Marvel Studios has responded to Racebending.com and the Asian American community’s concerns about the casting of an Asian American actress to portray the character Nico Minoru in Runaways (2012).
A statement Racebending.com received on Thursday, August 26th read:
“Thank you for reaching out regarding your concerns over Marvel’s recent casting notice for THE RUNAWAYS. We appreciate your interest in our production and with Marvel Entertainment.
“To address your concern over casting for the role of Nico, as we do with all of our films, we intend to stay true to the legacy and story of the comic when casting these parts. Thus, our goal is to cast an Asian American actress as depicted in the comic series and the casting notice will be adjusted accordingly.
“We thank you again for your correspondence and the opportunity to clarify our process.”
On the public open casting call website for Runaways, smallfacescasting.com, the breakdown (revised on August 25th) now reads:
“Girl 1: Uniquely beautiful, nurturing but guarded
Female, Asian-American, must play 16-18
Must be at least 16 by January 2011
The submission deadline for audition tapes has also been pushed back to September 15th to allow Asian American actors time to prepare their monologues.
Nico as depicted by her designer, Adrian Alphona
The statement and change in the casting breakdown is the result of several phone calls and emails between Racebending.com staff and the Runaways production, Marvel Studios’ corporate communications, and Walt Disney Studios executives in the Multicultural Initiatives division. We had the support of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and other Asian American advocacy groups during this process.
Marvel was respectful and responsive to our calls and emails, and did not give us the “run-around.” We felt they were very open to feedback from the Asian American community. (This is the huge contrast from the way Paramount and the production of The Last Airbender treated concerns from the Asian American community in early 2009.) We are really relieved and excited to have this clear response from Marvel.
Why the Casting Language Mattered
Racebending.com was first alerted to a discrepancy in the casting breakdown for Runaways on August 5th. The breakdown for the comic’s Japanese American character did not mention that the character is Asian, or that Asian American actresses should audition. This was in stark contrast to the casting breakdown for the comic’s African American character, where the ethnicity was clearly indicated, giving African American actors unfamiliar with the comic greater access to the role.
The casting breakdown for Alex Wilder noted that the character is African American.
In Hollywood parlance, when ethnicity is not clearly stated in a breakdown, the default assumption that the character is intended to be white. Because nondescript listings are frequently used to cast white characters, a nondescript listing does not guarantee actors of color a fair chance. Casting calls interested in seeing actors of all ethnicities are usually more emphatic (ie: “submit any ethnicity,” “submit all ethnicities,” “all ethnicities welcome.”) [source]
The Hollywood view that a nondescript breakdown defaults to a white character is so entrenched that casting director/producer Rueben Cannon estimated in an interview that 85-95% of agents would not think to submit a black client for a role that does not explicitly say “black” or “African American” in the breakdown. [source]. When Racebending.com spoke with people working in the entertainment industry about the breakdown, they also confirmed that without the keywords “Asian” or “Asian American,” actors of Asian descent would face barriers in accessing the role. Including the keywords would mitigate systemic discriminatory factors prevalent in Hollywood.
Nico by Takeshi Miyazawa (left) and Jim Cheung (right)
“While this is a comic book character, the public has always seen this heroine as an Asian American,” Floyd Mori, National Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, said. “Staying true to the story as it is known is critical in helping the American public to understand that heroines are not always white, but that all ethnicities can and do play that role in real life. This is a giant step in the right direction.”
In our communications with Marvel, Racebending.com encouraged the production to change the casting breakdown to be more inclusive to Asian American actors, and stressed that the best person to portray an Asian American character would be an Asian American actor.
“I am sure that efforts Marvel and Small Faces make to ensure authenticity will pay off in a richer, more successful film,” Daniel M. Mayeda, Board Member of East West Players, said.
In addition to our work speaking with Marvel to encourage them to change the casting breakdown language, Racebending.com disseminated the existing breakdown language to over 30 Asian American theater troupes and performing arts organizations. We let them know that even though it is not stated clearly on the breakdown, the character was Asian American in the comic and that actors should audition. We also encouraged the Screen Actors Guild’s Affirmative Action and Diversity division to share the listings for the Alex and Nico characters with their actors. We will be contacting them with the updated breakdown, shortly.
While the significance of Marvel making a concerted effort to reach out to Asian actors through the wording of their casting breakdown is not something Racebending.com can replicate, we hoped that by spreading the word, we could ensure that Marvel will be able to find the best actor possible to represent this Asian American character.
“I want to thank Marvel for this quick response to the concerns of the Asian American community,” MANAA Vice President Lori Kido Lopez said. “We take this action as an indication that Marvel is dedicated to seeking out minority talent for this project, which is one of the most important steps toward diversifying our media landscape and providing more balanced representations of minorities. ”
We are thrilled that Marvel has changed the casting breakdown to align with their goal of casting an Asian American actress as Nico! They heard loud and clear that people of color want to be represented in their movies. We hope that more studios begin to understand, appreciate, and respect our desire to see more diversity in our entertainment!