Amid a push for better representation of diverse actors, top talents from Ryan Murphy to Daniel Dae Kim delve into the industry's complex new creative landscape.
Over the past couple of years, casting in films and TV has been scrutinized with an intensity never seen before. When a role is whitewashed (such as in Ghost in the Shell or Aloha), audiences are quick to take to social media to express their disappointment. And as the awareness and demand for more representation in stories has grown, so has the demand for casting to reflect those stories. But with this new creative landscape comes plenty of questions about who can play what. Can a straight actor play a gay character? Can a Korean actor play Bruce Lee? THR spoke to 11 top industry creators, producers, actors and execs about the way the industry has changed, and how they're approaching these discussions.
Obviously, we work a lot in the fairy- tale space and, often, people think of these worlds as European and Caucasian. We work hard to honor what is timeless about these stories but also to re-imagine them. Sometimes it's telling a traditional European tale in a new way with new faces and sometimes it's telling stories from other parts of the world in a modern way. Celebrating other cultures is one of the things that excited us about Aladdin and Mulan.
For Aladdin (out May 24), we looked in more than 15 regions, including places like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt and Morocco. Randi Hiller, who heads up casting for our live-action group, was supervising this massive network of casting directors all over the world. Mena Massoud, who is our Aladdin, was born in Egypt. Marwan Kenzari, our Jafar, was born in the Netherlands and is of Tunisian ethnicity. Navid Negahban, who plays the sultan, is Iranian. Nasim Pedrad, who plays Jasmine's best friend, was born in Iran and raised in the U.S.
In the world of social media, there tends to be a lot of conversation with every casting choice. In the case of the casting of Billy Magnussen [as Prince Anders], the fact that everyone immediately assumed, "Here comes your classic Caucasian romantic lead," couldn't have been further from the truth of what we were up to. With love and respect to Billy, we knew his screen time and we knew what function his role played — Billy being fully in on the joke — which was to poke fun at the classic Western European prince. It's kind of a gotcha moment. He's onscreen for perhaps four or five minutes.
In the case of Mulan (2020), it is cast with entirely actors of Chinese ethnicity (with the exception of two Middle-Eastern actors in supporting roles), and many Chinese nationals. There is not a Caucasian face in the movie. The process was fascinating. The infrastructure of agents, managers and lawyers isn't the same in China. So our people learned new skills in terms of hiring Chinese stars, of negotiating in China. We brought on a legendary Chinese producer named Bill Kong to help us navigate. These Chinese stars are really, really busy with their own big franchises and TV series in China, a robust market in and of itself. The baseline from which we're operating is getting bigger and broader, and we're going to continue to do that.
The trouble that I used to run into was managers just blatantly closeted [their clients] — and I knew their clients and I knew which ones were gay. That was always so disturbing to me. That’s a wall I always used to hit. In the past five or six years, that wall has begun to come down as actors who have been very brave and led the way and come out as gay, lesbian, bi, trans, pansexual, queer have proven themselves to be castable and profitable. Now we have a generation of actors and actresses who've grown up with social media and they've likely, at some point, posted something that was about their coming out. Some of the more conservative or old-school managers have had to play catch-up to stay in the game.
I don't want to go around saying that gay roles can only be played by gay people, because I don't think that's true. But I also think that it makes more creative sense, when you have a minority role, to have someone that's lived that experience bring their experiences to it. I don't want to say that by some law only gay people can play gay characters, but I question the wisdom of showrunners and directors who wouldn't find it advantageous to work with people who in some way have a firsthand understanding of that experience. It just makes creative sense.
So what I wonder is, why would you do that? Is it because you're not willing to do the work to get a green light with a gay lead actor? Or you're not going to do the work to get a green light with a trans actor or actress? It will take more work, and it will be a bit more of a fight if they don't have that "greenlight-able" name yet. I keep saying that we're getting close but we're not quite at that Jackie Robinson moment — that watershed moment — the equivalent being a lead actor or actress who is openly gay, bi, trans, lesbian or queer who can greenlight a project based on their name. That'll be a big moment.
Dustin Lance Black's new memoir, Mama's Boy: A Story from Our Americas, is available now.
I have a difficult time accepting the rhetoric that there isn’t LGBTQ, or maybe more specifically, trans talent. There is obviously an abundance of talent, and it’s just a matter of going out there and finding those individuals who are right for the role.
What’s critically important is not simply that the casting is authentic but that writers and creators are actually crafting a narrative that celebrates those lives. More often than not a trans character is the inciting incident for some really dramatic story — there’s often violence enacted toward them. So aside from the fact that that storytelling just gets really lazy, that must get really exhausting for the community to only ever see yourself portrayed in that light.
When it comes to casting trans characters, personal feeling is I’d rather have someone who authentically understands that life portraying those roles. But I have also talked to trans performers who have said to me, “I’m not necessarily saying that I don’t want cisgendered actors playing trans, all I’m saying is I want the same opportunities to play cisgendered characters.” Because what happens is trans actors get ghettoized — they’re only ever seen as being able to play trans. We really need to shift away from that. I will view Pose as a success long-term when the five women that we have cast on our show have opportunities beyond Pose — and not solely to play other trans characters, but just to play women, period.
Our last movie, Searching, featured a mostly Korean-American cast, but the plot had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. It was just a thriller. We all thought it would be really cool to advocate for a group of people who weren’t media-represented in a major way. So when we started Run, we tried to do the same thing, except this time with a teenage lead who uses a wheelchair.
Maybe we were just coming off the high of Searching, but internally we never really discussed any other possibility apart from looking for a super-talented actress with a lower-body disability in real life, even though we knew the search to find this person would be insanely unconventional. We had a great casting director, Rich Delia, who went out to [cast in the] “traditional way.” But ultimately, the most success came via a grassroots approach: word-of-mouth, flyers at theater groups and art programs, and outreach to disability-minded organizations around the country. It was a months-long process with extremely specific parameters, but we were convinced that person was, statistically, out there. We just had to find her. And eventually, we did. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.
The industry as a whole has become more and more aware of the need to tell inclusive and diverse stories. Diversity in front of and behind the camera has been an ongoing commitment at Universal, but I do believe that the industry at large is starting to catch up. The Fast & Furious franchise is a shining example of the ways in which diverse and authentic casting can pay off at the global box office. But the studio is just one part of the casting process: We've had diverse directors direct the vast majority of the Fast & Furious movies. We want to give our filmmaking partners freedom to make decisions that support their vision and support the story. Look, there’s always room for continued growth in this space. The conversation surrounding diversity comes up on virtually all of the films that we work on now, in a really positive and constructive way. It’s this dialogue that helps us make decisions that impact change.
The process of casting has not yet changed, but the attention to it has become publicly heightened and that’s at least a good start. Discussions around decisions that are made regarding onscreen representation are happening more openly than they did in the past. Language is starting to become more specific and expansive, which means that this can be reflected in how we describe characters we’re seeking, which begins the journey to correcting exclusion.
But casting directors don't have the power to choose which stories are made and what elements they must serve in order for that story to be told. It is a truth that casting "controversies" never address. (When things are going along without controversy, casting directors are mostly unsung — we don’t have an Oscar category for casting yet, and when movies are reviewed in major publications they often do not include the casting director in its credits). Content getting greenlighted and then made by people outside of what is considered the dominant culture affords casting directors actual power to help move things forward. If we are tasked more specifically with developing and casting actors who represent these perspectives, eventually those actors can attain enough "marketplace value" to join the very small group of actors who can get bigger projects made. Because Vida is a series that is written by and about the Latinx community, an actress like Melissa Barrera gets to begin the process of becoming someone with enough “mainstream” recognition and attention to hopefully one day put her in a position to greenlight projects. She has since been cast in the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (another project specific to the writer's personal cultural story), which will in turn amplify her presence yet one more step.
If I’m considered someone at the forefront of this topic it really is only because my work reflects my own actual cultural and human experience, and I actively seek to be able to reflect it and expand on it. But even this speaks to a privilege of being able to be selective in a particular kind of way and of understanding the power of my particular voice. Ultimately, culture really is representative of those who make it and the next step for me includes being a bigger player in that world beyond casting.
I can say this unequivocally: There has never been a better time to be an actor of color in Hollywood. When it comes to diversity, I believe we’ve made more strides in the past couple of years than we have over the past several decades.
One thing I’ve noticed though, is that even within the general notion of representation, there are unique dynamics specific to each group. For instance, I’ve noticed a phenomenon happening in Asian American casting where often we are limited to only playing characters based on our own specific heritage — only Japanese actors for Japanese roles, Korean actors for Korean roles, etc. I don’t see that very often with other racial groups. When there is a role that calls for an African American actor, rarely do I hear people ask whether that actor is from Namibia or Uganda. And certainly not with Caucasian actors; if that were the case, our biggest stars from England and Australia wouldn’t be allowed to play Americans.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly cases where I feel it’s extremely important for the actor’s nationality to be the same as the character's — like when there’s a specific historical figure who has a cultural significance to that country, or if the role requires language ability that needs to be authentic and native-sounding. Then, I completely agree. But to me the thing that’s most important is representation, and representation, by definition, is visual.
It’s interesting that there’s this difference when it comes to Asians. I should point out here that I’m speaking about representation as it pertains to race and gender and not necessarily other kinds of diversity that are equally important.
I often use the yardstick of a 10-year-old sitting in front of their TV. When he or she sees the face of an actor onscreen, they’re not asking what nationality that actor is. What’s important is that they see someone who looks like them. Someone they can aspire to be. When I was 10 and watching my first Bruce Lee movie, I wasn’t saying, "I can’t be like Bruce because he’s Chinese and I’m Korean." I was seeing that he’s Asian and that’s what mattered.
All this to say that this truly is a nuanced, complex issue, and one where no one has all the answers. To me, the most important thing is to approach the solution with thoughtfulness and a collective generosity of spirit.
One of the many things Dora did besides entertain and educate kids all over the world was to normalize bilingualism and diversity on a broad market scale. A child who grew up watching Dora was seeded with a level of tolerance and acceptance of "the other" that we now see flourishing in the social interactions and viewership behaviors of Millennials and Generation Z.
Nickelodeon built a massive brand for kids, and now they are betting on that IP to launch a big family action comedy with Latinx characters. This should be a model for many opportunities moving forward. Because ultimately, this isn’t a social obligation, it’s a business opportunity, and it happens to be one that can do our children a lot of good on the way to the bank. From Black Panther to Crazy Rich Asians and Coco, previously closed doors are opening because audiences are voting with their dollars. When films authentically reflect stories and skin tones, audiences break box office records and barriers along the way. Recently released data from Netflix tells us some of their most successful shows on a global level are not in English — in fact, a number of them are in Spanish.
We’re all hopeful that the industry’s efforts to support and invest in diversity will continue far into the future, but it still feels like we’re only skimming the surface. This is particularly true when it comes to the Latinx market. Indeed, the next uphill battle in our industry is creating an inclusive ecosystem for children’s programming both in television and movies. Just as the Latinx experience is wide and varied, so must this programming reflect its unique qualities and nuances. Where is the next Dora the Explorer? Not just one show, but a multitude of shows that reflect the many Latinx experiences.
With [2015’s] Fantastic Four, we cast Michael B. Jordan as a character who was white in the comic. That was something that was met by a lot of racism online — although I don't think that helped or hurt the commercial viability of the movie, because that movie had other challenges. There was a lot on social media about fans feeling as though we had betrayed the comic by casting a black actor to play a white character.
Even though that was only four years ago, we are living in a different time now. The world is transforming in such a radical way from the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter. We just live in accountability culture, and a culture where there is much more social activism than we've seen in our lifetimes, probably since the 1960s. I think in the superhero movies there hasn't been enough casting nonwhite actors as characters that were portrayed in the comics as white. But I think we will see more of it, and I certainly know that we're going to see more superhero movies, comic book movies that are based on nonwhite characters. The blockbuster culture is changing.
I'm casting gay actors in straight roles — and that is new. Five years ago, you could never do that. You could, but there would be pushback. When we did Glee with Jonathan Groff as Lea Michele's love interest, there was a reporter who wrote an article saying, 'Well, that shouldn't be allowed to happen.' If you just look at the growth in the past 10 years, it's a different ballgame.
The biggest thing that I find leads to the successful casting of interesting groups of people is flexibility. Unless there's something really, really specific about a character, I leave myself open to the possibility that someone's going to come in and not be exactly what you imagined, but be perfect for the role. Like when Greg Daniels and I were casting Parks and Recreation, we cast Aziz Ansari before we had a role for him. We were just like, “This guy is hilarious. He should be in the show.” So we made a deal with him to play an as-yet-unnamed character in an as-yet-undeveloped TV show.
My friend Matt Murray wrote this pilot for NBC this year called Sunnyside that stars Kal Penn. It's about a group of people who are trying to get their citizenship in America. Two of the characters are brother and sister, and they were written as Chinese American. The woman cast to play the sister was Chinese American and the actor we got to play the brother was Korean American. So we changed it: They're half brother and sister, they're siblings but they're not descended from the same mother. It's additive. Oftentimes the solutions to these problems make something funnier and more interesting.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.