Armageddon Time director James Gray defends choice to cast non-Jewish actors as Jewish characters

James Gray
James Gray

Director James Gray’s new film Armageddon Time is inspired by his childhood in 1980 Queens, with Banks Repeta playing a young version of him and Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play his parents. One casting decision that has drawn some controversy, though, is Anthony Hopkins playing Gray’s Jewish grandfather—since Hopkins himself is not Jewish. It’s a thing that has come up a lot in the last few years, like with Sarah Silverman accusing Showtime of “Jewface” by casting non-Jewish person Kathryn Hahn to play Joan Rivers, but Gray won’t hear it.

Speaking with The New York Times about the film and about the kinds of stories it tells, Gray said that he takes “huge offense” to the idea that someone like Hopkins shouldn’t be playing a Jewish character. He says that it makes him think that people just want a character who reads as stereotypically Jewish, but he says, “That’s not what my grandfather was like. And I’m Jewish.” He adds, “I reserve the right to cast someone like Anthony Hopkins,” on the grounds that, at some point, “we have to acknowledge that our whole function as artists is to try and step into the consciousness of someone else and find compassion and find something of emotional power in doing that.”

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The movie is partially about the James Gray character (he’s called Paul) and his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is Black, and the different way they’re treated when they get arrested for stealing something from school. Gray says the criticism about who he casts “would be valid” if he were the one trying to tell the story from Johnny point of view, but he’s not and “that would be asinine” if he did. “But it’s my story,” he says, “And you don’t have to say that my story is of value, but that’s a different criticism.” Basically, he’s saying that, since the movie is about his own life and he’s the one making it, then he reserves the right to cast whoever he wants.

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