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This is a question that bothers me for a really long time. For example, Russians in every (not literally, but you get the point) Hollywood movies/TVshows are acted by English-speaking actors. It is really annoying to see the roles where “fluent” or “native” speaker twists a foreign language. It is embarrassing.

I'd like to know, is there any reason, why Hollywood does not use native speakers. I'll bet there are tons of different language speaker actors around LA, but still, in production, we hear ridiculous goo. And I don't whine about main roles, I can forgive Julia Roberts or George Clooney if they have a line or two in Mandarin. But, when there is a tiny part of the picture with 4 Armenian mobsters, why they could not be real Armenian actors, so it feels right in the details?

Is there any reason not to use native speaker actors?

I am from Estonia, it is a really small country (about 1.3 mln people), but even Estonian actors are available in LA, and I am pretty sure, they are not more expensive while more than good professionally for those small roles, which rarely pop up. So why Hollywood still use Serbians who never spoke Serbian?

Or Russians? There are hordes of them in LA, certainly. Why not pick them in Russian roles?

I admit, French, Italian and Spanish have much better coverage, but even German is frequently the rubbish.

Even when the writer is made a good job for background details it goes downhill (in this aspect) after casting...

There must be a rational reason for the situation. Maybe it's about trade unions?

Edit on starting bounty

I have read the answers below for some days now, and I must admit: I am not convinced. I think it is good to start a bounty to call more opinions to reveal more possibilities.

Most important, I state: for me, this question is about authenticity, I want to believe the story told on the screen. Bad use of language is a real turnoff, for me. Like there is a lot of people, who find disturbing when certain dialect of English is not accurate.

I analyze some hypotheses so far, to show, why I can't accept those as an Answer.

Reason 1: it is very hard to find foreigner actors in Hollywood

Hollywood is soon a century a place that sucks young actors around to globe into. For now, there should be them in any nation and any age, both men and women. Certainly not any combination of any, but still. There is no other place like this on Earth, to my knowledge.

Same time European small studios use most times native speakers in corresponding roles, whenever and as close as possible. As from @AryanSonwatikar comment, seems Bollywood acts the same way.

Reason 2: budget does not allow

Hollywood shows have budgets in the industry no comparable with anything else.

  1. If we think a bit how much is contributed to visual integrity and right shooting places, for example, and how much things are developed in this area during 50-60 years, this is been all in the name of being more believable. Compared with all those expenses seems argumenting with a budget in native speaking actors topic somehow hard to grasp. Are they more expensive in small roles?

  2. Would be filling small roles with unknown actors more expensive than using known actors as fake natives? Rather not, I think. Of course, unknown adds risks, so from this aspect there are downsides. Including rookies (or different work ethics or culture) has always its benefits and worries. Still, it seems more about the next reason:

Reason 3: being risk-averse

This seems so far most convincing. Still, it is risky to belittle your audience, too. Or?

Here belong also networking: using people who you already know or are in certain circles already. Use them, they have already proved themself...

Reason 4: actors box office value

Unless we talking about leading actors or supporting actors, this seems not relevant to me.

Reason 5: casting (and actually nobody) does not understand it anyway and can't tell how authentic it was (speaking some native language)

This is a tricky one. I want to apologize already for everyone who finds following somehow insulting. But this is really hard to understand to me.

I try to explain it from my perspective (it is certainly not one-to-one with everyone, but still I found it pretty common here, where I live). If I hear somewhere in the World some (not known to me) Estonian to speak whatever another language I almost always can point out that the speaker is Estonian. Takes years and years every day speaking to mask your mother tongue, to get it sound really fluent (depends also from the person and how close is language to yours). And, for some degree I can use the same method for some shortlist of other languages, I have more experience.

Now, following my own (but common here) experience it is hard to understand, how casting managers can't make a difference between being fluent or being English trying to fake? I understand that on casting is almost impossible to tell, does actor really speak Latvian or maybe Lithuanian, but for attentive listener should be not too hard to detect your mother tongue in the speaker's "native" language. Or?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – A J Jul 12 at 5:08
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This is not entirely the case from what I have seen. More frequently, a specific type of character (Russian, for instance) is played over and over again by the same, small, group of actors well known in the entertainment community. The same Russians get the same Russian parts. The same Italians get the same Italian parts.

If the part is too small to bother, or the actor sought is not available, studios don’t bother trying to develop new talent for a one shot deal. They would rather go with someone who can get close to acting the part. And, they will count on the audience suspending their belief for the sake of the storyline. The belief being that it is better entertainment to have good acting than realistic portrayal. Especially when the portrayal of the character must be exaggerated for the audience to get what would normally be subtleties.

Case in point, I like action movies. Combat movies are shot predominantly with actors who have never been trained in combat. Instead, they go through a crash course on combat techniques. Then, their scenes are choreographed for the maximum visual effect. The audience impact is valued over the actual realism. Even if it means that certain effective combat techniques are replaced with those that would go against actual training, be ill-advised, or be down-right disastrous in actual combat. When actual combat veterans are cast in speaking roles, the realism of combat scenes increases. But, the acting and dialogue quality suffers. It is not in the combat veterans’ skill set. Can it be taught/learned? Yes, at the expense of time. But, it is much easier to teach an actor how to act like the character at the expense of realism.

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    It is not pro vs acting. I don't miss linguists play foreigners, I miss actors who possess one important part for a specific character: language. I am a programmer and most aspects of this arealso rubbish, I can overlook them mostly, where they are not relevant. If a story is about a certain national character, it seems important enough. Why bring in diversity when you can't carry it out? You could not accept the movie, where instead of the actual jungle are just decorations. If it could be about money, then of course. But I can't see using native speaker actors being more expensive. Or? – w.k Jul 9 at 21:00
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    My example of combat was an analogy. It was analogous to the skill or character trait of language and/or culture. The goal of the finished product of films other than documentaries is to entertain. Some suspense of belief and use of imagination is necessary. Since time is money, if it is quicker to find someone who can act rather than a native of a specific culture who might act, then that is significant. Especially if casting a good actor makes a better finished product. The same issue has happened in history with female roles played by males, or ethnic roles played by other ethnicities. – Dean F. Jul 9 at 21:11
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    In action, you need to find compromise between being able to fight as a pro and being able to act like a pro. (And there are lots of tools in makers bag, to make action visually appealing) Following this analogy, we should seek midway between language professor and pro actor. But this is not the case. And makers have almost no tools to fake speaking foreign language, actors are pretty naked with their heavy accent. Language (speaking) is a large part of actors personal charisma (think for example of Penelope Cruz), even if they fight better than speak (Arnold Schwarzenegger). – w.k Jul 10 at 0:43
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    Just to give an example: Popular Russian Actor in TV: Konstantin "Costa" Ronin has had a few good parts the last few years from Agent Carter, The Americans, and Homeland. He is Russian born, but is in fact labeled a "New Zealand" actor (and cinematographer). German Actor: Daniel Bruhl has played quite a few German characters (or of German decent) from The Zookeeper's Wife, Cloverfield Paradox, The Alienist, and Captain America (franchise). But he is also of Spanish decent and has played Spaniards too like in Spanish Buisnessman. – Darth Locke Jul 10 at 1:44
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    @w.k Okay, but we're not talking about your scripts. Your personal opinion is not relevant. – user91988 Jul 11 at 18:35
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I see this has three bases…

  1. Budget

  2. Actor's box-office value

  3. Whether or not casting can tell the difference. This is a big one!

Let me take a slightly different perspective, as I work in London not Hollywood.

Non-British actors playing "British" for staters.
You've all heard Mel Gibson playing Scots, or Dick van Dyke playing a Cockney. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Across the years, the number of Americans with simply abysmal British accents is heart-breaking.

I can hear minor aberrations in British accents like you can tell the difference between Estonian and Serbian. I can't. Most people outside those areas couldn't, so they all get through on Reason 3.

Even British actors playing British parts don't always get it right - Game of Thrones… a whole slew of dodgy "Northern" accents, enough to make you wince. Some were spot on, Sean Bean and Mark Addy set the bar, as true native Northerners, Sheffield to be precise. Richard Madden - a Scotsman - did a really good job of copying them. After that it all went a bit downhill. Neither casting nor 90% of the show's audience would be able to tell that a great percentage of the rest of the 'Northern' cast only managed "something that might be somewhere near Manchester if you're not listening too carefully".
They also got through on Reason 3.

Anyway, back to Americans playing Brits - and vice versa.
Over recent years, many actors have spent considerable effort brushing up on their accents. Compare Hugh Laurie in House Season 1 vs Season 8. To start with I don't know what accent he was trying to do. By the end, I'd say he'd pretty much nailed it.
Another I've worked with - Elle Fanning. In Maleficent… not so good. In The Great, nailed it.
Some are so good that once you've checked where they were born on IMDB, you still wonder how they did it. Such as Meryl Streep and Christian Bale fit this category.

If casting want a certain character actor, then the job has traditionally gone to the best actor for the part, not necessarily the best accent copyist. This is, fortunately changing, but because the actors are taking the time to actually get the accents right. The entire industry is becoming much more aware of this in recent years. I've worked on shows where to play a Russian, you have to be a Russian, German to play a German, etc. I've also played parts myself as a German, in German - but on that occasion the script supervisor was so bi-lingual it was impossible to tell which was her native language. She made certain no-one got it wrong. If anyone's accent slipped, we'd be going again.

So - there is hope on the horizon.

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    What accent did Laurie nail by the end of House season 8? Brit accent? Isn't he Brit? – Olivier Grégoire Jul 10 at 9:25
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    @OlivierGrégoire - "American". Gregory House is American, Hugh Laurie is British. – Tetsujin Jul 10 at 10:44
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    On Hugh Laurie, I was completely put off of House because it sounded to me like the accent he used to do in A Bit of Fry and Laurie when they were making fun of Americans. – Matt Burland Jul 10 at 15:16
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    Game of Thrones does not take place in Britain, or even on Earth. It may be inspired by British lore, but it isn't Britain. The people of the fictional fantasy realm of Westeros can sound like whatever the show-runners decide they want them to sound like. Thus there is no such thing as a "wrong" accent for that show. – Darrel Hoffman Jul 10 at 15:34
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    @DarrelHoffman - yeah, sure. We know. That doesn't make it any less irritating that they didn't in fact pay sufficient attention to the accents for people who actually know what they are. Normally, people from a single area speak with the same accent… they didn't even get a single family to speak with the same accent. They did studiously avoid having anyone with a Scots accent to avoid "the wall" being any more linked to Hadrian's & tended to use Scandi accents for North of it. That shows there was some thought went into it… just not enough. – Tetsujin Jul 10 at 15:38
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Great answers here, but an issue I don’t see highlighted as much as I think it deserves is that

Hollywood is extremely risk-averse.

Feature films have enormous budgets, and turning those budgets into successful films that actually make a profit is a difficult task. As budgets increase, the difficulty of recouping the expenditures increases in turn. And we have seen a lot of extremely-high-budget films. Anything that can lower the difficulty—increase the odds of success—is prized highly by the people with the money, who are the people that are really in charge.

What this means is that Hollywood is fairly well obsessed with minimizing risk. That means you want the most established, famous, likely-to-draw-more-crowds actor you can afford for every role. The more minor the role, the less budget you have to fill it—a big famous star in a leading role can draw huge crowds just by slapping their name on the film, so Hollywood is willing to spend a lot of money on that role. The same actor can’t draw the same crowds in some more minor role, so they aren’t worth hiring for that role—that role must be filled more cheaply. The more minor the role, the less money the studio can spend filling it.

Eventually, for the more minor roles, the cost of actually hiring the actor isn’t even the limitation—it’s the cost of finding them in the first place. Putting out ads, running auditions, any negotiating you have to do, and so on, can cost more than the actor you end up hiring will. So Hollywood cuts costs on those as much as they can. “Good enough” carries the day.

A big, established director or producer or what have you can push back on the financial bosses—because the big, established director or producer themselves represents a certain amount of protection against risk (they are, presumably, established for a reason, so increased odds that they’ll put together something good, plus their own name can draw crowds even if they mess up in this particular production). That gives them a bit of a “budget,” so to speak, to push for risks. But it’s limited, too. They have to pick their battles. And they’re going to lose some of them. And the less established they are, the less ammunition they’ll have for it.

This is all predicated, of course, on Hollywood’s calculation that these casting choices won’t substantially affect audience draw. Spending money to find an actor with the right accent, or even better, the actor who is actually native to the same area as the character and so can be considered an expert on what the right accent is in the first place, doesn’t draw enough of a crowd, in Hollywood’s estimation, to be worth the cost. Or, more accurately, isn’t likely to do so. Spending that money with a low chance of it making you as much money in return is a risk that Hollywood isn’t taking.

The good news here is that audiences are—slowly, gradually—changing to care more about these issues. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to a point where the precise accent of the region in question is going to be seen as a worthwhile choice by Hollywood, but at least we’re seeing push-back on some of the most glaring issues. Blackface was once employed as a way to have a white actor play a black role—that hasn’t been remotely acceptable for a long time; for a while now, the only time it was used was ironically, and even that is getting very dim reception these days. White-washing—just changing the minority character into a white character—was seen as an “acceptable improvement” over blackface for a while, but audiences are starting to object pretty heavily to that too. Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Motoko Kusanagi—renamed to just “Major”—in Ghost in the Shell raised an uproar, cost that film a lot of money and hurt her reputation—I’m guessing both she and the studio heavily regret her involvement in the film. Tokenism—having a singular example of some minority as pure lip service towards the idea of diversity—is heavily criticized and Hollywood is learning to avoid it.

As these things happen, Hollywood changes its calculations about what is and isn’t risky. If these practices are seen as risky—having a chance of engendering outrage at your film rather than interest—Hollywood will respond to that. Spending more finding the right actor for a role has some risk—all costs represent risks—but if doing it poorly is even more risky, because of the chance that it will turn audiences away from the film, then Hollywood will spend the money.

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  • It sounds like an opportunity for a staffing agency, honestly. "Same day, correct native accents guaranteed! At deep discounts!" – axsvl77 Jul 11 at 15:07
  • I'm sure there would be no need to any discounts. :-) – rexfordkelly Jul 12 at 1:13
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I live in Hollywood, and have many friends in the business.

Believe it or not this comes up in our conversations quite a bit.

From what I understand, the issues are mainly around casting, and availability of talent. More and more Hollywood is moving to be more diverse, which is great. Add to that "it's not what you know, it's who you know" definitely plays it's part.

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    To summarize: it is not important enough? As a bystander, I felt like every agent has listed the talents of their actors, so if a studio asks for a portugese-speaking clarinet-player, it is not hard to find such... – w.k Jul 9 at 21:07
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    Believe it or not, it is hard to find someone in the U.S. who speaks Portuguese (other than Brazilian) that also acts. It is hard to find someone who plays the clarinet (and plays it well) that also acts. To find both those traits in someone who can act well might not be worth the effort in the timeframe given. Especially since an agent’s job and income is based on getting their actor, regardless of the actor’s other talents (language, musical instruments) to the front of any casting line. Though, as a musician, I do understand your point. Some actors can’t fake playing an instrument well. – Dean F. Jul 9 at 21:21
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    Agents are salesmen who sell to the studios the abilities of their actors to suspend the belief of the audience. But recently, newer studios have instead sought out known, well-established talents, popular in their native countries, to play characters of cultures similar to their own. As long as the actor has a mastery of English for their predominantly English-speaking main audience. These producers and directors are usually avant-garde, or from new studios like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YoutubeTV, etc. That is a step in the right direction, I think. – Dean F. Jul 9 at 21:44
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    I would add to this, the idea of branding. Actor X has made a career portraying "the tough guy" or "the likable guy" and audiences know and love them for it. – rexfordkelly Jul 9 at 21:58
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    @w.k - I can completely understand your perspective. But, the story, and the emotional impact of the telling of it, are more important factors in its artistic and monetary value. There are many actors who are pilots. There are many actors who are musicians. There are many actors who are athletes. There are many actors who know multiple languages. Their agents listing these talents is not enough to get them a job where the character has those talents. Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart were not pilots when they made “Sully”. But, they did a great job bringing the story to life. Because, they can act. – Dean F. Jul 10 at 19:50
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Upon further reflection, and after reading other answers and comments, it occurred to me there may be an another answer to the question, if one considers the implications of geography.

Could the following be considered the same question,

"Why does {{ INSERT A LOCAL HERE }} not use foreigners in foreigners' roles?"

If so, I would point out, it's a function of A, geography. B, casting of available/accessible talent. C, target market, and perhaps D, production considerations/dynamics.

My point is, there are certain dynamics at play, what those are exactly I don't know can ever be enumerated, fully.

But I would suggest geography may play a senior role.

And if so, you could say,

Well marketed, established Hollywood actors, play in Hollywood movies.

Or perhaps the opposite,

Unknown, not well marketed, Hollywood actors, don't act in Hollywood movies.

Or an extremely, geographical twist,

Actors from, (insert your local here), who are not known in Hollywood, don't act in Hollywood movies. And if framed that way, simplifies the answer considerably.

Now, if you have the question,

"Is it immoral or ethically wrong for roles to be cast with actors who do not accurately represent the character's ethnicity or accents"

I would suggest, perhaps, that is a great topic for a new question.

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  • I am almost sure, that Bollywood also does not use foreigners in foreigners roles ;) But it does not concern me, because a) I don't see those flicks b) I don't have too high hopes for them. Like I said in some comment already: mostly, in nowadays European movie/tv making (in my expereience) this topic (native speakers in roles demanding it) is pretty well covered. – w.k Jul 11 at 18:53
  • Ok... I think you made my point, Europe is by virtue of geography, way more representative of numerous ethnicities... And so it goes such their films/TV reflect this. – rexfordkelly Jul 11 at 19:17
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    @w.k Being an Indian, and having watched hundreds of Bollywood flicks in the seventeen years I have lived yet, I can say that Bollywood almost exclusively uses foreigners(regardless of the country of origin) as goons/henchmen of the bad guy (or as background dancers for songs in some cases). An exception is Nathan Jones who played a villain in the movie A Flying Jatt but you could say that he was a henchman (possessing superpowers) of the actual bad guy. – AryanSonwatikar Jul 12 at 3:06
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    @AryanSonwatikar that is an extremely insightful point. – rexfordkelly Jul 12 at 3:16
  • That reminds me of films which seem to be modeled off of practically the same plot, a villain of (insert ethnicity here) is threatening X hero. At one point in the 80s and 90s it was almost predicable. Which followed the same pattern, I'm actually hard pressed to think of many such films where the villain was an American, in Hollywood films. - perhaps that stems from a notion that people rather not think of themselves as the bad guy... Interesting to hear that it's not too different from the Bollywood films you have seen. – rexfordkelly Jul 12 at 3:23
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+150

It is really annoying to see the roles where “fluent” or “native” speaker twists a foreign language. It is embarrassing.

You should consider that maybe most of the target audience probably does not agree with this statement. Since most of the audience does not even know a word of Russian they will probably not notice anything wrong.

Similar example: I am often bothered by butchering of science in movies, but me and people like me probably make a very tiny fraction of target audience, so movie makers do not bother to make us happy.

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In addition to the other answers:

There are factors used in determining whether an actor gets a part other than whether they come from the foreign country.

Remember these people are actors, and so their job is to pretend to be someone they're not. For any given character, the casting people must determine which actor is the best fit for the character and can effectively portray that character in the manner that the film/show requires. There are a number of factors in that, their look, their demeanour, their ability to show the emotions felt by the character, to put on their mannerisms and disposition, etc. Not to mention the reputation of the actor themselves which can help with ticket sales.

So if there is an Estonian character, and there are Estonian actors in Hollywood, it doesn't mean that any of those actors are the right fit for this character, and the casters probably don't want to limit their choice of actor to just Estonians, if they can train what they believe to be a better actor (by which I mean better for this particular character / film in their opinion) to do a believable enough Estonian accent that it will not bother the majority of the audience.

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Actors union/guild. Unions is probably your best answer. Even down to the crew who shoots the movie. Just look it up. You can not just walk around them- they are deep into it. I only know this because my friend works over there and complained about all this (so I was partway listening lol).

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    If they want you for a part badly enough, you get a free pass into the right union. Money talks. – Tetsujin Jul 14 at 8:04

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