What Authentic Casting Gets Right—And How One Agent Thinks It Can Get Better

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A casting director I’ve known for years just tore me a new one with a red-hot poker. Would you like to know why? I (accidentally) lied to her.

You see, this casting director was working on a film that specifically needed Native American actors. One of my clients told me she was part Navajo, so I used that tidbit to get her in for one of the leads. She did a good job, and they gave her a callback. 

Unfortunately, that’s when everything went sideways. It didn’t take long for the film’s Indigenous director to realize that the woman standing in front of him wasn’t the real deal. When he confronted her, my client explained she had taken an online ancestry test, and the results showed there was “a little” Native American blood running through her veins. The director explained that the tribal enrollment process uses genealogical evidence of kinship, not genetic ancestry test results. He told her in no uncertain terms that she shouldn’t go around telling people she’s Native American and that, unsurprisingly, she was not a fit for this particular role.

“One of my clients told me she was part Navajo, so I used that information to get her in…. That’s when everything went sideways.”

At that point, the casting director politely asked my client to leave. When the session was over, she called yours truly and gave it to me good. If you’re wondering if I dropped this actor, the answer is no. If I got rid of every client who exaggerated the truth to be considered for a role, I simply wouldn’t have any clients. 

Speaking of, you know who didn’t exaggerate about their backgrounds? The wonderful cast of Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs.” Those amazing actors are receiving a ton of well-deserved accolades for their performances, and the authenticity of their casting demonstrates that there’s a lot of untapped talent in the Native American community. (Even better, the writers and directors who work on “Reservation Dogs” are also Indigenous. How cool is that?)

Current casting practices lean heavily toward authenticity, and that’s not going to change. It’s the way it should be! An actor in his 30s cannot claim to be bisexual because he had one same-sex encounter in college that he didn’t enjoy. When casting directors say they want the real thing, they mean it.  

From the perspective of an agent, it’s not my place to challenge actors on how they identify. I mean, how would that even work? If a client tells me they’re nonbinary, I can’t ask for proof; I have to accept the statement as truth. As a result, I often find myself doing a dangerous dance when this sort of thing comes up during the pitching process. Does my client’s identity honestly fit the brief? Am I unintentionally lying? Am I getting an ulcer?

Agents are aggressive. We’ll do anything to get our clients auditions. We’ll lie about your age and where you live, but we can’t lie about who you are. Those deceptions are like the killers on “Law & Order”: They always get discovered. 

Now, here’s a gray area where the whole process gets a little wonky: I adore “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” It’s a wonderful, award-winning show with an outstanding cast. But Emmy winners Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub are not Jewish. This fact has ruffled some feathers over the years, to the point where I wonder: If they were casting that pilot today, would Amazon insist on hiring Jewish actors to portray the Maisel and Weissman families? 

What about Cubans playing Puerto Ricans, or Koreans playing Chinese people, or Brits playing…everyone? Representation and authenticity matter—but can someone please tell me how we can be better at defining where the line is?

This story originally appeared in the Jun. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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