Casting for Diversity

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Disney-ABC Television Group executive vice president of casting Keli Lee is spearheading the company’s strategy of placing diverse actors and actresses in such popular ABC Studios-produced shows as Army Wives, Ugly Betty, Raising the Bar and Lost. Lee recently talked to Multichannel News programming editor editor R. Thomas Umstead about her efforts to find and cast actors of color in major television roles. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: Why is it so important to you to look for people of color to cast in ABC shows?

Keli Lee: As an Asian-American woman, diversity in casting is very important to me and a very personal issue for me. Growing up in the states in the ’70s and ’80s, there were no characters on television that looked like me or any other diverse group, nor did they depict my experience. Growing up, you want to see people who look like you and people that you can relate to. What’s great is that 20 years later, ABC has the most diverse casts of all the networks, and I’m so proud to be able to help ABC in its diversity efforts.

MCN: What advantages do you see in bringing a diverse cast to a particular show like Grey’s Anatomy?

KL: We’re able to appeal to a larger audience because this nation is very diverse and the audience wants to see people who they can relate to — people who look like them and people who share their experience. But we’re getting a huge rating not only because it’s a diverse cast, but also because it features great storytelling and great characters.

MCN: When you’re presented a show to cast, where do you go to find actors of color to potentially appear in that show?

KL: On the casting side, we’re constantly researching — we’re going out and seeing theater shows, watching television shows, movies and foreign films — any place we can find actors. So when I get a script, there are people that I already know I love and that I want to put in the show. Then it’s auditioning actors and seeing as many actors as I can for each role.

I also created the diversity showcase seven years ago, primarily to find and nurture untapped diverse talent so we can bring them to ABC and create opportunities for them. We’ve auditioned 10,000 actors since we started and have had 351 actors that have appeared [in shows]. It has been and continues to be a success.

MCN: What do you say to folks who say they’re not sure where to go to find African-American, Asian or Latino actors?

KL: That’s exactly the reason we started the showcase. We’re going to do the work for you — we’re going to audition 600 actors per showcase and we’re gong to find the best ones and we’re going to put them in our shows.

MCN: Have you experienced any pushback from writers and producers that may not like your decision to place a person of color in a particular role?

KL: For the most part, producers are very supportive; they understand how important diversity is. But I will say that some shows are very personal to the writers — they’ll say, 'I have this family and it’s based on my own family and I grew up in the Midwest,’ so it really depends on the character that they envisioned. But when I’m reading material, I don’t say that this part would be great for a Latino or Asian actor. I see it as a role that could be a potential one for any person.

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