“Please Submit All Ethnicities”: The Tricky Business of Writing Casting Notices

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 30 2012 6:34 AM

Please Submit All Ethnicities

The tricky business of writing casting notices.

(Continued from Page 1)

Beyond political correctness, though, there are legal issues to consider when you’re an industry that regularly makes race a factor in hiring decisions. To stay on the right side of antidiscrimination laws—not to mention the collective bargaining agreements between SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, and TV and film producers­—breakdowns have to be careful to focus not on who the actor is, but who the character is. (Typically, a breakdown begins with the character’s name and then lists any age, gender, or ethnic designations before filling in more details about the character’s personality or plotlines. See some examples here.)

But what about the decision to make a character white, black, or Asian? Is that a discriminatory act?

Possibly. In a 2006 study on casting notices and Title VII (the federal antidiscrimination employment statute), Berkeley Law professor Russell Robinson argues that the First Amendment likely protects the rights of directors and producers to take race into consideration when it’s integral to the narrative—say, if you’re casting a real-life historical figure. However, the decision to make a character one ethnicity or another is often based on less clearly protected factors—like a fear that “mainstream” audiences won’t buy tickets to a film starring actors of color or the belief that only white characters can serve as audience stand-ins. (Robinson’s theories about how Title VII applies to ethnically specific casting notices have yet to be tested in the courts; the recent high-profile lawsuit against the producers of The Bachelor is based on a different law, one having to do with discrimination in contracts.)


Robinson’s analysis of three months’ worth of film breakdowns found that Caucasian roles made up 22.5 percent of advertised openings. The next largest category of ethnic-specific roles was designated African-American (8.1 percent). The smallest category was made up of Native American characters (0.5 percent).

The largest group of roles in Robinson’s sample—46.5 percent—included no ethnic designation at all. According to most of his sources, a role with no ethnic designation would be implicitly understood by talent agents and actors to be Caucasian—meaning that, in Robinson’s final tally, 69 percent of open film roles were presumed to be reserved for white actors. (Breakdown Services has rejected Robinson’s analysis, saying they don’t know where he got the breakdowns he was reading.)

Larry Williams, founder of Williams Talent Agency, which specializes in representing African-American and minority performers, says Robinson’s interpretation tracks with his experience: Usually, he finds that a role with no ethnic designation ultimately goes to a Caucasian actor. (Meanwhile, he’s found that roles bearing a disclaimer like “submit all ethnicities” go to Caucasian actors about 60 percent of the time.)

But others in the industry dispute the claim that a breakdown with no racial designation is tacitly seeking Caucasian actors. According to Adam Moore, diversity director of SAG-AFTRA, it was “absolutely” the case in the past that a role description that gave a character type without an ethnic designation “meant Caucasian for sure, and unless it said ‘African-American judge’ or whatever, you wouldn’t apply for that,” he says. “But I think we’ve moved away from that. It feels unfortunate that actors and agents still feel that way, because from the casting community, that is not what they mean. They are looking for that diversity; they are actively seeking it out more and more, because that’s what employers want.”

Helen Geier, a casting director who has worked on both films and television shows, adds another wrinkle. Sometimes, she says, the producers on a project will specify that a role should be Caucasian—but the casting director will deliberately stay mum on the ethnicity question in the breakdown just to see who comes in. Maybe there’ll be a chance to show the producers and director something they didn’t know they wanted.

Geier also says that, while there’s really no set way to write a breakdown—and thus no “code” to crack—if she wants to see actors from all across the spectrum, including white performers, she’ll usually forgo any ethnic designation. If she wants to see actors of color, specifically, she’ll add a tag line like “Open to all ethnicities.” 


The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 


How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.


A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Sept. 12 2014 7:24 PM Come and Take It Libertarians fight for people whose property was seized by the police.
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
Sept. 12 2014 3:32 PM Yes, Those Straight Guys Who Wed for Rugby Tickets Are Mocking Marriage. What’s New?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?