Casting directors discuss diversity at ATX TV Fest

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Casting directors Tracy Lilienfield, left, Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd and Jen Euston. PHOTO: JESSICA MIMS
Casting directors Tracy Lilienfield, left, Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd and Jen Euston. PHOTO: JESSICA MIMS

Casting directors Tracy Lilienfield, left, Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd and Jen Euston. PHOTO: JESSICA MIMS

You probably want to stay on Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd’s good side.

The casting director of “Moesha” and “Being Mary Jane” joined fellow casting directors Tracy Lilienfield (“Grace & Frankie,” “Dream On”), Jen Euston (“Girls,” “Orange is the New Black”) and Alyssa Weisberg (“Lost,” “Workaholics”) in a lively, alternately serious and funny discussion of television casting Friday during the ATX Television Festival.

“I don’t see myself in the future!” African-American Byrd said late in the discussion, making a point about the lack of racial diversity in science fiction programming and pointing out that casting directors are often hamstrung by the characters that writers create.

“I think somebody’s trying to tell me something. I’m just thinking, where are the black people? Obviously there are no black people in the future. Okay, who created that? There’s gonna be a black woman in your future in the parking lot!”

The line drew huge laughs from the (mostly white) crowd.

Byrd basically told the crowd (which surely included some aspiring television writers) that it you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

“We’ve become a culture of complainers instead of appreciators or changers,” she said, referring to people who complain about lack of diversity in television. “It’s easier to complain. But start creating some stuff; start writing some stuff. Create the change you want to see and write in those characters.”

Panelists also pointed out that diversity doesn’t just pertain to race.

“Change is slow,” said Lilienfield. “(But) we have a responsibility, because we are the next thing after it’s on the page. We have a big chance to keep saying, ‘what about women? What if it was African-American? What if the guy was gay?’. And we have to. Sometimes it feels a little forced, I think, but I think everything that is a seismic change is a little forced at first and then it becomes the norm and it becomes easier.” Lilienfield cast the groundbreaking network sitcom, “Will & Grace.”

The point drew sustained applause from the crowd.

Panelists agreed that diversity is much more common on cable shows (especially pay cable) because the heads of those networks trust creators more and let them push boundaries beyond the rigid confines of broadcast television, whose honchos routinely give casting mandates. And the current boom in diversity is partly due to the fact that the exploding number of outlets for video programming has created a seemingly endless need for fresh and original content. Finally, in television, success breeds imitation.

The casting directors also touched on the challenges of the career, with all but one of them confessing that they get little sleep and have no lives outside of the job.

“Trying to date is very challenging,” Byrd revealed, speaking for the female-dominated occupation. “You can’t go to the movies; I can’t even watch TV with a man. You don’t even understand. I’m like, ‘stop! Stop that commercial! Run it back. Oh, she’s really good!’”


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