Is Hollywood Clueless, Lazy, Political...Or All Three?
Submitted by Melody Little Wolf
April 9th, 2007
Want to know why you don’t see Native faces on the big screen or on TV programs?
Beyond the fact that Indians comprise a small percentage of the American population, the fact is Native actors rarely even get to the starting block. Why is this? Equally important, what can the Native entertainment community do to counteract this reality?
NativeVue Advisor Tara J. Ryan is the president and owner of Tijer Lily Co, a Native entertainment promotion and management service. In casting films, she has seen up close and personal how the Hollywood system works and how bucking that system is a Herculean task. Nevertheless, Tara and others committed to being change agents understand the value in establishing a true Indigenous face and voice in contemporary film.
But they can’t continue to work in a vacuum—because they aren’t, as she alludes to below, Atlas holding up the world. Hope springs eternal, however, and a concerted, unified stand among the Native entertainment community would go a long way in altering the status quo.
The time has come, Tara says, to retire the myth of the “vanishing Indian…”
By Tara J. Ryan
I was contacted to “help find Native Americans” for the last time a few weeks ago. This was for a MAJOR film production, they couldn’t “find” Native American actors and by the time they found out about me, they were desperate and out of money for the casting part of the budget.
This happens so much it is sickening. Desperate casting agencies trying to save their reputations and casting credits list and production companies calling and emailing to ask how I find “them.” (Let’s just move past the obvious silliness that “they” are my friends and blood brothers and sisters, and go for the point.)
If it’s the production company calling, they sometimes have a tone in their voice doubting that I can because they’ve paid as many as four or five casting directors before me who claimed to “specialize in finding Native talent” who came up with nothing, and who can blame them after all that? I can and so can all of you!
They get my name from the “one Native they have found,” a member of the production staff, the researcher on the project or a non-profit organization that couldn’t help them and referred them to my company. That’s been Tijer Lily Co in casting Native Americans in the “Hollywood” feature film world. People who know me, and other types and sizes of projects I don’t have this problem with. Just the bigger the production, the more clueless they tend to be.
I promised myself and the community that was the last “bail out.” The last. Why would I ever do such a thing in the first place? After all, there’s no credit on these projects, little or sometimes NO income. It’s simple. Because if these major productions don’t find Natives to fill these roles, they write the parts Non-Native, cut them out completely, or just get a bunch of people they think can “pass” for Natives and you all don’t get the work or even the opportunity for it. Yes in 2007, they still do this.
I thought if I could help in any way, that over time enough of the “big guys” would get the word that Natives, in this case Native actors and actresses, very much do exist and are not at all hard to “find.” But, let’s be real—you just can’t call “Native R’ Us” in Hollywood, CA to get the talent. That’s not how it works if you want it to work at all. You need to secure a good Native casting director who knows and is respected within the community. Unfortunately, producers have been looking in all the wrong places, if anywhere at all, for far too long.
I’m pretty sure that even a full- page advertisement in Variety wouldn’t get the message out.
But working alone…yes, alone as we have been doing isn’t the answer either. The few of us in the trenches can’t continue to be Atlas holding up the world. My arms are tired, but I’m not giving up. There are quite a few answers to this problem. The main one is simple. A UNIFIED COMMUNITY!.
UNIFICATION can and does work. The American Indian Community House in New York, for example, has ensured the long-running program Law and Order has enjoyed a constant flood of Native American Talent in NYC. There isn’t one Native Actor living in New York who hasn’t been “dead guy number one” or a featured extra or more on that show.
Probably the best example of the Law and Order Native community connection is actress Sheila Tousey (though her career certainly needs no one’s help, she’s just a dynamo in the talent department,) who was featured on one episode as a mom to a special child; her impressive appearance landed her regular gig for at least 10 episodes as a Judge on Law and Order, SVU.
Actors Unions regulations prohibit a casting director from asking if someone is Native American. Okay…but think about that. In 2007, how many times have you seen a character that was referred to as an African American or Latino or Asian in television or film and they weren’t one? I’ll give you a second. Are you done reviewing all the TV and film you’ve seen lately? O.K., then you’ve got your answer. NONE, not one!
Why then, is it perfectly legitimate to cast Native characters with non-Native actors?
I get many responses to casting calls, especially for historical projects, where I’m directly asked if someone “has to be Native to come to a casting call and if that’s the case, am I aware that’s ‘reverse racism’” and some who even respond on how much they “study” our people so that makes them great candidates. When I get these inquiries, I am required to respond with the truth—which is that everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, is in equal consideration for every role.
Those are the union regulations. Casting, in this case just for roles where many Native Americans are needed for one project. This is not a reference to the wonderful and still all too rare opportunities we have as individual actors and actresses regardless of our race. What I’m referring to here is large scale Native American/First Nations/Indigenous casting. It’s Native casting, and no matter what anyone says, IT IS DIFFERENT.
And it continues to go on and on…not too long ago, entirely too “close to home,” a big budget movie wanted “diversity” to add to the richness, theme and look of their film and needed Native actors. The local casting director couldn’t “find” any. She contacted me. I sent her so many qualified candidates I lost count, literally. Then she picked ONE GUY to come in—the only one with no experience—and pardon me here, the one guy who looks like me. The “could pass for any race” look. That’s who they brought in.
The director was “disappointed” at the “lack of diversity available” when he was shown the tapes from the casting call with just one Native American in the mix. Nevertheless, the local casting agent called back the “could past for any race” actor to do a dog and pony for the director just so she could to do the “see this is all there is out there" and not have to have it on set that so many actors came from another casting director.
After all, the director and the production company might find out. Ironically, the one actor she wanted to parade in front of the director actually wasn’t available by then. They had no one. Not one Native actor to make the call-back with the director. This particular local casting director threw a fit on a pretty large scale, because she was clearly under fire for the “lack of diversity,” but she still refused to do anything productive about it, like calling in the other actors.
There’s just a tiny bit of wannabe “Hollywood” politics for you.
Everything the film director was looking for exists, but because some local casting director stood in the way, literally (larger ones have done or tried this as well) the actors didn’t get any work, and this film’s intended “look” will undoubtedly suffer when it comes out.
What is the answer? Yes, like I said above. UNIFICATION and having our own, Native American LARGE SCALE distribution and all Native, all the time voice for our arts and culture in the media like never before.
Have you looked around lately at our options? You should…there is hope on the horizon…
Posted in Featured Articles, Indie-pendent Vue, That Thing We Do--The Artist Speaks
1. Good article. One thing NativeVue could do here is list all the casting directors who specialize in Native actors. Vet them with people like Tara and NativeVue’s advisors and the Native actors who support NativeVue so the list doesn’t include any casting directors who aren’t committed to Native people.
Comment by robschmidt — April 9, 2007
2. Thanks for your article – As a Native American actor, director and writer I find it interesting & completely ridiculous how they (Hollywood) say there are no Native Americans actors out there – Look a bit deeper; you’ll find a whole bunch of us and no disrespect meant here to anyone; but they also have to quit just using the same three or four actors that we see in everything – I honor those who have come before us, they have paved this path for us and I thank them – I also have to say that I am not meaning that you have to phone me, although I am here I may not be the best out there, but at least know that I am here and I am getting better (like that self promotion, I am a bastard, yes I know)
I also know it is up to the casting directors, talents agencies and the actors themselves to do a bit more self promotion but lets start taking a look around; there are so many talented Native American Actors out here in Canada & the US – Sadly we do the same thing to our Directors, writers and even down to our cameramen – there are more talented people out here people – Look around!!(Have I said that?)
As an emerging director, writer and actor myself and please I understand we all have to pay our due’s and work hard and all the other stuff they teach you but if they are only giving it to those few and not even trying to look around at the rest of us, that is pretty sad indeed – Meanwhile there alot of good actors, director’s and writers out there that just give up and quit and that’s sad to see and I know that’s their shit - All I want and I know alot of my friends in this industry is a chance to show that we are out here.
Enough with the bullshit and the politics and the little clicks everyone has – We sit here as Native Americans and say we have to work as one, but still we try to push each other away and out – Come on; let’s work as one then – Does it matter what your last name is, what tribe we are from, what State we are from, or what province we are from. Damn it! We are all Native Americans, we are all Brown –
Wouldn’t it be easier to make a film, write a script with more, even collaborating on films, sharing the directing, writing and financing – that would mean there would be more of us and more financing in place, come on think of the possibilities!!! – Get rid of those ego’s and the insecurities and lets make some Damn good Native American films with Native American Directors, DOP’s, Actors, Writers, Cameraman, Editors the list goes on
It’s time to get things in the open and talk about this and not be afraid to be cast as a troublemaker, we’re all troublemakers, Damn it were Native American’s - We as Native Americans try to be so polite at times and there is nothing wrong with speaking out – So speak out, why not – Be respectful and know what the hell you are talking about but speak out Thanks for letting me rant - Marcel Petit
Comment by PetitM — April 9, 2007
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