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‘Empire,’ ‘Black-ish,’ ‘Jane the Virgin’ Stars & Writers Talk Diversity On TV

One of the biggest themes of this TV season has been the success of shows with diverse casts, and stars and writers from several of those series — including Fox’s “Empire,” ABC’s “Black-ish,” The CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat” and Amazon’s “Transparent” — gathered for a panel discussion, titled “Diversity Speaks,” held Saturday at the L.A. Film Festival at L.A. Live.

“Our country has been moving toward a tipping point,” said Wendy Calhoun, co-executive producer of “Empire.” “As our country becomes more diverse, our pop culture should reflect that.”

Randall Park, who stars in “Fresh Off the Boat,” said that this new wave of diversity was long overdue. “The TV landscape has changed so much,” he said. “There are so many shows now on the air. It just makes sense to have these voices represented in TV.”

The panelists agreed that television is uniquely positioned to drive the conversation. “It’s hard to tell if art is reflecting life or life is reflecting art because it’s happening so quickly,” said Lady J, staff writer on “Transparent.”

She recounted her own story about getting hired as a writer on “Transparent,” having auditioned unsuccessfully as an actor for the first season. “Jill (Soloway) realized there was a lack of screenwriters who were trans, so she asked the community to submit short stories and said she was going to train someone to write for television,” she said. “She chose six to give a crash course in screenwriting. She really changed the landscape of television by doing that.”

Lady J was ultimately chosen for the staff job, which she calls a dream. “I feel like I tricked somebody,” she said. “I haven’t felt tokenized in the room.”

Calhoun also talked about the importance of diversity in the writers’ room. “This is my sixth TV series, and it’s the first time I’ve been in the room with another black writer,” she said.

That authenticity, she says, is the key to the show’s storytelling.

“When we start to talk, it gets real fast,” she said. “Political correctness is the enemy of good story. Because it felt like a family reunion, it felt like a safe place to talk about what’s happening in our culture and not just have one point of view. We knew we were going to be pushing some buttons.”

Gail Lerner, co-executive producer on “Black-ish,” praised showrunner Kenya Barris for encouraging open dialogue in the writers’ room and pushing the staff to ask difficult questions of each other. Those conversations led to pivotal episodes like “Crime and Punishment,” about spanking, and “Elephant in the Room,” about whether black people can be Republicans. “All our experiences are so different,” said Lerner. “It makes a conversation. That conversation makes a show.”

Andrea Navedo, who plays Xiomara Villaneuva on “Jane the Virgin,” teared up when recounting her struggles to find roles that defied stereotypes of Latinas. “I’ve had the experience of being offered stereotypical roles, and facing the challenge of, ‘Do I take this job and reinforce the stereotype because I need to work, or do I not take the job?'” she said.

Early on in her career, she was offered a part on “One Life to Live,” and was heartbroken when she was taken to wardrobe and given a miniskirt, bamboo earrings and combat boots. “I decided that I was going to take the role,” she recalled, “but I wasn’t going to play her as scripted.”

When she was offered the role on “Jane,” she said, “it was refreshing and a dream come true.” But then she got the script for the second episode — and found out that her character breaks into a “milkshake dance” at her daughter’s quinceanera. “I felt so crestfallen and got this knot in my stomach,” she said. “All I could envision was reinforcing the stereotype and doing a disservice to my people, and how hard I was working to get Latina faces on TV.”

But at the end of the episode, it turned out that Xio breaks into the dance to protect her daughter from being hurt — to distract her from seeing her boyfriend kiss another girl. “(Jennie Urman) gained my trust on this,” said Navedo. “She’s always taking care of my character. She’s a woman and a mother and that’s the most important thing.”

Park recalled having similar fears when he first got the pilot for “Fresh Off the Boat.” “When you have a character speaking with an accent in a comedy, it’s usually going to be a super-stereotypical caricature,” he said. “He could be construed as a buffoon, and I did not want to play that buffoon dad. I had that knot in my stomach, too. I thought, I can’t be a part of a series that would portray a character like this.”

So he had a conversation with the producers about giving more depth to Louis Huang, and they readily agreed. “Thankfully as the series progressed, the character deepened and he got to be someone I’m proud of,” he says.

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