Alex’s father was in the FBI, it was important to be born in America. That was the case 20 years ago. The story would’ve altered a lot if Alex were completely Indian. So we changed it to Alex’s mom being Indian,” Chopra told Fader in 2015. “That explained my ethnicity and as for my accent… that’s why we adjusted the story so Alex lived in India for 10 years. It helps with the story. They had to conform a little to explain me. But I was clear that I didn’t want to change Alex’s character too much. I wanted to be able to fit into it. So, we didn’t change the name.”

Sandra Oh: Killing Eve (2018)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Killing Eve"

BBC America.

In Codename Villanelle, the book in which BBC America’s Killing Eve is based on, the character of Eve was written as white. The role was race-bent when Oh, who is Korean-Canadian, was cast. In a 2018 interview with Elle, Oh talked about the character’s origins and why she was “pleased” that the creators of the show were interested in looking at other races for the role. “As I interpreted the novella, Eve was white,” Oh said. “I am not white. I am Asian. And I was extremely pleased that that was taken into consideration in the casting, and also wasn’t taken into consideration in the casting, if you know what I’m saying.”

Shay Mitchell: Pretty Little Liars (2010)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Pretty Little Liars"


Mitchell’s character in Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars, Emily Fields, was written as a red-haired, fair-skinned girl next door in the books the series was based on. But when the creators were looking to cast the character for the show, they looked at more diverse actresses, eventually deciding on Mitchell, who is half-Filipina. In a 2017 interview with Ocean Drive, Mitchell talked about the backlash she faced for her casting and how she’s the “new version of the girl next door.”

“The criticism started when I first went into the PLL role and [the critics said], ‘Oh, she doesn’t look anything like the character,'” she said.  “‘The character is supposed to have red hair, fair complexion, and freckles; she looks nothing like that.’ I thought, ‘All right, that was the girl next door, and I’m the new version of the girl next door.’ The world is a melting pot now. It’s no longer the typical American girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.”

Tessa Thompson: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Thor: Ragnarok"


In Marvel’s Thor comics, Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, is supposed to be fair-skinned and blonde-haired. The role was race-bent when Thompson, who is Afro-Panamanian, was cast in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. In a 2017 interview with Bustle, Thompson talked about the criticism for her casting and why it doesn’t bother her.

“There’s definitely an element of it where you go, OK, that’s just racism. Not cool.” she said. “We just do what we do and we hope that people respond to it and we ignore the ones that don’t. Idris Elba [who plays Heimdall in the Thor movies] needs company. He can’t be the only Black person in the neighborhood.”

Zendaya: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Spider-Man: Homecoming"


Though it’s unclear if Zendaya’s role in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming is actually Mary Jane Watson, a fair-skinned redhead in the Spider-Man comics, we do know that the role was originally written for a white actress. In a 2018 interview with Marie Claire, Zendaya, who is half-Black, revealed that her character, Michelle Jones, was supposed to be played by a white actress—until she walked in the room.

“At first I thought I would have to because you’re kind of used to the notion that, OK, even though the character is fictional and could be anybody, they probably are going to go with the standard of what they want and what they’ve always had,” Zendaya said. “I definitely went into it like, ‘Hopefully they’ll—as they call it in the industry—go ethnic.’”

Lucy Liu: Charlie’s Angels (2000)

STYLECASTER | Actors of Color Who've Played White Characters | "Charlie's Angels"

Columbia Pictures.

The original Charlie’s Angels, which ran on TV from 1976 to 1981, featured three white actresses in the lead roles. When the TV series was made into a film in 2000, the characters were rebooted with two actors of color—Cameron Diaz, who is half-Cuban, and Liu, who is Taiwanese-American.