If Joe Wright’s ‘Pan’ Wants to Be “Multi-Racial,” Why Cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily?

By  · Published on March 13th, 2014

“Wright is planning to create a world that very international and multi-racial, effectively challenging audiences’ preconceived notions of Neverland and reimagining the environment.” “Rooney Mara is in negotiations to play Tiger Lily.”

Do these two statements seem at odds with each other? The Wrap reported both – in the same story! – yesterday, as part of a casting bit that passes along word that Mara is reportedly in negotiations to take on the role of Tiger Lily in one of the many Peter Pan “reimaginings” flying around Hollywood. Director Joe Wright has steadily been lining up other interested talents for his Pan, and while there is a touch of international appeal here (one of them is Australian!), it certainly seems out of touch and frankly incorrect to tout that a film that seems poised to star Mara, Hugh Jackman, and Garrett Hedlund is somehow “multi-racial.”

Of course, before we start ranting and raving and trying to tear down the whitewashed walls of Hollywood, there are a few other facts to consider. To begin, this is the first time we’ve heard that Wright is going for a “multi-racial” cast in his film – previously, Pan had only been described as a “darker take” on the material (call it Dark Knight Syndrome) – so it’s possible that this information is incorrect or has been slightly blown out of proportion. Secondly (and this is to actually support the “multi-racial” bent), before Jackman was cast as baddie Blackbeard, Javier Bardem (who is Spanish) was offered the role. Bardem, of course, turned it down, leaving room for Jackman to grab the lead villain part for himself. Elsewhere in Castingland, before Hedlund was cast as Hook, other actors who were in the mix included Jack Huston and Ezra Miller, who both come from European stock.

Basically, if Wright is going for the “multi-racial” aspect of the Peter Pan story, he’s doing a poor job of it so far. Now let’s rant and rave and try to tear down the whitewashed walls of Hollywood.

Even if Wright is not knowingly going for an ethnically rich cast in Pan, there’s the still one major problem – Tiger Lily has always been portrayed as a Native American. Mara is a white actress. These are facts that would be hard to reconcile even if Wright was going for a straight adaptation. Lending credence to the multi-racial claims is another report, this one from Variety, that Wright was considering a handful of other actresses for the role, including newbie Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (who is black) and Blue Is the Warmest Color actress Adele Exarchopoulos (who is French and Greek). Although neither actress is Native American, the inclusion of Nyong’o does signal that Wright is attempting to trade out some ethnicities from the original story – ultimately deciding on a white actress is disappointing, to say the least.

Of course, it’s not the first time that a white actor has portrayed a Native American character on screen (and it likely won’t be the last). Johnny Depp did it just last year in The Lone Ranger, and it’s previously happened in films that run the gamut, from Stolen Women Captured Hearts to Windwalker, Apache, and Geronimo. Taylor Lautner, who starred as one of a pack of Native American werewolves in the Twilight series got the role before he “discovered” some Native American blood in his background, a then-dubious claim that appears to have a somewhat happy outcome.

Moreover, it’s not the first time Tiger Lily herself has been played by a non-Native American actress. Paula Kelly (who is African-American) played the part in a 1976 version. Perhaps the best-known Tiger Lily, Sondra Lee (who is white) notably played her in the beloved 1956 and 1960 Mary Martin versions of the story, a role she originated on Broadway. Even the first cinematic adaptation of the story cast a non-Native American in the role, as Chinese-American star Anna May Wong played her in the 1924 film.

Other incarnations of the story and character that have featured Native American actresses in the role include Neverland, with Q’orianka Kilcher in the role, who is of South American indigenous descent, and 2003’s Peter Pan, which starred Carsen Grey who has roots with Canadian native tribes. Still, it has been the norm that Tiger Lily is not played by a Native American actress, and it’s highly disheartening that Wright is continuing this tradition with his ostensibly “multi-racial” portrayal.