Earlier this year, Spanish actor Javier Bardem made headlines for his controversial casting as Desi Arnaz in the then-upcoming film, Being the Ricardos. Set during the 1950s, the film follows the lives of the iconic Lucille Ball (played by Nicole Kidman) and her real-life Cuban husband Arnaz during a production week of their famous sitcom I Love Lucy. Obviously, casting a Spanish actor in a Latinx role garnered a lot of well-deserved backlash. Especially when there are so many talented Cuban and Cuban American actors who could’ve played the part, including Raúl Esparza (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and Danny Pino, who previously played Arnaz on the CBS special, Lucy. Now, Bardem is responding to the backlash after some criticized that a Spanish actor was cast to play a Cuban icon.
“I’m an actor, and that’s what I do for a living: try to be people that I’m not,” Bardem said, according to PEOPLE. “What do we do with Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone [in The Godfather]? What do we do with Margaret Thatcher played by Meryl Streep [in The Iron Lady]? Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln [in Lincoln]? Why does this conversation happen with people with accents? ‘You have your accent. That’s where you belong.’ That’s tricky.”
It definitely seemed like Bardem had missed the point. Not only was he offering up examples of white people playing white people from other countries (which isn’t an issue), but the backlash he received had nothing to do with accents. Latin America has been colonized by Europeans (namely Spaniards) repeatedly throughout history. To this day, they are the most represented in Latin American media over mixed, Indigenous, and Black actors. Given this historical context, the fact that a Spanish actor had taken a Cuban role when opportunities for actual Latinx actors are few and far between obviously didn’t sit right with people.
Not to mention that the I Love Lucy wouldn’t have happened at all if American television executives at the time had gotten their way. Because of Arnaz’s distinct Cuban accent and Latin American style, there was a lot of resistance to seeing his pairing with Ball on-screen and fear about what the average American viewer would want to see. His Cuban identity before and during the show was integral to what made the sitcom historic for many communities.
Bardem must’ve realized this following his interview, for he later added through his representative, “I do recognize that there are many underrepresented voices and stories that need to be told, and we should collectively do better to provide access and opportunities for more American Latino stories and storytellers,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Ball and Arnaz married in 1940 and had two children, only to divorce in 1960 following the end of their follow-up show, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Despite this, they remained close friends throughout their lives until Arnaz died in 1986, Ball died in 1989.
In Desilu, a biography published about the couple in 1993, Arnaz said several years before his death, “I Love Lucy was never just a title.” Being the Ricardos is now playing in theaters and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on December 21, 2021.