Why, Exactly, is Joseph Fiennes Playing Michael Jackson?

Urban Myths fictionalizes Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor, but something went horrible wrong in the process.


British television network’s Sky Arts’ idea to dramatize quirky, but unverified stories about popular historical figures in the upcoming anthology series Urban Myths seems like a clever idea until about 16 seconds into the new trailer when the words “Joseph Fiennes as MICHAEL JACKSON” pop up on screen followed by Fiennes popping his head out from behind Stockard Channing as Elizabeth Taylor. The fact that the trailer cuts to a confused look on the sole black actor in the entire clip doesn’t help.

Fiennes’ makeup is terrible. He looks less like Jackson than he he does a melted wax figure version of a white guy who had a midlife crisis and moved to Los Angeles with the idea of fronting an indie rock band only to wind up as a patient on Botched.

His casting is controversial, compounded by the fact that during his lifetime Jackson himself was adamant that he didn’t want a white actor to portray him despite his vitiligo condition.

But perhaps you’re wondering how this all came to be in the first place? Why exactly are any actors dressed as Jackson and Taylor driving an economy sedan through the middle of nowhere with Bryan Cox as Marlon Brando in the backseat in the first place?

Well, the idea of the story dates back to a rumor that first surfaced in 2011 shortly after Taylor’s death.

Back in September 2001, Jackson was in New York City to perform two 30th anniversary concerts and brought his cadre of close celebrity friends along with him to celebrate. The final concert took place on September 10th, and, well, the unthinkable happened the next day. A Jackson employee told Vanity Fair in 2011 that after the terrorist attack, Jackson convinced Taylor and Brando (and just Taylor and Brando) to rent a car with him and drive as far as they could in a bid to get out of New York and to safety. Purportedly the iconic trio made it all the way to Ohio. No one has ever been able to verify the story completely, but no one has never been able to completely prove it false beyond all doubt either. Which is to say that it is likely a fairy tale, but no one quite knows for sure.

Naturally, the tale still remains a source of fascination. Novelist Zadie Smith tackled it in a particularly great short story for The New Yorker in 2015.

Sky Arts version is not a retelling of Smith’s take (unfortunately), but giving the scope of the Urban Myths anthology it’s understandable as to why they’d want to produce their own version.

It could have been fun, but the whole thing seems to be overshadowed by Fiennes’ odd casting and even odder makeup job, which is unfortunate because Cox makes a convincing Brando and Channing even more so as Taylor.

We know it’s tedious to sit through the best casting and best makeup categories at awards shows, but let the record show that this is proof of what happens when casting and makeup goes horribly wrong and why there are good reasons excellent examples of that type of work should be recognized.

Urban Myths will premiere on Sky Arts in Britain on January 19.

Watch Mary J. Blige talk about meeting Michael Jackson: