Conversations about representation in pop culture, especially on social media, tend to occupy a limited emotional range: righteous anger on one side, sneering condescension on the other. So when BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg tweeted a mea culpa for his all-white cast back in January, the admission was notable both for its calm reasonableness and for its still-shocking demonstration that a powerful white Hollywood creative can cop to making missteps when it comes to race. Bob-Waksberg was responding to a fan who wanted to know why Diane, a Vietnamese-American character with whom title character BoJack shares the show’s deepest and thorniest relationship, is voiced by Alison Brie, a white actress. “I’ve really soured on the idea of ‘color-blind’ casting as an excuse to not pay attention,” Bob-Waksberg wrote, somewhat mysteriously. “I’d be happy to discuss further in an interview if asked,” he added.
With Season 5 on the verge of arrival (it premieres on Netflix on Sept. 14), Bob-Waksberg discussed BoJack’s representation issues with impressive candor: what made him change his mind about “color-blind” casting, how he thinks the show’s lack of diversity has hurt it, and the reasons why he wanted to speak up about these topics. And on a (spectacular) season with one of the most intriguing #MeToo-related storylines that we’ve yet encountered—BoJack is, above all, a showbiz satire—Bob-Waksberg talked about how the writers room strived to keep up with the real-life movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Inkoo Kang: Your tweet about “souring” on color-blind casting implies you had a change of heart. What was your thinking process then, what made you change your mind, and how do you think about casting now?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: One of the main things that’s changed between when I cast the show and eight months ago, when I tweeted that, is my understanding of my own responsibility. I didn’t want to cast a show with all white people, [but] I was surprised by how easily it happened. I understand that I’m taking a frustratingly passive voice there, but that’s how it felt to me. I was casting all these people one at a time, sometimes several months apart, [and then] it dawned on me: Oh, these are all white people. I wish I had been paying closer attention at the time. You can be a “good, woke person” who cares about this kind of thing, but if you are not actively making it a top priority, it doesn’t happen. The way the industry’s set up, the people you’re gonna get on the acting side and the writing side are going to be white people.
So that’s why I soured on the term “color-blind,” because I felt like I was being color-blind. I was just casting whoever was great and I wasn’t really thinking about their race, and then I was surprised to discover all the people I thought were great were white people.
When I think about casting now, I try to be very race-conscious. My casting director, Linda Lamontagne, and I are actively looking for people of color for every new character, and that’s made a big difference in how we cast the show. I hope that is reflected even to a layperson observing the show. [Note: In the new season, Hong Chau and Stephanie Beatriz play major supporting characters.] I’m very proud of the movement we’ve made, but we’re always going to be somewhat hobbled in our efforts because of our original sin.
If I was making a short or even a movie, then that project would be done and I could learn from it. But the fact that I’m still making this show with mostly white people in every episode fills me with tremendous guilt. I say this not to just flagellate myself or to show off what a great guy I am, but because I want to put this on the record and to hold myself up to this when I go about making other shows. Also so that other white people making shows can see that this has been something that I have wrestled with, [instead of] looking at my show and saying, “Oh well, he did it and it’s OK, so maybe it’s not that big a deal.”
I would [also] like to be very open that my guilt does not solely come from a place of white progressivism. I do think that the show has been hurt by our all-white cast.
Can you give an example of that?
Sure. For a long time, because we cast a white actress to play Diane, I was afraid of this conversation happening. And because of that, we really downplayed her race and her cultural heritage. We’ve treated her basically like a white woman because I didn’t want to have a white woman playing an overtly Asian character, because that felt somehow more wrong to me.
And now I feel the opposite. We did a complete disservice to the character by making her so white. Obviously what white-coded means is subjective, and there are Asian women who relate to Diane and I don’t want to discount their experiences. But I do think we have avoided stories that could have been more interesting because of my own fear and guilt about the casting.
And [that fear] has had an additionally problematic effect: Because I wasn’t thinking of Diane as an Asian character first, I didn’t feel the need to hire Asian writers, and that is a responsibility that I should have felt much earlier. So that is something I regret as well.
Are there Asian writers on the show now?
As of Season 5, no, there are not.
Let’s talk about the second episode of the new season, where Diane goes to Vietnam. What was the impetus for that episode?
I’m curious what your [viewing] experience was, if I may ask.
It was interesting that so much of the thematic material parallels Crazy Rich Asians, in the sense that it involved an educated Asian American woman going back to what she considers her homeland, then discovers that she is actually quite alienated from this place where she had expected to find herself. There was also some disappointment on my part because so much of the Vietnam that we see on the show is very tourist-heavy and American-centric, though one could argue that those locations would be where Diane, as a tourist, would go. So I felt a little mixed about it.
That’s fair. The impetus for that episode came out of the room. We were talking about different stories for Diane, and this idea came up. I was initially resistant to it, because I was afraid we were going to do it wrong, or it would raise conversations or questions that I was not comfortable having. But Joanna Calo, a writer on the show, was really passionate about it. She’s mixed-race Latina, and I think that she saw a lot of her own story in Diane’s: the quest for identity, never quite feeling like belonging in either world. Then, as we were writing the script, we brought in Vyvy Nguyen, an actress who has played a handful of parts on the show. She talked about her own experiences going back to Vietnam and her family there and made sure we didn’t get any small details wrong. That was very helpful as well.
What response would you give to fans who say that Alison Brie was simply the best person for the role, and therefore your original colorblind casting “worked”?
What I would say is that I’m very happy to have Alison Brie on the show. She has helped me understand the character better, and she has allowed us to take the character to all sorts of different places because she is such a good actress. In many ways she’s perfect for the role, but there is in one way she’s not. I don’t think it diminishes Alison Brie at all to say that the show needs more diversity.
There are two separate conversations that are happening simultaneously, and I want to make sure not to conflate one with the other. One is the larger question of inclusion and representation on the show in general, and the other is the specific trope of white people playing Asian characters. That is very much its own specific problem. I was not aware at the time of how nefarious and wide-reaching that trope was—and that I would be an example of that.
What has Alison Brie has brought to your understanding of Diane?
She finds a human-ness in a character that otherwise might feel very strident. [Laughs.] If you look at the first season, Diane is the voice of reason a lot, and Alison found the flaws and the vulnerability and the unhingedness in the performance that inspired us to go to deeper, darker, more interesting places with her. This is not to say that a wonderful Asian actress couldn’t have done that, but I do want to give her credit. She is an incredible actress, not just some white woman who has this role.
If I may have a little aside with you, one of the reasons why this whitewashing seems to bother so many people is because Diane is such a great character and because Alison Brie’s performance is also so great. On a certain level, it’s because that character is so moving that it hurts a little bit more, if that makes sense?
One hundred percent. That doesn’t need to be an aside. Put that in the piece. I think that’s absolutely correct.
Have you talked with Alison Brie about the discontent around her casting?
Yes, she’s aware of it. I think she would not take a role like this again; I feel comfortable saying that on her behalf. But past that, I don’t feel comfortable speaking for her. I will say that she mostly agrees with the things that I have said about the casting.
Are you surprised that this conversation is happening so much more around Diane than around the character of Todd Chavez, who’s voiced by Aaron Paul?
No, that doesn’t surprise me, because Diane is a more explicitly Asian character than Todd is Latino. We’ve been very definitive about Diane, that she’s a Vietnamese woman. Todd, we’ve never really described him on the show as being Latino, although his name, Todd Chavez, would imply that he’s at least somewhat Latino.
Episode 4 is a fantastic send-up of “bad-boy” actors who are quickly welcomed back by the public, sometimes even after committing horrific acts. How much did #MeToo play a role in the making of Season 5?
We started writing late last summer, and we broke the season in the first couple of weeks. It was interesting how the cultural conversation changed while we were writing. There was one line in Episode 4 that we had to change because it was all about how Hollywood never makes a big deal out of these terrible men, [because] all of a sudden Hollywood was making a big deal out of these terrible men. [Laughs.] So we just changed the focus to how quick we are to forgive people, which unfortunately is evergreen. It is amazing how quickly we are re-embracing them with open arms, and I find that to be quite distasteful.
I found that episode to be shockingly relevant.
Well, this stuff has been happening for years. When we were writing that episode, the big person on our minds was Mel Gibson, who had just done Daddy’s Home 2. I’m happy to take credit for being ahead of the curve on that, but I think that the whole industry is just really behind the curve, and we’re just catching up on stories we should’ve been telling for the last 20 years.