The Good Eye: Allies in the Industry
Giving Austin actresses a seat at the table
A month ago, 15 Austin actresses of various racial backgrounds sat down to read through a screenplay by Jonny Mars and Joshua Weber. After the table read, local casting director Vicky Boone stood up and personally thanked Mars and Weber for naming all the female characters and not writing physical descriptions of them into the script.
The room exploded with laughter. As the women around the table began to talk, however, the laughter gave way to other emotions, even tears. The actresses, some of whom I've interviewed for this series ("Tales From the Beauty Box," Feb. 20; "Tales From the Quirky Box," Feb. 27; "Tales From the Minority Box," March 6; "Tales From the Aging Box," March 13), were used to commiserating over nameless roles, insulting character breakdowns, and demeaning stereotypes behind closed doors. Many of them had decided that making their own films was the only path to change ("Crossing the [180-Degree] Line," March 20). Now, not only had they been invited to the table to read roles that weren't muses, love interests, nagging moms, prostitutes, maids, nannies, nurses, naked murder victims, or hot drunk girls, but they'd been asked for feedback on the script. The pent-up frustrations came pouring out.
Mars was electrified. Having been inspired by Wendy Davis' 2013 filibuster to make a narrative film about reproductive rights, Mars knew the subject of the script was emotional for many women, but he hadn't anticipated the impact of simply inviting them to read something with so many female roles. "I go in to read all the time, as an actor," he said. "As soon as [Boone] said that, I thought, oh my God, yeah. On the breakdowns, the women don't necessarily have names – it's usually an adjective plus a number and some kind of description of their physical traits."
Boone herself clarified for me why bit parts for women often seem more demeaning than analogous roles for men, even though both are written to advance the plot. She said that as a rule, bit parts for men tend to be described in the script by what they do – bellhop, say, or clerk – rather than by their looks. "That just distills how the characters move the plot forward. The guy moves the plot forward by being a clerk – not by being hot."
Think of men's bit parts as verbs, not adjectives. Actors cast in "verb" roles might wind up being attractive or awkward, fat or thin, and their looks will have some discernible effect on the finished film. But their physical attributes are far less likely to be defined by the screenwriter, because their looks aren't their most important function for the plot. The same is true of nonwhite characters, who are often written so that the defining aspect of the character is race – or rather, whatever approximate race is conveyed to a white audience by the actor's appearance.
Having worked as a casting director in Austin for 10 years, as well as directing two short films herself, Boone starts her casting process with talent, not character descriptions. Still, when you're looking at a script with five female roles named "Girl," as Boone said she has, the limits to that approach become clear.
When asked, many men say they just don't know how to write for women. I asked Mars how he overcame that challenge. He said that for him, research was key. That was the idea behind the table read, where women gave nuanced feedback on the script based on their own experiences, including the way pregnancy feels, perspectives from different cultural groups, and general advice to have the characters externalize their feelings in dialogue. "You just need to have the confidence to fail, and to accept the fact that you don't know it all," Mars said. "And you need to be open to this idea that people are going to inform you as to how other people think and feel." This approach not only made the female voices feel more authentic, but opened his eyes to the fact that, as he put it, "They were all fucking amazing actresses."
It's worth noting, however, that it's not the only way. Popular experiments in gender flipping show that female roles don't necessarily have to be pH-balanced for a woman. As Weber, who confessed to being so new to the industry that Mars had to explain Boone's comment to him, wrote in an email, "Writing a female role to me is what you do when the character you are writing is female."
To be clear, Mars and Weber aren't telling women's stories out of a sense of chivalry, or even pure altruism. From an artistic standpoint, they feel it is necessary. Mars said, "We need these fresh opinions, we need these fresh faces. I'm tired of watching movies about pudgy white dudes figuring out what they want to do." A small handful of mainstream writer/directors, like Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, have climbed on board – no doubt influenced, as well they should be, by the lure of a vast, nearly untapped market.
Not enough, however. Most actresses I spoke to for this series did not want to call men out on the record, due to the perfectly reasonable fear of alienating the people in the best positions to give them jobs. But I'm not an actress, and I've made my own observations, especially when it comes to directors born and raised among Texas women. Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez: Check your scripts. What's the female-to-male ratio? How do the female characters move the plot forward? Is it by something they do, or by the way they look? Does the script specify their levels of hotness? Are all the female roles one-dimensional – or all but one? Do they require nudity? Are they stereotypes? Are they victims? Do they have their own hopes and dreams apart from the male protagonist? Or do they vanish when they leave the male protagonist's side? Y'all are better than that. Write a real, complex, multi-dimensional part for a real, complex, multi-dimensional woman. You say you wrote one? Great. Write another. Write them by the dozen. Make your Texas women proud.