Auditioning and Casting Process
Once the casting director is on board, work with them to determine which roles are already committed (due to packaging or other contractual obligations) and which are open. Then develop a plan for auditioning.
Examine the script to find out:
- Based on the demands of the story, which roles should go to women, individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ characters, and individuals with disabilities. Do these roles reflect the geography of the places depicted on screen? Is anyone missing?
- Which roles are flexible, meaning that any actor from any background can play those roles?
- If the script itself and the potential stereotypes outlined above appear explicitly or implicitly anywhere in the story. Be wary of casting roles by occupation. Ask your consultant(s) to read the script with an eye toward language, accent, behavior, and relationships to ensure the script is not inadvertently stereotyping any group.
Create plans for roles based on size of the part:
- Casting main and supporting roles will require the casting director to create a plan for how they will collaborate with the director and other key above-the-line personnel.
- The plan should include how the casting director will consider issues of inclusion, such as race/ethnicity, disability, and LGBTQ+ identification in the primary roles of the production.
- Are there specific roles identified in the script where gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other factors are set? Are there parts that should be open to all genders, all ethnicities, all levels of ability, and to all regardless of LGBTQ+ identification? For example, disability need not be a plot point or even something that is mentioned when auditioning or casting disabled actors. Sometimes simply having a disabled character visible on screen, or as part of a larger ensemble, is enough.
- Implicit biases can come into play when casting smaller roles (five lines or less) because there is a tendency to give less thought to the importance of “who” should fill these roles in terms of inclusion. In other instances, such roles are often cast quickly, which leads to a casting director pulling talent from within their existing network of known players. Accordingly, casting directors should articulate how they will approach casting small roles.
- Examine the number of roles to be cast. Determine how many should go to women/non-binary individuals, people from specific racial or ethnic groups, people from the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities based on the story and to increase on-screen representation.
- As noted earlier, implicit associations of occupations (scientist=man, nurse=woman) may drive who is considered or “feels right” for a particular part. Make sure that you have thought through the ways that a character’s occupation may result in bias, and ways stereotypes can be disrupted through casting.
Creating Breakdowns and Specifying Identity
Where you need to cast a character for a specific gender, racial/ethnic group, LGBTQ+ role, or for disability, the key here is to focus not on the actor but on the character (i.e., “Character portrayed as…”). The landmark civil rights law Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disability, was passed in 1990. Both of these laws have implications when casting based on identity groups. While this Playbook provides a general overview, it is not intended to provide legal advice, so it’s crucial to discuss these issues with your attorney.
Title VII is a US federal law that protects employees against discrimination based on specific characteristics: race, color, national origin, religion and sex. ("Sex" now refers to sexual orientation as well as transgender status). An employer may not discriminate in key areas that include hiring, promoting, training, assigning work, measuring performance or providing benefits. No person can be treated differently on the basis of perceived racial, sexual, national or religious characteristics. States may also have their own laws protecting against discrimination and may include a broader set of protected categories and working relationships. An exception to the general rule against disparate treatment is where there is a legitimate bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ, which are employment qualifications that employers are allowed to consider while making decisions about hiring and retention of employees (see EEOC guidelines here). As a general matter, the qualification should relate to an essential job duty and is considered necessary for operation of a particular business. Guidance on Title IIV can be found on the EEOC’s website, link above.
While characteristics such as religion, sex, or national origin may be considered a BFOQ in very narrow contexts, race can never be a BFOQ (see EEOC guidelines here). However, First Amendment considerations may override Title VII in an artistic context where race is integral to the artistic purpose or integral to the narrative and specific to the story being told.
Certain ethnic groups require extra caution:
Broad categories (e.g., Asian, Latino) obscure important distinctions for individuals who fit within the broader classification group.
Korean, Japanese, or Chinese individuals are not interchangeable; they are culturally distinct, and all fit within the “Asian” racial/ethnic category. For instance, holiday celebrations across these groups differ in terms of tradition and date. The same is true for individuals of Latino descent or heritage—Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Brazilians may all be considered Latino, but there are important cultural differences between these groups. They should not be considered interchangeable when casting.
It is important to be as clear as possible with respect to casting needs for a given production within your casting breakdowns.
Are you casting a person whose identity matches the role they are playing?
E.g., are you casting a person of Puerto Rican heritage to play a character who is Colombian?
Are you casting a person who is of Indian heritage to play a character who is Pakistani?
- Sometimes, characters can be cast more flexibly within the racial or ethnic category assigned to the role, particularly when it comes to smaller roles. But if the character has a distinct ethnic background, make sure that the actor’s ethnic background doesn’t conflict with this portrayal.
Skin Tone Biases and Colorism
When characters are not white, colorism biases may appear in casting. This occurs when lighter-skinned actors are cast more often than individuals with darker skin tones, particularly in leading roles. Avoid colorism biases overall, but also in the nature of the roles you are casting.
- Examine the photos of actors you are considering for a role. Are you auditioning actors who fall into a similar range of skin tones?
- Are smaller roles consistently given to darker-skinned actors?
- Are villains or antagonist roles consistently given to darker-skinned actors?
- Are roles with greater value or screen time given to mostly lighter-skinned actors?
The Audition Process
Casting Directors should create a plan for ensuring that the audition space is accessible to all potential actors. This includes ADA components such as ramps, elevators, restrooms, doorways, etc. Specific accommodations for communicative disabilities may also be necessary. Provide scripts in Braille or large print for actors with visual impairments. Ensure that an interpreter is available for auditions with Deaf actors. Some additional questions to consider:
- If you are not able to make a space accessible for all potential cast members, what is your plan to accept auditions via tape or online audition?
- How will you navigate religious issues when casting in international locations that may require chaperones and oversight? If you are casting women in particular locations, for example, this may require making space for male relatives to attend auditions with them or even accompany them to the set.
- How will you train casting associates to ask sensitive questions about identity?
- Commenting on an actor’s accent is only appropriate when the role calls for a specific accent to be used.
- There may be regional differences in accents that may not be apparent to casting directors. Make sure to bring in consultants from specific communities to ensure authenticity in hiring. Spanish speakers from different countries may have specific accents, even when speaking English, and native Spanish speakers in the audience may make note of these differences.
- Have you developed criteria for the roles you will cast?
- If no, how will you determine who is the most qualified person for the job?
- Relying on your “gut” or “the best person for the job” are inherently biased processes that may skew your decision making. How will you counter this cognitive bias with criteria in the auditioning process?
- With your criteria, have you ranked attributes in terms of importance? And have you agreed upon those priorities with others involved in the decision-making process?