Mindy Kaling, America Ferrera, Eva Longoria, directors Kimberly Peirce and Karyn Kusama and many, many others contributed to a fantastic NY Times feature published yesterday called “What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If you’re not a straight white man.)”
If you guessed that the story is full of prejudices, micro-aggressions, and devastating anecdotes both behind and in front of the camera at all levels of the industry, you are, unfortunately, correct. But even if you’re well versed in Hollywood sexism and racism, the piece is still worth reading. It’s great and refreshing to hear directly from so many men and women — especially women of color, who are represented quite heavily in the piece — talk about their experiences, how it shaped them — and how they’ve fought and continue to fight back.
Here are 15 of the most powerful testimonials about working as a non-straight while male in the entertainment industry, mostly from a female POV.
1. America Ferrera on the low expectations for actors of color in the industry:
I had just won [a top award at Sundance], and [my manager] wanted me to audition for the Latina chubby girl in a pilot. She wasn’t even the lead; she was just the sidekick, with the same joke in every scene. I said, “I’m not going in for that.” When I ultimately left him, he [told] another of my reps, “Somebody should tell that girl that she has an unrealistic idea of what she can accomplish in this industry.” That was someone I was paying to represent me.
2. Mindy Kaling on having a character based on herself recast for a white actress:
When I got hired on “The Office,” at the same time I wrote a pilot with my best friend, called “Mindy and Brenda,” based on our experiences. They were trying to audition my part, which I wanted to play, and at first they [looked for] Indian-American actresses, and when they couldn’t find any, they opened up to more generically Middle Eastern actresses. Still couldn’t find any, until at the end, they’re like, “We’ll look for a white woman.” That was heartbreaking for so many reasons. I auditioned. I think they were looking for someone more traditionally beautiful, because I’d like to think I gave a good audition, to play the part I created. Now, they would work harder to find an Indian-American girl. There’s just too much scrutiny, which is good.
3. Director Karyn Kusama on her “Jennifer’s Body” star Megan Fox being asked to do degrading promotional tours:
The marketing department wanted Megan [Fox, star of “Jennifer’s Body”] to do live chats with amateur porn sites, and I was like, “I’m begging you not to go to her with this idea, she will become so dispirited.” It was fascinating to have the writer be female, the director be female, the stars be female, and my head executive be female, and then we get to the top of the mountain, all those [male] marketing people. It was crushing.
4. Eva Longoria on developing but not greenlighting shows with diverse leads:
I was developing a medical show, and the lead was a Latina heart surgeon. It didn’t go forward [for various reasons]. Networks say, “We’re on board with diversity,” and they’ll develop it, but they seldom program it. We don’t have enough people in the decision-making process. We have decision influencers, which is a new thing. There’s one brown person in the room that goes, “I like that idea.”
5. Producer Lori McCreary on the “science fiction” premise (according to a studio exec) of America being led by a black president:
If [a script doesn’t specify, a role is] presumed to be white and male. For “Deep Impact,” Mimi Leder, the director, wanted to cast Morgan as the president, and somebody at the studio said, we’re not making a science-fiction movie; you can’t have Morgan Freeman play the president. But she really fought for it.
6. Karyn Kusama on the different standards for male and female “unlikable” protagonists:
With “Girlfight,” there were questions from financiers about, what is she so angry about? I was like, have you been to the projects lately? That movie took so long to get made because people didn’t trust she would be interesting to watch if she was less likable and kind of inarticulate. Meanwhile, we look at “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” [as] American classics.
7. Director Kimberly Peirce on not being paid what she’s due (and why it can still be worth it):
[On “Carrie”], I got half my salary. It’s happened twice. I have a quote, and they said: “We’ll give you half. Take it or leave it.” They know, if you like something, you are willing to take less money. And that’s not great for you, or other women, but it’s still better — every movie I make, it still matters. At the end of the year, they’re like, how many [of the top 100] movies were made by women in the system, and that year it was two. Me and “Frozen.”
8. Producer Effie Brown on not being paid what she’s due (and how it hurt to pay her workers less as a result):
Finding out that a man who had less experience and critical acclaim got paid twice as much, that was a smack in the face. You think that studio loves you, and it’s, “No honey, they can get you for a deal, and you in turn get other people for a deal.” I sometimes feel like a sellout, because I know I can get so-and-so in the door if they hit a certain price point. I had to learn how to break that chain.
9. Wendell Pierce on, well, this is a dehumanizing head-scratcher:
I was working on “The Gregory Hines Show” that depicted three generations of black men. It was on CBS in 1997. [After] the read-through, the studio and network give notes. Gregory kissed everybody, and so in the show he would kiss his son, Matty. This particular day someone from CBS said: “I notice every time you come in, you kiss Matty. So I wanted to ask, do black people kiss their kids?” That was the most offensive thing I think I’ve ever [heard]. Gregory stood up and said [to the executive]: “Everybody get out. You, come with me.”
10. Eva Longoria on when a compliment is not a compliment:
As a director, I definitely feel the boys’ club. There’s still that, “She can’t possibly know what she’s talking about.” It’s always been meant as a compliment, but [crew members] go: “You know what you’re doing. Wow. You know lenses. Oh, my God, you know shots?” Yes, I know where to put the camera. You just go, “Do you say to the dude directors, ‘I’m pleasantly surprised you knew what you were doing’?”
11. America Ferrera on being asked to “sound more Latino”:
My very first audition ever, I was about 16, and the casting director [for a commercial] said, “Can you do it again but sound more Latino?” I had no idea what she was talking about. “You mean you want me to speak in Spanish?” She’s like: “No. Do it in English but just sound more Latino.” I genuinely didn’t realize until later that she was asking me to speak English with a broken accent. It confused me, because I thought, I am Latino, so isn’t this what a Latino sounds like? From the get-go of my career I thought, There’s a certain box or a certain way that you’re seen, which I didn’t feel growing up.
12. Mindy Kaling on the different expectations for female bosses:
My personality and [that of other women] I know is to want to please. It can sometimes feel alien to just say, “I need this to happen, because it’s my show,” and not feel afterward that you’ve been unprofessional simply by stating the thing that you want. I struggle with it all the time. When you are a minority, and it’s the first time you’ve done something, you’re like, this could all be taken away from me. I think the presumption with women is that they will be team players, and that is not the presumption of men. Especially show runners. When women push back, they [are perceived as] bitches or divas. I just made a slight demand that wasn’t even that bad. And at the end of it, I’ll send bagels [to the staff]. Please forgive me for asserting myself in a small way.
13. Jussie Smolett shares a story about how diversity and inclusion matters:
I had posted something that was very political, and the amount of negative comments was really heart-wrenching. Then, [at a restaurant], this older black dude walked up and said, “I didn’t want to bother you, I didn’t want a selfie, I just wanted to let you know that the story line of Jamal” [his gay character on “Empire”] “really made it easier for me to talk to my son about his sexuality.” I needed him at that moment. But apparently he needed the story line at the moment.
14. Priyanka Chopra on helping South Asian viewers feel “relevant”:
I do feel extremely proud when I have people of the South Asian community coming up to me and saying, thankfully we’re seeing a nonstereotyped Indian. At an event, I remember this girl hugged me and started crying. She said, “Thank you for making us relevant.” It gives me goose bumps every time I think about it.
15. Mindy Kaling on how “some people don’t have to think about this at all”:
My role is not just artist. It’s also activist because of the way I look. On so many shows and movies, race was a gesture, and in mine it’s the premise. I can’t ignore that what a lot of people see is an Indian woman who doesn’t look like a Bollywood star. It piques their interest, and they’re not bad for wanting me to tell stories about it, and I’m not wrong for not wanting to. I want to fill my desire to write vibrant, flawed characters, but then also be a role model to young people. It’s stuff that I think about all the time. Some people don’t have to think about this at all.
[via NY Times]