Introducing Carlos Estévez

What’s in a name?

by Jennie Kermode

There’s a new star in the Hollywood firmament. He’s introduced in the trailer for Robert Rodriguez’s forthcoming action comedy Machete Kills. But his silhouette looks familiar. Have we met Carlos Estévez before? Yes, only back then he was going by the name Charlie Sheen.

Despite the fact he’s been in the business for 30 years, this is in fact the first time the actor has worked under his birth name. But the change didn’t begin with him – rather, it was his father Ramón Estévez, better known as Martin Sheen, who first decided that a different name would lead to more success in Hollywood. Why did he do it? Why did his other son, Emilio, refuse to do it? And are the factors that shaped their choices still an issue in Hollywood today?

Rodriguez is well known for his efforts to support Hispanic and Latino actors in Hollywood, complaining that when he first made a breakthrough there, there were none to be found. His decision to cast young Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, along with Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, in Spy Kids was contested by studio executives who insisted the film was aimed at “ordinary Americans”, but the success of the franchise suggests audiences were more open minded than they thought. Rodriguez sees himself as playing a vital role in opening doors to help create a more diverse industry. Similarly, he has pushed for stronger roles for women, supporting actresses like Salma Hayek whose complaints about Hollywood sexism have made them unpopular with studios.

As it happens, Rodriguez isn’t entirely correct about there having been no Hispanic or Latino actors in Hollywood – they were there from the very beginning. If they were hard to find it was because, in order to win high profile roles, they had to alter their appearances and take on names like Sheen. The legendary Rita Hayworth, for instance, was born Margarita Carmen Cansino but carefully concealed her origins, undergoing electrolysis to alter her looks and fit in with the dominant image of whiteness as an essential element of Hollywood beauty. For her, the transformation led to success, but those less able to disguise themselves generally had to be content with supporting roles, often as servants, manual labourers or sex workers.

Martin Sheen was a name acquired almost by accident in the Sixties, after the hardworking young actor, who would go on to receive international acclaim, decided to experiment to see if it was his name that was putting off casting directors. Immediately he went from a string of rejections to opportunities – but once he had achieved success with the name, he was stuck with it. He has spoken of his regret at this, especially given the distress it caused to his factory inspector father, who was proud of their heritage. Though he has continued to use his original name in private life, it is little known in the wider world.

For his two sons, the equation was slightly different. Prejudice was still an issue but there was the added complication that the Sheen name could open doors. Whilst Carlos/Charlie took advantage of this to climb the Hollywood ladder, it was something that Emilio expressly rejected, saying from the outset that he wanted to carve out a career on the basis of his own abilities. Both enjoyed success in the early Eighties as part of the Brat Pack, but Emilio gradually faded from the spotlight, partly as a consequence of choosing more esoteric roles. Was his obvious ethnicity also a factor? It’s difficult to say. His brother seemed to fit more easily into the Hollywood mainstream but, like many mainstream stars, fell from glory more spectacularly, destroying his reputation through a combination of cocaine abuse, alleged domestic violence and bizarre statements about his own greatness made on national television.

Many will find it ironic that this troubled actor’s career looks set to be resurrected in a film also starring Mel Gibson, an actor who has been caught on tape using racist insults targeted at Hispanic and Latino people. Gibson’s tirades have precipitated shocked reactions from the Hollywood elite, but are there subtler forms of prejudice that persist even there? It’s notable that there are no Hispanic or Latino A-listers, with studios still wary of financing films which depend on such actors as leads. When it comes to the Oscars, winners are still mostly white, and the extent of this is disproportionate even when one takes into account the fact that more roles are available for white actors. Furthermore, white Oscar winners see a higher increase in earnings and opportunities as a result of their awards than other winners do.

A particular matter for concern is the number of Hispanic or Latino characters played by white actors, with outrage expressed upon the recent release of Olympus Has Fallen, whose Vice President Charlie Rodriguez is played by Phil Austin. There is, of course, a long tradition of actors crossing such boundaries in their work, but it’s problematic when there are still so few roles open to Hollywood’s racial minorities – as issue that came up recently with the casting of Asian roles in Cloud Atlas. Even this year’s big Oscar winner, Argo, saw Ben Affleck play the role of Tony Mendez, not just a fictional character but a real person.

Will Hispanic and Latino actors ever get a fair shot in Hollywood? John Leguizamo, who has refused to hide his ethnicity and has carved out a successful career for himself regardless, thinks it’s beginning to happen, with casting directors now more willing to put talent first. Rodriguez has argued that what’s needed is the achievement of critical mass, after which studios will stop thinking of such actors as exotic. Of course, it has only been a decade or so since Hollywood studios first risked having major films led by black men, and black women still struggle to get leading roles, but perhaps the monolithic culture of American movies is finally changing, and we’ll start to see a world onscreen that looks more like the real one.

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