A ground-breaking survey about diversity and the auditioning process for British actors, believed to be the largest of its kind in the U.K., has revealed that 79% of respondents feel roles continue to stereotype their ethnicities, and 64% have experienced racist stereotyping in an audition.
Meanwhile, more than half (55%) of respondents have experienced racist behavior in the workplace, while a majority have spoken out about the lack of support in hair and make-up departments and the inability to speak up against racism in the workplace.
The survey was commissioned by the Personal Managers’ Association’s newly installed Racial Diversity Group — a collective of top British talent agents who convened earlier this year to tackle issues of race faced by actors of color in the U.K. The findings were authored by the group alongside Dr. Jami Rogers from the University of Birmingham and the Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity.
With nearly 1,300 respondents, the survey was collected between March and April. Its findings, shared exclusively with Variety, have been published in a report, entitled “Race Between the Lines: Actors’ Experience of Race and Racism in Britain’s Audition and Casting Process and On Set.”
In a foreword, British actor and pioneer for industry representation Lenny Henry (“Lord of the Rings”), who is of Jamaican heritage and whose org co-authored the findings, said, “Every time we see a great actor like Thandiwe Newton, Idris Elba or David Harewood leave these shores to find opportunities denied to them in the U.K., it is a painful reminder of why casting is so important.
“This report finally brings into the open what many of us talk about, and suffer, in private. I know from personal experience the powerlessness that far too many actors feel to be able to speak out when we witness or experience racist stereotypes.”
Through a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis, the study is divided into questions about the auditioning stage and the workplace. Key respondent groups identified as Black – African (18%), Black – Caribbean (12%), Any Other Ethnicity (11%), Black Caribbean and White (10%), Indian (10%) and Asian and White (8%), among others. Half of respondents described their career status as “developing,” while 8% said they were “established” and 3% “very well established.”
The U.K. auditioning process for actors of color was described as “one of the most pernicious sites of institutional racism in the industry,” where decisions about casting are made before anyone even enters the room. What begins as stereotypes that inform the writing process are sent to agents, which “embed the stereotype in the casting process,” writers Rogers. Then, at the audition, directors and casting directors can ask performers to play a stereotype and not a person, which further dehumanizes characters of color in scripted drama and perpetuates stereotypes.
Respondents detailed everything from code words used in conjunction with stereotypes (“I have been asked on more than one occasion, ‘Could you do the Black thing?’ or ‘Can you make it more street or urban?’ or ‘Could you Black it up a bit more?’); to requests by a casting panel for an actor of color to speak in an exaggerated or stereotypical accent (“I was told to sound ‘more Asian.’ Asia is a continent.”).
Most of these experiences highlighted the lack of people of color in decision-making roles, such as casting director, producer or director.
“As often the only person of color, in a room of white directors or casting directors or producers, it’s hard to feel like you have a voice to question choices or ‘styles’ they want which feel racially driven, when you don’t see someone who looks like you,” shared one anonymous respondent.
The problem is further nuanced for actors of mixed heritage who are often subject to narrow perspectives among decision makers. “I am half-Pakistani and half-Irish with slightly tanned skin. In seven years I have auditioned for one Irish role (that was last week) and the rest have been Indian — which I am not. But I have had to adjust to not limit my opportunities.”
Meanwhile, respondents from some communities said they were being excluded altogether from the auditioning process. “East and Southeast Asians are hugely left out of the diversity and inclusion movement,” said one contributor. “There [is] barely presence of us being cast in meaningful roles, both on stage and on screen.”
When it came to auditioning for roles that are white or a different heritage to your own, the majority of respondents said they would do so (30% said “always” while 37% said “sometimes”).
One respondent said they submit themselves for “white” roles because “I want my face to pop up in [a decision maker’s] inbox and for them to ask themselves why the character has to be white or why that’s necessary for them. But usually, I don’t actually want the job, because I don’t think I want to work with people who think like that.”
Nonetheless, despite the overt and subconscious racism of the audition process, only 39% said they feel confident enough to say they would “always” or “usually” turn down an audition due to racist stereotypes. The vast majority said they would only “sometimes,” “rarely” or “never” feel able to turn down an audition if they felt the part was the product of racist stereotyping, simply due to a dearth of work.
IN THE WORKPLACE
The survey also underlines uncomfortable realities for actors of color in the workplace, particularly when it comes to hair and make-up: 71% of respondents had experienced hair or make-up artists who lacked the knowledge to work with them on an equal basis to their white co-workers; only 28% had encountered no problems with hair and make-up in dealing with their physical features.
The hair and make-up issues were keenly felt by the African-Caribbean community, as well as performers from East Asian backgrounds. One respondent said they were “often made to feel uncomfortable for speaking up [and] never consulted on hair changes. On set I’ve been talked about my hair being a problem in shots as though I’m not in the room.”
Another contributor pointed out the inherent inequality of the field, where hair and makeup artists of color were forced to be able to cater to all kinds of skin tones and hair, but the same was not expected of white artists. “The few black hair stylists I worked with knew not only how to tend to Afro-centric hair texture, but also Caucasian and thick Asian or Hispanic. But I’m still yet to work with a white hairstylist who knows how to treat Afro-centric hair.” (“Queen and Slim” actor Jodie Turner-Smith recently made the point in an interview with Variety at Cannes.)
Elsewhere, 55% said they have encountered culturally insensitive language in the workplace.
Perhaps most problematic is the fact that 73% of respondents said they would feel “uncomfortable,” “very uncomfortable” or would refuse to discuss the issues raised in the survey with a casting director. (76% would feel this way talking to a producer, and 66% for a director.)
The report made a number of urgent policy interventions for the industry.
The authors called for (1) an independent third-party reporting body, such as the CallIt app, that actors can access confidentially and anonymously if needed.
They also ask for (2) creative involvement from people of color at all levels, from the development process through to post-production, including “active involvement and input from people of color with the power to actively engage in anti-racist practice, including the avoidance of stereotypes in writing and casting.” This would mean having such individuals in substantive roles as opposed to advisory positions. Thus, productions should “set specific and transparent employment targets for diverse representation at various casting level positions.”
Also suggested is (3) ensuring appropriate levels of competency for hair and make-up artists working with actors of all heritages, which would be reflected in union agreements, and (4) the mandating of unconscious bias and active bystander training for all productions and cast and crew, in a model similar to the COVID protocols set during the pandemic.