Nepotism in the movies: it’s time to call out the acting school of mum and dad

Interviewed by Variety at the Los Angeles premiere of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the actor Maya Hawke denied that a personal connection led to her being cast in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. Hawke is the daughter of Uma Thurman, who has appeared in three Tarantino films, and she argued that she had gone through the same casting process as other actors by sending in a self-taped audition piece with her father (Ethan Hawke). It’s perhaps a sign of our changing times that she was even asked about this, since the open secret of pervasive nepotism in the film industry has seemed to bother remarkably few people since the days when the Barrymores became the first acting “dynasty”.

Indeed, people who rightly get exercised about working-class actors being increasingly shut out of the film industry can become defensive when it comes to nepotism in film. When I recently questioned the casting of Honor Swinton-Byrne in her godmother Joanna Hogg’s film The Souvenir alongside her mother, Tilda Swinton, people countered online that Swinton-Byrne’s performance in the film was excellent. I fully agree with that assessment, but believe it’s worth discussing the casting in a prestigious film of a first-time actor whose mother met the director at the expensive school they attended as children. Films thrive on personal connections, and family collaborations or friendships have yielded invaluable work – but it’s right to ask if this masks a financial and social ill. It seems a pattern in need of breaking.

First, it’s important to rule out talent as a valid counter-argument to charges of nepotism. A great many “children of” are adept at their craft. But this is unsurprising because they may have been exposed to it from a young age. If you accept that other people who have no family connections with acting can be equally talented, then nepotism has to be considered wrong. For instance, Sofia Coppola is an immensely talented director: that doesn’t change the fact that her father, Francis Ford Coppola, helped her to make The Virgin Suicides, her debut feature, by producing it with his own company, American Zoetrope. Sofia Coppola’s cousin, Jason Schwartzman, got his debut role in Rushmore through her. Another cousin, Nicolas Cage, made three films with Francis Ford Coppola at the outset of his career: Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. (The word “nepotism” derives from the Latin, nepos, meaning nephew, and thence the Italian nipotismo, after the practice of popes giving jobs to their nephews).

Film-making is, of course, not a democracy. There’s a case to be made that artists should be allowed to create their work as they see fit. This is true, yet other inequalities in film are now being met with initiatives to correct, for instance, gender and racial disparities. This is right, because such moves address fundamental inequalities. But the fact that children of rich actors never seem to have trouble finding work also propagates systemic inequality. The phenomenon is so widespread that we don’t even question the fact that the children of, for instance, Melanie Griffith and Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Bono, Will Smith and Johnny Depp are now becoming stars.

The issue of the employment of children and family members is hardly top priority for an industry still reeling from allegations of widespread sexual abuse, and which is still failing to represent, hire and reward women and minorities adequately. Creating an awkward red carpet moment, as Variety did in subjecting Maya Hawke to forensic questioning, is perhaps not the solution. The systemic nature of nepotism, as with industrial racism and sexism, requires asking tough questions of producers and creators. In so doing we may end up with an industry that is more open to recognising and paying talent fairly and reflecting a diverse, complex society.

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