Nina Shen Rastogi has a fantastic piece in Slate about race and Hollywood casting, specifically about what casting notices communicate about what producers and directors are looking for, and how agents, managers, and even actors’ assumptions about what roles are open to which people limit pools of people trying out for certain parts. I think that last part is particularly important, because while the predominance of older white men in the creator ranks certainly creates a bias towards better roles for men who look like them, in the absence of specific encouragement, it seems people tend to default to rather conservative assumptions about the opportunities available to them, and to their clients:
We discussed a breakdown for the upcoming ABC series Nashville, which described a male role as being “Caucasian or mixed ethnicity.” I said that, to me, that seemed like a way of opening the door for an actor who was ethnic but not too ethnic. Kadish suggested the phrase “mixed ethnicity” was meant as a kind of euphemism for “exotic”—but one that didn’t carry the same connotation of sensuality or physical attractiveness. But “we don’t know what anyone means by ‘mixed,’ ” she admitted…
Marsh stressed that talent agents’ experiences and expectations shape the casting process as much as the breakdown does. He showed me a notice for the part of an emergency room nurse with one line on the FX series Sons of Anarchy. Some 1,800 performers had been submitted across a wide range of races and ages. And yet, even though the breakdown didn’t say anything about the character’s gender, most of the actors submitted were female—reflecting the popular belief that nursing is a woman’s profession.
A couple of actors I spoke to singled out another breakdown code word they frequently find themselves having to negotiate these days: “all-American.” “I think everyone understands what they’re trying to get at when they say that,” said Alfredo Narciso, a Brazilian-Filipino actor who primarily goes out for Latino roles. “They’re looking for that Midwestern type, blond-haired, blue-eyed, somebody who looks like they were born and bred in Iowa. And the funny thing about that is I was born in Wisconsin—born and bred. But I would never be considered for that. I would never be called in for that. Even if I was submitted for it, even if I was pushed for it.”
It’s amazing how meaningless these phrases are, and I can’t even imagine trying to read the entrails and figure out what it would be worth pursuing or not. It would be nice if agents were bolder about putting their clients up for parts, rather than discouraging them from pursuing parts ostensibly open to people of all races and ethnicities, or siloing them based on race or gender. But folks who are writing notices and the people asking them to find actors seem to need some lessons in both using plain language, and in honestly assessing their own intentions and openness to whoever is truly best for the part.