‘Scandal’ Star Kerry Washington On How Casting Directors Talk About Race

The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtable with the actresses who are likely candidate for lead acting Emmys has a lot of fascinating insights into it, including that Breaking Bad Anna Gunn would like to have been on The Wire, which has made me picture her as Rhonda Pearlman’s best friend. But I was particularly struck by Kerry Washington’s part of a conversation about how the women in question handle looks and casting, prompted in part by a story Parenthood‘s Monica Potter told about not getting cast for something because she hadn’t lost the weight she gained during pregnancy yet:

[Connie] Britton: I agree. I’ve never had somebody say to me that I needed to look a certain way for a role, but I’ve always lived in dread of what that would be like. It’s our responsibility to play these full-fledged women, and to play women who look like people we actually see in life. It’s more interesting, and I think audiences appreciate it, too.

Washington: It’s a little bit different for me because I’ll audition for something and they’ll just decide that they’re not going “ethnic” with a character, which I hear a lot.

THR: Casting directors still use the word “ethnic”?

Washington: If not “black,” then yeah. People have artistic license … that’s what casting is: fitting the right look to the right character. Whereas you could maybe lose some weight, there’s not really anything I can do, nor would I want to, about being black.

I would be totally fascinated to hear said casting directors’ explanations to Washington, if she’s ever asked, for why a character can’t be a person of color, or why it would be the wrong decision for the show for that character to be not white—or for that matter, Irish or Jewish, identities that are ethnic within the broad racial category of whiteness. Actual color-blindness in casting would require directors and showrunners to have to meet as a high a standard to explain why a character should be white as for any other race or ethnicity. But as long as whiteness isn’t broadly as anything other than an invisible, neutral state of affairs that all non-white people deviate from and disrupt in some way, we’re likely to get Hollywood’s version of colorblindness, where non-white people can be on-screen sometimes, as long as their non-whiteness is decor, rather than substance that might risk making some people uncomfortable.