The Welsh actress spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the controversy surrounding the new film, telling the outlet:
"This is just the way I see it, and people can take what they want from it: I am a Welsh actress, who doesn’t happen to look like what you think someone from Wales would look like... [F]or me to wait for a role that is fit for the way I look physically, that is not a Welsh role, where I don’t use my accent [would not happen]."
The star, who will portray the Colombian drug lord, added:
"This happens to be the third Hispanic I’ve played. I played the lead in Zorro, and I screen-tested with six Hispanic women, and I got the role. I don’t know what to say. And I was a complete unknown at this point; it wasn’t because I had a name or box-office value... I can't be the person to fight against a very big issue, and I won’t take on that role. There have been so many actors who have played 'against type.' That's sort of what we do."
Zeta-Jones is right about one thing: It's not entirely on actors to step away from roles that could, instead, go to a person of color. It's on the people casting those roles and producing those films to make a conscious effort to include this often underutilized talent.
According to a 2016 study from the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 70.8% of speaking characters in 2016's top 100 films were white, while only 3.1% were Hispanic. Given the lack of visibility of Hispanic people onscreen, shouldn't we cast Hispanic actors to portray the few that are given weighty roles?
Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez certainly agrees. On the red carpet at The Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, the CW actress called out the industry for not showing the world as it really is. She told E! News:
"I mean, [Hispanic people] do make [up] 55 million plus in the country — no big deal — you should throw us in a movie or two, it would make sense. We do buy 1 in every 4 tickets every single weekend and make sure that your movies do well. So it would do you a service. And not only service, it would be — I don’t know — integrity."
While Zeta-Jones defended her decision to portray a Hispanic woman yet again, another actor chose to step down from a role in order to avoid whitewashing. Ed Skrein, a white actor cast in the Hellboy reboot in a role originally intended for an Asian man, exited the film, stating that to "neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts."
Representation is vital, especially when huge portions of the population feel that they don't see themselves on screen. Hopefully, the more people discuss issues of whitewashing, the more people of color will be able to actually portray roles originally designed with them in mind.