White actor Joseph Fiennes defended a British TV station’s decision to cast him as Michael Jackson in an upcoming TV movie, telling Entertainment Tonight on Wednesday that his skin tone is a close match to the late black pop singer.
On Tuesday, it was announced Fiennes would play Jackson in the comedy Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon, which is based on a rumored Vanity Fair story about how Jackson attempted to flee New York City, along with stars Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
After news broke online that white Fiennes would play black Jackson, the casting decision by U.K. channel Sky Arts became the subject of heated debate, with many social media users citing the casting choice as further proof that the entertainment industry discriminates against black performers.
The decision was announced amid this year’s renewed #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
“I’m a white, middle-class guy from London,” Fiennes told ET. “I’m as shocked as you may be.”
Fiennes then said he doesn’t think his casting is too far-fetched, given he and Jackson shared a similar skin tone.
“[Jackson] definitely had an issue — a pigmentation issue — and that’s something I do believe,” he said. “He was probably closer to my color than his original color.”
Jackson, who died in 2009 at age 50, suffered from a chronic skin condition known as vitiligo, which caused pale patchy areas of depigmented skin around his body. Jackson reportedly bleached his skin to cover up the patches.
The King of Pop also reportedly underwent more than 100 cosmetic surgeries over a 30-year period.
Despite Jackson’s constantly evolving features and light skin tone later in his life, he told Oprah Winfrey in 1993 that he did not like the idea of a white actor portraying him.
After Winfrey asked him during an interview about a rumor than he wanted a white boy to play a younger version of himself in an early 1990s Pepsi commercial, Jackson said, “That is so stupid. That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy.”
“Why would I want a white child to play me?” he asked. “I’m a black American. I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am.”
He added: “Please, people stop believing these horrifying stories.”