by ADA TSENG
For everyone who’s grateful for the recent rise of
minoritynon-white faces on American television, it’s important to note that behind every Sandra Oh inGrey’s Anatomy, every Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim, Jorge Garcia and Naveen Andrews in Lost, is a casting director responsible for pairing these actors with the unforgettable roles that will go down in television history.
Keli Lee, who has been casting TV shows at ABC for more than 20 years, was on her way to law school when she landed a fortuitous college internship that introduced her to the entertainment casting industry. In her first week working for Phyllis Huffman, who often did casting for Clint Eastwood’s films, Lee operated the video camera that captured the auditions for the Academy Award-winning 1992 filmUnforgiven. From there, she eventually worked her way up the ladder, and as Executive Vice President of Casting at ABC, Lee now has a corner office with a view and spends her days looking for the next new star.
Born in South Korea, Lee moved to the States as a toddler, and while her father stayed behind in Korea for work, her adventurous, road trip-loving mother would move her young kids to a new state every six or seven months on a whim.
“Up until I was 13, I never started or finished the same school, so I met thousands of people from around the country,” says Lee. “It forced me to socialize and understand people, and ultimately I think that’s how I got to be good at what I do. I’m searching for people and learning about their emotional core.”
For Lee, more important than finding a good-looking specimen or skilled thespian is determining whether the actor is authentic.
“I think within the first 10 seconds of meeting someone, you can get a sense of a person,” says Lee. “You know whether you want to continue to watch them.”
Twelve years ago, Lee started the ABC Casting Department’s Talent Showcase with the goal of providing more opportunities for
minorityactors of color who either don’t have representation or aren’t even aware of the opportunities available. Since its inception, 14,000 people have auditioned, and 432 actors have participated in 30 showcases, with winners earning mentorships.
Beneficiaries of this program include Liza Lapira (Crazy Stupid Love,Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23), Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing with the Stars), Aaron Yoo (Disturbia, 21), Archie Kao (CSI), Randall Park (Larry Crowne, The Five-Year Engagement), and Janina Gavankar (True Blood, The L Word).
In the upcoming fall season on ABC, TV audiences can look out for Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Wang Bennet in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Liza Lapira inSuper Fun Night,Ginger Gonzaga inMixology, Summer Bishil in Lucky 7, and Albert Tsai inTrophy Wife.
“My goal is to change the face of television,” says Lee. “When I came to the U.S. at age 2, there wasn’t much diversity on television, and now, it’s such a different time.”
On how she ended up in the casting industry:
“Like most Korean American families, entertainment [as a career] was not an option. It was the stereotype, ‘Are you going to be a doctor or a lawyer?’ So, I had planned to go to law school, I was studying philosophy at NYU, and I was a hostess at Caroline’s Comedy Club, so it was the comedians who introduced me to the world of entertainment. I actually fell into this business. I got an internship in casting and worked my way up, while I went to school full time at NYU. First, I worked at Warner Brothers, and then I went to ABC, where I’ve been for 21 years.”
On starting ABC Casting Department’s Talent Showcase to find diverse talent:
“Twelve years ago, we were talking about diversity and thinking about how we can provide more opportunities for diverse actors, so I started this showcase program to give exposure and training to actors who either don’t have the representation or aren’t even aware of the opportunities that exist. After my team auditions the actors, we select the top 15 to 20, and we put them through this training program. Usually you have material, and you find people to play the characters, but this is the reverse: we find the right actors and then try to find the right material for them. Some of the actors who’ve gone through this program that we’re excited about are: Liza Lapira, who was onDon’t Trust The B—- in Apt 23, Jorge Garcia fromLost, Dania Ramirez fromDevious Maids, and Jesse Williams onGrey’s Anatomy.”
On their first digital talent competition this summer:
“This is new. We’re the first network to launch a digital talent competition. We had over 14,000 submissions, we’re having a public vote, and the winner will be announced on Aug. 30. The winner gets $10,000 and a talent option hold with ABC. Just based on the submissions, I’m excited to be able to find new faces. These are actors from around the country, they are coming from everywhere, from Florida to Alabama, and it’s really great to hear some of their stories.”
On the Latino and Asian Outreach Initiatives:
“This is international. We started this program last year. For the Latino Outreach, we targeted Mexico, Latin America and Spain, and I’m excited to say that one of actors we found in first year of the Latino Outreach Initiative, Adan Canto, was cast as series regular in Mixology. The Asian Outreach Initiative started in India, and we just expanded to the Philippines this year.”
Who influences you?
“I have an amazing circle of really strong, smart, successful female friends, and we feed off that positive energy and help each other out. That’s part of what I do in my profession, I’m helping people realize their dreams, and that’s what we do for each other. I often have these conversations with my girlfriends, where I wish I had women as role models or mentors, so now that we’re in our positions, we think, how can we help empower other women and be role models for them? All these female pioneers paved the way for us, so how can we pave the way for other women?”
Slight edits, since the term “minority” is inaccurate and offensive. Wonderful interview with an industry professional who is making big change. If you’re an actor (or writer, or director), do check out the diversity initiatives of major studios. ABC, FOX, CBS, and Disney all have talent showcases and other opportunities that could be that break you need. It never hurts to put yourself out there and take a chance!
Walking Dead actor Steven Yeun is writing and producing his own projects to create better opportunities for Asian actors. Steven Yeun started working on his acting career in 2005. He left behind a …
But for real tho…And this writer acts like it’s such a shock that Asian American’s are under represented, stating, “[He] has a point” as if there is argument to be made. No, it’s just the truth. Asians are mostly either stereotyped or not there at all.
I posted this article before on my facebook and this is want I had to say about it. My director friend had some thoughts too:
"It’s ridiculous how many roles are taken by way of blatant asianface (I think it’s called "yellowface" but that in and of itself sounds horrible so I’ll not use it). Whether it’s the completely unnecessary changing of roles (The Last Airbender, I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry), or the racial marking that they think they can skate by with because "oh I’m just satirizing a culture not a race!".
As for the lack of Asian roles in America I think it’s a stupid, outdated, and completely weird phenomenon that even I fall into sometimes in writing. I’m not sure if it’s because of how most people grew up with American film, including myself, but even as a black person, whenever I want to write a strong, relatable character I end up writing a white one. The whole problem I think is a combination of growing up watching all of these white blonde characters save the world thousands of times over in America and writer’s unwillingness to stray from their initial biased vision, no matter how warped it may be. Recently in my writing and filmmaking I’ve just decided to fuck what my characters look like in my head, and cast whoever proves the best for the job, and I hope American writers all move this way too.”
He then asked me to elaborate on “what’s your take on this whole American bias of who looks like a hero and who doesn’t?” My response to this:
Well as much as I preach I also have to admit that I am very affected by this bias in that I sometimes feel uncomfortable when thinking about an Asian main character in American cinema. That uncomfortable feeling is my first reaction probably due to what you said about being raised on American cinema with little asian representation but then I think “why the hell not”. This is America for crying out loud, how can we say that this country is a melting pot when you can’t represent every culture and feel like it’s the natural thing to do. And from my personal experience that this phenomenon had a real negative impact on Asian American youth. Because we don’t see our selves on screen, there’s usually a period of time where we believe we aren’t good-looking enough because the only form of beauty that we have to compare to is white actors. And Asian Americans who inspire to be actors/actresses can be easily discouraged and can be forced to give up their dreams due to an extreme lack of opportunity.
I know that was a lot, but it had to be said and I hope you all take the time to read it and understand that proper representation matters.
Kristen Stewart, Zooey Deschanel, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, Blake Lively and a whole flurry of mediocre white actresses (who btw play the same roles OVER AND OVER) are always offered roles. Meanwhile, Oscar nominated/winning black actresses (who have won other awards prestigious as well) are struggling to remain relevant. Just because there are a lot of black led TV shows coming this fall, that doesn’t mean the struggle is over or lessening. Many of these actresses have had to move onto TV roles or do both because they haven’t been offered enough (or appropriate) roles.
EMMA WATSON STANDS UP TO TURKISH PRIME MINISTER’S SEXISM
KEKE PALMER TO PLAY THE FIRST BLACK CINDERELLA ON BROADWAY
SONY ANNOUNCED THEY’RE GONNA DO A FEMALE SUPERHERO MOVIE FROM THE SPIDER-MAN UNIVERSE
WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THIS
BECAUSE THIS IS LITERALLY THE FIRST IVE HEARD ABOUT IT
omg bruce, you are the dramatic teenage girl in this relationship
1. Aries: Separation/detachment.
2. Taurus: Change.
3. Gemini: Being alone.
4. Cancer: Feeling unloved.
5. Leo: Being ignored.
6. Virgo: Disorder.
7. Libra: Anything extremely unbalanced/making a wrong decision that’ll destroy their life.
8. Scorpio: Failure and inadequacy.
9. Sagittarius: Being controlled.
10. Capricorn: Being misunderstood and not being good enough.
11. Aquarius: Being locked in.
12. Pisces: Upsetting others and rejection.
SHONDA RHIMES - SCREENWRITER, DIRECTOR, AND PRODUCER, creator of hit TV shows such as “Scandal” (ABC), “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC), “Private Practice” (ABC), and the forthcoming TV show “How to Get Away with Murder,” starring Viola Davis, which will premiere on ABC on September 25, 2014.
She also wrote screenplays for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) starring Halle Berry, Crossroads (2001) starring Britney Spears, and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004) starring Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway.
In 2007, she was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 people who help shape the world. She has been nominated and/or won a few awards including Golden Globe, NAACP’s Image Award, Emmy, Black Reel Award, and WGA Award by the Writers Guild of America.
She also runs her own production company, ShondaLand, which produces the tv shows that ABC has picked up for airing rights.
The Los Angles Times just published a new article, hailing her for building a TV empire in spite of white men running Hollywood.