Canadian actors push for more diversity in television, film casting

Actors say the industry began to change about five years ago, but it has accelerated in the past year and a half

Raugi Yu was thrilled when he nabbed an audition to play a French ambassador. It was about 15 years ago, early in his acting career, and a rare time he’d been welcomed to try out for a role not specifically written for an Asian actor.

In the waiting room, a middle-aged white actor auditioning for the same job asked Yu why he was there. When Yu said he was reading for the French ambassador role, the man replied, “Wow, they’re really casting a wide net.”

“There was no consideration of how racist that is, and how that would mess with my audition so much, because I was young and I was like, ‘Oh, does that mean I don’t belong here?’ ” recalled Yu, who grew up in Montreal and speaks fluent French.

“That guy got to me. I became angry. I became small. I became all these things I’ve been working so hard not to be. But in the end, it was a good thing, because it was a catalyst for me.”

Yu is among the Vancouver-based actors now pushing for greater diversity in television and film. He participated in an emotional roundtable video series posted online last fall, organized by the Union of British Columbia Performers, a branch of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.

Actors say the industry began to change about five years ago, but it has accelerated in the past year and a half with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment business. Discussions about gender have sparked conversations about race, and the voices of diverse actors are being heard more loudly, they say.

Yu, who appeared in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” said the man’s comment to him about the ambassador role wouldn’t fly today.

“Now, nobody would say that. If he did, everybody would go, ‘Whoa, Raugi belongs here, man. That’s a weird thing to say, dude.’”

Angela Moore, co-chair of the diversity and inclusion committee at the B.C. performers’ union, said the roundtable discussions were meant to showcase the experiences of Middle Eastern, North African and East Asian actors. The previous year, Moore participated in a roundtable with other African-Canadian performers.

One of the challenges of being a diverse performer has been trying to get more auditions, she said, and when she first started about 25 years ago she often had to wait for roles that were specifically meant for black actors.

“A lot of those roles were service roles, one-liners as a nurse or a prostitute,” Moore said. “I played nurses dozens of times. Nurse No. 2, nurse No. 3. I’ve also played a police officer many times, or a guard.”

She noted that many American shows are shot in Vancouver and the leading roles are often already filled with Hollywood actors by the time the production arrives north. Canadian actors are left to fight over smaller parts, she said, and opportunities get smaller still for people of colour.

“In the last few years, (the union has) made more inroads with the casting directors about being brought in for different parts, and (casting directors) have had conversations with producers,” she said.

Moore said her goal is to collect Canada-wide data on representation of people of colour in television and film so that she knows the baseline in order to improve it.

Patrick Sabongui, a Canadian actor of Egyptian heritage, said the moment he realized his cultural identity was going to become an issue was on 9/11.

“I quickly identified that there were going to be a lot of work opportunities for a guy like me. Hollywood was going to want to see someone who looked like me as the villain, getting beat up and blown up and as the threat,” he said.

As a younger actor with fewer opportunities, Sabongui took those roles. But as he evolved and became a parent, he said he began to feel guilty, though he still needed to accept those types of jobs to put food on the table.

Sabongui finally drew the line about five years ago and started to look for better parts, but the industry hadn’t quite caught up with his social conscience. The Middle Eastern or North African character could be an ally or a friend, but not the lead character, he said.

A turning point for him was a role on “Homeland,” where he played an advocate for wrongly accused Muslim Americans. Now, he plays Captain David Singh on “The Flash,” an openly gay South Asian police captain. These are the kinds of roles he’s been pushing for, he said.

Recently, the issue of representation in the entertainment industry was highlighted on one Hollywood’s biggest nights when Canadian actress Sandra Oh delivered an emotional Golden Globes speech in which she celebrated this “moment of change.”

But while Oh spoke of a noticeable shift this year, there is still a need for improvement, actors say.

A lack of diversity on screen means that young stars can’t imagine themselves in those roles, said Mayumi Yoshida, a Tokyo-born actress based in Vancouver.

Yoshida said one of the reasons she moved to the city was because she saw Oh on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“I actually thought, ‘Why is she cast? It’s so odd,’ because I was so used to not seeing her,” said Yoshida. “Then, I thought, ‘Wow, I want to play roles like this.’

“If I hadn’t seen Sandra play that, then I still would’ve thought that world belongs to them, not me.”

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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