Gary Marsh, who founded Breakdown Services, warns that overanalyzing these documents can be a dicey proposition. “A lot of people think that it’s some kind of biblical pronouncement, but it’s not—the breakdown goes out and that’s what it is, and 10 minutes later it’s different,” he told me.
But for the gigging actors I spoke to, the ability to read between the lines of a breakdown is a skill you start to cultivate, just like learning how to prepare for an audition or what makes a headshot stand out.
“If it says ‘sassy best friend,’ then I’ll think, ‘Oh, they don’t know what ethnicity they want, but they want ethnic,” said one Korean-American actress, who, like some of the other actors quoted here, wished to remain unnamed to avoid upsetting agents or casting directors. “Or it’ll say things like ‘tough girl,’ and I’ll think, ‘Oh, they probably want black.’ ” She knows the part is for an Asian girl if it says something like, “shy but really ambitious.”
“I think there’s a lot of linguistic beating around the bush when casting tries to get specific about what they want ethnically,” said one mixed-race African-American actor. “If they want an extremely urban, thuggish black man, they’re not going to say, ‘We want a ghetto black man. We need a gangster.’ They’ll tiptoe around it and say, ‘Black man, leader of underground crime ring, extremely menacing and dangerous.’ ” (He sees the same linguistic dance around stereotypical Caucasian roles, too—for “rednecks” and “extreme racists.”)
Several actors, as well as other people across the industry, mentioned that they were increasingly seeing terms like “mixed race” or “ethnically ambiguous” in breakdowns. Opinions differed on whether this was a progressive trend—a reflection of American’s increasingly mixed-race nature—or a way of checking off the “ethnic” box without having to saddle your production with any specific cultural baggage.
I recently paid a visit to the Los Angeles headquarters of Breakdown Services, which occupies several floors of a narrow stone and glass building on a quiet side street off a busy highway. I met with founder Gary Marsh in his spacious executive office, and along with staff writer Lynne Kadish, we discussed a breakdown for the upcoming ABC series Nashville, which described a male role as being “Caucasian or mixed ethnicity.” I said that, to me, that seemed like a way of opening the door for an actor who was ethnic but not too ethnic. Kadish suggested the phrase “mixed ethnicity” was meant as a kind of euphemism for “exotic”—but one that didn’t carry the same connotation of sensuality or physical attractiveness. But “we don’t know what anyone means by ‘mixed,’ ” she admitted. As Marsh walked me through the breakdown database, we saw that most of the actors submitted for the role were white, though there were a number of ethnic actors as well. Nearly all of the actors the casting team had marked as potentials in Breakdown Services’ database were Caucasian.
Marsh stressed that talent agents’ experiences and expectations shape the casting process as much as the breakdown does. He showed me a notice for the part of an emergency room nurse with one line on the FX series Sons of Anarchy. Some 1,800 performers had been submitted across a wide range of races and ages. And yet, even though the breakdown didn’t say anything about the character’s gender, most of the actors submitted were female—reflecting the popular belief that nursing is a woman’s profession.
A couple of actors I spoke to singled out another breakdown code word they frequently find themselves having to negotiate these days: “all-American.” “I think everyone understands what they’re trying to get at when they say that,” said Alfredo Narciso, a Brazilian-Filipino actor who primarily goes out for Latino roles. “They’re looking for that Midwestern type, blond-haired, blue-eyed, somebody who looks like they were born and bred in Iowa. And the funny thing about that is I was born in Wisconsin—born and bred. But I would never be considered for that. I would never be called in for that. Even if I was submitted for it, even if I was pushed for it.”
When I raised the actors’ concerns with Thom Goff of Breakdown Services, he denied that the phrase had a racial connotation. Yes, it calls to mind an image, he said, but one of wholesomeness, not whiteness. He pointed to the multicultural cast of Glee as an example of the new all-Americanness. “If that phrase evokes blond hair and blue eyes, then you need to update your own image,” he said.
The difference between Goff’s notion that actors were pigeonholing themselves and the actors’ feeling that they were being shut out of a category of roles speaks to the complexity inherent in the process. Casting is ultimately about taking something relatively abstract (a role) and turning it into something concrete (an actual person). Filmed stories need faces. As many people said to me, casting is an imaginative process that’s shaped by the preconceptions and personal experiences of everyone involved: producers, agents, and indeed the actors themselves. And in Hollywood—as in the rest of the world—sometimes the image in your head doesn’t match the one in mine.