Reading all of the details about Ridley Scott’s whitewashing of “Exodus” certainly made me mad. But in all honesty, just a tiny bit mad. I wasn’t ever going to get a major part in that film. Not because I’m a woman of color, but because I’m not famous. Makes sense. As Scott says, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” That’s just the truth of how the business works.
But why does it have to be the truth? Why can’t Mohammad so-and-so get a film financed? And why aren’t I more mad about it?
Here’s why. Hollywood’s consistent casting of major roles as white and minor roles as ethnic is systemic and has been in place since the beginning of film. (And I’m not even talking about blackface and yellowface, that’s an even longer discussion.) When you’re just starting out as an actor, you don’t want to fight the system. You want to be part of the system. And so you say “Thank you!” when you get a couple of lines as a waitress/secretary/nurse/assistant to a white person for the 14th time - and you ARE truly happy. And you say, “How strong of an accent do you want on that?” when a casting director asks you to talk like your parents - and you really DO want that role. And you don’t take a stand and say that you believe the character is just as strong without an accent or that you believe you could be the lead, not the lead’s assistant. Or, if you’re white, you say what actor Joel Edgerton said about being in “Exodus”. While he says he is sensitive to and empathizes with ethnic actors being cast in subservient roles, he also says, “It’s not my job to make those decisions…I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.” I can’t argue with that logic - but I know that I want to.
I learned my Chinese/Japanese/vaguely Asian accent from a white man, a dialect coach, and it only cost me $200. I studied Chinese because I thought it would improve my casting opportunities - and Jesus, that language is hard (there goes another $1200 and months of my time). I learned martial arts because my agent said, “For the love of God, you’re Asian, can you please do karate?” (I think I spent about $600 on training). I am not good at any of the above skills, but I spent that money and tried my damnedest because I want to work as an actor. I never considered the fact that being an Asian American woman who doesn’t exhibit typically “Asian” skills could be enough. And in 2014 - soon to be 2015 - Hollywood, it’s not.
But, Elaine, plenty of ethnic people succeed, you say. Yes, you’re right! That’s why I made John Cho the thumbnail to this article!! But, this is not a - pardon the pun - black or white issue. I’m not saying that NO ethnic people succeed or that ONLY white people play lead roles. I’m saying that the practice of often casting white leads and ethnic supporting cast is pervasive and isn’t even seen as racist. It just is what it is. So how do we change what “is”?
Well, I made a video. I wrote this sketch when I was working on a certain television network’s diversity showcase. The producer of the showcase and VP of Diversity (a white woman) told me that there was no way we could do the sketch in front of a bunch of casting directors, producers, and writers. She said it was a big “F*ck You” to them. But I didn’t write it with malice in my heart. I wrote it because isn’t that the point of a DIVERSITY showcase - to help people find talent that they’re not accustomed to seeing on screen and to recognize that we don’t have to maintain the status quo? I have realized that I myself am a part of the problem. I am so hungry for work that I don’t question what the larger implications are. If Ridley Scott cast me as a secretary with 2 lines in pidgin English during Communist China with Johnny Depp playing Chairman Mao, I would be freaking psyched. But, as I fight my way into the system, I will also fight outside the system, working to open the eyes of the people in power (and more importantly, those who are on their way to power) who can change it. This silly video is one step on my journey towards being a creative producer of content and not just a passive actor who wants so badly to "make it" that she is only slightly mad at whitewashing.
Who knows, maybe I’m a bad actor and I’ll never get a lead role. But, I want the opportunity to try.