'Gods of Egypt': Why the controversy over diversity is different this time

After the film faced criticism over the lack of diversity among the cast for the Egypt-set movie, 'Gods' director Alex Proyas and 'Gods' studio Lionsgate both apologized for the casting choices. 'Gods' stars 'Game of Thrones' actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gerard Butler of 'Olympus Has Fallen.'

L: Al Powers/Invision for the Television Academy/AP R: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
'Gods of Egypt' stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (l.) and Gerard Butler (r.).

After criticism over the lack of diversity in the upcoming film “Gods of Egypt,” “Gods” director Alex Proyas and the studio behind the film, Lionsgate, have both apologized, a move that industry watchers are calling unusual.

“Gods” will be released this February and stars “Game of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the Egyptian deity Horus and Gerard Butler of “Olympus Has Fallen” as the god Set. 

Mr. Coster-Waldau is Danish, and Mr. Butler is Scottish, and some criticized the decision of those behind the film to cast European actors as Egyptian deities.

Mr. Proyas and Lionsgate both released apologies about the lack of diversity. 

“The process of casting a movie has many complicated variables, but it is clear that our casting choices should have been more diverse,” the director said. “I sincerely apologize to those who are offended by the decisions we made.” 

Meanwhile, the studio Lionsgate released a statement that read, “We recognize that it is our responsibility to help ensure that casting decisions reflect the diversity and culture of the time periods portrayed. In this instance we failed to live up to our own standards of sensitivity and diversity, for which we sincerely apologize. Lionsgate is deeply committed to making films that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We have, can and will continue to do better.”

While there is obviously much further to go on this issue (with the movie’s release less than three months away, recasting is most likely not an option), some are applauding the director and studio’s decision to apologize for the casting, including director AvaDuVernay, who helmed last year’s Best Picture nominee “Selma.” 

Others called the move "remarkable" and "self-aware."

Egypt is a favorite subject for filmmakers, but European and American actors have often taken on the lead roles in movies about the area. Moviegoers will remember, for example, actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was born in England, portraying Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name. American actor Charlton Heston portrayed Moses in the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments,” while Russian actor Yul Brynner portrayed Ramses and American actress Anne Baxter portrayed Nefertiti.

More recently, another Egypt-set movie, “The Martian” director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” attracted ire for casting Welsh actor Christian Bale as Moses and Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Ramses. 

Mr. Scott cited financial concerns in an interview about the casting. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” he said. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

He echoed this in a separate interview. “It's always art against economics," he said. "As soon as you're at the higher levels of budgeting, you've got to get the film made and the only way to support the film is to have actors who can support the budget.”

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