Brow Beat

This Is What It’s Like to Be an Actor of Color During TV’s “Diversity Push”

The cast of How to Get Away With Murder.

Photo by ABC Studios.

Last month, Nellie Andreeva wrote a particularly ill-advised piece for Deadline lamenting the sudden “uptick in ethnic casting.” (The original headline, “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of a Good Thing?” has since been changed to an only-slightly-less-egregious title in the wake of criticism.) In it, Andreeva referred to one anonymous talent agent who expressed relief at finally being able to pitch any actor who may seem right for the role, rather than having to ask casting directors ahead of time “if they would possibly consider an ethnic actor for a part, knowing they would most likely be rejected.”

Andreeva’s article implied that there is currently an (over)abundance of work for non-white actors in television. Sure, there has certainly been an increase in racial diversity on major network shows since the ’00s. But what does that “diversity” really look like for those who aren’t already established stars like Viola Davis and John Leguizamo? I spoke separately to three professional actors of color—Allen (who asked me not to use his real name because of the sensitivity of these issues), DeWanda Wise, and Arjun Gupta—about the current state of diversity in Hollywood, and their experiences navigating the boom in “ethnic casting.”

When I ask Allen—a black actor in his late 20s who has appeared in small roles in several Web series and major network TV shows—about whether he’s witnessed a noticeable shift in the type and number of roles he is able to audition for, he says yes. “Generally when I’m forwarded a [casting] breakdown now, a lot of times it says ‘colorblind casting,’ or ‘open to any ethnicities, any submissions,’ ” he tells me.

But there’s a downside to the diversity push, too. As Allen explains, it can actually be harder to pinpoint the roles that he’s likely to get cast in. “I prefer when it’s ethnically specific because then I know [that] what I’m going in for is right for me, and it’s written for someone who looks like me, as opposed to throwing darts in the dark and hoping they stick.” Wise, a black actress whose résumé includes several appearances on primetime TV shows, is similarly hesitant to embrace the idea that Hollywood has improved significantly when it comes to diversity. She believes that the “all ethnicities” casting call has become “almost too PC”: “It could be anybody [in the role], which on the one hand is nice,” she says, “because you’re not reading something and thinking, this is what you think of me [as a black woman]?” At the same time, she finds that the lack of specificity in casting notices can be frustrating, sometimes veering into what feels like diversity tokenism: She cited a recent audition for a role in which there was an Asian woman seen right before her and a Hispanic woman seen immediately after. Wise also believes that the lack of specificity in casting calls is at least a little bit dishonest. “A lot of these conversations are going on behind the scenes. They will have a set of auditions, then they will decide among themselves.” Allen echoes that sentiment: “A lot of times [casting directors] already have in mind who they want for the project.”

Gupta, an Indian American actor who played Sam on Nurse Jackie and, more recently, Kan on How to Get Away With Murder, said that one of the drawbacks to more “open” casting calls is that minorities tend to get plugged into bit parts rather than considered for lead roles. “They opened up ‘all ethnicities’ and I feel like what ended up happening was that people of color just started playing secondary parts—‘Oh look, we have a diverse cast’—but you’re not really servicing them with lead roles … you’re almost just fulfilling what you ‘have’ to do.”

There’s also the question of what diversity actually means to casting directors. Wise characterizes the goal as “digestible diversity,” or a certain type of non-white look: Asian actors with typically American or European features (like freckles, she suggests); black women with a lighter skin complexion. You’ll go into an “all ethnicities” casting call, she tells me, and “without fail, you’ll wonder who got that [part], and it’ll be someone German (whose father is kind of half-black).” This perspective seems to have borne itself out in at least one particularly notable—and racist—casting call for the upcoming N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, which made headlines last year. In it, sought-after women were, whether intentionally or not, ranked in groups from “A” to “D” by race, class, and skin tone. (Group B, for instance, consisted of “fine girls,” who “should be light-skinned.” Group D, on the other hand, was listed as “African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.”)

To really achieve diverse representation in Hollywood, industry higher-ups will have to willingly step outside of their comfort zone and adjust their expectations. “The fact is that when you go into these rooms at higher levels, whether it be a producer’s session or a director’s session, there’s no diversity [in the people] sitting behind the table. It’s a boys’ club, you know?” Allen says. “So if you don’t want articles like what happened with the Deadline thing to come out, you need to change the industry behind the scenes completely, and that’s a gradual process.”

But all three actors note that it’s now easier than it has been in the past to avoid being typecast. Allen has read for the “awkward nerd” as well as the “more urban type.” Wise has gone out for roles as varied as “the perfect wife” and the rebellious “Angelina Jolie type,” the latter of which opened up to her after she appeared in a short film called Black Swan Theory. This led to “a string of edgy TV roles I never would have played if I didn’t have the proof, so to speak,” she tells me, “because in reality I often come across as wholesome and educated.” While there are other times when casting directors will still choose to “go with the idea in their heads,” she stresses the importance of actors taking control of their own careers. “You have to show Hollywood who you are, or they will try to define you in more narrow terms.”

And Gupta notes that with one exception (a Lifetime movie where he played an Indian character in India), every role he’s played was not originally intended for an Indian actor. His character on How to Get Away With Murder, for instance, was originally named Jonah (it was changed to Kan after he was cast). And he points out that the writers behind Nurse Jackie were willing to give his character sex scenes—not an insignificant creative choice. “As I started this, and up until the last few years, a lot of Indian men were desexualized and put in somewhat limiting stereotypical roles,” he says. “What I’ve been thrilled about is how quickly it’s starting to shift.”