“You will find the talent”

Diverse casting or the 'best people?' Benjamin Law issues a challenge to producers.

Should dramas cast from diverse communities… or should the roles just go to the ‘best people?’

That’s a question that was raised at the Q+A session at yesterday’s Screen Forever conference launch.

But it was one that fired up writer / presenter Benjamin Law (The Family Law), who had a message for all the producers in the room.

“Those of you who do produce know that you hire talent. You hire the directors, you help hire the cast, you basically hire everyone around you to make a project happen. You are the gatekeeper, and part of your role is finding the best talent,” he said.

“I think that’s such an offensively low expectation conversation”

“Now, this idea of the ‘best talent’ has often been used to undermine the diversity conversation. ‘If we go looking for South Asian people to be on the team, will we get the best person?’ Or ‘If we access disability communities, will we get the best talent?’

“I think that’s such an offensively low expectation conversation,” he declared.

“If you are assuming that you won’t find the best talent, because you’re simply looking at an incredibly broad and diverse community, then what are you doing? Maybe you shouldn’t be working in the job you’re working in? You will find the talent.

“On The Family Law, we were worried about whether we could get a 90% East Asian – Australian cast to fulfil all the roles. We found it and we won three Casting Guild Awards in a row because we took the time and we made the effort. We thought it was important,” Law explained.

“It’s quite interesting that if you look at other industries outside of entertainment as well,. When they’ve decided to, say, enforce quotas, introduce gender parity, look for First Nations people -all those kinds of initiatives- there has always been some hand-wringing as to whether they’ll find the best talent.

“What I find fascinating is that studies constantly show that the standard was lifted, because you weeded out mediocre people that you usually go to, by default. The people who haven’t had a seat at the table want it more and they work even harder to be there.

“If you can’t hire them, maybe you’re not in the right profession”

“So hire them! Find them and hire them! If you can’t find them, and if you can’t hire them, maybe you’re not in the right profession?”

Nicholas Brown, actor from ABC ME drama The Unlisted, said he is often playing characters in stories that were constantly tied to culture.

“It’d be nice if that wasn’t the way. How wonderful it would be.. if writers and content creators would create stories that didn’t have anything to do with race, but cast people of colour, or disabled people, or trans people?” he said.

“We’re tired of being in shows that are about our culture”

“I speak on behalf of myself, and a lot of actors of colour: we’re tired of being in shows that are about our culture. We’d like to just be cast as your cop, your doctor, not as the Indian or as the lesbian or as the trans person.

“It’d be great if writers actually wrote for people of colour or for minority groups, but with nothing to do with their disability, race, or sexuality, please.”

Stephanie Dower, Creative Director from Dower Productions, also noted that people living with a disability are too often grouped together.

“As someone who uses a wheelchair, I don’t know the experience of someone who is blind, per se. But we’re always lumped into this big ‘disability category.’

“How many times have we all been taken to a coffee for free advice”

She added, “We also need to be brought on in valued roles. How many times have we all been taken to a coffee for free advice, on how to be better represented, and never spoken to again?

“We need to be brought on at each stage of production.”

3 Responses

  1. Spot on, Ben. For the meritocracy argument to work, there needs to be a level playing field, which there isn’t. Australian media is overwhelmingly white. That is a fact. Do we really think that it’s because white people are inherently “better for the job” than people of colour? Sounds absurd, right?

    What Ben is talking about isn’t hiring crap actors (non-white does not = crap, btw) – it’s about putting effort into changing our behaviour because if we just keep going the way we’re going, nothing is going to change. (Although I can appreciate how certain groups may feel uncomfortable or threatened by this potential change in landscape)

  2. I politely disagree with Ben Law’s take here – unless the content of a show focuses on a particular social group (for example, his Family Law show – which regards Asian-Australians, hence it is expected to have people of that background in writing, producing and acting the show to explore that perspective), then picking talent should be a matter of “who can do the job description the best, regardless of one’s ‘social label'”.

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