Issues of Race

All righty. Let’s get those of you who don’t usually read the Your Turn portion of The Actors Voice (tsk, tsk) up to speed. A few weeks back, I was asked the following:

Do you believe that actors of color (black actresses in particular) face any unique challenges out there? Is there anything beyond “preparation meeting opportunity” that we can do to be seen? I don’t know if it’s “Bitter Actor Syndrome” or what, but I’ve heard stories of being asked to play slaves time and again, of needing to look like Beyoncé to score a role, etc. I pretty much dismissed these things, because I firmly believe that you create your own reality. What are your thoughts?

So, after running that question once in Your Turn and receiving exactly zero replies when I asked readers to share their experiences, I decided to directly email some of my favorite working actors who could be considered members of ethnic minority groups and find out what they might have to say. Because I received so few replies to that request (even though the replies I did receive were amazing), I again ran this Your Turn last week. And boy, did y’all step up this time! Even many of those actors I had emailed came through, when they realized I was getting so little feedback. THANK YOU!!

What started as a really complicated debate about whether the struggles Hollywood actors face are universal or specifically unique based on issues of race has turned into a really complicated yet inspiring collection of, basically, how to work through it all, no matter who you are or how you’re built. [Please note that whenever someone has asked to be quoted without attribution that I personally know that actor and can assure you that his or her IMDb credits are at a level to which most actors — of any race — would aspire.]

Why Is Race a Tough Issue To Discuss?

Well, if we can answer that in an acting column, we’re in great shape! Issues related to our physical differences have long been the source of cultural struggles, inequality, and war. But I still wanted to share some philosophical thoughts from the actors who so graciously contributed to this week’s piece, as there’s some great stuff here!

“I think the reason you’ve had so few responses is that it’s such a hard subject to pin down, even though if you talk to other minority actors or parents for long, you’ll hear stories. (For instance, for several months straight, my son’s only auditions were for baby gangstas who murdered and/or were murdered. If you met this kid, you’d shake your head and say, ‘not likely.’)” — Kate Hoffman, mom of Gus Hoffman

“I think it’s a topic most ethnic actors prefer not to confront. (When will we be viewed as just actors? Period.) There is the concern about getting labeled as a ‘troublemaker’ AND a minority — I heard Terrence Howard talk about this last year and it really struck a chord with me. Also, I recall how they had to take down Halle Berry’s site for a while after she won the Oscar because of the racist death threats. But so be it. To be in Hollywood and yet afraid to use one’s voice and platform when opportunity presents itself is to be a coward. Feel free to use my name!” — Shay Holland

“I was thinking about this recently and talking to my mother about how and why she got me started in the whole acting thing and it made me realize how much it shaped my childhood and concepts of race (I had none before I was NOT cast as the Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant at the age of four, but I had many even at that age after hearing why Mary and the angel had to be played by the girls they were — they were blonde and blue-eyed — and it stuck with me all through my childhood of acting and beyond). I learned at a very early age that my skin color mattered to other people and it was a shock, since it didn’t matter in my family. Even though my mother and grandparents and BFFs were Caucasian, I was not. And that changed how people saw me and what they thought of me. It was kind of stunning to me at that age and I haven’t really processed it until now. I have just tried to plow through life being the sunshine that my grandfather loved and avoiding tough personal issues, but in having to sit down and really think about my niche in the industry lately, I have had to make some hard acknowledgements. Not all bad, just a very real review of how it is and where I will most likely succeed in breaking in and what I need to market myself as. I know, being an actor is hard. Most of us won’t get to where we wish we could be. I should be thankful I’m not just another blonde/Caucasian/cute/18-25 year old. And I am thankful! But, if I really examine it, and really think about it, there are things about being an actor of color that just mimic being a person of color in this culture. I’ve tried hard to ignore it and just press on as another actor but I think I’m finally ready to admit some things about my fellow humans that I never wanted to. There comes a point where it’s just exhausting to argue that you’re worthy.” — lovely, young mixed-ethnicity female actor

The Problem

Is there a problem? Depends on who you ask!

“In no way is her concern a reality. There are a plethora of roles available to everyone of every type, especially because so much stuff in the breakdowns is ‘submit any ethnicity.’ Of course, Hollywood still has a ways to go, but instead of just having the ‘Bitter Actor Syndrome,’ she should focus on being part of the solution! There are amazing roles being written for woman of color — every color — and like so many strong black actresses have proven, you can come in many shapes and sizes, not just Beyoncés!” — very busy, young-and-beautiful African-American female actor

“I can’t seem to come up with any issues I’ve faced as a so-called minority actor that don’t simply apply to all actors, period. We all want more auditions, we all want better representation, we all want to be seen as more than just a stereotype.” — Frances Uku

“I happen to be Asian, but am so new to the business that I don’t have much firsthand experience to offer. My view is this: when I look at the breakdowns on Actors Access, there are few roles suitable for Asians. It’s a fact, and doesn’t much bother me. Neither does the fact that there’s a certain amount of typecasting related to race/minority groups. Actors already get typecast according to, well, their ‘types,’ right? So that means not everyone can do every role. It’s up to the actor to get the most out of the opportunities that are suitable for them.” — Xavier Fan

“There are definitely obstacles in the biz. For example, look at this casting notice for a recent role for a national commercial: male or female, African-American, light-skinned preferred. Professional, respectable-looking. Now, I saw this role on Actors Access and knew based on a specific talent that the role called for (which I’ve left out so as not to anger the casting director) that I was well qualified for the part, except that I’m not light-skinned. I was kind of furious at first that skin color and not skill seemed a more important criterion for the commercial because for this particular role it made no sense to eliminate actors based on the SHADE of skin color. (I’ll acknowledge that sometimes there’s a rationale for indicating a certain shade of skin color — for example, say a child’s been cast in a role and the CD is trying to find a mother who looks like she may have actually given birth to the child — but usually there’s no good reason on God’s Earth to choose actors based on the shade of skin color. I’ve seen audition notices for lighter-skinned African-Americans fairly routinely in LA. Do you really want to open the race can of worms and address whether lighter-skinned black actors are still considered ‘more desirable’ than darker blacks? I’m not even going to go there. Talk about a whole lotta historical baggage!) By the way, I did self-submit and the CD called me in despite my ‘dark’ skin. Because of my special ability that fit the role, I booked the part! So, props to the folks who saw past the shade of my skin.” — Shay

“I am an African-American male who has been acting in the Seattle area for a couple of years. While some of the challenges I face here have as much to do with being in a small market as anything else, there are some other obstacles that do relate to color/minority status such as: not enough projects that have my worktype. In general I get cop/detective/villain/heavy/thug/authority roles. Stage roles for me are almost non-existent, but film has been a better bet for me. Funny thing is, I get cast in a lot of Shakespeare. Must be the voice/build! Also, character submissions for people of color still tend toward the sidekick/maid/pimp/ho. Hard to get traction for roles outside the gritty urban paradigm.” — Broadus Mattison

“Obviously, there are race-specific challenges in a business that is all about typecasting and appearance; our business is the only mainstream business that is not only permitted to discriminate on the basis of race, people talk about it openly all the time. I have heard in various casting offices, ad agencies, and other places where people should know better, phrases like ‘too ethnic.’ I’ve heard executives say they can’t cast another lead ‘ethnic’ because they’ve already got one. And God forbid they should actually cast an ethnic actor in a non-race-specific role. Every white actor who was up for it will be heard to bitch later, ‘Naw, I didn’t get that role because they decided to go ethnic.’ I know so many GREAT Asian-American actors who, after 25, 30 years in the business — a variety of awards and acclaim — still have to go out to preread for one-liners. Why? Because we work so seldom that the casting directors don’t know who we are and whatever our resumés say, they still want to make sure we can say, ‘Ready for the next appointment, Mr. White,’ and be believable. Bitter? You bet. But also, this is real. I understand that it’s hard for every actor of every race, and I understand that everyone has their cross to bear, but when you consider all the shows and films set in cities like LA, where well over 12% of the population is Asian, or in San Francisco, where 33% is Asian, or Hawaii for God’s sake — which is majority Asian — how many of them have Asian leads? How many of them have no Asian regulars at all? And you may have heard this one, but when was the last time you went into a hospital and saw no Asian doctors, nurses, or patients at all? That’s right, only on TV.” — Ken Narasaki

Understanding the Situation You’re Walking Into

“Writers write what they know, and honey, most don’t know the lives/dreams/cultural experiences of people like me. Not intimately, anyway. That’s why I became an actor, because I thought it was high time I saw some better representation of folks like me in mainstream American film, theatre, and television. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem for casting to solve, since ultimately you answer to producers and directors just like we do. That said, what we can do (as actors and casting directors) is play our part in educating people, and in changing dumb perceptions with our talent and uniqueness.” — Frances

“She would most likely get offered a hooker role quicker than a slave role. LA is a funny place. She should stay in NYC a bit longer. I feel if you can’t tackle NYC then LA will break you quick. You will get the vixen most of the time or the smaller roles in studio films/TV shows. From females of color I know, they did NYC, got tape from student films, etc., then did LA (a la Kerry Washington and Rosario Dawson).” — Al Thompson

“Did I eventually create my own reality in New York? Yes. Did I feel I was finally ready for the big move to Hollywood? Yes? Was I dead wrong? YES! Although I can sing in every possible style, dance, be funny, write my own show, and say ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Buchanan is in a meeting’ without tripping over a camera cable, the two things I can’t do are look like a supermodel or run up a wall and kick Chris Tucker in the face. And I quickly found that other minority actors were facing these same problems. Most of us are somewhere in between Eva Longoria and Shelley Morrison (Rosario the maid on Will & Grace). And no matter how many times a year the networks present their breakthrough minority talent in their big showcases, it won’t change the very nature of the business being about those two extremes, until someone comes along and shows them it can be different. I watch TV. And I watch movies. And every single day I scan, scour, and search for someone that looks like me. I’ve gotten to the point where I can spot an Asian actor on TiVo triple-fast-forward. And if you look hard, they’re out there. But the question always is: Where do I fit in? That girl in that commercial is KIND OF like me, but not really. If I get down to it and get REALLY specific, the brutal truth is that I’M THE ONLY PERSON THAT’S MY TYPE. So I can shell out tons of cash to The Actors’ Network or any other facility that will help me meet casting people and agents, but that money is not going to change the fact that how I look and who I am is almost never needed by an industry that is a piece of machinery looking for the kind of cogs it already uses.” — Miki Yamashita

“I just spoke with another black actress and she said her agent is considering dropping her because she got a weave instead of the short ‘fro she’d been wearing. Now the agent says she can’t sell this actress because she ‘doesn’t look ethnic enough!’ I’ve also been passed over for at least one role that went to producers because the CD told my agent they were ‘worried’ about my hair; the CD claimed my hair was ‘too edgy’ and I’ve definitely heard that producers prefer lead actresses with ‘white’ hair (often a weave) unless the role specifically calls for an ethnic-looking actress. I have heard from lighting people that it’s more difficult to light darker skin because of shadows, reflections, and the nuances of colors against darker skin. On one shoot, the makeup artist told me she was afraid the director was going to have a problem with my dark, full lips. This is NO exaggeration! The makeup artist showed me how to make my lips look smaller using makeup in case I get complaints! And my big beef is makeup artists who try to make my lips less dark using pink lipstick — it makes them stick out more and looks clownish but they have no idea what colors to use on my skin oftentimes! I’ve had to ask makeup artists more than once to try a product that I brought with me knowing there’s a likelihood they may not have appropriate colors on hand. In their defense, there are still few makeup lines that work well on dark skin, especially for on-camera purposes.” — Shay

“Just yesterday at a national commercial audition, I sat in the waiting room with eight other middle-aged Mexican-American actresses who were all called back for a producers session. We got to talking, and all of us had the same experiences. We all mainly audition for the role of ‘housekeeper/maid’ across the board. Some of the actresses said they had to do theatre in order to play a different kind of role (attorney/doctor/singer, etc.). I watch a lot of TV and movies because I want to be in TV and movies and I have seen other, more interesting roles for women of this age and race. So I will keep trying to book those roles. I keep a positive attitude because I want to stay in this business. If the role of ‘housekeeper’ is going to get me in this business, then I’m going to be the best darn housekeeper in town! By the way, we were all auditioning for the role of ‘hotel housekeeper’ in a beer commercial. I hope I get it!” — Cassie Benavidez

“Then there are the offensive stereotypes that some of us simply elect to refuse to do. Whether you think that’s brave, principled, or stupid, the reality is, you hardly ever go out for sitcoms or action films if you’re an Asian actor who won’t do stupid accents or engage in stereotypical behavior that make Asians the butt of the joke. There’s been progress lately, but we all know how slowly things change in Hollywood, and for all the white actors who think we’re just whining, it just kind of sucks to work in a business where institutionalized racism is the standard way of doing business.” — Ken

“My son auditioned the other day for the part of a young gangsta who’s murdered, and we were very excited for him to do it. The role had depth and character development and was part of a larger story that was very moving. So playing a slave or a cleaning lady or a gang banger isn’t always a bad thing. It just shouldn’t be the only thing.” — Kate, mom of Gus

“Re: Your Minority Report, does gay count, or are you just keeping it to race? I could put together a paragraph on how this old queen targets the Velvet Mafia, and thoughts on such, if that would be helpful.” — wonderful working “character” actor who is likely only called “character” because of his sexual orientation

“Re: Showbiz Minorities. Ain’t nothin’ minor ’bout my ass. I’m a young, fat, white female. Change any one of those words and I’d be 5000% more castable than I am now. And though they’re an important opportunity for many underrepresented groups, there are no diversity showcases for fat.” — wonderful, young, working “character” actor who is likely only called “character” because of her size

Gotta tell ya, on these last two, I’m totally open to expanding this conversation beyond issues of ethnicity. Again, this underscores the concept that Hollywood is not by its nature an inclusive society. It’s a fantasy-building, storytelling, world of dreams and what ifs. I mean, if Hollywood depicted more people that looked like Rosie O’Donnell or Steve Buscemi in romantic leading roles, I’d imagine consumers would have much less interest than they seem to have in the latest Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie whatnot. This town ain’t about depicting what’s real, 90% of the time. So, to expect an on-screen world that mirrors our lives is to devalue the very function of escapism (AKA entertainment) at its core. Of course, the fact that most of us feel like outcasts at some point takes me back to my theory that because all actors feel a sense of disconnection from the world that should create a sense of solidarity among the many, various members of this career path. There is something comforting about knowing we’re together alone, as artists. No?

The Solution?

No, I’m not suggesting that there is one solution to issues of race in Hollywood or anywhere else. I am, however, hopeful that these amazingly proactive actors will inspire all of us to do better, going forward.

As for me (on the casting side of things), I always read character descriptions in scripts with an eye toward the most inclusive interpretation possible. Unless a specific ethnicity (or, heck, even a specific physical description or age range) is mentioned, I always assume “all ethnicities” (or “all types” or “all ages”). Unfortunately, I’ve learned that there are agents and managers who will read a breakdown in which NO ethnicity is specified and “assume Caucasian.” Huh?!? That makes like NO sense to me. Why is that “assumed”? How very insulting and narrow-minded! (But, I’m told by many actors that their representatives are simply not submitting them unless their identical match description is in the breakdown. *thud* This is a business of essences, not exacts. Sign of the need for a new agent, if you ask me!)

“I think it’s an uphill battle for actors of color to get agents to submit them for parts that don’t indicate a racial preference. I do feel I have to ‘prove’ to agents that I can compete in the categories I’m best suited for (young executive, journalist, etc.), since blacks are generally not the typical first choice for white-collar roles. At the same time, I’ve never been called to audition for a slave, prostitute, or ghetto-mama because I just don’t have that look. So, I think black actors also need to know their type and self-submit, self-submit, self-submit.” — Shay

“Breakdowns for my son fall into three groups: 15-year-old African-American boy; 15-year-old boy, any ethnicity; or 15-year-old boy. The thing he faced early on was that his agent/manager would forget to submit him for roles that didn’t include racial specifics. I think there are still occasionally movies and TV shows where CDs forget to ask, agents forget to submit, and producers forget to cast anybody who isn’t white. I think these are often unconscious decisions. I believe it happens less and less but it still happens. A couple of years ago the mother of a white actor friend of ours called to ask whether my son was auditioning for a movie about a bunch of junior high aged kids. She gave me the breakdown. I called his manager and asked why he hadn’t been sent out. She said they wanted white kids. I said the breakdown said nothing about race. She said, ‘It’s implied.’ You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she’s no longer my son’s manager. But even in the short time that my son has been an actor, I’ve noticed big changes. The first part he ever booked was on a kid’s TV show and to me he was obviously the token black face. There was not a single non-white crewmember and there were only a couple of women. That was 2004. Lately we’ve seen many women directors, black directors, and many many crewmembers of every race — and even showrunners and producers, where I think change is really made. My advice to anyone of any race coming into the business is to be conscious and find people to represent you who are conscious too. Obviously, if the part is Bruce Willis as a kid or Dakota Fanning’s mother, they’re going to cast a white actor, but there are many many parts where race shouldn’t matter.” — Kate, mom of Gus

“In response to the African-American actress’ dilemma, I think she needs to learn it can be a tool as much as a hindrance. Since the hindrance part is pretty damn obvious, she needs to look at it as a tool in as many ways as she can. There is actually plenty of work for African-American actresses out there, if she knows which prototypes she fits into, which types of stories she will likely be cast in (comedy vs. drama, TV vs. film, single camera vs. multi, sketch vs. Shakespeare). If she is a writer, a comedian, a leading woman, a character actress, she needs to exploit the way Hollywood sees her just as much as Hollywood exploits her. I found a way to exploit how they view me. I typed myself, I marketed it, I got really damn good at what that was — better than anyone else who looks like me does — and that’s why I’ve carved myself a little piece of the pie. If she can embrace the idea that she is never going to play parts Lindsay Lohan plays, and know that maybe she fits in as the fifth character on a procedural crime show, or thinks along these lines, then she can rise to the top of her respective niche. Some of my fastest-rising actor friends are minorities who are REALLY GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO, and know how Hollywood sees them. I’ve gotten used to this ‘exploitation of limitation.'” — young minority actress, former series regular with two studio movies in the bag

“I think that’s why I love your casting style so much and that of people like JAM Casting or Mark Sikes or some other casting people in this town. You are all people who have brought me in for my ‘type’ versus my ‘ethnicity’ and are also people who have brought me in when my ‘ethnicity’ might be at odds with the breakdown that was sent out, but you know my ‘type’ and that was a good fit and so I got in the room. All this to say… yes… skin color does still matter, but also, yes… just, yes. There are more roles out there that do not need to be ‘Caucasian,’ even if that’s what the breakdown says. It’s just a matter of finding the producers and CDs who also know this. And having agents who ‘get you’ is key. I had a meeting today with a manager that I think ‘got’ my view on the issue of race. Who knows if we’ll end up working together, but just the fact that she didn’t ask me ‘what’ I was, and we were on the same page as to what I would go out for and how to take advantage of it makes me realize again how important it is to have someone like that on your team.” — lovely, young mixed-ethnicity female actor

“I think a lot of actors just don’t realize the impact they can have by being fierce in just one audition room. Whether or not you book the job, if you get a callback for a primetime television show for instance, that’s five or so writers/producers you have the power to affect for the rest of their lives. Not to mention the casting director herself, who now looks good because of you, and will now always think about bringing someone like you to producers, because maybe peeps are all just naturally talented where you come from. And thus a new stereotype is born. One mind changed, mission accomplished. So yeah, I’m a brown-skinned girl in a Beyoncé world, but neuroses be damned! I believe in the power of persistence, and my own ability to make people think differently. If we don’t do it, who will?” — Frances

[Now, I haven’t read this book, so please don’t consider this an endorsement, but I do greatly respect this actor, so I decided to share this email too.] “Would you please pass this on to the lady regarding actors of color? I know it will help her. A new book I wrote: PEP for Christian Entertainers. PEP is an inspirational, educational, and devotional self-help book to further your career or pursue your career in show business. You will find practical steps to lead you through the journey to success and fulfillment as an entertainer.” — Sy Richardson

“The thing is that I think I share this problem with many other minority actors. Because the sheer nature of being a minority makes you and your experience unique, your very humanity is not going to be cookie-cutter. And probably how you look, too. So, waiting endlessly for that dream breakdown that’s going to describe you to a T is a complete waste of time. And since we know so much of it is a numbers game, how many of those auditions would you have to amass before you could book enough to start building a resumé? ‘Create your own reality.’ I believe in this and don’t believe in this at the same time. I believe in picturing yourself already having achieved your dreams, and conducting yourself with that level of confidence, but I don’t believe in being delusional. In order to effectively pursue any career, I’ve learned that I need to be firmly grounded in reality. Only when you really understand how much a situation sucks can you even begin to change it. And that’s not ‘Bitter Actor Syndrome.’ That’s you realizing that all preparation and no opportunity is not acceptable to you. That you are better than that, and can create opportunities for yourself where none seem to exist. You write your one-person show. You create and produce your own talkshow and put it on cable access or YouTube. I have done both those things to amazing results. And all the while, I kept my eye on the machinery, too. In three years in New York, I went from being a musical theatre actress with not a single union on-camera credit to having five network co-stars and a series lead in a cable pilot. Yes, in New York. And did I mention I’m 4′ 10″ and Japanese-American? As much as I hate the phrase ‘think outside the box,’ it’s important to realize that you’re already outside that box, so you might as well think that way. Go write. Write for yourself, write for your friends who are in the same boat, create and package something that shows you exactly as you are, and get it directly to an audience. MySpace, YouTube, let the audience find you, and the rest of the industry will have to tag along. Because even with these narrow, closed-minded breakdowns and the seemingly impenetrable wall of resistance (a wall I can’t run up even though I’m Asian), it is show business, and extraordinary things are possible. America Ferrera happens, Sandra Oh happens, and Tony Award-winner Sarah Jones happens. Maybe we’re next.” — Miki

If I may be so bold as to offer a closing thought on an issue I can only hope to have compassion for, I’d like to suggest that it’s not so much the types of roles you go out for, it’s what you do with the level of success you might happen to reach as you work. It’s about what you do with the platform you are given, once yours is a household name. How will you shape the future, if given the chance? Some actors will break through. And if that’s you, I hope you choose to make this industry — and this planet — a better place for everyone. You don’t have to do it, but wouldn’t it be nice if you chose to do so?


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000758.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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