Standing out in the TV landscape has been a challenge that has kept countless execs and creators up at night over the years. So in today’s small-screen climate of limitless choices, limited runs and sky’s-the-limit ideas, the population of audience-grabbing A-listers has inevitably swelled. As with any good all-you-can-consume menu, however, appealing to a wider variety of tastes through diverse talent and unique concepts with specific voices is emerging as a critical component in attracting — and retaining — an audience. As a result, the number of relative newcomers in leading roles has also increased, especially in this year’s lead actress race.
When Maya Erskine graduated theater school, she was accustomed to Shakespearean roles with colorblind casting. So when disheartening gigs such as “Asian Waitress” kept popping up on the audition circuit she realized fulfilling her creative drive would require more. Teaming up with Anna Konkle, whom she’d met in college and who was also struggling to find her stride on stage, to create a web series that was essentially an extension of their middle-school selves turned into one of the most rewarding experiences of her career. It also happened to catch the attention of the Lonely Island crew, and Hulu’s “Pen15” was born.
“That was the first time I was able to take my career into my own hands,” Erskine says. “Granted it was a web series that got like three views, but it was so liberating. Up until that point I would often go in for auditions where it was about having a mandate for a diverse character in a show.”
Turning to web series hasn’t just become a method of filling the content cog, it’s also a way in which creators are finding fresh faces to fuel their fare. If it weren’t for Helene Yorke’s role as Lainey on “High Maintenance” (before it hit HBO), former “Saturday Night Live” scribes Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider wouldn’t have had her in mind for the female lead on Comedy Central’s “The Other Two.”
“Storytelling has become less about the reflection of an ideal. It feels more like a reflection of reality and who people actually are,” Yorke says. “You don’t have to be some supermodel to find love and fit in. It’s speaking to the reality of who we are as people and how we relate, and inherently that makes the work easier and nicer and frankly more fun to step into. It’s not a gorgeous girl who can’t get it together, meets the guy, falls away. Stories are so much more dynamic and interesting.”
Melissa Barrera, who shot to fame in Mexico through telenovelas, theater and a reality show in her early 20s, was new to American audiences when she booked a leading role alongside Mishel Prada on Starz’s “Vida,” Tanya Saracho’s Latinx series revolving around two sisters and a community’s attempt to stop gentrification. Barrera’s audition was so convincing that Saracho rethought the physical look of her character and the show’s schedule; production was extended until Barrera’s green card came through.
“I go into auditions and I bring something different to the character than what the people imagined, and they either like it or they don’t, but I’ve had good luck,” Barrera says. “Sometimes they don’t know what to do with you and you can tell. It’s like they’re confused by you. That can also be a good thing because that means you’re memorable.”
Prada, another new face who originally auditioned for the roles of Lyn and then Cruz, was so excited by “Vida’s” unique premise that despite not getting either part she was moved to thank the producers for creating the show in the first place. That passion may have been a key factor in Saracho asking her to come back in and read for the other lead, Emma.
“Going into the read and seeing these women producers, I just remember not knowing if I was ever going to get to work with them and in that moment, I was about to leave and I turned around and said, ‘I just can’t leave this room without saying how proud I am of every single one of you and how proud I am to get to stand here. Thank you so much for including me in this process.’”
“Vida” is just one example of a series extending beyond traditional story and into a more inclusive space that inherently embraces upcoming talent. From younger actors including Saniyya Sidney commanding the screen in Fox’s “The Passage” and Esme Creed-Miles’ breakout role in Amazon’s “Hanna,” to MJ Rodriguez’s trailblazing role in Ryan Murphy’s equally ground-breaking “Pose” on FX, the arena for unconventional leads is larger than ever.
“When I first got into acting I didn’t think a role like this would be possible,” Rodriguez says. “It was so hard for me back in the day, and I didn’t think that the world would receive me the way they did, being a woman of a specific experience. It feels completely amazing to finally be in the space where there are so many people taking me seriously as an actress.”