Opinion: Movie star Martin Sheen changed his name to avoid racist discrimination – me too
No one should have to take such drastic measures in order not to feel ‘othered’ or prove their worth, says Hanna Flint
Saturday 25 June 2022 By Hanna Flint
I never watched The West Wing the first time around as it was on telly past my bedtime, but over the last year I’ve been ploughing through the seasons to see what all the fuss is about. It’s certainly a romantic, idealistic view of American democracy from a democratic perspective. Its anti-Arab sentiment continually grates and the female characters are so obviously written by a man, however, I can’t get enough of Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet.
You have to have good line delivery to work with an Aaron Sorkin script and no one serves up a sentence, a quip, a speech quite like Sheen does in this series. And yet, you have to wonder: had the actor kept his original name, would he have secured the roles that would have led him all the way to this fictional Oval Office?
Sheen was born Ramon Estévez and this week he’s articulated his regret over changing his Spanish name to a more American-sounding one years earlier. ‘It’s still Ramon Estévez on my birth certificate,’ he said in an interview with Closer Weekly. ‘I never changed my name officially. It’s on my marriage license, my passport, driver’s license. Sometimes you get persuaded when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.’
He’s talked before about the reason for the name change and how it hurt his father’s feelings. During a 2003 interview for Inside The Actors Studio, he said: ‘Whenever I would call for an appointment, whether it was a job or an apartment, and I would give my name, there was always that hesitation and when I’d get there, it was always gone.
‘So I thought, I got enough problems trying to get an acting job, so I invented Martin Sheen… before I knew it, I started making a living with it and then it was too late. In fact, one of my great regrets is that I didn’t keep my name as it was given to me. I knew it bothered my dad.’
My father had long been out of the picture when I legally changed my name from Hanna Zammel to Hanna Flint, the surname of my mother that I had long been using. Part of that was as a tribute to her – she had raised me, after all – but another part of me was informed by internalised racism. I saw my dad’s name as a foreign Arab imposter that prevented me from my youthful need to assimilate into whiteness to avoid being othered. I’ve long grown out of that racially-charged self-loathing, but I can recognise how much easier it is to navigate the world with a Western-sounding name, and Sheen isn’t the first actor to adopt an Anglicanised stage name in order to avoid xenophobic or racist discrimination in showbusiness.
Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, Helen Mirren was originally called Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov and Sir Ben Kingsley’s birth name is Krishna Pandit Bhanji – ‘As soon as I changed my name, I got the jobs,’ he told Radio Times. ‘I had one audition as Krishna Bhanji and they said, “Beautiful audition but we don’t quite know how to place you in our forthcoming season.” I changed my name, crossed the road, and they said when can you start?’
It might be too late for the likes of Kingsley and Sheen to revert back to their original names, but it’s been warming to see the likes of Thandiwe Newton and Chloe Wang reclaim their ethnic monikers. Because no one should have to be ashamed or othered for the name they were given, or change it to receive the work opportunities their talent deserves. And with the influence of Hollywood, it would mean just as much for representation to see a diversity of names on film posters as it does faces.
Big Mick strikes again
The rail strikes this week have served as a Rorschach test for the British public as people weigh in on whether the industrial action by rail staff is justified.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers’ union is calling for a pay rise of at least 7% to offset the cost of living crisis, which seems pretty fair considering inflation has hit 9.1%.
Some people have responded to the demands as greedy, and blame the workers for cancer patients not getting to appointments and students having to find new ways to get to exams.
But RMT Union boss Mick Lynch is having none of it, especially when it comes to hostile questioning from media types on GMB, Sky News, and even Piers Morgan trying to position him as a Marxist thug out to ruin people’s lives. His most damning response has to be to Sophy Ridge who brought up the Bank of England’s governor, Andrew Bailey, who said pay restraint was needed to avoid further inflation.
‘A pay restraint? He’s on £600,000 a year, as is the chief of Network Rail,’ Lynch hit back. ‘There are railway bosses taking home millions of pounds every year. The railways made £500m of profit last year, when fares and passengers were at an all-time low.’
The wealth gap has only increased over the last few years with the richest getting richer and the poorest getting poorer. The rail workers are only asking for what is fair, and Lynch has been the perfect megaphone.
Unions, they get the job done: the workplace, the economy and the world is better for them.