Phil Hoad 

Freida Pinto and the rise of the ‘pan-ethnic’ star

Phil Hoad: The Slumdog Millionaire star is returning to her roots in Trishna, but her international roles hint at the declining importance of actors' ethnicity
  
  

Since Slumdog Millionaire, Freida Pinto has played a Palestinian orphan, an American primatologist, an ancient Greek priestess and an Arab princess. Either by adventurousness or design, it looks like she's striving to be a new kind of film star: one not bound in her roles by ethnicity, and able to appeal freely across those boundaries, too.

A few years ago, people were talking about Vin Diesel in similar tones. He was a throwback to 80s juiceheads like Arnie, but, with his mixed-race background, he also looked like an action star for multicultural times. That dream ended with the failure of his signature antihero Riddick's "chronicles". But then his Fast & Furious franchise, into its fifth instalment last year, weirdly impervious in its urban-petrolhead elysium, all peoples equally inaudible beneath the roar of a fat exhaust pipe, hints that the idea of a pan-ethnic star might still have a future.

Hang on, though – isn't appealing across ethnic lines what Hollywood has done since its Golden Age heyday? Hasn't its stable of stars, from Gish to Pitt, managed to seduce their way around the globe several times over? Well, yes – but they always had the air of colonists for Anglo-American culture. The more globalised and intermingled the world has become, the more anachronistic the A-list's predominantly Caucasian lineup looks. Hollywood – slow to produce black stars, and now Latino ones – has struggled to reflect the diversity inside America; that problem is multiplied a thousandfold now that its key market is the global one. No wonder the star system, saddled with supplying the new faces, has seized up.

You can see the attraction of a quick fix: universal stars who can transcend borders and assume multiple cultural identities. But Pinto, closing Steve Rose's recent interview, touched on the contradictions: "I like being the outsider in a way, everywhere I go. I know I'm from India and I fit in there completely, but I like looking at things from the outside. I don't want to be fitted in somewhere. I fit into the world."

Unfortunately, an outsider in the worst sense is what she has seemed like in too many of her roles, especially Miral and Black Gold. She might give a kohl-rimmed glimpse of a new, frictionless, globalised kind of stardom, but ethnicity, and the history that underlies it, still count. They give any drama its power dynamics and sense of place, and false notes always ring out. Would an Arab actor, in a historical film, have performed Pinto's daft soft-porn striptease in Black Gold?

Of course, modern blockbusters ask for these things. Perhaps making the public swallow them is part of Pinto's job description if the pan-ethnic star project is going to get off the ground. She's not quite there yet. And the work is getting harder: you certainly can't turn up and "do foreign" any more, like Sean Connery, who in Highlander delivered the only Spanish nobleman on record with a Scots accent. Even more convincing practitioners like Omar Sharif, who played Arab, Russian, Mexican, Argentine and virtually everything else, might struggle under the weight of scrutiny these days. Character actors get more leeway – like the Englishman Mark Strong, who plays a sheikh (very well) in Black Gold, and has played Arab before – but it's trickier for stars in the limelight.

The danger is that in trying to appeal to everyone, Pinto captivates no one, or just becomes some cheap signifier of the exotic. The danger is that, as a star property, her appeal will be shallow. That's arguably what happened to Diesel, albeit in a much pulpier sphere of entertainment. He was talked up as having the broadest possible audience, but has wound up with a narrow career, now apparently reduced to the Fast & Furious franchise and rumours of resurrecting Pitch Black.

His filmography certainly hasn't been stellar, but I think he also stepped – especially with the abortive xXx franchise, touted as a kind of multicultural 007 – into the kind of overly focus-grouped, demographic no-man's land that is the most artificial aspect of multiculturalism, and that infringes upon the rules of close audience identification on which stardom ultimately rests. James Bond's original constituency was end-of-empire fantasists, and men, and more besides. Who did Xander Cage appeal to? The Celtic-tattooed, extreme sports-loving badass outsider of indeterminate ghetto origin? Who the hell is even called "Xander Cage"?

Pinto has, to be fair, picked more grounded roles. And in Michael Winterbottom's Trishna, she returns to her own ethnicity – and turns in a performance of purpose and resonance at last. It's tempting to conclude that stars are most effective playing on home territory, but there's a danger in that, too. I do think that they still draw their power first as a crude kind of representative – why else would the cry be ongoing for more black A-listers to sit alongside Will Smith and Denzel Washington?

But that's just the start: stars of the highest luminosity always register beyond their community. The Fresh Prince is still worth $20m a film for a reason. And that's possible because ethnic categories break down in the crucible of story. The sharpest of divisions can be dissolved this way: Toby Miller's book Global Hollywood 2 cites screen studies of native Americans happy to identify with western pioneers in cowboy films. The French don't let his Norman-hating tendencies get in the way of cheering Robin des Bois. Everyone, no matter what their mother tongue, is part-American now.

These leaps of sympathy is what globalisation, on a good day, is about – and that will give possibilities for a new definition of stardom. But it is possible, as Pinto is doing, to stretch things too far. All things to all men might be a bit much, but there's no reason why the pan-ethnic celebrity can't be more things. The game is called acting, after all – but the golden rule is that it has to look natural. Jackie Chan struggled when he tried to go Hollywood, but the whole world understood him in his Hong Kong days when he was yelling in Cantonese and jumping on to bicycle seatposts. It goes for stardom, too, old- or new-school: you get the best reaction when you're being yourself.

• Trishna is out on Friday.

• What global box-office stories should we be writing about? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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