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We Talked to Actors of Colour About How Hard It Is to Book Roles in Canada

Echoing Aziz Ansari in 'Master of None,' these actors are tired of being typecast or not cast at all.

Photos via Ennis Esmer, Naima Sundiata, and Jesse Reid

This week's Tony Awards (watched by a remarkably large audience for an awards show about theatre) were a stark contrast to February's Oscars. Whereas the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn't find a single actor of colour to nominate for any of the four big acting awards, all of the major Tony performing awards went to diverse men and women.

Just like in that unforgettable episode of Master of None, there's no excuse for being unwoke to the fact that actors of colour are basically fucked over by the traditional movie-making industrial complex. Aziz Ansari pulled no punches in his Netflix sitcom in showing us just how brutal that reality is, with actors hustling to show casting directors that there can in fact be more than one Indian actor on a show without it being an "Indian show." And that actors of colour can play romantic leads, bad guys who aren't terrorists, have jobs not limited to 'convenience store clerk,' or be Asian without the accent.


The dialogue around diversity in casting is at least starting to change in the US, especially following the runaway success of Lin Manuel Miranda's broadway hit Hamilton which has shown that black and brown stories are not only critically vital but also commercially successful. But here in Canada, where our lagging industry relies more heavily on safe bets and all leading roles seemingly go to Paul Gross or Jason Priestley, what's left for the slew of talented, multicultural performers flooding talent agencies across the country? We talked to Canadian actors of colour to find out what it's really like to book roles here and what it's going to take to change the industry at home.

Ennis Esmer

VICE: What type of stereotypical roles do you get offered as a Turkish actor?
Esmer: I think my ethnicity is ambiguous enough that I don't face the outright pigeonholing that some of my peers and friends in the business do. I'm genethnic. I just play more bad guys with facial hair.

I've played exactly one terrorist in my life. It was an American miniseries called The Path To 9/11, and I played Mohammed Salameh, one of the attackers in the 1993 WTC garage bombing. They blew up a rental van, and then they all got taken down when Salameh tried to get a refund, claiming the van was stolen. So, even as a terrorist, I could only play a bumbling terrorist.

The biggest gig I've worked so far has been Red Oaks, a series on Amazon. I play a Middle Eastern Brit. Initially the character was written as East Indian, and I even went as far as to audition with that dialect, but I was terrified. It felt like I was doing something wrong. Luckily the producers told me immediately upon our first meeting that the accent was not the joke, and since I wasn't East Indian, the character wouldn't be. So that was a relief. The character is written as a ridiculous human, but they don't make him a cartoon. So I'm proud of that. It's so tricky when you factor in ethnic representation because a flawed, imperfect character is much more fun to play, when given some dimension, but you also have it in the back of your mind that you're maybe doing your people a disservice.


What's the craziest role you've been asked to play?
I once passed on a role in a movie where they were ridiculing terrorism and my character, a Middle Eastern man, had a line that was something like "I'll fly a plane into your mother." I'm sure someone somewhere defended this movie as being satirical, but it was just dumb and offensive to me.

A former agent of mine used to send me in for a lot of different ethnicities, but sometimes I just would be absolutely wrong for a role, like the time I auditioned to play the role of a black hospital intern who became addicted to speed because he was trying to stay ahead of everybody who thought he wouldn't make a good doctor because he was black. His ethnicity was integral to the role, and I just was not right for it. I played it like somebody who "thought he was black" and felt persecuted for his "blackness." So I must have come across like a lunatic. Having said that, it was super fun watching the producer try to politely ask me if I was actually black before suggesting I read for another role.

How hard is it to be an actor of colour working in Canada?
I've been incredibly fortunate in my career. I've been at this almost 16 years, and I haven't had to work a day job since 2008. But there are still reminders that I'm not gonna be right for a lot of roles because of my appearance and ethnicity. I've also had it suggested before that I only got a particular job because I'm NOT white. I had a conversation with a white bartender/aspiring actor recently who actually said to me and my friend, who is a TV writer and black, that it's harder now for white actors because they're giving all the roles to ethnic minorities. The entitlement with which he said that was staggering. This is one of the only lines of work I can think of where you can overtly discriminate based on age or race or appearance or whatever some person's idea of objective attractiveness is for crying out loud. And part of that you just have to accept and compartmentalize, or you'll lose all sense of self-worth. But maybe it's about time that "too white" was as much of a detriment to landing a role as "not white enough."


What needs to change to make it better here and who's responsible: the studios, writers, broadcasters?
I think that responsibility lies with everybody. It's about the opportunities that are given and the kinds of stories that people are putting money into telling. It's about the vision of producers and casting directors and agents to do something with a role that's perhaps written white, or male, and consider that maybe the story could be told with a different actor in the role. I mean hey, Uncle Buck is black now. Maybe it's time someone Turkish, and a little paunchy, played young Han Solo.

I'm also aware that you can't have a conversation about minorities on TV and film without addressing how much harder it is for women, of any race, when compared to men. They have it so much worse, and the language around women's casting is so much more awful than it is for men. I mean, just look at the backlash over the new Ghostbusters. It's preposterous. Just watch the original in your mom's basement and shut up.

Naima Sundiata

VICE: What kind of stereotypes do you encounter when you're auditioning?
Sundiata: Particularly with commercials, I often struggle with whether I am the right shade of black. I see that the black women who are cast in commercials tend to be either quite fair and evidently mixed/biracial or have deep skin tones and tend to look more African (like Lupita Nyongo). It sometimes feels as though my skin or hair isn't light enough to be the mixed girl, nor dark enough to be the everyday black woman.

How hard is it to be an actor of colour working in Canada?
Being in Toronto there are certainly more opportunities than there would be in Calgary, for example. But the majority of roles are still looking for white actors. You can see an entire casting of ten characters, and every character they're looking to fill is white. You don't see that the other way around. Even if a production is primarily made up of one ethnicity, there will still be others there as well (and at least one white person).


What needs to change to make it better for actors of colour—and who does that responsibility lie with?
There first needs to be more writers with roles for actors of colour, but I think the entire system needs to change to be more receptive to those stories. I can see that things are changing from how they were five, ten years ago, with shows like Blackish, Quantico, and Shonda Thursdays on primetime with a large audience. I think things are moving in the right direction, and studios and broadcasters are seeing that these shows are just as profitable with a diverse cast.

Jesse Reid

What types of stereotypes do you encounter when you're auditioning?
Reid: I get stereotyped as a nerd quite often. Which ironically, I don't qualify as a racial stereotype in my day-to-day. But I feel like it is though, in this context, because I'm not the most overtly black person going out for any role whatsoever. So maybe I'm seen as an easy opportunity for them to inject an ethnicity into their colour quota that we all know exists.

How explicit are casting calls in terms of looking for white or "ethnic" actors?
Most every role in a breakdown has the term "OPEN ETHNICITY" slapped onto it. Meaning they are casting from a racially diverse pool of actors. When you get into an audition room you can see if that's really true. In the most diverse of audition rooms, I will walk in and see black men and women and a few Asian guys going for the same role. But usually you can tell if you are a wild card or if they are looking for a specific race. But honestly, it's not so often I will see all black guys in a room. And it's less often that they will outright say the race they want unless it's specific to the story.


But I also want to say that "OPEN ETHNICITY" is bullshit. Because I have seen who they end up casting in some of those open ethnicity roles, and they are white as hell. Their parents (in the show) are white. Did they ever intend to consider a POC actor?

How hard is it to be an actor of colour working in Canada?
It's hard enough to take a crack at acting if you're white. To be a person of colour it's even harder because we get less opportunities to read for leads. Because there are less actors with the experience to handle these roles. Because we aren't getting seen for them in the first place. This is systemic as it gets, and nobody gets pinned for it. Despite that fact I think talent prevails, and I have stolen roles in an audition room full of white actors. My hope is to compete in an aristocracy of talent, not in a pool of other minorities so they can fit some abstract quota.

What's the craziest thing you've been asked to do on set?
Once for a high-profile kids movie, I got asked to participate in a "music video" for the end of the movie. In my scene we were playing chess, and the director asked me to hold the pieces up like gang signs and wave them around for the video part at the end. That was my biggest Uncle Tom moment in my history. Of course I did it.

What needs to change to make it better for actors of colour?
When I go into an audition room and see other black actors reading for different roles, I feel like I'm competing with them too because I know they aren't going to hire four to five black people in one episode unless they are supposed to be related. That's fucked up, but it's also not something that I think crosses the mind of a white actor in my category. Maybe it shouldn't even cross my mind, but as an aware black person, when have I watched a crime show where the detective was black and the killer was black and the store clerk was black?

I think the responsibility to cast diversity is placed on casting directors, which is somewhat adequate. I know of more than one casting department with the courage to see a wide variety of races for roles that could be played by anyone. However, I would like to see that effort reflected in writing rooms. I once saw in a script when introducing a character "beautiful; we may note that she is trans" that was the only mention of her diversity, and she played that role so well. That was all it took, and it produced a very unique character who brought her own depth to the role. Even if as a writer you aren't writing from your experience as a particular category of person, you can still have the courage to include us in your storylines.

Follow Amil Niazi on Twitter.