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Notes from SAG Foundation Diversity Panel

July 31, 2014

Programs offered by the SAG Foundation are one of the often overlooked, but I feel one of the most useful benefits of union membership. Recently, I attended an awesome panel discussion with several industry leaders. The discussion, entitled “The American Scene On-Screen: Diversifying Our Stories.” It was billed as such:

An insightful, informative and, most importantly, honest panel discussion followed by Q&A with ABC Primetime Casting Executives Marci Phillips and John Ort, co-founder and co-owner of Multi-Ethnic Talent & Promotion, Annette Alvarez and award-winning filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green.  Moderated by Adam Moore, National Director, SAG-AFTRA EEO & Diversity Department

There were about a dozen different topics discussed at the event that could be turned into individual posts here. But instead, I thought I’d give you a little peek at my notes from the day. I hope that some of these will inspire you. Please comment on anything below.  And, if you haven’t yet, check out the SAG Foundation!

My notebook says:

On motivation to write from Rashaad: “Have someone you are accountable to.” Rashaad said he really started to write regularly when he was in film school at NYU and “our short films were due, so I had to turn them in!” But he said that we can find a similiar motivation by finding a friend or colleague who can hold you accountable for your work and vice versa. 

Rashaad also gave his thoughts on getting people to back your film, once you’ve written it:  “Set a date to make the film, so when people ask you what you are up to, you can tell them exactly. People want to get on board with something that’s definitely  happening.”

On casting, from Marci:  “The Casting Director becomes part of your rep team when they feel you are right for the role.”

and…on preparing for an audition: “Your audition must feel like day one of shooting.  Make very strong choices, but be able to adjust. Make it better than it is on the page.”    And from Annette: “I’m big on coaching.” Adding that the audition room shouldn’t be the first place actors say the script out loud!

John added that if you want to be a series regular, the writers of the show need to be inspired to write for you…maybe for years! Show them who you are at the audition.

And of course, all the panelists discussed the issue of diversity on screen.  I wish it was easy to sum it up in a tidy paragraph, but it’s impossible. As Annette said, “It’s everything we are saying plus more and not at all.”  That made sense at the event. All the panelist had strong but sometimes conflicting ideas about how actors can help themselves while considering issues of diversity.  A few thoughts from the group:

“Self-identify in so far as you think it will help you get the job.”  ie, if the role is for a Dominican, and you have that as part of your background, then tell the CD. If you don’t, but can “portray” Dominican, there’s not need to mention that that you are instead, Italian.  And if CDs break the rules and ask you your background or age, you can “answer creatively.”  “I’m as old as you want me to be” or “who knows where my family comes from, we are all so mixed in America.”

But, the panelist also said that under-represented groups should be on screen more. But if the role goes to another actor that can accurately portray the experience of the under-represented, is that wrong?  It’s not easy to say for sure.

But at the same time, the panelist agreed that actors should:  “Celebrate your individuality. Everything about you was meant to be.”  “Know who you are as a performer and have good conversations with your reps about what they are sending you out for.”  And even, “know what the audience is going to see when watching you on screen. What you are is what they see (in the industry) and so don’t be afraid to “box yourself””  But be the best you can absolutely be in that box.

So, as you can see there is no easy way to sum up “diversity on screen,” or what we as actors can do to make it better.

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