Actors seldom complain about a lack of diversity in the casting of Australian films and TV programs, according to actress/filmmaker Pearl Tan.
The reason, she says, is that when actors do voice their opinions, they are “vilified” on social media. Tan has joined Equity’s Diversity Committee, which was formed in July and aims to promote and advocate the principles of diverse casting and to foster more opportunities for Equity members from diverse communities.
Reflecting the depth of feeling on the issue, the committee has 32 members including Amanda Bishop, Annette Shun Wah, Bali Padda, Eddie Tang, Jay Laga'aia, Jonathan Chan, Joy Hopwood, Kasia Kaczmarek, Kate Hood, Maria Papas, Ming-Zhu Hii, Robert Jago, Sachin Joab and Serhat Caradee.
Producers are supporting their cause. The new Australian Feature Film Agreement includes a section on diversity in casting which states “SPAA, IPI and the MEAA recognise the need for expanding the participation of performers from ethnic minorities (for example Indigenous Australians and Asian-Australians), women performers and performers with disability in their artistic process.
“Towards that end the Producer confirms its commitment to non-discrimination and a flexible, imaginative casting policy, known hereafter as diverse casting.”
SPAA and IPI members agreed to attach a statement of this diverse casting policy to their contracts with directors and casting consultants. The three guilds will collaborate on staging a diverse casting one-day workshop in Melbourne and Sydney.
“We hope the committee will give an organised voice for actors, instead of actors being seen as whinging because they are not getting work,” says Tan, who plays the Asian mother of one of the lead boys in Matchbox Pictures’ upcoming ABC series Nowhere Boys.
As examples of the vilification which actors can be subjected to, she pointed to disparaging comments posted on social media after Better Man and Neighbours actor Remy Hii tweeted, “Wonderland is about how ten people living in Bondi have got by without befriending 1 person of non-Anglo descent.”
There were similar responses when Laga’aia tweeted, “Dear Channel 10, your new Drama Wonderland seems to only have white people in it! Are there any ethnics, that aren't cabbies in your show?”
To be fair, Steve Murphy of FremantleMedia, which produces Wonderland, responded that his company also makes Neighbours and Better Man.
Tan, who was born in Perth of Chinese heritage, contends that while ethnically diverse shows such as Better Man screen on SBS and the ABC, “mainstream media is generally for white Australians.”
When she studied at NIDA from 2003-2005, Tan says she struggled to neutralise her Australian accent. Her voice teacher asked, “Do you know why you can't neutralise your accent?” The teacher then said, “Because you don't look Australian so you have to sound Australian.”
Tan says, “After graduating from NIDA I struggled to get an agent and was typecast in roles so I have pursued a filmmaking path.” Currently she is shooting a YouTube series, Minority Box, in which she asks actors from diverse backgrounds (the first two episodes feature Asian women and Indian men) about their experiences and outlook.
Bali Padda, who was born in Sydney to Indian parents, has a recurring role in Legally Brown, a boundary-pushing comedy series produced by Southern Star Entertainment which premieres on SBS on September 23.
“When I started acting in 2007 an Indian face on TV was very rare,” Padda tells IF. “That’s started to change in the last couple of years and we’re looking to build on that momentum. There is a whole world you are missing out on if you are limited in your casting choices. Lack of diversity in casting is an issue I have been dealing with.”
Sachin Joab was a regular in Neighbours and he played a Singaporean detective in Better Man. "I’m hoping the Diversity Committee can bring awareness to our Australian film/television/screen writing industries to reflect a true representation of multiculturalism on Australian screens," he says. "If we can achieve this, every film/tv department will have more creative scope because more true-to-life options will exist. Without these broad options, dramas will continue to have a reproduced/replicated feel to them.
"A true representation of interracial friendships, multicultural work interactions, interracial couples, etc should all be regularly explored within story lines both in fiction and non fiction dramas. This will accomplish a realistic perspective on screens as our country truly exists, as opposed to excluding or playing on repetitive stereotypes."