Vancouver actors speak out about "unwritten rules" limiting diversity in Hallmark films

Jul 21 2020, 5:47 pm

Actors in Vancouver are speaking out against the lack of diversity in Hallmark films, calling it an “unwritten rule,” after the company released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter.

Hallmark is a major employer in Vancouver, with a number of “Movie of the Week” productions being the source of about 30-40% of the available work for actors in the city, said Vancouver-based actress Fanta Sesay and casting agent Yogi Omar.

Multiple actors are saying they are fed up with the “unwritten rule” that Hallmark does not cast interracial or LGBTQ couples.

The company has also previously pulled a commercial featuring a same-sex couple.

With the Black Lives Matter movement and the company’s public response, actors say they are finally empowered to speak out.

“They do not cast people of colour”

An actress in Vancouver, Sesay, who has acted here for over nine years, said Hallmark doesn’t have very many roles available for people of colour.

“In terms of Hallmark, that is a very open secret in the industry, that they do not cast people of colour, and if they do, it’s incredibly rare, or it’ll be like a best friend role,” said Sesay in an interview with Daily Hive.

“Very often they might put out what’s called a breakdown. So in a breakdown, it’ll say we’re looking for somebody who’s in their mid-20s, and they could even say African-American or African-Canadian, but in often cases they do change that after. They’ll do it just so it looks like they’re going after diversity, but when it actually comes to casting a role, production will switch it up and say, ‘Okay, no, actually we want to go a different direction.'”

Sesay, a Black woman, said she noticed a lot of her white friends were regularly getting auditions for Hallmark — sometimes up to three a week — but she was not finding the same opportunities for Hallmark projects herself.

“A couple of years ago, the president at the time had written an open letter where he stated that the reason why we don’t hire people of colour for our productions is there aren’t any where we film, as in there isn’t much diversity where we film in Vancouver, which is not true,” she added.

“There are a lot of actors of colour that are talented, but [Hallmark’s] image is very clean-cut, and there are a lot of [actors] that are clean-cut and can play that part, but I think we all know that what it really comes down to is that it’s the audience that they are marketing it to. They’re trying to just keep people of colour, LGBTQ people out of that equation, but they don’t want to admit that that’s what they’re doing.”

Sesay said that having people of colour in diverse roles is also important in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“When you have people of colour across all types of media, even in the case of Hallmark movies, you start to normalize that appearance, you start to normalize people of colour, and that is so important because that will start to change the negative portrayal that is in media and has been in media for so long,” said Sesay.

“We’ve grown up in Canada, and we’ve had this experience where we’ve grown up like everybody else, and we want the same things that everybody else does, but when it comes to being cast in TV and film, it’s people of colour being portrayed as criminals and slaves and all of that stuff. If you keep perpetuating that in this medium, then things aren’t going to change, things are going to continue the way they are.”

Hallmark’s “unwritten” rule

Christine Lee, a Vancouver actress who was cast as a supporting lead in a Hallmark film, says that as an Asian woman, she soon learned she was an exception to Hallmark’s unwritten rule.

“The director once made a passing comment saying, ‘At least we have a splash of colour in our cast this time,’ and I realized that the splash of colour was me. I realized, oh yeah, there are a lot of white people on the set,” Lee told Daily Hive.

“I got auditions, a lot of them for Hallmark, and a lot of them were never for the lead role, most of them were for a supporting role in service of the leading character, as a confidant or a secretary, because it’s so widely known among actors [that] they strictly just hire white actors from LA to play big roles.”

Lee said she was once a reader for Hallmark auditions in Vancouver, meaning she was reading part of the script for other actors who were auditioning.

She recounts a particular experience, where they were casting for a boss, meant to be played by a male, and the boss’s wife, meant to be played by a female.

“There was this one Asian lady who stood out to me the most, because she really knocked it out the park. I remember reading with her and thinking, ‘Wow, she’s perfect for this role,'” said Lee.

“After they finished auditioning all the ‘boss’s wife’ characters, they were going to audition male actors who were going to play the boss. There was one Asian male actor, and it must’ve been his off day, he just didn’t really necessarily nail the take, and in auditions like this, you usually get like two tries and then casting will have to move on, but this particular time the casting director was like, ‘Let’s try another take,’ and this casting director really tried to give this Asian male actor multiple takes so that he can really nail his stuff, but unfortunately he just never got it.”

Lee said afterwards, she asked the casting director why she gave the man so many chances to get it right.

“She said, ‘Well yeah, because the Asian lady actor who auditioned for the boss’s wife really knocked it out of the park, but Hallmark doesn’t do interracial couples, so unless the Asian male actor knocked it out of the park as well, she’s not going to get the role,'” she added.

“None of this is publicly mandated. The company will never, they don’t have a public policy, they don’t have a written rule as to ‘we don’t do interracial couples,’ but because it’s so widely known, the casting director knew Hallmark will not allow this Asian lady to be partnered up with someone whose of another race, and in her own realm she was trying to push for diversity, but it was sad she has to do that in the first place.”

Lee said the incident took place in 2018.

“You don’t want to cause a problem”

Yogi Omar, Co-Owner and Agency Director at InspirationAll Talent and Modelling Agency, said that as a casting agent for over nine years, he was told from the beginning of his career that Hallmark does not hire interracial couples.

“They will say they don’t have a policy against interracial couples or queer couples, and they may not have a policy, an actual written policy, but the visual is very clear if you look at their programming if you look at their social media. You can’t say Black Lives Matter when [in] your last 300 posts there are only three Black people featured in those posts,” said Omar.

“How dare you make a post about Black Lives Matter when your programming does not reflect that whatsoever?”

Another Vancouver actress, Maddy Kelly, said that although Hallmark brings in a lot of work, their casts are rarely diverse.

Hallmark is definitely one of the biggest employers across the board in the film scene here I would say, just because they do so many projects and almost all cast with locals, except they’ll bring in some of the leads from LA sometimes,” she said.

“I was hoping they would get called out properly especially during this movement, and it does seem like it’s been happening. But even if you just look at the posters for all the movies [they] produced last year, it’s just wall-to-wall white people.”

Kelly, a biracial woman, said she had heard from friends in the industry about the “unwritten rule” regarding interracial and LGBTQ couples and was hoping to see Hallmark take accountability and make changes during the Black Lives Matter movement but was disappointed to see they did not beyond their initial statement.

“It’s not just Hallmark, obviously. I’ve heard before that I was too white to be the best friend, and too brown to be the lead of another similar TV movie,” she added.

“It just makes me feel like I’m playing a different game than other people in the industry, and it’s really hard to gauge my successes or my failings against that. I’m just hoping for it to not be a Vancouver film secret and I’m hoping for it to be a bigger thing in Hollywood that this systemic racism is happening.”

Actress Chantele Francis says she too experienced similar things with Hallmark in Vancouver and eventually left after acting in the city for a few years.

“I did work quite a bit, but a lot of the roles were to fill in the colour. It wasn’t as if I was ever getting auditions for any lead roles or anything that was a really significant role. I’d always call it the ‘mixed bag’ in the auditions. For the role of nurse, it would be one Black girl which would be me, maybe a Latina, someone maybe Asian, and then there would usually be a redhead — redhead was considered to be ‘diversity’ mixed bag for this role to fill in the colour,” said Francis.

“I was in Vancouver for like four years, and I had a large principal part on pretty much every show that was filming there, but I never booked anything for Hallmark.”

Francis said that she never saw Hallmark deliberately seeking Black leads but instead using people of colour as background actors with smaller parts.

“It was never considered to have a Black woman as a role. It was like, ‘Oh, we need to fill in a quota so it doesn’t look like we are not being inclusive.’ Maybe there will be one audition for one person of colour out of the whole episode,” she added.

“And then if you audition for something, you go and you wait to see who’s actually cast in that role, and in general, a lot of times maybe there was a cool diverse role that you audition for, and when it comes to casting, the actual casting will be a white person from the States.”

Francis says she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up before the Black Lives Matter movement, because she didn’t want her ability to find work to be compromised.

“As a person of colour, that’s kind of what you do for your entire life, is make it easier to work within the system, make it easier to be hireable. You don’t want to cause a problem, you don’t want to be the angry Black woman,” she said.

Hallmark says it’s committed to “diverse relationships”

Omar says that even as a casting agent who has tried to send diverse people in for auditions, he has not seen it translated on screen, and that change is long overdue.

“I’ve provided a lot of their extras, a lot of their actors, so I’ve had people in their productions, but I think at this point, the people of colour have said enough. We are the ones who are vulnerable, [and] I think at the moment is the time for executive producers, and their studio owners, and production companies who are mostly white, to speak out. This is the time where we need our white allies,” said Omar.

“If you said Black Lives Matter, if you really care about equality, then do something about it, because at the moment, without the people that are higher up in the industry who are mostly white, if they don’t speak out about it now, no change is going to happen. This is going to be another new cycle.”

Hallmark’s VP of Network Program Publicity responded to Daily Hive’s request for comment on the lack of diversity in Hallmark films and the “unwritten rule,” by saying that they want to “strengthen diverse relationships.”

“We are committed to strengthening and establishing diverse and inclusive relationships with creative talent in those communities including writers, producers, directors and actors,” said George Zaralidis in a statement to Daily Hive.

“This is a key priority and we recognize that creating a diverse mix of content, characters, and narratives is imperative in creating a Hallmark experience where everyone feels welcome.”

Hallmark announced 18 of 40 holiday movies for 2020 this month, and Zaralidis said there will be more announcements “in the coming months.”

“Diversity and inclusion is a top priority for us and we look forward to making some exciting programming announcements in the coming months, including announcements about projects featuring LGBTQ storylines, characters, and actors,” he added.

“We are committed to creating a Hallmark experience where everyone feels welcome.”

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