A few readers have asked whether I’ll weigh in on the SAG situation. I won’t, except to relate an interesting conversation I had with a TV showrunner a month or two ago.
He said his casting people were having a hard time finding actors of a certain age, especially minorities, for episodic parts. These are the “day players” — roles in which an actor might have a scene or two in a given episode, never to return. Shows like Law & Order or C.S.I. require a bunch of these: witnesses, specialists, etc. The nanny who discovers her employer impaled on an icicle — that’s a day player.
Day players aren’t extras. There is actual acting required. Casting directors will bring in a few candidates to read for the part, and the producers/director will pick. A good day player can really elevate a scene. A bad day player is a disaster. 1
In Los Angeles or New York, if you’re trying to cast a day player in their 20s (say, a car wash attendant), it’s easy. You’ve got thousands of people to choose from. Even if you need a specific characteristic — say, Russian-speaking — you’re going to have great candidates.
But what if you need an intimidating Chinese woman in her 60’s? Or a really, really old man you can believe is from Nigeria?
Well, you hope they’re out there. And increasingly, they’re not. (At least, according to this showrunner, and two others who concurred.)
So what’s going on?
At the risk of getting Freakonomics, it appears there’s a point at which it’s not economically viable to remain a day player.
Consider the career arc of an actor. In one’s 20s, almost anyone can afford to be an actor, by waiting tables or doing other piecemeal work in order to buy ramen and pay for headshots. At some point in one’s 30s, that lifestyle becomes less possible. Actors get married, have kids, or have other responsibilities that require a more steady paycheck. Which means getting a traditional job. At a certain point, you find many actors have become plumbers or teachers or dog trainers just to keep their kids in school and family in health insurance. 2
Luckily, there are some actors who are able to remain actors because they book just enough jobs each year. They’re not making much — probably scale — but it’s enough to keep them working in their craft. These actors have a sense of how many days of work they need to book in order to stay solvent.
So consider our Chinese woman in her 60’s. If she works a certain number of days each year, it makes sense to continue acting and living in Los Angeles. If not, she might as well move to Tucson, where it’s cheaper and closer to her grandkids.
The showrunner told me that the studios are increasingly insisting that producers shoot out day player roles in fewer days, in order to save money. Episode-by-episode, this makes sense; why spend more than you have to? But in pinching pennies, the system may be squeezing out the actors it needs. And you really notice it in groups in which you didn’t have a lot of actors to choose from in the first place, such as minorities. If you write a role for a woman in her 60’s, and race doesn’t matter, you can cast anyone, including the Chinese woman. But if you write a role for a bossy Chinese grandmother, you really need that actress in town and available.
If you look at any one actor getting economically forced out of the craft, oh well. Sad story, but Hollywood’s full of ’em. But when you apply that loss across a swath of your talent pool, suddenly it’s impossible to find that African man in his 80’s you need for your episode. So you’re stuck rewriting it for a white guy, or a younger guy. The product suffers, and TV gets a little more white and boring.
I bring up this anecdote because it’s the kind of issue you really wish the industry was addressing in their ongoing negotiations with the actors’ unions, but they’re not. Instead, we get a three-way shoving match.
Anticipating the first dozen comments on this thread:
- Please don’t send your Chinese grandmother’s headshot. I’m sure she’s a terrific actress, but the example above was purely illustrative.
- I’m not claiming this situation is causing a lack of diversity in television, but it makes it harder to combat. As writers, we can create rich, multi-ethnic worlds. But if we can’t find actors for those roles, it’s all for naught.
- Obviously, the same economic pressures apply to plain old white actors as well. But there are more of them to begin with, so you don’t notice their absence as quickly or as acutely.
- You don’t notice the problem as much in features because there’s so much more time to do casting, and (generally) more money.
- I don’t have a solution to the situation, but it’s almost certainly not DVD residuals. Bumping up scale minimums will help, but only to a degree.
- We can’t conflate raw numbers with talent. When a showrunner and her casting directors are pulling out their hair because they can’t find a Pacific Islander for a part, it’s not because there are no actors in that category. There may simply be none with the chops to pull it off. Doubt me if you want, but 95% of Americans could not convincingly say four lines of dialogue on Law & Order. It’s tougher than it looks.
- One anecdote: We shot my first show mostly at stages in Toronto. We quickly learned to check any dialogue to be spoken by a Canadian day player to avoid the ooo problem, and beyond that, we found most of our day players to be terrific. Except for one. She had two lines of dialogue with Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and no force on heaven or Earth could get her to say them properly. It turned out she was drunk. Because she was nervous. Because she had a crush on Mark-Paul Gosselaar. The truth was charming, but she was recast on the spot. ↩
- Obviously, you could substitute “screenwriter” for actor in this thought experiment. But it’s not a perfect analogy. For instance, an actor can’t work on spec. ↩