Onscreen diversity starts behind the scenes
Multicultural ensemble shows like “Lost” are changing the face of television and, in many cases, the faces behind the scenes as well.
“I don’t believe that it takes a certain minority to write about that minority, but it does help to foster a dialogue in the writers’ room,” says “Heroes” creator Tim Kring. “We’re trying to represent the audience as a whole. To do that with real honesty, you have to embrace the idea and essence of diversity on your own staff.”
Writers and showrunners take a variety of approaches to ensure authenticity for each character. “Lost” taps the expertise of several Korean-American writers for Korean characters Sun and Jin.
“Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof says, “You could say to a female writer, how do you write men so well? The same rules apply if you’re writing a character for whom you don’t have that day-to-day experience. (Exec producer) Carlton (Cuse) and I are not Nigerian, nor black, nor warlords, nor priests,” he says of writing “Lost’s” Nigerian drugrunner-turned-priest Mr. Eko. So they turn to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who’s of Nigerian descent, to flesh out his character.
The same is true for “Heroes,” where actor Masi Oka helps with Japanese translations for his character, a Tokyo resident who can teleport.
“We don’t have a Latino writer on staff,” says showrunner Greg Daniels of “The Office,” “But, like most of the cast, Oscar Nunez is an improv comedian and he makes up bits.”
When there isn’t someone on staff to turn to, Lindelof says, “We do a lot of research.”
“Ugly Betty,” a remake of a Mexican telenovela, centers around a Latina character and her family. “It was developed with Hispanic roots, and in order to speak truthfully to that, we wanted people behind the scenes who understand that,” says Kim Rozenfeld, a senior VP of drama development at ABC.
Get with the program
Many minority writers get their first break thanks to diversity programs: Networks refund salary costs to productions that hire writers from the programs for their first year.
Chinese-American writer Melinda Hsu was hired for her first series through Fox’s diversity program. “Everybody has an in, and this happens to be another way in,” she says. “Once you’re there, you’re judged on your performance and nothing else. You still have to deliver the goods.” She’s now working on “Vanished,” adding, “It had nothing to do with what color my skin is.”
Sometimes, a writer isn’t even aware of the arrangement, and it’s just a budgetary perk for production after they’re hired. “The Office’s” Mindy Kaling, who was scouted at a comedy show, recently was told she was a diversity hire by her agent.
Gloria Calderon Kellett, who is of Cuban heritage, says, “I think there was maybe some attitude the first day that I was a diversity hire, but that was it. I’ve never had any sort of negativity toward me for being Latin, at all. And from the horror stories I’ve heard, I know it wasn’t that way before.”
Calderon Kellett sought to avoid being typecast as a Latin-only writer; after a stint on “The Ortegas,” she turned down a similar sitcom to work on “How I Met Your Mother.” “Even though I’m Latin,” she says, “it doesn’t mean all I can write is Latin.”
Diversity isn’t just an issue in the writers’ room, but on the set as well. Kring, who takes great pride in his other show, “Crossing Jordan,” being ranked first by the DGA in terms of hiring minority and women directors, says he’s not where he wants to be in terms of diversity on “Heroes,” but adds, “We gave the speech (to our department heads) that this show is a cross section of the world, and we’d sure like our crew to look that way.”
“Lost” films on location in Hawaii and hires several native islanders for the crew. The producers also have started a training program to widen their job pool.
In terms of crews, it doesn’t get more international than “Survivor,” which has drawn criticism recently for segregating its teams along racial lines.
“At any given time, we have at least 20 countries represented,” says host Jeff Probst. “For example, we’ll go to Thailand and hire maybe 100 locals and maybe there are three to four who want to stay with us.”
Such behind-the-scenes diversity directly impacts what appears onscreen, Probst says. “The cinematographers are empowered to make their own decisions about what to cover. Someone who is South African might have a different take than someone from New Zealand. We don’t just have white Americans deciding what’s interesting; we literally have people from all over the world shooting and editing each episode.”
“It’s like the United Nations,” says senior producer Silvio Horta of the crew that works on “Ugly Betty.” “It’s the first show I’ve worked on that’s shot in Los Angeles. It’s nice to be reflective of where we’re working.”