When Venus Kanani worked on the upcoming TV series Heathers, she had a specific directive for Heather Chandler's role: The producers and writers wanted a plus-sized actor. In the original '80s movie, Chandler was played by Kim Walker, a slim, blonde actress who had cheekbones ready to slice a tomato. But nearly 30 years later, the creative team wanted someone who would be cool in 2017; as Kanani describes it, someone "super confident, super sexy, and always the baddest bitch in the room...she has to ooze confidence and assertiveness." In other words, someone much more radical than Kim Walker's all-American girl.
After two months of searching, Kanani found Melanie Field, a recent Yale Drama School graduate. The 27-year-old has a P!nk vibe — aggressive, fearless and unapologetic. In the past, Field's headshot might have landed her in the pile of character actresses or maybe that of the comedic sidekick. But Kanani saw her Heather Chandler: a girl boss who runs her high school. (It's worth noting that all of the Heathers in the upcoming reboot are more diverse than in the original. Heather McNamara, played by Jasmine Matthews, is a black lesbian. Heather Duke, played by Brendan Scannell, is genderqueer.)
Kanani has a complicated job. Casting directors have to digest a nebulous idea and bring it to life it in a way that feels realistic, while achieving the overall look and tone that a creative team is going for. The trouble is, that overall look often isn't realistic, even in 2017. When it comes to size, the industry is still way off. According to a study performed by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg exclusively for Refinery29, 54.8% of 13 to 20-year-olds and 42.4% of 21 to 39-year-olds on screen were thin. These percentages should be way lower; if they reflected reality, they'd be closer to 32%.
We spoke to three casting directors about how they're working to change the casting process to allow for a greater breadth of body diversity in Hollywood. If their dedication to the cause is any indication, the revolution will be televised.
Casting The Spell
Casting is the corridor between conception and creation. A project starts with the script, which the casting director reads before meeting with the creative team to discuss prototypes. They might name a few recognisable actors as tentpoles for the role, e.g. "We want a Laura Linney-type for this part." From there, the casting director writes a breakdown.
The breakdown is a short paragraph describing the look of the desired actor. It usually includes age range, ethnicity and gender. A run-of-the-mill one might be, "female, 20s, attractive." Directors can pull the description directly from a script, or they can go a little off book — but they consult the writers as they do. The process is meant to produce a concise description of an imagined actor.
When a writer puts in 'attractive', I do think there's an automatic assumption that that means 'thin'.
In the event the casting and creative team don't want to make an offer to a higher-profile actor, they will ship this breakdown off to agencies. Then, it's up to the agent to play matchmaker: pair the breakdown with the actors, and hope for the best.
Until now, there hasn't been much wiggle room in breakdowns for a show or film to reflect reality. That's because it takes conscious effort, detail, and specificity, as when the Heathers team conceived of a spunky, plus-size lead. But this isn't the norm. According to Tiffany Little Canfield, a casting director who worked on NBC's This Is Us, descriptions are frequently vague, which leads to unconscious bias. "If a role is not physically described in the script, people default to think of an average-size actor," she says. So for roles that aren't as prominent, such as extras at a party or classmates of the main character, a plus-size actor might never be considered.
"When a writer puts in 'attractive', I do think there's an automatic assumption that that means 'thin'. If you put that in the breakdown, you're not going to get a lot of submissions of plus-sized people. Because the agents aren't thinking that either," Kanani adds.
Body diversity requires careful attention to even the smallest roles on a show; this can be done, but not without a lot of creative push — and creative agency as well. It doesn't help that the default pool of actors in Los Angeles is already homogenous. In fact, when it comes to casting a plus-sized woman, even finding actors can be difficult.
Take Kate Pearson. Chrissy Metz plays Kate on This Is Us, an overweight woman struggling to escape society's definition of an "acceptable" weight. Kate's storyline calls for a plus-sized actress, and this was included in the breakdown for the character. Canfield estimates she saw 50 actresses for the role after she put out a casting notice to agencies — a major role in a network pilot typically generates a few thousand submissions. The same goes for Heather Chandler in Heathers. Kanani says she saw 40 actresses for the role. Of the women she saw, six were sent to producers for approval.
There are a few reasons behind the smaller pool of people: Many agents don't represent actors who are larger because they don't fit the mould of what mainstream lead actors look like — which in theory makes them less lucrative as clients. Then there's the idea of self-elimination. If you don't look like what's already on television, why would you head out to LA with a latte and a prayer?
Having Women At The Wheel Helps
Kanani sometimes works with Felicia Fasano, another casting director who works a triple-bill of lady comedy: She casts Better Things on FX, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and I'm Sorry. All three are headed by women: Pamela Adlon, the team of Aline Brosh Mckenna and Rachel Bloom, and Andrea Savage, respectively. Fasano explains that she's made it her mission to a) work in comedy and b) work for creatives who have a clear vision at hand. All the better to avoid homogeneity.
"I'm lucky. I'm working on three different shows where the creators are women of a certain age that have all been in the business a really long time," she says. "They all feel that way; they say, 'I want to show what real people look like.'"
Some of this is simply about working for women, Fasano says. "Women are clearly sensitive to seeing what the reality of every day is. These stories that these women are creating, however comedic they are, they're still very real." Working for these showrunners, Fasano emphasises that she feels included in the creative process. Her voice and her opinion as someone picking the roles is heard and heeded.
The role of Paula Proctor on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for example, wasn't written to be plus-sized. Fasano says the breakdown asked for a woman in her 40s "struggling to lose the baby weight." She saw a range of women — around 150 in Los Angeles, while the New York team saw 100 — and landed on Donna Lynne Champlin, who is 46.
"We were looking for someone who was real," Fasano explains. "[Champlin] just blew us all away with her acting and singing." Champlin is now a regular on CXG, which is on its third season.
Fasano wasn't always so fortunate. She recalls an early instance in her career when she cast a plus-sized woman for a typical "date" role and the costume designer emailed her at a loss.
"We cast somebody who was a size 14 in a big recurring role and the costume designer kind of freaked out," Fasano, who is also plus-sized, recalls. "She asked me where I shop for clothes. And I was like, 'Wow, okay, you're not used to casting normal-sized people.'"
It's easy to shirk body-positive responsibility in such a tightly stratified industry. Film and television are a packed assembly line; each worker only does the most minute job. Inclusivity is everyone's responsibility — from writers to agents to casting directors — but it's easy to pass that job off to the person behind you.
Kanani, Canfield and Fasano seem to agree the responsibility is shared, but casting directors can help. "We oftentimes have to try to push those boundaries. We do it all the time with ethnicity. A role might be written white, but we might bring in other ethnicities because why not?" Kanani says. "We see it as our job to ask those questions: Why does it have to be this? Can't it be this? Let's think not so narrow."
When there is rejection, it's rarely specific, which can make it harder to address as size discrimination. "A lot of times you hear this vague, 'This isn't how I saw the role,'" Canfield says. "They don't want to say, 'This person isn't [thin]'. It's usually all locked into what's right for the part, and they'll try to say some other reason."
Change Is In The Air
Change begins at the top, and we live in an era where the top is changing quite a bit. Television is no longer a system of three freeways — thanks to streaming, there are backroads and trails that provide alternate transportation.
The network sets the tone for the shows it produces. You may notice that certain networks have a certain look. It can feel like The CW exclusively features the upper halves of centaurs. Compared to the networks, HBO is a cosy pocket of reality. Their rotating cast of actors — Chris Bauer, Natalie Paul, Dominique Fishback, and Oscar Isaac come to mind — is variegated and specific. In general, shows on cable networks like HBO and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all provide a more fully realised portrait of reality than their basic contemporaries.
"Cable and streaming are definitely opening it up a lot more — the networks are trying, they're definitely having conversations," Fasano says. "But I feel like the people getting cast [on networks] are still the traditional way you've seen them." Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on The CW, which Fasano notes as proof that the teen-centric network is interested in realistic television. The pilot of the show was originally developed for Showtime.
Canfield, who works for Bernie Telsey Casting, one of New York's biggest casting agencies, has done a lot of work with Netflix; she cast Atypical as well as One Day at a Time, both shows with a vast array of actors.
"You see the difference between network and cable and streaming quite a bit," Canfield says. "I think [Netflix] just likes really terrific actors and they're really collaborative with their creative team, and so it feels more actor-driven than looks-driven on Netflix," Canfield says. "You're not worrying about likability or symmetry of features or how attractive everyone is. You're just thinking, 'Do they bring truth to the role?'"
Different modes of access seem to push the narrative forward. Netflix doesn't air on television; it doesn't have to answer to commercial advertisers. Even more traditional media players are starting to catch on that they need to evolve in order to stay relevant. Heathers belongs to the Paramount Network, the rebranded version of Spike TV that will debut in 2018. If it seems hard to imagine the same channel that brought you Manswers launching a diverse and inclusive teen drama into the world, you're not alone. But it's a sign of real, exciting progress, and hopefully just a preview of even bigger things to come.
We are at a tipping point. The current generation of viewers has the potential to spark true societal change, if we demand true representation on our screens. These women are the vanguard. They are only the beginning.
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