The Casting Couch

The Casting Couch

Monday, March 5, 2007

Diversifying the Issue of Diversity

So DIVERSITY IN CASTING has always been an issue in the movies and television entertainment industries, and it is certainly a topic that gets me a bit riled up. Its actually the issue that originally sparked my interest to start a blog. I wrote a long heartfelt rant on the topic via myspace blog and it crashed right as I wrote the final word. I was devastated, and thus have not yet written about the topic since. But now I feel that I'm ready again to dive headfirst into the issue. Below is a particularly offensive article that was published in "Daily Variety" on November 30, 2006. I felt that it was necessary to transcribe this article so that you can fully understand my mindset for writing my response:
Minority actors face a bleak outlook in Hollywood and may have legal grounds for challenging studio casting policies, a UCLA study shows.
“Casting Directors take into account race and sex in a way that would be blatantly illegal in any other industry,” said study author Russell Robinson, UCLA acting professor of law. “Many actors accept this as normal, but depending on the facts of the case, lawsuits can be filed.”
Robinson announced the findings Wednesday, citing a 2006 survey of casting announcements from Breakdown Services that found 69% of roles reserved for white actors, 8.5% open to all races, 8.1% open African American, 5.2% for Latinos, 4.3% for Asian Americans, 2.9% for multi-racial, 1.7% open to Middle Eastern and 0.5% open to Native Americans.
The study also found that men were almost three times as likely as women to work in the first-billedlead role and that whites occupied 82% of those roles, based on a review of 171 films that grossed at least $1 million last year.
Women filled 44% of second-billed roles and 40% of third-billed roles, the study found.
Robinson also noted in the study that studios could use several defenses against legal actions, such as asserting race and gender are “bonafide occupational qualifications”; contending that casting is a from of free speech that may be protected under the US Constitution’s First Amendment; and offering a market-based defense that race/gender casting maximizes box office success.
Robinson said that showbiz would not have to use quotas to comply with the federal government Title VII—which prohibits employment discrimination based on race or gender—but move to increase the consideration of actors of color and women in roles. He also recommended banning the use of race/sex classification in casting breakdowns except where casting an actor of a specific race or sex is “truly integral.”
He also cited the film “Sideways,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’ “CSI” series as positive examples of casting practices.
Pamm Fair, deputy national exec director for the Screen Actors Guild, said the findings were not a surprise. “We know that performers of color get fewer roles than their counterparts,” she said. “We continue to strive for more positive roles for our members who are not casting often enough because of their race or gender.”

Naturally, this offends me. It attacks that which I love and genuinely do believe in. This article glosses over a lot of important considerations on this very issue. First I must mention that Casting is not so much a job, but like most key professions in the film and television industries, it is a form of artistic expression. Consider what casting directors are doing. They’re collaborating with the writers, directors, and producers to realize a specific vision. Its not just about the words on the page, but how each character is molded through the eyes of all of these key people, not to mention the specific unique elements that individual actors themselves can bring to the characters they are helping to create. It’s absolutely essential throughout this process that certain elements are not compromised based on “political correctness.” You wouldn’t accuse Renoir of being sexist simply because he painted mostly women; similarly, you wouldn’t suggest to 50 Cent that he needs to include more elements of “white culture” into his lyrics. These examples might seem out in left field considering the circumstances around the diversity issue, but in reality these situations are quite similar to the one at hand. It’s about judging someone’s artistic vision and asking them to change it for political reasons.

That being said, I do absolutely agree that the diversity issue in film and television needs to be addressed. Within the casting field, this is best targeted where the initial vision of the character is not gender, race, or even age specific. Similarly, I’ve known many instances where writers and directors have opted to transform their vision of a character to fit an actor who has inspired them in some way. In all of these situations, I do believe that movies and television have a responsibility to their audience to accurately depict the world in which we live. In doing so, this means that they must include elements of diversity throughout their work, because we all know that it is a VERY diverse world. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, I feel that it is just as important to avoid stereotyping or “tokenism.” Simply having diversity for the sake of having it will deter from the overall vision and accomplish nothing for us as a society.
This issue leads me into my next big problem with this article. It places all the lack of diversity blame on the casting directors. Not only is it the responsibility of the casting directors, directors, writers AND producers to infuse each piece with as much of a representation of the real world as possible, but it is also the responsibility of the acting unions to include an equally diverse number of members to be placed into the casting pool. There are many technical issues surrounding casting that this article doesn’t even mention, the biggest of which is the common requirement to hire actors from a specific union (usually SAG or AFTRA) for each union sanctioned picture or show. This article makes no mention of the diversity statistics in these unions, which I would venture to guess (based on my experience within the casting field) bear certain similarities to the percentages listed in the article above. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of actors that audition for us and are pitched to us on a regular basis are, in fact, caucasian. To take it even one step further, those pitched to us the most are young, attractive males and females. With each audition and open call, ethnically diverse actors are out-numbered at least 10 to 1 by their caucasian counterparts. Believe me, this blame cannot be placed on the breakdowns alone…but on the managers and agents that submit their clients and the unions that validate them.

Working for a major cable network, a phrase I hear all the time is “Ethnic, Ethnic, Ethnic.” I hear it so much it has become a cliché in itself. As someone working in the casting industry, I know all too well that these pleas often fall on deaf ears. No matter how hard we fight, and yes, we do fight about this all the time, sometimes things just don’t happen the way that we’d like. It’s not fair for us alone to take the blame. Bottom line is, the casting directors and the networks and studios that hire these actors WANT different ethnicities, ages, sexes, orientations, and personalities. WE WANT DIVERSITY. WE NEED IT IN ORDER TO APPEAL TO A WIDER RANGE OF AUDIENCES AND THUS, BE SUCCESSFUL. So to write an article like this, to point the finger at Casting Directors specifically is just ludicrous. How about turning that finger back around and pointing it at themselves, rather point it at all of us—all of us who perpetuate these inconsistencies, because I assure you, we all do our part to contribute to this problem.

So what can we do, you might ask? Why not turn this issue into creating a positive solution rather than simply playing the blame game. The truth of the matter is, this is an extremely complex issue, one that cannot and will not be defeated overnight. However, it’s the little things that can make a huge difference.

If you’re a casting director, fight as hard as you can for diverse actors that you feel could positively impact the overall vision.

If you’re an actor, don’t be discouraged because you don’t seem to fit into a type. Keep working hard to show that you can bring something new and unique to each role you audition for.

If you’re an agent or manager, think of your diverse clients for roles that they might not be obviously suited for. Give them a chance to make things happen based on their talents as an actor. Also, be more open-minded for other unique talent that you could represent.

If you work for SAG or AFTRA, consider what you can do to help encourage diverse actors in this world to go out and strive for their goals. Perhaps have incentives and workshops about growing in diversity within the union and increase your memberships to reflect a more well-rounded society.

If you’re a writer or director, don’t get caught up in your initial vision. Be open-minded to seeing things in new and interesting ways and let characters be created through the shared experiences of others.

Finally, if you view and appreciate entertainment for what it is, then encourage those around you to be more open and willing to accept difference. Stand up and let your voice be heard when you disagree with certain casting choices. Write the network or studio executives on those shows and movies that you feel lacked important diversity elements that could have created a more well-rounded entertainment experience. Through all of these things, we can take on this issue, and we can make a difference to better the entertainment medium for all involved.

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