Thoughts on the Casting of Cleopatra

Lawrence Alma-Tadema oil on canvas painting of the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra.
 Lawrence Alma-Tadema

There has been a lot said about the news that Patty Jenkins, Laeta Kalogridis, and Gal Gadot are bringing Cleopatra VII back to life on the big screen once more. And, I have some thoughts.

Firstly, a few disclaimers: this piece will not in any way argue against Gadot’s casting based on her Jewish heritage as it has very little to do with what I think matters most in the casting of Cleopatra. Please do not bring any antisemitism into the comments or replies on this article. It is abhorrent and will not be tolerated. This isn’t a Gadot hate post, so you won’t find me being needlessly negative about her. My position has less to do with Gadot herself and has more to do with what a massive missed opportunity this whole endeavour presents.

Secondly, I am a massive Cleopatra fan – like I mean, huge! I have watched almost every iteration of Cleopatra that exists. I have read multiple biographies and fictional works about Cleopatra. I have decided to name my daughter or cat Cleopatra, depending on what comes first. Although I do like the idea of a Black actress playing Cleopatra, I don’t think it is entirely realistic given what I know about Cleopatra, her family, and how they ruled over Egypt. I believe that if this were an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra, sure, make Cleo hella brown. In fact, there is a precedent for it and I love to see it.

Thirdly, this perspective is based on the assumption that this biopic will skew as close to accuracy as it can and that the narrative will only seek to tell the story from Cleo’s perspective. With that in mind, accuracy, as it pertains to the lead actress, is important, but not necessarily vital. However, as most faithful biopics go, the prevailing thought is to get as close to reality as possible. This is opposed to something like the recently announced drama series about English queen Anne Boleyn (played by Black British-Jamaican actress Jodie Turner-Smith). As indicated in initial reporting the series aims to be a psychological thriller about the infamous queen and is intended to be convention-bending, hence the casting. It is also important to note that Turner-Smith playing Anne doesn’t strip opportunities away from white British actresses from playing Anne as she is a recurring character in many adaptations regarding the Tudors. In recent years, Natalie Dormer, Natalie Portman, Claire Foy, and numerous other white women have played Anne and will continue to portray her. There are numerous adaptations about or featuring royal members of the British monarchy every year; this adaptation of Anne’s final moments comes from a purely creative standpoint, whereas the casting of Cleopatra presents other issues.

Finally, I am in no way a scholar on Cleopatra. I have not gone grave robbing to learn things about the Ancient Egyptians who have held our attention for many centuries. I am purely someone who is a fan and is deeply invested in the conversation about representation, diversity, and inclusion. I hope to articulate the reasons why some people, like myself, aren’t too pleased about this particular casting. This is in no way a means to persuade anyone to feel any type of way or dispense hate. I just want to talk about my feelings and thoughts on the matter.

Let’s begin.

Oil on canvas painting of Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman
De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti

Cleopatra (both in fiction and history) has had every fibre of her being discussed, critiqued, dramatized, and falsified. The queen that reigned hundreds of years ago has left a lasting impression on all of us, despite being defeated in her own story. Despite this, she lived a life that was so incredibly dramatic and it is for this reason that she, unlike many other royal figures, has stood the test of time. She compels us even in death, we cannot help but be obsessed with the woman who even in failure successfully changed the course of history, oh and probably made the lives of men utterly miserable. I stan.

The queen has been depicted in every form of art imaginable and most famously played by the late Elizabeth Taylor in 1963’s Cleopatra. Throughout her various iterations, discussion about race and ethnicity in regards to the ancient ruler and the actresses portraying her have varied. I would argue that discussions of representational accuracy when it comes to depicting historical figures is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but one that has been given a greater platform due to the internet and social media in recent years. Now, the public, especially those who have concerns about representation, diversity and inclusion, have a place to voice their thoughts and have a greater chance of being heard. Arguments against the casting of white women as Cleopatra have existed before, but with the advent of social media, these issues are actually being heard. So, to those who say, “Where was this outrage when Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra?” I say, people were probably upset but didn’t have a platform to say anything and you just haven’t been paying attention. Also, let us not assume 1963 was anything like 2020. Times have changed and so have our demands of the entertainment industry, particularly when it comes to representation. 

What exactly is Cleopatra’s background? Well, she was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty meaning she was a descendent of Macedonian Greeks (mostly). There have been many debates about her mother’s ethnicity, but with all the incest and inbreeding going on, it is safe to assume that Cleo was likely very Greek. This has led many to defend the casting of Israeli-born Gadot, who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent and seventh-generation Sabra, suggesting geographical proximity to Greece and Egypt and her European ancestry makes her fit for the role. That being said, I will not make any arguments about whether Gadot is “white” or not as neither would discount her as a “right” pick for the role. Nor will I argue that Gadot’s perceived “whiteness” is what got her the role because it did not (she is a producer on this project alongside Jenkins and Kalogridis). Cleo’s Greek ancestry in fact would be argument enough for just about any “white” actress or actress of Mediterranean/European descent to play her. So, yea, Cleopatra was Greek, whether she would be considered white by today’s standards is still very much up for debate.

In the opposition role, many argue that despite Cleopatra being Greek she was the Queen of Egypt and an Egyptian actress should play her. This is the camp in which I fall under and I will explain why I believe that this opportunity should be given to an actress from Egypt. Modern-day Egypt is home to nearly 100 million people. The country, also known as the cradle of civilisation, has a very long history. A history that predates Cleopatra and her family. This history means that Egypt has a long cultural heritage that makes Egypt and its people what they are today. Genetically speaking, modern-Egyptians are not identical to Ancient Egyptians, in fact, Europeans are more closely related. However, genetics doesn’t necessarily beat cultural impact, nor do I think it should be wielded as means to dismiss an Egyptian actress from playing Cleo.

Poster of 1963's Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison
Twentieth Century Fox

Cleopatra herself has had a long-lasting impact on Egypt that can still be felt and seen today. As the ruler of Egypt (and other territories) she supported and imposed both Greek and Egyptian culture over the people. She styled herself in Egyptian garb, adopted the culture as her own, and thus “othered” herself in the eyes of her Roman enemies. She likened herself to the goddess Isis, and as the religious authority of the land, she oversaw many religious ceremonies to Egyptian and Greek deities. She is also said to be the first Ptolemaic ruler to actually learn the Egyptian language and was fluent in a number of other languages native to the region. However, she was still a Greek monarch that upheld the division of people, asserting that Greeks within Egypt were full citizens (poleis) despite being the minorities. Native Egyptians and Jews were forced to assimilate, were enslaved or largely marginalised. They could not marry Greeks or identify as such unless they relinquished their culture. Cleo and her family were colonisers, this is what colonisers do. All of this is to say that Cleopatra, like the rulers before her and after her, forced their way of life across the land, and it stuck.

There are many who will bring up the point that Europeans are more closely related to Ancient Egyptians genetically to argue why Gadot is right for Cleopatra, but I would like to pose another question with this context in mind: What are the reasons against an Egyptian actress playing Cleopatra? Would it not stand to reason that modern-day Egyptians are just as much descendants of the Macedonian Greeks who occupied the land centuries ago as the Greeks who remained in Greece or migrated elsewhere? Are we so married to the idea of genetic accuracy that we should overlook an entire country that has a wealth of talent to offer? This isn’t a case of a Chinese actress playing a culturally specific role like a Japanese geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha. Simply, this slight change in casting would just put an otherwise marginalised talent in the spotlight, but would not stray from who Cleopatra was. She prided herself as being the Queen of Egypt and left her mark.

If you take a look at the list of actresses who have played Cleopatra on the screen in Western media (not counting adaptations of Shakespeare’s play and other overtly fictionalised adaptations), it is overwhelmingly white actresses from various European backgrounds. As far as I can tell, no Greek actresses have played her in any major capacity, but Italian actresses Sophia Loren and Monica Bellucci have (I’m sure Cleopatra was rolling in her tomb when she learned that Romans played her). Several years later, HBO’s Rome brought back the queen and opted for British actress Lyndsey Marshal.

Egyptian Cultural Performing Arts Society Inc.

It was very difficult to find any Egyptian actresses credited as playing Cleo in Western media and it’s safe to say that in the history of Hollywood and Western productions, there has never been an Egyptian actress to portray the role. The only Egyptian actress to have played Cleopatra in a significant manner is Layla Taj, an Egyptian belly dancer. The dancer (who is a descendent of Greek Athenians) performs for the Egyptian Cultural Performing Arts Society Inc., an organisation dedicated to educating the public about Egyptian culture. She portrayed Cleopatra in a signature dance called “Wings of Isis” in a program titled “Journey Down the Nile”, a multi-media Egyptian cultural program. The piece was about the queen’s obsession with the Egyptian goddess Isis. As you can tell, the history of Hollywood’s depiction of Cleo has benefited a certain set of actresses, but rarely is the opportunity open to women of colour, and it’s even rarer to see an Egyptian woman as the iconic Egyptian Queen.

If we take a step back from Cleopatra and take a look at Hollywood’s portrayal of Egyptians (whether inspired, ancient or modern), rarely will you find Egyptian actors in those roles. The only significant example of an Egyptian actor playing an Ancient Egyptian is Rami Malek (who also has Greek ancestry) in the Night of the Museum movies. In the last decade (2010-2019) there have been at least a dozen films set in Ancient Egypt with many of the casting choices being blatant examples of whitewashing or another insidious practise I’d like to call “close-washing”. This practice is casting people who are not white, but who aren’t necessarily racially or ethnically correct for the part. It avoids whitewashing criticisms, but is still not great. In 2017’s The Mummy Algerian-French actress Sofia Boutella played Ahmanet the titular Mummy that was inspired by the Egyptian goddess, Amunet. 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse saw En Sabah Nur a.k.a. Apocalypse played by definitely not Egyptian Oscar Isaac. In 2017 it was announced that Dwayne Johnson would once again play an Ancient Egyptian-inspired character Black Adam after his first leading role ever in the Scorpion King. Also from 2016, Gods of Egypt which received some heavy backlash attempted to check that diversity box by having African-American actor Chadwick Boseman (Rest in Peace, King) and French-Cambodian actress Élodie Yung playing Egyptian gods amongst a mostly white ensemble. The film also cast actress Courtney Eaton as an Egyptian slave-girl when she is of Chinese, Māori, and Cook Island Māori ancestry. Funnily enough, Gods of Egypt had one thing going for it, and that was director Alex Proyas, an Egyptian-born director with Greek ancestry.

Most infamously, Exodus: Gods and Kings had no Egyptian actors in the main cast and gave us this quote from director Ridley Scott, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such, I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” Ridley Scott, one of the most celebrated directors ever apparently can’t get a film made with Egyptian or even Jewish actors to lead this specific story? I find that difficult to believe. 

In my research of films and TV about Ancient Egypt, I found that more Latinx actors have played Ancient Egyptians than actual Egyptian actors. Actors from other regions of the Middle East and North Africa have played Egyptians too, as well as a number of South Asian actors, like in the historical miniseries Tut which starred Avan Jogia and Ben Kingsley. Time and time again, Egyptian actors are shut out from playing, well, themselves (or their historical selves).

Another argument raised is, “If Egyptians are mad, why don’t they produce their own Cleopatra movie?” One, this completely underestimates the great barriers that stand between marginalised groups and big-budget productions in Hollywood. Two, this assumes that all Hollywood talent are equal and have equal opportunities (they don’t). This is a production that will be wildly seen across the world, with a budget and studio that are willing to push for it to succeed. It is incredibly naive to believe that anyone who aren’t Gadot and Jenkins would be given that sort of support. So, yes, that argument is needlessly obtuse.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in a still for 'Wonder Woman 84'.
Warner Bros

Gadot and Jenkins both became breakout hits due to Wonder Woman. Gadot wasn’t necessarily a “nobody” when cast as Wonder Woman, but she certainly wasn’t a household name or considered the box office draw that she is now. Jenkins may have directed the film Monster (which gave Charlize Theron her Oscar), but she wasn’t the name director that she is today. As they are the ones leading the charge on the film alongside Kalogridis, they are obviously coming from a personally motivated place. 

Gadot coming off the high of bringing to life DC’s greatest heroine is obviously invested in playing powerful women as she has also set her sights on adapting the life of Hedy Lamarr to Apple TV (which she will also produce and star in). Jenkins (next to Kathryn Bigelow and Ava DuVernay) is one of the biggest women directors in the business. Kalogridis, who co-wrote Alexander, the epic about that other famous Macedonian that ruled Egypt, is finally able to write about one of the most famous Greek women to ever live, and she said as much when the news broke. In this trio’s eyes, they may not see anything wrong with their pursuit. They don’t see this as a missed opportunity, but I think it really is.

All three can make an empowering film about one of the most exalted women in human history that challenges the very male lens through which she has been viewed for centuries. They can do that while championing an actress that would otherwise never get the opportunity to front a production that will surely be massive in size and scope. This will be no small budget affair, especially not with the duo who gave us the near billion-dollar success that is Wonder Woman. No Egyptian actress, in fact, no actress from the Middle East will have the type of name recognition and success Gadot has right now. Whether she plays Cleopatra or not will not diminish her star power. So, I have to ask, why not throw support behind an Egyptian actress who is just as worthy to play Cleopatra? In a time where diversity is lauded, there is a lot to be gained by casting a working Egyptian actress who doesn’t have name recognition, that is a “nobody”. Just as Gadot was a relative “nobody” before winning the role of a lifetime, Wonder Woman. This goes beyond just cultural or ethnic accuracy (both of which could be accomplished with an Egyptian actress), this is about the opportunity.

When I see or hear arguments that are variations of “she’s a name talent” and “she is a box office draw”, I think of an excellent quote from Ming Na Wen that has stuck with me. In discussing the very few opportunities afforded to Asian actors in Hollywood Wen said, “Unless they give Asian actors the opportunity to be box office smashes by giving them roles, how are we going to be able to prove that we can be profitable, you know? That’s the catch-22.” How is there to be any Egyptian box office draws or name talent when they are not given the opportunities? 

At present, we have a few significant Egyptian talents that are killing it. Rami Malek is the first Oscar-winning actor of Egyptian descent. Golden Globe-winner Ramy Youssef is the first actor of Egyptian-descent to win for comedy. Recently, Mena Massoud played the titular role in Disney’s live-action Aladdin, and has spoken about the difficulty getting auditions after starring in the film despite being the titular lead. This news came on the heels of Disney greenlighting a spin-off for the singular white character in the film, Prince Anders. And on the small-screen, there is Zeeko Zaki, star of CBS’s FBI who is the first Egyptian-born Arab-American to be cast as a protagonist in a major US network show. Clearly, there are people working in the industry, who are from Egypt and/or of Egyptian-descent.

Meaty roles for women are still too few in Hollywood; even fewer the further away they are from whiteness. Landing a role like this could be the chance of a lifetime for any actress, but even more so for an Egyptian one. I hope that this backlash does not dissuade Jenkins, Gadot and Kalogridis from pursuing the film, even though I highly doubt it will after Paramount won the bidding war over it. It seems pretty set in stone. A new Cleopatra film has been in the works for a very long time, and finally, the right star director and actress managed to get it done. It would be naive to say that Paramount and other studios pursued the film without imagining Gadot in the lead role, but it is not too late to change course. I hope that Jenkins and Gadot can see past all the fury this casting has sparked and see that there is an opportunity here. People are talking about this movie, there is clearly an interest to see Cleopatra on the big-screen again, and what a move it would be if producer Gadot stepped down from starring and opened the door for a deserving Egyptian actress.

Although, this isn’t as horrific a casting choice as say Emma Stone playing a part-Chinese-Hawaiian woman, Rooney Mara playing Native American Tiger Lily or Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone, Gadot, Jenkins, and Paramount still have an opportunity here. This opportunity is to do something that many have neglected to do, and that is to give someone else a chance. To use her considerable power in this industry to hold the door open for a fellow MENA actress, because if it doesn’t happen now, it never will. Gadot will continue to have a flourishing career with or without playing Cleopatra. Opportunities to lead will no longer be a scarcity for Gadot, even after she moves on from Wonder Woman. However, a role like Cleopatra will be utterly transformative for an Egyptian actress, especially with Gadot and Patty Jenkins producing it.

by Ferdosa Abdi

3 replies »

  1. I throughly enjoyed reading your article and couldn’t agree more about your comment pertaining to “Layla Taj”. I have seen her in person performing and I had chills up my arm just looking at her face. She’s an exceptional performer and authentic indeed ! Thank you for a fantastic read !


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