The Straight Outta Compton casting call is the reality of the film industry


Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about legendary super rap group N.W.A, hasn't had an easy production ride and its recent casting controversy certainly isn't helping.

Sande Alessi Casting agency, who have provided extras for Argo, The Lone Ranger and The Social Network, put out a call on Facebook for featured extras for the film which read:

A GIRLS: These are the hottest of the hottest. Models. MUST have real hair - no extensions, very classy looking, great bodies. You can be black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: A GIRLS 
 B GIRLS: These are fine girls, long natural hair, really nice bodies. Small waists, nice hips. You should be light-skinned. Beyonce is a prototype here. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: B GIRLS   
C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: C GIRLS   
D GIRLS: These are African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone. Character types. Age 18-30. Please email a current color photo, your name, Union status, height/weight, age, city in which you live and phone number to: SandeAlessiCasting@gmail.com subject line should read: D GIRLS
Since its posting this week (and further deletion), the advertisement has gone viral. Whether you think it's racist or not, this is another example of the shaming and stereotypical ideas of young black women in film. This is a bigger issue than one LA agency, though; it's the inside operations of casting that we don't see or hear about.

I worked in an extras agency for just under a year. The industry is small. There are only a few key supporting artist agencies working in the UK who are able to get regular jobs and clients. It's a continuous fight to try and get the biggest film, or at least the ones paying better rates.

When you're in a struggling industry like casting, it is difficult not to say yes to the client. They can drop you at any time they please. If a client has booked an agency that hasn't delivered on looks or have caused problems for a production (and that can include extras not turning up/causing beef on set), they'll find someone else. If they do a good job and form a tight relationship with the 2nd AD, they may work on that AD's next project.


If the casting industry in America is anything like it is in the UK, in order to keep booking and have work coming in, agencies have to jump through hoop after hoop and any moral conflictions become blurred. That's not to say that Sande Alessi Casting aren't at fault and shouldn't be taking responsibility for going along with the industry's internal attitudes.

In their public apology, they called their posting an "innocent mistake." There's no such thing as an innocent mistake in a casting like this. Their call is what is regularly posted on every major and small extras agency and the description of the featured extras they were looking for would have come directly from the client. Because they're not regular background artists, either, featured parts will be more descriptive. Agencies won't usually post such specific criteria online, which is probably why this extra advert has been so widely commented on. If they did, there would be a daily backlash against every agency around.

Stereotypes and ignorance are the two foundations of background casting. Anyone from an Asian background will all look the same to clients. If they need a Japanese man, Chinese and Korean men will come up in a search. There is absolutely no difference to a client, as long as the look is approved by the director. Black people will be assigned to 'hood/ghetto' roles, women who are blonde with big boobs will be the 'whores' (this was a word thrown around regularly when looking for 'sexy' girls), and when talking about non-white people, they'd be labelled as 'the ethnics'.

The film industry doesn't survive off of how uncomfortable you feel, or how offensive something will come across. This is one of the many reasons why I felt that working in film wasn't for me. Every negative thing that you've heard about the industry is true, sometimes worse.


I was on the phone to an extra when I overheard a conversation with two of my colleagues. We were looking for attractive women and we'd created a book of faces to send off to the production, which I'd assisted with. One of my colleagues, who hadn't worked on the job, scrolled through the women we'd cast, not happy. "Would you fuck these women?", he asked my co-worker.  It wasn't a rhetorical question. He answered no. "We're looking for women you'd want to fuck, not women like this. Do it again."

There is some truth in what the representative of Sande Alessi Casting said about the posting. Pigeonholing and categorisation in casting is an industry norm. The letters assigned in this case (A, B, C, D) probably isn't based on anything racial, they were most likely used to group up the different type of women they were looking for. In the agency I worked for, instead of letters, we used numbers. Clients want various looks, so the agency has to separate those background extras into other categories to differentiate between each look. These faces will then be sent off to the production and if booked, would be assigned those lettered roles.

That doesn't excuse this casting. The assumption that bigger women with a darker skin tone must be poor is an incredibly ignorant mindset, but this is just an idea projected through a medium which suffers enormously from misrepresentation. Casting is part of it. 

Should productions speak about extras in the way they have been for decades? No, of course not. Should extra agencies sit back and let their clients talk about extras in the way they do and go along with it? Fuck no. This generation-old lingo that is used to describe people in casting (and goes into acting agencies, too) isn't going to change until the industry starts reevaluating their own attitudes, especially towards other races.

This, at the moment, is the reality of the film industry and it is a sad one.

5 comments

  1. I read the casting call list this week! I was surprised. Like, they literally had no regrets with the way they were wording things. They went straight for body image, color and size. I really hope that the woman considering a role in this film take the time to make sure they're not going to be treated like 90's video girls between takes.

    "Every other city we go. Every other video. No matter where I go. I see the same hoe"...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I put "woman" rather than the correct "women"... The amount of times I make this mistake and not learn anything from it is saddening.

      Delete
    2. I think I was most surprised at the detail that went into it with, which doesn't usually happen with casting calls for background or featured extras. The D role and the way that was worded clearly got people angry, and for right reasons. It's just how extras are spoken about, and far worse, behind the scenes.

      And about the typo, I'm exactly the same.

      Delete
  2. This was a great read. It doesn't surprise me at all. I have a friend that did extras casting for films in Iceland, and she had some crazy stories like this too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Brittani, glad you liked the article! It'd be interesting to hear those stories, especially from a different part of the world as well and from an ex-extras perspective. I bet there are so many extras with wild, crazy stories, but contracts stop them from getting it out there.

      Delete

 

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