RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tonight is one of the biggest nights in Hollywood. The glitz and glam, the speeches, the fashion, as stars from film and television gather together in one place for the Golden Globes. The awards celebrate the best writing, acting and production of the past year. And this year's nominations are being hailed as the most diverse yet, with a significant number of minority actors up for awards. That includes Kerry Washington for the series "Scandal," created by Shonda Rhimes. Washington plays a political power player who happens to be a black woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")
MARTIN: Kerry Washington is part of a new crop of black actors and writers making their names in film and TV. But it's still a tough road for a lot of minority actors, as you'll hear from Jasika Nicole Pruitt.
JASIKA NICOLE PRUITT: There have actually, also, been times where a role said that they were looking for open ethnicities, and I was submitted; and then they wrote back and said we decided not to go ethnic this time - which means that they're going with a white woman. I don't wake up and go ethnic every day. I am ethnic. This is, you know, the color of my skin and my experience in the world. It just seems so dismissive of anybody who has an experience of living in skin that isn't white.
MARTIN: We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about diversity in television - what's better, what's not, and how Hollywood is trying to fix it. But first, we turn to NPR's television critic Eric Deggans to talk about what we can expect to see from the Golden Globes tonight.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It is a landmark year, in one sense. We are seeing more people of color nominated for major awards than we have in the past. But one of the things that's interesting is, we're finding certain actors nominated in multiple categories. So we have Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both nominated for major awards in film and television - which gives you the sense that there are certain actors who have been embraced by Hollywood - certain actors of color who have been embraced by Hollywood. And maybe it's time to sort of spread that wealth around a little bit, and get a wider range of actors involved in these big projects.
MARTIN: This past week, "Saturday Night Live" announced that they have hired an African-American woman - named Shasheer Zamata - to join their cast. They were under a lot of pressure to do so. So "SNL" held a casting call explicitly for the purpose of finding a black woman for the cast. What's your take on this? Is this a good way to go about diversifying a show; just owning it and saying, OK, this is a casting call explicitly for a black woman because that's what we need?
DEGGANS: Yeah. I do think it's a good development because those of us who have worked to diversity media and television know that it's very hard to diversify these areas unless you specifically go out and try to find people. That doesn't mean you're being unfair. It just means that there's a reason why a certain area is lacking in ethnic diversity. You have to go out there and find those people, and give them opportunities and ways that don't necessarily naturally occur for other people.
I would also say that I know some people want to feel like there was this hue and cry about diversifying "Saturday Night Live"; and they've added a black woman and now, the conversation's over. But if you ask me, if they added a black woman because they needed someone to play black female characters, and because the show needed to reflect the diversity of America, well then, they're just getting started because there are no Latino cast members on the show. There's no Asian cast members on the show. You can make an argument that they need to hold those kind of casting calls for other ethnicities as well. So this is the beginning of a conversation, as far as I'm concerned, not the end of it.
MARTIN: Shawn Ryan is a TV executive producer, who's been in the business for a long time - more than 20 years. Like "SNL's" Loren Michaels, he makes decisions every day about how to diversify his staff - on screen and off. In one instance, Ryan cast CCH Pounder, an African-American woman, in a role he had originally written for a white man.
SHAWN RYAN: I'd love to say that it was a thunderbolt of brilliance, on my part. But it wasn't. It was really the lesson that gave me a whole new perspective on the role, and taught me how to be this way in the future.
MARTIN: What about lead roles? Are you starting, now, to see more minority actors getting those big, plum roles where they are carrying a TV show?
RYAN: I would say sadly, no. What I think you see more and more is in Hollywood, we have these things called call sheets that tells everybody where they need to be on the day of shooting. And No. 1 on the call sheet is your lead actor or actress, and 2, and so on down. And so I think what you have now is a lot of networks and studios who want to have diversity in roles 3, 4, 5 and 6. But there's less so, in terms of No. 1 and No. 2 on the call sheet.
MARTIN: So why is that the case?
RYAN: I think there's a belief - whether this belief is correct or not - that a minority in your lead might not lead to bigger viewership numbers. I'm not saying that's correct. I'm saying that I think there is a worry; hopefully, a worry that's going away with the success of a show like "Scandal."
MARTIN: I'd like to shift the conversation and go behind the scenes a little bit to talk about the writer's room, which is really your domain. What is the landscape like there, when it comes to issues of diversity?
RYAN: It's tough because a writer's room is the place where you bake up all these stories that are going to appear on your television screens months later. For a while, it was hard for some diverse people to get their foot in. And if you can't get your foot in, then you can't spend the years learning the craft. There have been some good-faith efforts by the networks and studios...
MARTIN: Explicit jobs that are diversity hires...
RYAN: Yes. But there's a feeling amongst many that, are those people being viewed with the same kind of respect? Or are they being looked down upon as people that are being put in here, that wouldn't otherwise make it? I don't think that's the case, but I think there's certainly a lot of debate about whether that is leading to the result of creating more Shonda Rhimeses.
My personal opinion is that we want that diversity, and that there is a color blindness. When you read a script from someone, you're not seeing the face of that person who wrote the script. And so I think that in some ways, it's a very fair setup here. If you're a great writer, I think you will be eventually be discovered in Hollywood, and you will get an opportunity. That's my feeling.
MARTIN: All of CBS's six new shows this season were created by white men; the same is true for Fox. All 12 of NBC's new shows are created by white men, and five of seven for ABC. Those are pretty staggering numbers. You've been doing this a long time. Does it just go back to what you've said, that this is just a really hard world for minority writers to get into?
RYAN: I think it's easier now than it used to be so hopefully, those numbers will change, going forward, and be more reflective of the population. It's also up to people like me to train that next generation. But when you're working on a TV show, it's a crazy experience. And the better the writers you have working for you, the sooner you can get home at night to your family.
So I don't believe that anyone is purposely not hiring someone who would be better qualified. Now, that's not to say that maybe the agents, the networks, the studios, the showrunners can't do a better job of seeing the bigger pool of candidates.
MARTIN: Beejoli Shah is a journalist and TV writer. She wrote a piece for the online blog Gawker about those good-faith efforts Shawn Ryan referred to, where every major TV network sets aside money for a diverse position on each show's staff. Shah says that system is flawed.
BEEJOLI SHAH: It's usually the last position that's hired for, on a show. It's generally the lowest-paying one. It's recognized as a job that someone earned simply because the network wanted to have diversity. So they're looked down upon by their fellow writers. in that way.
MARTIN: What about you? Would you be OK taking a diversity hire job?
SHAH: Even if I was the best young TV writer since kingdom come, a network would probably still pay for me out of their diversity slush fund rather than a show's budget, just so that the show can put those dollars elsewhere. So in that respect, I am able to sleep at night going up for diversity jobs, knowing that it would happen regardless.
On the flip side, it does make me very uncomfortable; that there's some jobs that I've been put up for simply because I'm Indian, because I'm female. When I met for the CBS show "We Are Men" last summer, they had said to my agent: Perfect; we need someone that can write for both the teenage daughter and for Kal Penn. So your client is great because, you know, she's Indian and a girl.
MARTIN: What do you think is to account for this problem? I mean, are showrunners, are head writers - is the tendency just to hire people who look like them, who share some of the same perspective and life experience?
SHAH: I think that a lot of it comes from television - and Hollywood - is a very, very who-you-know business. So you tend to see this funnel effect of specifically, white writers moving forward 'cause there are already a ton of white writers in the industry. So it's easy to pick up the phone and make a phone call to someone you know. And so that just keeps perpetuating itself.
And on top of that, I think that something that struck me as another reason why this keeps happening is that there is a sort of subtle socioeconomic barrier to entry - to be able to say, you know, I'm going to come to Hollywood and I'm going to work for five years as a very, very underpaid production assistant, in hopes of making the right connections to get my foot in the door. I don't think that everyone can afford to take that on as a luxury. While I don't advocate, you know, holding two spots for upper-level black writers and one spot for an Indian female, and so on and so forth, I think that the more diversity you try to have at every level, the better your room is going to be. It's just a natural fact of having varied opinions.
STEPHEN WEST ROGERS: My name is Stephen West Rogers. I'm 35 years old. And my father is of Scotch-Irish and English descent, and my mother is Taiwanese. I've never had an audition for the lead in anything. I think that Asians are maybe looked at as smart, so we'll be playing maybe professors or people in the medical field, things like that. I also have visible tattoos, so I guess that takes me out of the running for being a doctor. I can only go so far up that ladder of helping people.
MARTIN: Jason George is an actor who had a recurring role on the Shonda Rhimes' show "Grey's Anatomy." He's also chairman of the Screen Actors Guild Diversity Advisory Committee. And George says that for some actors of color, there has been real progress.
JASON GEORGE: God bless them. Like, Sidney Poitier is an idol of mine but, you know, he was the perfect black man for the longest time. Bill Cosby was the perfect father. And God bless them because without them, there is nothing else. But eventually, you get to a point where Don Cheadle can do "House of Lies," where he's kind of a bastard.
MARTIN: (Laughter) He is.
GEORGE: But he's a fun bastard, you know, and that's the thing. We're allowed to be full human beings now on television, not just representing an entire community. There are two - kind of camps of diversity these days. One is what Shonda does best, which is - be it "Grey's Anatomy" or "Scandal." These people are top surgeons, top political operatives, top of their game; and they just happen to be...
MARTIN: Happen to be, yeah.
GEORGE: ...gay, happen to be Latino, happen to be black, etc. And the fact that their racial or sexual identity is not the point, is the point. The fact that it's not the defining factor of them - it is a factor. And then the other version is kind of the "Lost" or "Heroes," where the person's racial or ethnic or sexual identity is distinctly a part of who that character is, and that plays a fundamental role into the show. And the result is that you really get a sense of true global diversity.
MARTIN: And you think both are important, moving forward.
GEORGE: I really do think both are important. But I would say, if I had to choose one of them, I think that at the end of the day, the model where people are people first, and you have to meet them where they're at; and then find out about their racial background or their sexual background.
MARTIN: What about behind the scenes - writers, creators, showrunners?
GEORGE: That's the world. Shonda Rhimes is an incredibly high-powered creator.
MARTIN: But is her model catching on?
GEORGE: I think it is, because I think that we're starting to realize that there's dollars behind it. At the end of the day, television sees green. And if you see the green, they will make it happen. But you got to show it to them. I mean, if you have two shows - both good shows - of equal quality, a minority might be more inclined to watch the one that has a minority lead or a minority in a significant, regular role. And so given that, if you can get a foothold in a bunch of different communities, that can only help your show.
Studio and network heads have started to hear this. I've heard several times them making speeches to all their show creators and saying, you know, diversity is the key to you getting on the air. Show me diversity. And that's phenomenal to hear, but it takes a bit of time between that and actually getting on screen because everybody knows what should happen. But then when push comes to shove and you're trying to figure out where the dollars go, you go with what you know is safe.
And I think that's where people default back to things. And people, I think, in the past have had a horrible tendency to kind of look for the easy scapegoat; like, you know, we did a show and there were African-American leads, and it didn't take. Well, maybe it failed because it was bad writing. Maybe it failed because it was a bad idea. Because, you know, "Scandal" has a black lead who's having an interracial romance, and it's the hottest show on television right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: That was the actor Jason George. And that hot show he's talking about - with Kerry Washington - along with the rest of Hollywood's up-and-comers, will all get their chance tonight at the Golden Globes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Our show's theme music was composed by B.J. Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.