Casting for diversity

Casting can be a tricky process. As a director and a recovering actor, I pride myself on my ability to work with talent. I'm looking for actors who I can both collaborate with, and whose performance I can guide. I also have a desire to reflect the world we live in onscreen.

One of the first questions I ask the agency when we initially discuss casting is whether they have thoughts on the ethnicity of the characters in the spot. I always want to cast the right actor for the role, based solely on their performance, but I'm a big believer in casting as wide a net as possible. Luckily, this is often very easy in the ad world. I've been very lucky to have great agency partners and clients, who very often will dictate a diverse cast. After all, why limit the appeal of your product or service?

Zooming out from my own facet of the industry, I see a lot of progress, especially on TV (whatever that is now). Obviously there is more that can be done, but take a look at the offerings across the smorgasbord of TV options and you can see showrunners and directors reveling in the freedom to cast for the role and not the actor. In features, things aren't quite so progressive. A lot of this has to do with the current economics of the industry. Indie films with less money on the line have always been more diverse than their Hollywood counterparts.

The Hollywood system has for the most part always been based on getting marketable stars into as many movies as possible. This creates and perpetuates a catch-22 in that people of color have rarely gotten the same push from studios that white performers have. This has only gotten worse in a world where studios need big reliable tentpoles that can launch franchises. And when those franchises are based on existing source material, like a comic book, the ethnicity of a character can seem locked in.

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man... None of them have to be white but if you look at the comics, they are white. I get that there is a lot of control over those characters and how they're portrayed and that a lot of people are passionate about them, but seeing an alternative portrayal of them would be interesting. Part of the issue is that in the US, white is viewed as the default ethnicity and that becomes very apparent when you look at a film whose source material gives no indication of the ethnicity of its characters.

I'm going to pick on 'The Martian' a little bit here. I’m using it as an example because it’s a recent film but it is by no means the most egregious example in cinema. I really like the movie and the performances in it. Every single actor does a solid job, it’s a lot of fun to watch, and what's more, it has a pretty diverse cast. That being said, if you read the book there was really only one character that ever reveals his ethnicity. Aside from the Chinese characters, everyone else could have been portrayed by actors of any ethnicity.

Except for the great Michael Peña, the entire crew of the Hermes is white. Showing a near future where an interstellar crew of astronauts reflects the diversity of our planet would have been impactful. And I really, really like Chiwetel Ejiofor but couldn't Venkat Kapoor have remained Indian? There are brilliant Indian actors out there waiting to be elevated by a role like that. Chiwetel would have made an excellent Watney by the way.

And that's the point really. Hollywood has the actors. There's tons of diversity in that talent pool. It just takes a director or a casting agent or a studio executive to make the push. If the ethnicity of a character is left vague, then consider going against the default. If it's an original screenplay, consider going against the default. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The domestic audience is getting less and less white with every generation and demand for diversity on screen will only grow. The industry should be minting the bankable, tentpole launching stars that we'll need tomorrow, today.