DIVERSITY ON SCREEN | A long road coming, a long road to go

QUICK TV QUIZ: Can you spot what's missing?
QUICK TV QUIZ: Can you spot what's missing?

It’s hard enough seeing your own culture represented on screen in our multicultural Australia. Imagine how hard it can be to get work if you’re an actor with an ethnic background. But things are slowly changing.

South-west actor Jean-Pierre Yerma was invited to be part of a diversity showcase for emerging artists at the end of last month at the Actors’ Centre at Leichhardt. Rehearsals, panels and professional-development workshops were held leading up to it, from July 21 to 25, at the ScreenAcademy at Waterloo.

I’m olive-skinned and can pass as Greek, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Italian which is great – unless I want to work on Home and Away, Neighbours or Wonderland.

Jean-Pierre Yerma, actor

The selection panel comprised high-profile casting directors and film producers and directors who chose 10 emerging actors, writers and directors from diverse backgrounds out of the 500 applications received – an indication that the industry is increasingly embracing inclusion.

Jean-Pierre Yerma, actor, of Smithfield.

Jean-Pierre Yerma, actor, of Smithfield.

Jean-Pierre, of Smithfield, was one of four chosen from NSW. We asked him to tell us what it’s like being a migrant actor working in TV and film, whether he feels our TV shows and movies are reflecting a true picture of multicultural Australia and to what degree he felt producers, directors and agents were committed to diversity and inclusion in the industry – and on our screens.

BREAKTHROUGHS IN CASTING: Here are some excellent, but rare, examples of positive casting on our major networks, Jean-Pierre says.

BREAKTHROUGHS IN CASTING: Here are some excellent, but rare, examples of positive casting on our major networks, Jean-Pierre says.

What was the program about and its purpose?

Last month the EquityFoundation and the EquityDiversityCommittee, with support from ScreenAustralia, hosted Australia's first Screen DiversityShowcase. The goal was to develop and nurture career paths for performers, directors and writers from diverse backgrounds and also to shine a spotlight on the huge amount of unseen, unheard talent we have in this country. Diverse performers, writers and directors collaborated during a six-day program of morning workshops, discussions, professional development and rehearsals for a final showcase. The one-night-only performance was attended by 300 network executives, casting directors, talent agents, managers and other industry professionals. It's time to pave the way for a television landscape that reflects the world we live in.

Changes can be seen today on our TV screens with examples of excellent casting on our major networks, in shows like Mystery Road, The Family Law, The Secret Daughter, Underbelly, Street-Smart, Here come the Habibs, Cleverman and Sunshine. It’s encouraging to see support for more colour and diversity.

Why were those 10 chosen?

BaliPadda (pictured), chairman of the Equity Diversity Committee, said it was a chance for diverse talent to be uncovered and exposed to those who make decisions about what ends up on our screens. He said it was exciting to find the best calibre of screen talent and practitioners from diverse backgrounds, pull them out of the margins and showcase their skills in front of the industry. We hope this program is a game-changer that shakes up the industry and feeds historically under-represented practitioners and talent into the pipeline for a truly representative screen industry for Australia.

INCLUSIVE CASTING: Mystery Road (ABC).

INCLUSIVE CASTING: Mystery Road (ABC).

As an industry insider and working actor how much diversity is there on our screens – movies, TV and streaming?

Screen Australia uses the term “diversity” when they try to determine if any group is over- or under-represented on our screen. This includes people who are culturally and linguistically diverse, LGBTQI, gender non-binary, First Nations, deaf and/or with a disability. Streaming has changed how Australians view content and how it‘s broadcast. The global screen industry is in a rapid period of change, driven by technology. “If you want to see diversity on screen watch Netflix,” said the Huffington Post. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are frequently praised for the diverse, high-quality stories they tell. But if you’re like me and enjoy watching free-to-air TV, then rest assured industry changes are coming across the board and some of those changes can be seen today on our TV screens with examples of excellent casting choices on our major networks, shows such as Mystery Road, ​The Family Law, The Secret Daughter, Underbelly, Street-Smart, Here Come the Habibs, Cleverman and Sunshine, to name some. It’s a good start, and more is being done. It’s encouraging to see industry executives supporting more colour and diversity in the landscape.

Bali Padda, chairman of the Equity Diversity Committee.

Bali Padda, chairman of the Equity Diversity Committee.

What are ways we can strengthen this?

Create the opportunities for Australians to tell their own stories. We’re now a multicultural society and Australians come from a range of backgrounds. We can start by embracing diversity, embracing and accepting changes to the industry – including appointing more women to executive decision-making roles.

What frustrations are felt by people of other cultures in the industry?

One example is that American pop culture tends to bash Western Asian male identities by using geeky stereotypes. Typecasting is a common frustration among actors of different ethnicities. Right now, the only minority group represented proportionately on Australian screens is Indigenous Australians, who constitute 3 per cent of Australians and 5 per cent of on-screen characters. 

What frustrations have you felt yourself? Has your ethnic background helped or hindered your own career?

I was born in France and both my parents migrated from Europe so I have mixed blood, but I’m not Caucasian. I’m olive-skinned and can pass as Greek, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Italian which is great – but not if my ideal job was to work on Home and Away, Neighbours or Wonderland. You do see a lot of casting calls for Caucasians (white skin colour), which can be frustrating at times because that’s not really portraying or showing the real Australia. The Australia I know is full of colourful people from all walks of life, cultured, educated. And it might seem a bit far off at this stage but things are changing and we might just see some more people from the LGBTQ community or someone with disabilities or someone of colour in one of the prime-time shows in the not-too-distant future.

INCLUSIVE CASTING: Here Come the Habibs (Nine).

INCLUSIVE CASTING: Here Come the Habibs (Nine).

How do you deal with the frustration personally as a performer?

Personally, I have to love what I’m doing, no matter what career paths I take. Passion and drive is not enough in this very competitive industry. I must keep my skills up to scratch. All actors must, even after they graduate or finish their courses. We need to stay in touch by attending casting directors’ workshops, online acting courses, how-to-audition workshops, learning new skills and improving current skills. That way any challenges or roadblocks we face we’ll be better equipped to handle – plus it will make us want to try harder, or try something different next time if we miss out this time. I’m always striving to get better at my craft and staying focused on the job at hand.

INCLUSIVE CASTING: The Family Law (SBS).

INCLUSIVE CASTING: The Family Law (SBS).

One final note, build relationships and stay in touch with industry colleagues while you work towards your big break, whether it’s here in Australia or the US. And go work on indie films, short films, commercials and do theatre with local theatre groups, get involved and have fun! And respect everyone you work with and encourage inclusion and diversity in your corner of the world. It just might spread.

ABIOUT THE DIVERSITY PROJECT

The members of the selection panel for performers included casting directors AnoushaZarkesh and AmandaMitchell, director PeterAndrikidis, producer ChloeRickard and actor ShareenaClanton.

DIVERSITY PROJECT: The selected candidates, including Jean-Pierre Yerma (top, second left)

DIVERSITY PROJECT: The selected candidates, including Jean-Pierre Yerma (top, second left)

Anousha Zarkesh was overwhelmed by the quality of applicants. “The quality of new faces testing was very exciting. It was great to get so many people responding to the call-out. There was such a wealth of talent that came forward.”

Kingston Anderson, chief executive of the Australian Directors' Guild, agreed: "We had an overwhelming response to our call-out for this program from a very talented and diverse range of applicants and we found it extremely difficult to narrow our selection. There’s obviously a huge need for a diversity program of this kind and we look forward to this bringing diversity to our screens."

The Australian Writers’ Guild picked six writers to participate, highly commending another two. “We were impressed and excited by the number and quality of scripts we received from more than 250 up-and-coming screenwriters and playwrights for this fantastic opportunity,” said the guild’s general manager, Emma Rafferty. “It’s incredibly important for industry organisations such as Equity and the ADG and the AWG to come together to run initiatives to support diverse voices finding their way into our industry and onto our screens.”

A representative of the guild’s judging panel said: “There was a big range of writing abilities, from very experienced to emerging writers finding their way. The selected scripts included writers who are female, queer, from CALD backgrounds, Aboriginal or living with disabilities.”

Performers chosen: AdamBowes (NSW), AndreaSolonge (VIC), BelindaJombwe (NSW), EstherFwati (VIC), PhilipposZiakas (SA), RatidzoMambo (VIC), SimoneDetourbet (WA), WinnieMzembe (QLD), YerinHa (NSW) and Jean-Pierre Yerma (NSW).

INCLUSIVE CASTING: Cleverman (ABC).

INCLUSIVE CASTING: Cleverman (ABC).

Writer participants: Tim Spencer (NSW), Aven Yap (QLD), A. N. Gurjar (NSW), Caden Pearson (QLD), Brendan Dousi (QLD) and Sarinah Masukor (NSW).

Directors chosen: Bee Cruse (NSW), Amie Batalibasi (VIC), Bina Bhattacharya (NSW), Joe Chan (NSW) and Vonne Patiag (NSW).

Screen Australia’s ground-breaking report into diversity in Australian TV drama found close to 60 per cent of programs had only Anglo-Celtic main characters. LGBTQ characters and those with a disability were vastly under-represented.

Sally Caplan, production head at Screen Australia said: “It’s fantastic to see a new group of emerging screen practitioners coming through the ranks as part of this initiative, each bringing a unique life experience to draw on. It was a huge opportunity for the industry and I look forward to seeing the longer-term results as these applicants diversify the breadth of stories told on our screens.”

This story DIVERSITY ON SCREEN | Can you spot what’s missing? first appeared on Liverpool City Champion.

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