I’m about a size 10. I don’t go on many auditions, but when I do, the roles I go for are described as “underdog,” “chubby,” and — my favorite — “not aspirational-looking.” I recently did a Listerine audition where a leaf-blower was blown into my mouth from ten inches away as I shouted the phrase “I’m a trainwreck!” over and over again, while the older white male “boss type” I was playing opposite reacted in horror. The roles I am considered “right” for are never those of bosses (because I am not male) or strong, confident women (because I am not thin by commercial standards). Looks are everything in the world of casting, and oh, how much worse it gets from there. Consider the following real casting notices, all of which circulated recently*:
“Female 18-20 any ethnicity. Haven is the communications expert of the team. Her exceptional good looks and athletic ability make it hard to believe that she is the brains of the operation.”
“Female, Hispanic/Latin, 50s to 60s, the Latina maid at James’s wife’s funeral.”
“Male, 30-45, Middle Eastern looking [human trafficker role].”
“(20s) Asian female 'factory' workers in a stash house who will be seen weighing, cutting and bagging drugs. Must be comfortable wearing solid white cotton bra and panties on camera.”
“This is a NON-UNION breakdown for [redacted]. The rate is $750+10%. Usage: 1 year on air – only on [redacted] … and internet. Roles: Open to any ethnicity, but in order to build a family will probably lean toward Caucasian.”
For those who have never tried to make it as an actor, you might assume these are unusual instances of discrimination in the world of commercial casting. But if you receive casting notices regularly — and especially if you’re a woman, person of color, trans person, person with disabilities, a combination thereof, or a member of any marginalized group — you probably don’t find them all that surprising. These are relatively tame examples of the sort of casual prejudice embedded in casting notices that go out to thousands of people every single day.
Here’s how it works: A “casting notice” is written either by someone in a casting agency hired for a production or, for lower budget projects, by someone involved in the production itself. Depending on a variety of factors, this notice is then either sent to agencies that represent actors, and/or posted on websites like Actors’ Access and Backstage. From there, headshots are submitted, auditions scheduled.
A number of darkly hilarious Tumblr pages compiling absurd notices have cropped up in the past few years; Casting Call Woe, run by an anonymous Miss L, posts sexist casting calls ranging from “Male Lead: a strong, confident performer. Female Lead: she doesn’t have any lines” to “I may require you to eat less than what you normally eat to perform well for the role.”
Many of the notices on Casting Call Woe end with a nail in the coffin: “unpaid.”
“I've seen some horribly offensive casting calls but I think 'She must be enough of a visual aesthetic to be believably the prey of a male stalker' has to be the absolute worst,” Miss L wrote in an email. “It shows a terrible lack of understanding. The casting website it appeared on got the filmmaker to change it but it's worrying that they've still got that idea in their head and is likely how they'll still cast it.”
The biggest difficulty in calling out these casting notices is, of course, the fear of being blacklisted from the industry, especially for actors who are just starting out and looking to get their foot in the door. I asked some actor friends to share their egregious casting notice stories. Jonathan Braylock, co-host of podcast "Black Men Can’t Jump (in Hollywood)," sent me a list of notices, most of which were for major studio projects.
“One was for a ‘prisoner who looks like a real prisoner,’” writes Braylock. “The only reason I ‘look like a real prisoner’ is because I’m black.” Some of his examples were received by a Muslim friend of ours, for roles described as “terrorist."
You may recall the notice that went out for Straight Outta Compton last year, in which women were ranked by attractiveness from A to D — according to Sande Alessi Casting, a major casting agency, the darker your skin, the farther down the list you are. This was a casting notice for a major studio release. And the world of TV casting isn’t much better. Akilah Hughes, a comedian and popular YouTuber, sent me a notice she’d received for a show that was looking to cast “sassy” black women. “It’s really insulting to be immediately pegged as someone who is sassy and big and loud just because your skin is a certain color,” said Hughes. “This wasn’t an open call — they saw a picture of me and HOPED I’d be that way.”
“A casting director told me they liked the ‘blackness of my voice,’” said Amy Leon, a Dominican actress and poet, adding,“I’m sure I sound very black while speaking Spanish.” Another actress I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous had a casting director tell her, “You’re just going to have to wait for someone to tolerate your look,’” which is often dismissed as too “ethnic.”
A-listers are not immune to this phenomenon. Earlier this year, Rose McGowan — a well-established actress and filmmaker — alleged she was dropped by her agency for tweeting out a sexist casting notice for an Adam Sandler movie. She barely did more than screenshot and share the same casting notice that multiple people had signed off on. “I was offended by the fact that went through so many people's hands and nobody red-flagged it,” McGowan said. “This is normal to so many people. It was probably even a girl that had to type it up. It's institutionally okay.” In an interview with Net-a-Porter’s magazine, Lucy Liu lamented the fact that people only see her as “the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me."
Casting also contributes to our understanding of what gender looks like. Consider this recent notice from Actors' Access: “Role: Shannon. 30s to 40s. Male to play Transgender Woman.”
“This type of stuff really just exhausts me. It debunks the whole ‘They might have cast a trans person, but it's about going to the best actor!’ nonsense,” says Parker Molloy, a trans woman and writer. “The argument for casting men as trans women is that they're more able to ‘look trans.’ But where do we get an idea of what trans people look like? The media.”
Molloy’s point gets at the heart of the problem with casting notices. A narrow definition of who is allowed to be what encourages a lack of diversity in media representation, which in turn reinforces those narrow definitions. Casting reflects the world back to us. And currently, the view is awfully warped.
*This article originally stated that all of the casting notices appearing above were posted on the website Actors' Access. That is incorrect — the bottom-most notice was sent directly to agents. We regret the error.