International View: Stereotypes in UK casting

It’s been a year since I relocated to London. Despite having a blast over here, and being grateful I can be here and do what I love, I’ve also gotten past the honeymoon period and now see things from a much clearer perspective. In one of my past posts, Small Markets vs. Big Markets, I talked about using your cultural heritage as a stand-out factor, but there are stereotypes in casting that seem hard to break. Not to mention that there are not enough strong characters for minority and ethnic actors in the UK.

Now, I didn’t come to the UK with any great expectations –  except those I set for myself. Living abroad taught me that nothing comes easily, especially in a country where you need to work extra hard to prove yourself. When I lived in L.A., one of the topics most discussed between actors was type casting and the stereotypes that live within it. I learned about the importance of finding your type, and branding and submitting yourself accordingly. The same counts for London, yet there is one big difference: ethnic or minority characters are presented in a very stereotypical way that I believe is not reflective of today’s world – they seem to have frozen in time. Sadly, the only thing that seems to define these characters is the image of what is believed to be their cultural heritage. Why can’t the cultural heritage just be part of the character, not what defines the character, as it is in real life? Sure, where we come from is a part of who we are, but it’s exactly that – a part.

We are all human beings with the same needs. No matter where we are from, we all have our goals, our dreams, our fears, our life experiences and everything that makes us who we are. So why does the audience need to be told that a person is a stranger and therefore different? Why do cultural differences have to be highlighted in such a bizarre way? It’s quite insulting at times, to be honest.

Recently I stayed with a friend, and his flatmate was watching Holby City. Olga Fedori, who is originally from Ukraine, plays Frieda Petrenko, a Ukrainian character. I was just about to get excited that there is an Eastern European character on a mainstream program who isn’t a stripper, waitress or gold-digging bitch, but who actually has a brain and a good job – she’s a doctor. But the catch with this character is that they made her a Goth. There just had to be something about her to make her apparently different to the rest of the characters, so the poor audience can tell that they are different because they are from another country.

I don’t know about you, but when I watch any film or TV show, I find myself drawn to characters that I can relate to and whose story captivates me. Where the character is from is not the most important thing – I don’t need to put that label on them. I’ve always believed that storytelling is about telling somebody’s story, not putting stereotypical stickers on character’s foreheads.

It’s almost only when I watch indie films that I find this kind of “true” storytelling. There are so many talented people who make quality projects, but their work never makes it onto the mainstream screens. Only people who know where to look for it can find it, but most people will never know such great work exists.

I worry that people who watch these kind of mainstream shows actually believe the stereotypes. That they are getting brainwashed by it, because TV and Internet have a big influence on us. As with everything, there is the good side and the bad side to it depending what we choose.

I often get asked some strange questions about myself and my country. The people who ask me these questions often refer to things they’ve seen on TV and ask me if they are true. This is all is a part of my experience of living in this country.

This type of stereotyping also extends to people who were born in this country with families who have lived here for generations. Often they’ve never even been to the country of their ancestors, perhaps don’t even speak their language and are very much British, but there aren’t that many characters who represent that.

Recently I’ve been watching the American show The Good Wife and there is a character called Kalinda Sharma, portrayed by Archie Panjabi, a British actress of Indian origin. This character  represents the reality of today – she is just American, having lived there most or all of her life. Her cultural heritage doesn’t define her, her personality and her story do. That is the kind of character I wish to see more of, because it is truthful to me and finally shows a strong female and ethnic character in a supporting role.

In a recent Guardian article, From Hackney to Hollywood, actress Adelayo Adedayo says“People need to take more risks in the UK. [In the US] it wasn’t stuffy or done by the book, the feeling was just, ‘Let’s throw it out there’. Here, people say we need to do things the way we’ve always been doing things, ‘Let’s just be careful’. Careful’s not fun.” Yet from what I’ve heard, the situation in the US isn’t ideal either, even thought it might seem better.

I recently spoke with Tamara Dhia, an Arab-American actress living in L.A. who blogs for Backstage Unscripted, about how she finds the situation in the US: “Branding has definitely been a great challenge for me. Being in my ethnic boat is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a great asset. The pool of Middle Eastern actresses in Hollywood is rather small in comparison to other ethnicities, which means there is less competition for those roles. The flip side is that there are so few Middle Eastern roles for young women as it is, that those auditions are few and far between.”

Yet Dhia still finds herself pigeonholed and is struggling to get auditions for the roles that portray her as the regular American girl, even though she was born in the US. With the US populated by people from all over the world, surely the role of the regular American girl should include a variety of heritages? However, she pointed out how the business side of acting takes precedence over our personal wishes: “Ultimately, we as actors are products in this business. Agents want to see that we are marketable. Sell-able. That the masses will want more of us. Branding is a very important part of the process. How you project your image to the world can either make or break your career.”

Even though the US market might be more bold and interesting for ethnic or minority actors than the UK, it is still down to us what we make of our cultural heritage. Our heritage haunts us everywhere we go, meaning some roles are more difficult or even impossible to get unless we are a big-name actor. As Dhia said, we need to know how to brand ourselves and make the most of our heritage. Because it does have one advantage – it helps us stand out from the crown. We fall into a smaller pool of actors, therefore there is less  competition – although this also means fewer jobs.

What could minority and ethnic actors do to make the mainstream programmes create truthful and strong characters we’d play, and in return teach something real to the audience? We perhaps aren’t changing the world, but when we tell stories we represent something, and we should try to represent the truth not a delusion that is meant to make money.

I’d like to encourage my fellow minority and ethnic actors to share their experiences in the comments below or give me a shout on Twitter @LenkaSilhanova with your thoughts.

Image credit: Kate C.

Lenka Silhanova

Lenka is an actor and blogger currently working in the Czech Republic and UK, who has also experienced the US market. She's sharing what she's learned and experienced with AYT readers. Lenka also has a personal blog called Acting Abroad and is helping potential drama school students on the IDSA blog.