Hardly a week goes by in Hollywood without some high-profile discussion about racial diversity, gender equality, and inclusion. The recent surprise announcement that 75-year-old white male cinematographer John Bailey was elected as the president of the Motion Picture Academy once again jump-started this ongoing conversation.

No sector of entertainment — from the membership of the Academy, to ranks of studio and network executives, to actors in films and TV shows — is immune from the debate. When it comes to the actors, while stories in the news media and social-media conversations tend to focus on lead players, the vast preponderance of faces seen in movies and television are those of background players and extras — the unidentified thesps seen in workplaces, stores and crowd scenes.

Enter the casting director who has the power to shape the way society is represented in films and TV shows.

Since casting directors deal with actors, their job is sometimes construed to be above the line. But the reality is that background players are part and parcel of the film set or location. They need to be organized within the environment of production design, dressed by costume designers, and managed by ADs and UPMs — all of which makes them an element of the below-the-line nitty gritty world of physical production.

But do all those background players reflect the composition of American society?

According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which focuses on the representation of women, “female characters are vastly underrepresented in film, and this has not changed much in the last half a century.”

And a recent USC Annenberg report, which discussed representation of race and ethnicity, gender, disability status, and LGBT individuals across more than 900 feature films from 2007 to 2016, concluded that “white, straight, able-bodied men remain the norm on screen in film.”

The board of the Casting Society of America, to which many casting directors belong, is on board with the push toward diversity. The organization considers it “vitally important that consideration is taken to make sure that the world you’re populating not only reflects the writer’s vision, but also reflects the realities of the world we live in.”

“Diversity is authenticity. Keeping it real and including everyone is the best way to ensure that the audience doesn’t feel tricked or manipulated.”
Vanessa Portillo, Creative Extras Casting topper

To achieve this goal, filmmakers may need to change some of their practices. The society notes that it is “creating a certified training program that will allow for other voices in casting rooms,” and that it is “pitching the program to studios and networks in the hopes of seeing forward-moving change in this area over the next few years.”

Jennifer Bender, exec VP of Central Casting of New York, understands the need for change and for equal and fair representation. “What has changed in recent years is a demand for authenticity,” she says. “Productions don’t want background talent to portray a specific role. They prefer to have real heart surgeons play heart surgeons, real gang members play gang members. We’ve been asked to find actual chemotherapy patients to work background. … We’ll go to great lengths to find the right look and feel for background talent.”

Vanessa Portillo, who heads up Santa Monica-based Creative Extras Casting, also speaks of the inherent need for diversity within her field. “As a woman with a multicultural background, I’ve always felt the responsibility to ensure that the projects we cast feel real,” she says.

As writers and directors look to connect their material to the world around them, Portillo is ready for any request. “It’s more recent that productions are becoming aware that the audience wants to resonate with the stories they are watching and see a part of themselves in these characters,” she says. “Diversity is authenticity. Keeping it real and including everyone is the best way to ensure that the audience doesn’t feel tricked or manipulated. We make every effort to bring to life the world around us.”

Veteran casting director Marci Liroff concurs. “Having grown up in Los Angeles, which is a melting pot of diversity, I try to cast each role in a way that resembles the world around me,” she says.

That kind of proactive approach can make all the difference if an audience is to make the connection between what they’re seeing on the streets and what they see on the big or small screen.

Casting directors Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas, who have worked on “Better Call Saul” and “The Walking Dead,” say: “You tell where casting directors are making the effort. For ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ we updated the world to reflect our modern reality. … Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ has a lot to teach Hollywood about an audience’s reaction to diverse actors.”

Storytellers, after all, are teachers as well as entertainers.