Things You Only Know If You're An Actress And An Ethnic Minority
The Debrief: Why was it only the actors of colour who were given a workshop on 'Standard English' at drama school?
Last month director Cameron Crowe was forced to apologise after casting US actress Emma Stone as a character who is a quarter Asian. People kicked off, BUT their arguments are slightly blurry. Colour-blind casting goes further than what the eye can see.
Black people, Asians and minority ethnics (or ‘Bame’ – though this acronym weirds me out) make up almost 15% of the UK’s population. London alone boasts 40% Bame. Employment of minority ethics in the creative industries, namely the acting industry has fallen to 5.4% – the lowest it’s ever been. Since 2009, over 2,000 Bame people have left the industry.
In this same period, employment around acting has grown by 4,000. If we go by these stats, this means for every black and Asian that has left the industry, two white people have been given employment.
Rather than ticking boxes and filling quotas, the casting industry needs to revaluate. Sparked by calamities such as a recent Deadline article (claiming that white actors were now at a disadvantage to ethnic minority actors), young talent is up in arms about the fact there is still, in 2015, a significant lack of opportunities for ethnic minorities; but moreover, that the way things are being handled are deeply problematic.
Just when will inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake be banished and born as its own organic right? Some theatre companies and British institutions and tourist attractions – not to mention famed and praised casting agents – are still operating in this seemingly box-ticking manner.
That actors should to be trusted and relied upon to do their job, employed solely on their merits, seems an obvious, unquestionable necessity. Herein lies the problem. Agents, directors, casting directors: they’ve all gone full circle in their bid to be diverse, multi-culturally embracing, modern.
Drama school graduate Shakira, 27, spoke candidly to The Debrief about her experiences as a mixed race actor working in London post-drama school. She is signed to an esteemed agent and has performed in theatres across the UK and has just filmed her first TV role in a new drama for BBC One.
Born to a Pakistani father and a Colombian mother, Shakira* is mixed race.
#1 The non-white’s workshop
‘Essentially, what majorly irks me is that I’m part of an industry that consistently insists on not just limiting my options because of the colour of my skin, but assuming that I need some form of special treatment. Being of South East Asian and South American descent, my face is alarmingly similar to an early-era Amy Winehouse and hips that truly are unable to tell a lie [note: despite her raging talent, this is not THE Shakira]. Give me even the slightest modicum of sun exposure and apparently, I “look like a Sultan’s Daughter.”
‘Suffice to say, I fit firmly into the “non-white” category. Or so I found out in my first year of drama school when I was packed off to a “non-white’s workshop” for the afternoon. Before then I’d never really thought of myself as anything other than just a person.
‘My friends made up a mixed bag of heritage, though to be honest race never really came up. I knew I was a bit Asian and a bit Latina but likened it to being a bit of a heavy sleeper –it sets me apart from the general population but is largely inconsequential. It wasn’t until uni that the term “token ethnic friend” started being jovially bandied around. I laughed it off as irony.
‘As for the “non-white’s workshop”, this came post-university, during my second week at drama school. It was run by a hugely famous theatre, where we were taken to a rehearsal room and led through a vocal warm up with particular focus on articulation and “Standard English” (the artist formerly known as RP), then a few actors were invited onstage to perform a Shakespearean speech we’d been asked to prepare in advance, while a director gave them feedback on the quality of their verse speaking.
‘The entire thing was a shit show. I genuinely don’t know what’s more insulting, that they assumed that by blanket inviting every actor of colour they would be brimming with people who couldn’t string a comprehensible/palatable sentence together or that they fundamentally still believe that The Only Way Is Standard English.
‘The most infuriating thing to me is assuming that no matter their natural accent, it’s specifically the black and Asian students who’ll benefit from a Standard English workshop. Not the white ones from Newcastle, for example. I have the same accent as Carey Mulligan, for fuck’s sake.
‘I’m an actor. Send me up for an audition and I’ll prepare for the part. If I can do it, give me the job. If I can’t, give it to someone who can.’
#2 Misguided home truths
‘In my final year of drama school, as I was preparing to be ejected from the womb of my institution and onto the hard pavement that is the industry, my acting tutor offered up some home truths, including the following:
‘“What you have to remember darling, is that you are Asian and the industry will see that, so you have to be prepared.” Oh brilliant, I’M RUMBLED, I thought. Here I was hoping I could trundle off to auditions with a paper bag over my head a la Shia LeBeouf with “I’m not Asian anymore” scrawled across the front.
‘Of course I’m Asian, I’m also Hispanic, I’m also a woman, I’m also not a size eight. I’m not trying to deceive anyone of these facts and I’m not interested as being seen as just an Asian actor, why should I be? I’m sure his reasoning was for me to maximise my potential employment prospects by squeezing myself into the Asian pigeon hole but as a mixed race actor that simply won’t work because I’M NOT ONE THING.
‘I’ve been told I’m not Indian enough. Well that’s because I’m not Indian. And you have my photograph and my details so if you want an Indian actress call her in, don’t call me. Don’t look disappointed when a paler young woman than one you’d anticipated walks into the room. It’s incredibly insulting.
‘And for the love of God don’t say, “You don’t look Indian AT ALL, where are you from?” It’s a real spoiler alert when it comes to finding out whether I’m going to bag the part of Indian Murder Victim.’
#3 Botched colour-blind casting
‘Another thing I’ve noticed as an ethnic minority actor is how often people lie to satiate casting directors’ thirsts for authenticity when casting to type. An audition once specifically requested some direct connection to the Middle East (I was schooled there partly). The other actor and I were going up for siblings and had a joint audition that we prepared together.
‘I knew him to be of half Mauritian descent, not Middle Eastern, yet when the question of heritage came up in the audition room he painted an elaborate Lebanese family tree for the panel and left me for dead. Why does it matter so much, if I looked right for the part why couldn’t we just leave at that?
‘This doesn’t happen nearly as much with white actors. Are you originally Scottish, sir? Don’t even worry about it; of course, you can be in Game of Thrones with an unidentifiable accent. Because you’re an ACTOR. And that’s your JOB instead of “If you want this boyo, you better make up three generations of Lebanese ancestors.’’
#4 The relentlessness of stereotyping
‘My actor pals are kind, supportive and proud of each other’s achievements. But at drama school and beyond I’ve found myself on the receiving end of some unpleasant stuff, namely comments about how excited everyone is to see me play the next Asian doctor on Holby or welcome me to Albert Square in the Asian family, lightheartedly suggesting those were the only parts I might get.
‘I can see the funny side of that and have, of course, been known to poke fun at the stereotypes myself. But never once did I hear the Northern girls or the Irish girls jibed at for potentially playing maids on Downton. It wasn’t regularly joked about the way my prospects were.
‘This kind of attitude was perpetuated by an agent I was courting during final year shows who said to me, “I’m going to put you up for every Bomber and Doctor there is going, love.” Charming.
‘I've only played one character that specified ethnicity and that was on the radio. The other jobs I’ve had have been offered to me on merit and I know not because I fulfill a “look”. That’s exciting. Colour-blind casting is a brilliant thing; what isn’t a brilliant thing is the half-arsed approach of the so-called elite theatrical institutions and stalwarts.
‘“Let’s chuck in a couple of black guys as spear carriers.” Look at Shakespeare in Love, which was hugely criticised for not having enough “ethnic actors”. With the recast they decided to throw in some ethnic minority actors to placate the critics. Was there a black Viola? Or an Asian Will Shakespeare. Nah, too risky. Black Nurse? Obvs.
‘If you’re going to colour-blind cast do it properly. This means better scripts, tell more interesting stories, cast more creatively. Don’t be annoyed about Emma Stone not looking a quarter Asian enough. Who even looks a quarter Asian? Be annoyed about the fact that almost every part written specifies ethnicity. Level the playing field. Give it to the best actor. Then things will get interesting.’
*Names have been changed.
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