What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood
(*If you’re not a straight white man.)
By Melena Ryzik
The statistics are unequivocal: Women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in front of and behind the camera. Here, 27 industry players reveal the stories behind the numbers — their personal experiences of not feeling seen, heard or accepted, and how they pushed forward. In Hollywood, exclusion goes far beyond #OscarsSoWhite. (Interviews have been edited and condensed.)
Sam Esmail Creator, “Mr. Robot”
Growing up, I [thought] white male was the norm, the default character in every story. I never thought other possibilities could exist. And I remember thinking, when I would watch Woody Allen films or films that felt personal, I wonder what I’m going to do when I write my personal films, because I can’t cast an Egyptian-American; that would be weird. In film school, there was this need to talk about your ethnicity and to make essentially social-message films. But I resisted, because I felt that it changed the conversation of what the movie was about.
Wendell Pierce Actor, “The Wire,” “Grease: Live”, “Confirmation” (coming on HBO)
Juilliard was a great place to train and prepare for the politics of the business. You were given roles [based on] how you fit into the company. I didn’t get any roles that weren’t 20, 30 years my elder. We had a running joke, the black actors, “If you come here you better get your funny walks, because you’re going to be playing all the old guys.”
JIMMY SMITS Actor, “The Get Down” (coming on Netflix), co-founder, National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts
[After] Brooklyn College, somebody said, “You can probably go to L.A. now and be the crook of the week on ‘Hill Street Blues,’ but you should think about graduate school.” [At] Cornell — I got a scholarship — I got to do everything. I could handle verse, I could speak Shaw, I could do Pinter.
TEYONAH PARRIS Actress, “Chi-Raq,” “Survivor’s Remorse”
[At Juilliard], we got together with other black people in different classes, and we said, “Hey, we want to do an August Wilson play. There are enough black people to make this happen.” So we rehearsed on our free time and put on this showcase, and the faculty came, other students came, and I guess that was inspiring to them. [Later, they did an official school production.] That was the first time they put an August Wilson play on the main stage, in 2007.
KEN JEONG Creator and star, “Dr. Ken”
A U.C.L.A. acting professor gave me good marks in my performance and [said]: “You’re a good actor, which is why I’m telling you, stay the hell out of L.A. There’s not much of a future for you. Go to Asia.” I got an A. He was saying that out of respect.
JUSTIN LIN Director, forthcoming “Star Trek Beyond”
It was just as hard being working class. I had a roommate — parents write a $20,000 check, and boom, he [makes] his movie. There were people [whose] relatives were [in] Hollywood, and they get all the free equipment. You see, very quickly, that’s the world you’re about to enter.
Getting a Foot in the Door
AMERICA FERRERA Star, producer “Superstore”
I was 18 and putting myself on tape for a movie I really wanted. I got that phone call: They cast a Latino male in another role in the film; they’re not looking to cast [a Latina]. So I defiantly bleached my hair blond, painted my face white and made the audition tape. I never heard back. I just remember feeling so powerless. What do you do when someone says, “Your color skin is not what we’re looking for”? Let me tell you: Blond does not suit me. I try not to prove my point on audition tapes anymore.
In 1985, I’m sitting in the casting office of a major studio. The head of casting said, “I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people then.” He literally said that. I told that casting director: “You ever heard of Othello? Shakespeare couldn’t just make up black people. He saw them.” I started carrying around a postcard of Rubens’s “Studies of the Head of a Negro.” The casting director actually was very kind to me. He referred me to my first agent.
JOAN CHEN Actress, “Twin Peaks,” “Marco Polo”
I never saw people like me on television in the States [after working in Shanghai]. It was very difficult [to get representation in the 1980s]. Someone told me the Bessie Loo Agency represented all the Asians — James Hong was there, Beulah Quo. There were a couple of people playing butlers, maids. [The agent] probably thought I was telling fairy tales when I told him I won best actress in China.
EVA LONGORIA Star, director, producer, “Telenovela”
I didn’t speak Spanish [growing up]. I’m ninth generation. I mean, I’m as American as apple pie. I’m very proud of my heritage. But I remember moving to L.A. and auditioning and not being Latin enough for certain roles. Some white male casting director was dictating what it meant to be Latin. He decided I needed an accent. He decided I should [have] darker-colored skin. The gatekeepers are not usually people of color, so they don’t understand you should be looking for way more colors of the rainbow within that one ethnicity.
I had just won [a top award at Sundance], and [my manager] wanted me to audition for the Latina chubby girl in a pilot. She wasn’t even the lead; she was just the sidekick, with the same joke in every scene. I said, “I’m not going in for that.” When I ultimately left him, he [told] another of my reps, “Somebody should tell that girl that she has an unrealistic idea of what she can accomplish in this industry.” That was someone I was paying to represent me.
MINDY KALING Creator, star, “The Mindy Project”
When I got hired on “The Office,” at the same time I wrote a pilot with my best friend, called “Mindy and Brenda,” based on our experiences. They were trying to audition my part, which I wanted to play, and at first they [looked for] Indian-American actresses, and when they couldn’t find any, they opened up to more generically Middle Eastern actresses. Still couldn’t find any, until at the end, they’re like, “We’ll look for a white woman.” That was heartbreaking for so many reasons. I auditioned. I think they were looking for someone more traditionally beautiful, because I’d like to think I gave a good audition, to play the part I created. Now, they would work harder to find an Indian-American girl. There’s just too much scrutiny, which is good.
EFFIE BROWN Producer, “Dear White People”; co-star, “Project Greenlight”
When I was graduating [film school], I didn’t look like everybody else, and I didn’t have any connections. I actually called the Black Business Bureau — a random call. And I got this wonderful operator on the phone, who said that her cousin was working on “The Five Heartbeats,” with Robert Townsend, and that’s how I got my first internship.
KIMBERLY PEIRCE Director, “Carrie”
[Coming to Hollywood as an out person], it scared me. I thought if they don’t like this, I’m going to push their buttons and not mean to. I thought the gayness was what was going to freak people out, and in a lot of ways, it’s the femaleness that causes more problems in a straight, male world. That, I didn’t expect.
Talking to the Suits
JULIA ROBERTS Actress, the forthcoming “Money Monster”
I remember my first meeting with the producers on “Erin Brockovich,” before Steven Soderbergh came onto it, and saying, “This scene where she’s shimmying down a well in a micromini? I can’t do that.” [They said], “But that’s really what happened.” And I go, “I know, but once you make it a movie, you have to re-examine, what’s the function of this scene?” I didn’t feel I was being fully understood. People assumed it was about my sense of modesty. And you just think, “No, you’re not hearing what I’m saying.” Steven and I were very in sync on how we wanted to portray her — the sexiness as well as the soul — and I didn’t have to wear a micromini shimmying down a well.
KARYN KUSAMA Director, “Jennifer’s Body,” “Girlfight”
The marketing department wanted Megan [Fox, star of “Jennifer’s Body”] to do live chats with amateur porn sites, and I was like, “I’m begging you not to go to her with this idea, she will become so dispirited.” It was fascinating to have the writer be female, the director be female, the stars be female, and my head executive be female, and then we get to the top of the mountain, all those [male] marketing people. It was crushing.
RICK FAMUYIWA Writer, director, “Dope”
It’s always a weird conversation when you’re trying to explain how a film about kids from Inglewood can be mainstream, but you don’t have the same conversation about a very specific set of kids in suburban Chicago or South Boston.
JOHN RIDLEY Screenwriter, “12 Years a Slave”; show runner, “American Crime”
[In a mid-1990s] meeting, I was determined the lead [for a film] would be a black woman, and I remember the executive saying, “Why does she have to be black?” And me saying: “She doesn’t have to be; I want her to be black. Why would you not consider it?” It was stunning that they were so comfortable [saying that] to a person of color. That was the most painful, that casual disregard for my experience.
When I went to the studios [for] writing assignments, it was immediately white, 30s, male. That began the pendulum swinging the other way for me. [The lead character of “Mr. Robot”], Elliot, is not written with any specific race or ethnicity in mind. [In auditions], it was mostly white guys. I opened up the process, and Rami [Malek] was just brilliant. He looks different, whether that’s because he is Egyptian [or] just Rami. The conversation with the network was tough; I don’t think it had to do with race — or I’d like to think it didn’t. The show is already unusual. The barrier to entry for a show — from a network’s point of view — is, can the audience identify with this person, and is race going to be a roadblock?
SHAKIM COMPERE Manager of Queen Latifah and producing partner
We once had a meeting with a guy, I won’t say the company. [She and I were] dressed to the nines. We talked about sports, politics, everything, and this man had the nerve to say, “When is your manager going to get here?” because he expected some middle-aged white guy. I [charged] him 10 times more than I was going to.
I was developing a medical show, and the lead was a Latina heart surgeon. It didn’t go forward [for various reasons]. Networks say, “We’re on board with diversity,” and they’ll develop it, but they seldom program it. We don’t have enough people in the decision-making process. We have decision influencers, which is a new thing. There’s one brown person in the room that goes, “I like that idea.”
LORI McCREARY Producing partner with Morgan Freeman; president, Producers Guild of America
If [a script doesn’t specify, a role is] presumed to be white and male. For “Deep Impact,” Mimi Leder, the director, wanted to cast Morgan as the president, and somebody at the studio said, we’re not making a science-fiction movie; you can’t have Morgan Freeman play the president. But she really fought for it.
MARYSE ALBERTI Cinematographer, “Creed”
[On “Zebrahead”], I remember sitting with the producer, a white guy, and someone asking me, can you handle the big lights? Part of me was intimidated, and part of me was, what? So I composed myself and, I hope with no trace of sarcasm, said: I do not touch the big lights, I have big men who carry the big lights. I tell them where to put them.
[For “Dr. Ken”], just in case there was some chatter — among producers, not with Sony or ABC — that maybe you better get a white wife, Albert [Tsai, who plays his son] was the first guy I cast. There’s no way I can have a white wife if I get Albert. So I got to get an Asian daughter, an Asian wife. I was not doing it for the cause; I was doing it to reflect my family. It had to be real.
With “Girlfight,” there were questions from financiers about, what is she so angry about? I was like, have you been to the projects lately? That movie took so long to get made because people didn’t trust she would be interesting to watch if she was less likable and kind of inarticulate. Meanwhile, we look at “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” [as] American classics.
The Money Issue
With my first film [“Better Luck Tomorrow”], I was working three jobs [to help pay for it]. I was meeting with potential investors, and right away everybody’s like, “It’s an Asian-American cast. It’ll never sell.” And a lot of them were Asian-American investors. A guy offered $1 million for the budget, and he said, “We’ll get Macaulay Culkin to be the lead.” If I would have said yes, I would have gotten $1 million and I would have gotten to make the movie with a white cast, but it didn’t interest me.
[On “Carrie”], I got half my salary. It’s happened twice. I have a quote, and they said: “We’ll give you half. Take it or leave it.” They know, if you like something, you are willing to take less money. And that’s not great for you, or other women, but it’s still better — every movie I make, it still matters. At the end of the year, they’re like, how many [of the top 100] movies were made by women in the system, and that year it was two. Me and “Frozen.”
Finding out that a man who had less experience and critical acclaim got paid twice as much, that was a smack in the face. You think that studio loves you, and it’s, “No honey, they can get you for a deal, and you in turn get other people for a deal.” I sometimes feel like a sellout, because I know I can get so-and-so in the door if they hit a certain price point. I had to learn how to break that chain.
On the Set
I was working on “The Gregory Hines Show” that depicted three generations of black men. It was on CBS in 1997. [After] the read-through, the studio and network give notes. Gregory kissed everybody, and so in the show he would kiss his son, Matty. This particular day someone from CBS said: “I notice every time you come in, you kiss Matty. So I wanted to ask, do black people kiss their kids?” That was the most offensive thing I think I’ve ever [heard]. Gregory stood up and said [to the executive]: “Everybody get out. You, come with me.”
I remember when I first started working on the Universal lot, I was getting harassed every day at the gate. We did this test [with] the editor, a much older white male. I said, “I’m going to lunch with you today, and you’re going to drive.” We went right through.
As a director, I definitely feel the boys’ club. There’s still that, “She can’t possibly know what she’s talking about.” It’s always been meant as a compliment, but [crew members] go: “You know what you’re doing. Wow. You know lenses. Oh, my God, you know shots?” Yes, I know where to put the camera. You just go, “Do you say to the dude directors, ‘I’m pleasantly surprised you knew what you were doing’?”
DEDE GARDNER Producer, “Selma,” “The Big Short”
I remember a few years ago being in pretty significant trouble on a film, and being called by the studio, and basically just shredded in such a personal way [by a male executive]. “You are just the worst producer I’ve ever worked with in my entire life,” [he said], citing only other female producers. The analysis immediately shrunk, when in trouble, to only women.
QUEEN LATIFAH Actress, musician, producer, “Bessie”
The discussion came up when we were doing [the TV series] “Living Single” that [the cast needs] to lose weight. [My manager] Shakim would get the call, and it would be laughter by the time it got to me, because there’s no way. I felt I represented a woman out there who should get to see somebody who weighs about as much as she does.
[Initially], I had a real issue with Teamsters, who [were] predominantly male, predominantly white, and having that moment of “Oh, you really aren’t listening.” And that’s when I started spouting my résumé. It’s a little demoralizing that you have to explain yourself. But you know what I did? Sandra Ninham is now my Teamster captain. I was able to get [her] into the union, so I don’t have that issue anymore.
JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL Actress, “Underground” (coming on WGN America)
I can’t tell you how many arguments I have on sets where the filmmakers will want my wardrobe to be different, and I’ll say, “Wait, why don’t you have [the male co-star] take his shirt off?” With love scenes, the camera angle is from the man’s point of view. All of that absolutely infuriates me.
We’ve seen actors of color with this weird-looking makeup on film, this gray, ashy stuff. In person, they look completely different.
MIKE COLTER Actor, “The Good Wife,” “Luke Cage” (coming on Netflix)
I’m usually comfortable being the only black guy in the room. More often than not, I am. I don’t look at it as a negative, because if I do that, I’m already defeated before it starts. I’ve always had to look at it like, [that] makes me unique. [But] I’m a very dark-skinned person. In the wrong lighting, I don’t show up. I have to joke about it: Need a little more love on the light! If it’s not done, you don’t see the complete person they are.
Sounding the Part
I went to this arts high school in Greenville, S.C. In speech class, the teacher, a white man, would say you’re talking ghetto, don’t talk ghetto. I’m not only offended, but I’m confused because while there’s nothing wrong with people who come from the projects or the ghetto, that’s actually not my experience. It was extremely frustrating because I didn’t feel he saw me. That’s when I started to realize, O.K., you’re going to have to fight to be seen.
My very first audition ever, I was about 16, and the casting director [for a commercial] said, “Can you do it again but sound more Latino?” I had no idea what she was talking about. “You mean you want me to speak in Spanish?” She’s like: “No. Do it in English but just sound more Latino.” I genuinely didn’t realize until later that she was asking me to speak English with a broken accent. It confused me, because I thought, I am Latino, so isn’t this what a Latino sounds like? From the get-go of my career I thought, There’s a certain box or a certain way that you’re seen, which I didn’t feel growing up.
I was a guest star on a TV show maybe two years ago. Everyone wanted me to use an accent, and I was like, “No, I don’t want to.” Then [at] the table read, I didn’t use an accent, and the director took me aside and [said], “I’m not telling you not to do the accent, I’m not telling you to do the accent, just think about it.” And I [said]: “I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to do the accent. I’m happy to walk away.” At this point in my career, there’s no amount of money that would make me want to do this. I don’t mind doing accents. It just doesn’t make sense to the story. And that was very liberating to finally be in that spot.
My personality and [that of other women] I know is to want to please. It can sometimes feel alien to just say, “I need this to happen, because it’s my show,” and not feel afterward that you’ve been unprofessional simply by stating the thing that you want. I struggle with it all the time. When you are a minority, and it’s the first time you’ve done something, you’re like, this could all be taken away from me. I think the presumption with women is that they will be team players, and that is not the presumption of men. Especially show runners. When women push back, they [are perceived as] bitches or divas. I just made a slight demand that wasn’t even that bad. And at the end of it, I’ll send bagels [to the staff]. Please forgive me for asserting myself in a small way.
KATIE DIPPOLD Screenwriter,“The Heat,” forthcoming “Ghostbusters”
I definitely think about what I’m going to say before I say it, because I do feel that I’m more likely to offend just by being female and having a strong opinion on something.
[Pitching “Dope,” the reaction was], “Wow, this is really great, but do you have to deal with the violence, the drugs? We want it to be more like ‘Superbad.’” What’s interesting is how that changes how you approach your art. You’re writing something, and you say, “How’s that gonna look?” There’s the little question that you ask yourself that I don’t know if my white counterparts do.
[“L.A. Law”] was really impactful in a positive way. I’m carrying the role model flag. But at the same time, the actor part of me [wanted] to do as many different things as possible. There were times where I wasn’t very comfortable with it.
HARI NEF Actress, “Transparent
”Being given the female roles had its own challenges. Finally it was here, but am I feminine enough to play this role? I would like to get to a place where I get offered roles that I’m a fit for as an actor that maybe don’t have as much to do with my body and more to do with my personality.
I looked at actresses who were white doing these classics and, like, O.K., this is how it’s supposed to be. We were doing Chekhov; I was playing Yelena. Liesl Tommy, [a black South African woman who was guest directing at Juilliard], called me on everything. At the time, I did not understand what she was saying: Use yourself. Yelena [was] still a white woman in my head. As opposed to [now], Yelena is a black woman who comes with the life experience that I can draw from.
Helping Hands and Faces
A [high school drama teacher] would take us to see plays. Two people jolted me — James Earl Jones and Raúl Juliá. James Earl Jones [once had] a speech impediment, and that doesn’t stop him from dealing with verse or emotions — I’m getting emotional [tears up]. And Raúl was from the same place my mother was from, he spoke with an accent, and he just had a gusto when he was up there. I was like, those two guys really were doing it. You could do this. It’s like: permission to aspire; permission granted.
Laverne Cox was keeping me alive and motivated. I saw her on “Orange Is the New Black,” and something clicked. I don’t have to run from this and declare myself too other to be an actor.
Greg Daniels created the U.S. version of “The Office,” and he hired a group of the most feminist writers. I was so impressed by how worried they were for my experience and making sure I felt that my voice was heard, while it still being a very stressful, rigorous experience. I came up through the NBC diversity program. So my first season, the show doesn’t have to pay for a diversity writer [the network pays], but the second season they do. [With no other TV experience], I don’t know that other people would have hired me back for a second season, the way Greg did.
Check out the rest on nytimes.com