Harry Shearer, a longtime voice actor on the animated sitcom The Simpsons, is not on board with the executive decision to stop letting white actors portray non-white characters. According to Shearer, who voices an array of roles from the white (or should we say, yellow) Mr. Burns to the African-American doctor Julius Hibbert, this decision goes against everything that being an actor stands for.
“I have a very simple belief about acting,” Shearer said on Monday during an interview with Times Radio. “The job of an actor is to play someone who they’re not.” The voice actor went on to say that he was not “opining” the actions of his superiors. Rather, he was merely trying to make a statement about his craft.
Shearer then clarified that he was supportive of the campaign to make Hollywood a more diverse and inclusive place. “People from all backgrounds should be represented in the writing and producing ends of the business so they help decide what stories to tell and with what knowledge,” he said. As far as the acting part of the discussion is concerned, though, he says: “The job is playing someone I’m not.”
Although The Simpsons is probably the least politically-charged and evenly balanced of all the major animated sitcoms, its creators have been under fire for some time now. Much of the debate around race and representation started with the documentary The Problem With Apu, which posited the depiction of the show’s only Indian-American character as insensitive.
The question of whether voice actors should be allowed to portray characters of a different race than their own has been discussed heavily as of late. Recently, the white actor who provided the voice for Cleveland Brown on Family Guy resigned, while white actress Kristen Bell rescinded a biracial part of hers on Central Park.
Political opinions aside, Shearer’s argument draws attention to an often-overlooked tradition within the animation industry: the fact that certain actors portray a wealth of characters from all kinds of backgrounds. In this regard, Shearer and The Simpsons are joined by Seth MacFarlane as well as South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who almost single-handedly voice their entire ensemble casts.