J.J. Abrams, Katie McGrath Talk Representation in ‘Star Wars’ and at Bad Robot

Addressing the importance of representation both on screen and in the office, writer-director J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot co-CEO Katie McGrath discussed at the 2020 Upfront Summit in Los Angeles on Thursday the decision to bring more diversity to the “Star Wars” franchise and to their company, Bad Robot Productions.

“In the earliest stages, we talked about, ‘If we have this moment, this privilege, what do we want to do with it?'” said McGrath of “The Force Awakens,” the first of two “Star Wars” films that Abrams would helm. “And not from a place of being preachy or feeding people spinach, just from a place of — any time you have a privilege, you have an obligation, period. That’s just how we try to live our lives.”

With that film, Abrams “thought about building this story with the female protagonist, a set of four main characters: One of whom was Latinx, one of whom was a Nigerian Londoner, one of whom was a woman — a white woman — and one of whom was a white guy,” said McGrath. “How can we find a way to have every kid who’s going to go see that movie see a version of themselves, in a way that isn’t often considered at scale?”

When asked about his approach to storytelling and creating additions to the “Star Wars” franchise in a polarized world, Abrams said, as with every project, you “do the best you can with everything you have,” and that his aim is to make audiences feel good.

“The truth is that these are things that are meant to entertain people, to make them feel something and hopefully make them feel good,” said Abrams, calling his involvement with the Lucasfilm trilogy a “blessing.” “Obviously, it doesn’t always work. It’s hard when it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, you have to understand it, you have to acknowledge it, you have to examine it.”

McGrath, one of the early organizers of Time’s Up, also gently, but firmly told the room full of investors and venture capitalists that creating more representation within companies is “not complicated.”

“This is about intention and prioritization,” she said. “So if you’re a founder or a CEO, and your board is one that’s all male or especially all white male, don’t talk publicly about how much you believe in gender equity or racial equity or anything else. Because if you believed in it, if this were a value for you, your board wouldn’t look like it does. And if your board does look like it does, and you’re starting to think about, ‘S—, I want to start to address this, then take a deep breath, hang a lantern on the fact that you’re beginning the journey and be okay with that. Because we all start from a completely disappointing place. If you’re a white person who has any kind of leadership privilege, any kind of resource, you have to think about the ways in which you’ve inherited that and the ways in which you use that. So begin where you are, and then start.”

Calling the Rooney Rule — an NFL policy to interview at least one woman or person of color for certain senior positions — “bulls—” and “ridiculous,” McGrath instead urged those in the audience to adopt the “Bad Robot Rule,” i.e. recruiting in proportion to the population.

Half of the people interviewed should be women, and at least 40% should be people of color, she said. Over half of Bad Robot’s leadership team are women, 55% of all employees are women, and nearly half are people of color as a result of this rule, she said.

“It makes me emotional, actually, to be in meetings and to look around and see people who are never on a usual suspects list, they are never normally people you would think would normally have this job,” said Abrams. “But they were the best people, and they were there because we made sure they had a shot.”

He also touted the significance of being able to hear points of views different from his own, calling it “invaluable” and a way to include other perspectives from the inception of a project. “I can’t tell you how much it’s benefited our business,” said Abrams.

When the moderator, Upfront Ventures’ Kara Nortman, asked about the room to make mistakes, McGrath responded encouragingly. There’s room for mistakes, but those in positions of power can’t just worry about making mistakes, she said.

“You have tactics for every other business outcome you want to reach, so have one for this part,” noted McGrath. “Because in 20 years, we’re going to be a majority non-white country. … If you don’t have boards and programmers and leadership teams that look like the world, you’re just going to miss a ton of s—. It’s unavoidable.”

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