Was the casting director promoting a sexist and racist business model? Or just finding roles for underserved actresses? 2,149 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Look, I’m not blind. Or stupid. Even back then, I knew there were a few black women who slipped past the gates to become legitimate stars, including Academy Award winner Halle Berry. (I admire her so much that I’ve granted my husband blanket permission to sleep with her if she ever happens to ask him. I can bed Mahershala Ali.) Now it’s even better, with blazing talents like Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita N’yongo walking away with Oscar statuettes.
No, my role in the industry was not to build the careers of those special few but to champion the right for my SBGs to make a decent living off supporting parts in substandard material, just like any white actor of middling talent in Hollywood. Time’s up on waiting for our right to cash in on being mediocre, just like everybody else.
Time to get sassy! My assistant Cherie and I began watching the video.
The actress’s smile disappeared instantly. The earrings stopped moving and hung immobile for one long alarming moment. Then she spoke in a voice devoid of any dialect. I would never have represented this blandness.
“Hello, Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. I submitted this video not in hopes of signing with your agency, but to tell you in a very digital way that I am one of a new coalition of Hollywood actors of color who object to your very existence in 2018. Time’s up on limiting your clientele to women — even worse, specifically black women — and reinforcing negative stereotypes by sending them out for this very limited segment of available roles.
“We’re calling you out on your sexist and racist business model and demanding that you cease and desist immediately.“
Cherie and I looked at each other in shock as the video continued.
“We have contacted the Casting Society Of America to look into your practices, which we are pretty sure violate some sort of customary procedure or rules. You may expect one official to visit your business in the very near future to examine your policies and procedures.
“For the record, our coalition of Hollywood actors of color is also open to Hollywood actors of non-color, although so far we have no members in this category. Thank you for your time.”
The screen image faded.
Cherie, who is also an aspiring actress, immediately seized the drama of the moment. “This can’t be happening,” she shrieked. “Everyone loves us. Our clients are always so grateful when we find them work that they send us baskets of branded T-shirts, blue lipsticks and energy bars. And they even made a documentary about us that everybody thinks might be nominated for an Academy Award!”
I shook my head. “That’s RBG, Cherie. Not SBG. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not Sassy Black Girlfriend. Google her, sweetheart.” Despite our immediate emergency, I wanted Cherie to learn that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one sassy white girlfriend herself in her heyday.
Cherie began to cry huge drippy tears, the way twentysomethings do when someone corrects them without adding gently that it’s OK to be wrong. “Isabel, what are we going to do now?” Before I had a chance to answer, she added: “Never mind, I’m quitting now before I get into trouble. I have one more auto deposit coming for this month, right?”
Cherie fled the office, still sobbing, while also managing to shoot her own exit with her iPhone. She was gone. Therefore I had no assistant available and took the call myself when the phone rang about 20 minutes later. I was informed that a representative from the Casting Society Of America wanted an appointment to have a look around. Kind of like a restaurant inspector checking for vermin under the sushi bar.
I saw no point in trying to delay the inevitable. “Sure. I have nothing to hide. When?”
“How about now? I’m in the neighborhood to pick up my kids from day care and take them to their after day care play program.”
“Of course. There are a few parking spaces in the back.”
Actually, it took him a full hour to make it to Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. and a solid half hour after that to mansplain why it had taken so long. Because despite my twenty-plus years in Los Angeles he could not fathom that I had any personal knowledge of the traffic situation on Cahuenga on a weekday at 4 p.m.
The representative fished about in his seemingly bottomless suit jacket and pulled out a sheet of paper that listed all the grievances against my profitable agency. I donned my readers. His team had done their research. Apparently Hollywood may describe a role as a sassy black girlfriend, but cannot specifically ask for someone who is black, or even a girlfriend, to play the part. Same with a role that called for a person with a handicap. No one can limit auditions to people with disabilities even if the goal is to increase opportunity for disabled actors by openly saving the few existing roles tailored to their reality. As long as actors think they can play disabled, they cannot be excluded from trying to get the role. Therefore I, as proprietor of a casting agency, was not allowed to limit my practice to individuals who might realistically be cast as an SBG or in any way try to reserve those roles for black women. I had to send out any and all actors who believed they could play the part as defined by the script.
Such irony in a world where a casting director representing a minority actor usually sends that person out on endless auditions for non-specific roles for which they are perfectly qualified, but the client never seems to actually land the role.
I tried to explain this to the investigator but he ignored it, determined to complete his assignment before the after day care play program came to a close. “We’re not going to shut you down. But our organization needs to see a few immediate changes lest we start calling in union representatives to deal with this. First, we have to deal with your sign outside. You need to remove the word ‘Black’ and the word ‘Girlfriend’ before anyone else posts a photo on Instagram.”
I gasped. That was a very expensive sign, made by the top company in Los Angeles County.
“But I am not saying you have to be anything in particular for me to sign you,” I coaxed. “You can be anyone who can realistically portray a sassy black girlfriend. Look, I’m not the one who keeps asking for a stereotype, Hollywood does. I’m just filling a need.”
The rep shook his head. “I’m sorry, you must remove the words ‘Black’ and ‘Girlfriend’ from your sign as well as from your company name. And I would recommend that you do so in that order.”
He actually had the nerve to raise his index finger and swivel his neck at me over this rule.
“You mean I can only keep ‘Sassy’?” I asked in a voice that sounded much smaller than I had intended.
“Of course not. You also can keep ‘Agency’ if you want. I’ll check but I think it’s gender neutral. ‘Inc.’ too. But personally I think plain ‘Sassy’ sounds better,” he opined.
“Well, nobody cares what you personally think,” I snapped. “‘Sassy’ sounds like a company that makes leak-proof adult protection for mature women in plus-size only.” He had the nerve to giggle before he returned to the militant scowl he wore on his way in.
I stared him down for as long as I could keep my eyes open, but finally surrendered. Like it or not, I was going to have to be ‘Sassy’. There was no way I was going to have Select Signs start over at 2018 prices, especially since no one could predict how long I would even be able to survive in the cutthroat world of Hollywood casting without my own carefully nurtured niche.
“You win,” I said after a long pause. “Tell your people we’ll be plain old Sassy Agency Inc. by next Tuesday. I’ll have Select Signs remove the words and we’ll put a couple of palm fronds or an avocado tree or something in the gap. Now, please just get out of here.”
“Bye,” he said, suddenly cheerful now that his work here was done. “Did I tell you that I love your glasses? Also, here’s my card. I’m starting a brand new agency down the street!” One thing I knew for sure: I would not be following the launch on Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.
I was about two months into the relaunch as Sassy Agency, and I hated to admit it but things seemed to be going along. Without my signature brand, I wasn’t having much luck casting my existing SBG clients. But I had made some inroads casting mediocre Caucasian actors in mediocre Caucasian roles, including one Olympic track star who was now portraying a disabled Desert Storm veteran in a wheelchair for a Lifetime movie. My guess is he won the role over actors who actually use wheelchairs because that fast dude got there first.
My husband, for one, was relieved that things were beginning to click because he had become exhausted by my daily pre-bedtime rants about the dubious future of Sassy. He grasped the financial ramifications, but I don’t think he really understood my deep personal frustration over no longer being able to fulfill my heartfelt mission to deliver supporting roles to my hungry SBGs, even for scale.
“Just relax and get some rest. Think about Mahershala,” he would suggest unhelpfully before rolling over and falling asleep, with cats Bitcoin and Blockchain snoring away at the foot of the California King.
I had resigned myself to going through the motions of client representation when, one June gloom morning, my phone rang. The landline, not the cell.
“So listen,” said a husky female voice with a flat Midwestern accent. “This company used to be the Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency, right?”
I paused. “Who’s asking?”
“Never mind my name. It’s just that I have a new project that could work for one of the networks. It’s based on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show following this reboot trend that seems to be working unless you are Roseanne. But with new actors, since Mary and most of the original gang are, well, dead. I thought about going period 1970s, but now I’m planning to set it in the present and cast it with younger actors. And here’s my contemporary twist: I don’t want Mary’s best friend Rhoda to be Jewish in 2020. I think she should be…”
I drew in a sharp breath. “Sassy?”
“Yeah,” the voice replied.
“Black,” she said as I slowly exhaled. “Look, I’ve got no time and a limited budget. I can’t spend days auditioning every actor in SAG to make some activists happy when I know exactly what I want.”
Her voice dropped still lower. “Listen, you were the best. Everyone still says so when they know nobody’s listening. Believe me, there are still a lot of us who need you. Can you hook me up?”
I did my best to keep the bubbling excitement out of my voice. “Yes, I think I can. But we need to be discreet. There are phone cams everywhere. Let’s talk about this in person, somewhere no one will find us. The Barista Blast on Cahuenga just south of my office.”
“The one where a lot of transwomen hang out late at night?”
“Better than that: drag queens,” I replied. “Trust me, with those luscious ladies dressed up and out in full force, nobody’s going to be looking at us over their ice blendeds. Be there at midnight. Don’t text.”
“Midnight. No texts. I’ll find you.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief, maybe mixed with a little guilt but so what, as I put down the phone. Everything was going to be all right, in a way that my husband Rob would never fully understand.
No matter what the sign on the office said, the Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. was back in business.