Famous Cast Words

S1 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Aneesh Sheth

Hosted by actor and writer Lynne Marie Rosenberg (HBO's "High Maintenance"), in “Famous Cast Words” stars from stage and screen discuss representation and inclusion issues facing the entertainment industry. Join Aneesh Sheth (“Jessica Jones”) as she talks about her acting career.

AIRED: February 26, 2020 | 0:15:35
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TRANSCRIPT

"Think Mindy Kaling,

think a bitchy Mindy Kaling, Mindy Kaling type,

Mindy Kaling-like presence,

kind of Mindy Kaling."

This hits home.

♪♪

Hi. Welcome to "Famous Cast Words."

I'm Lynne Marie Rosenberg.

I am here today at the home of activist, writer, actor,

singer, producer Aneesh Sheth.

And this is her boss, Ella.

You might know Aneesh as Gillian

on the most recent season of "Jessica Jones."

You might not know her

from a series of popular software-company commercials

that aired only in Washington,

one of which was directed by a man who broke my heart.

And that is how small the entertainment industry is.

-Yes, it is. -Hi, Aneesh.

Hi, Lynne.

This is truly probably the best day of my life.

I'm sitting with you with a dog,

and then people are filming me.

It doesn't get any better.

No, it doesn't get any better than that.

-No, it doesn't get any better. -Does it?

So "Jessica Jones" recently dropped,

on which you play Gillian, Jessica's assistant, right?

Personal assistant, basically. Yes.

Can you tell me a little bit about Gillian,

both in the season

and in the Marvel Universe in general?

I believe Gillian is new to the Marvel Universe.

Okay.

She was not previously in the comics or anything.

She's very fashionable.

She's wearing couture the entire season,

which was a joy for me.

She's really smart, and she's a really tough chick.

She didn't take any BS from anyone..

Yeah. Something I particularly like about Gillian,

and I think we'll talk a fair amount about this today,

is what is not focused on

is the fact that she is transgender.

-Yeah, it's great. -It's really amazing.

And you realize, I think, there's been so much

wonderful, positive press about your character --

about your performance, but particularly about

the character's presentation in the show. Yeah.

And you realize how little we get to see

transgender human beings just being human beings...

Just being, yeah. ...not in regards to their story.

I'm lucky that a lot of my career

has built on non-roles that were specifically trans,

but this was the first time that I was in a capacity

where I could develop a character

where it wasn't just, like, somebody

who was a guest spot on an episode.

You know, there was, like, an arc

that was happening through an entire season.

And so as the season started going on,

I started noticing that there was no story

involving her identity,

that she was just simply there as this assistant.

She was bad ass. Oh, can I say that?

-Yeah. -Okay.

You know, and that she was really tough

and, you know, and she just existed.

And as an actor, it was really amazing

to be able to go to work every day

and not have to add educating people

on top of my job description.

I could just go in as every other actor

and be an actor and focus on my craft

and focus on my storytelling.

"Think Mindy Kaling,

So, in addition to representing the transgender community,

you get to represent the South Asian community as well. I do.

And something we have talked about

is the discussion and casting of accents. Yes.

What have you dealt with

in terms of expectations of accents and...?

Well, at this point in my career,

I don't do anything that has an accent.

If anything comes in, that's like,

"Oh, it requires an accent," I'm like, "Well, first of all,

there's other actresses who have a much more authentic accent."

If the role requires the person to have an accent,

if the role doesn't require someone to have an accent

and the accent is there for a joke,

I clearly am not going to be a part of that.

But, like, kind of tying into what I said earlier

about the kind of roles that I've been blessed

to play in this business

have not been written for trans folks,

a lot of the roles that I've also played have not been

specifically written for South Asian folks as well.

So being able to then also bring my identity into those roles

where it wasn't specifically written in

makes me feel really proud about my identity.

-Yeah. -Yeah.

And specifically with Gillian, too --

she was not supposed to be South Asian.

And she is because I am. Yeah. Yeah.

I looked back through a few months worth of casting

that is out in the world. Mm-hmm.

And, generally, the only times the words

"South Asian" or "Indian" appear for women

is when they are lumped in with other ethnicities. Yep.

There's very little written explicitly

for South Asian characters. Yeah.

Now, on the one hand, I do think it's wonderful

that you have done parts that, like,

you being you allows representation to occur. Right.

On the other hand, it was very educational

to really see starkly... Yeah.

...how rare it is

that these roles are being written for women.

Absolutely. This community is so small, right?

So I know so many Indian actresses who --

we all show up at the same auditions

because those roles are so few and far between.

And sometimes they're not even good.

You know, they're just like,

"We made this character South Asian,"

and there's, like, no thought put into

why this character is this specific race

or, you know, why their culture

is important to their character.

It's just usually because we're trying to be more inclusive,

which is a disservice to everybody around.

Right? It's a disservice to the actresses

who come in for the role 'cause it's like,

that's the kind of stuff we have to play.

And then it's also a disservice to the creators

who aren't creating authentic characters, you know,

and then it's a disservice to the audience

who's really looking for that type of representation.

♪♪

You mentioned everyone you know

showing up for the same auditions. Yeah.

I wonder if you could talk that this happens

in some transgender casting,

where people will show up for the same roles.

Mm-hmm. But you have trans men,

you have gender-nonconforming individuals,

you have trans women. Yeah.

That the industry sometimes seems to think

that transgender is this massive umbrella.

Yes. Yeah. What has your experience been with that?

You know, it's the same of, like, I'm -- you know,

"I'm casting character A, B, C, and D

and they all just need to be of a certain age."

You know? That's one thing.

But then there's also the problematic side of it

where people do where, like, they say,

"I'm looking for transgender people,"

and they'll cast a wide net

because they think that being trans is a type.

And you know, within my own community,

I see my friends going to these auditions,

and, like, neither of us are this type.

But we're still here, you know.

We know the girl or the guy

or the non-binary person who is totally right for this.

But somehow we all ended up here

because they think that trans is just

this "type" to be fulfilled.

-Right. -Yeah.

"Think Mindy Kaling,

So, in addition to being an actor and a singer,

you also have a social-work degree. I do.

So you were in the industry... Mm-hmm.

...and then you left to pursue a social-work degree,

and you worked for The Trevor Project. That's right.

I wonder if you could tell us about how you wind up

deciding to leave in that time of your life

and then how it informed back... Yeah.

...on your time in the industry.

So, I came off of the national tour of "Bombay Dreams,"

and I was kind of in this place

where I did play a trans character in the show,

and it definitely got into my head

about my own gender identity.

And for a long time, people had been like,

"Are you sure?"

'Cause I'd presented very femme

for many, many years, people were saying,

"You sure you don't want to be a woman?

Are you sure you don't want to be a woman?"

And the thing that I kept saying was, like,

"No, because of my career." Right? Oh.

And as my self-expression grew

and my kind of self-exploration grew,

I realized how little, how less room the industry

was making for someone like me,

as so much so that I had an agent who was like,

"I can't find you work as a gay South Asian male.

How am I gonna find you work as a trans South Asian female?"

So, after that, I obviously left the agency,

and I kind of did some exploring with my life.

I said, "Well, what do I do?" Someone said,

"Well, why don't you look for a place to volunteer?"

And The Trevor Project was opening

their New York call center.

So I applied to be a counselor, and so that's how I started.

And I was a counselor for a couple months there,

and then there was a position opening

within the program department.

So I became the program intern

and I was there for about two and a half years.

By the time I left, I was associate manager

of the call center, and it was during that time

I had felt such a passion for helping other people.

And I saw how little room there was for a trans person

in the -- in show business, that I thought,

"Let me pursue something else.

It's time for me to move on

and pursue a different career path,"

not knowing that in a few years' time

the industry would open its arms up to trans representation.

Prior to me being a social worker,

in the entertainment industry,

I felt like I had no confidence

in speaking up for myself or anything else

that was kind of happening in the industry.

I just let things happen, and I wasn't forthcoming about

what I wanted out of my career

and what kind of opportunities I really wanted to be seen for.

I was just kind of grateful to be existing.

And then as a social worker, you really learn

not to only advocate for your own needs

as a social worker within the system,

but as somebody who has to advocate for somebody else.

♪♪

Aneesh, over the course of your career,

I imagine you have auditioned for roles

defined as transgender, defined as South Asian.

So I thought we would look at some casting language

for each of those demographics. Okay.

As a reminder, these come from breakdowns,

which are little bits of text character descriptions

that help the casting world find who they're looking for.

As far as transgender female characters are concerned,

there seems to be one area of employment

for which writers would like to hire you.

Uh-huh? Sex worker. Yeah.

Yep. Sex worker. Prostitute. Sex worker.

Though some might be confused about

what they're actually looking for.

"Transgender call-girl types,

male." Mm-hmm.

Ooh. Ooh. [ Laughs ]

The job does come with perks, though,

mostly a lot of outdoor time.

"The streets are her life.

Worked several blocks for the past four years.

Selling herself on Sunset Boulevard

has toughened her up beyond her years."

You know, I want to say that I'm surprised

and I'm shocked,

but I'm actually not because you know --

yes, you know -- how many times you see this.

-Yes. -Oh, my goodness.

And, of course, sex work is a thing that you could do. Yeah.

But when you're -- constantly the only role

that seems to be popping up is for that...

Yes, and you know that when these characters --

these sex-work characters -- are put in these scripts,

they're not telling a nuanced story

that's going to really bring empathy,

to that community because we need to

because there's such a stigma around it.

These are the topical,

"We need to be sensationalistic..."

Okay. I'm gonna -- Well, and half the time they die.

And then yes!

But not only transgender roles

are singularly focused on your sexual prowess.

Apparently, as a South Asian woman,

you'll be just as in demand for a certain expertise.

"Uses ancient religious rituals to rise to the top

of the high-end-escort business."

-I mean, it is... -Oh.

-...it's high-end. -Wow. This is --

I see intersectionality's happening here.

So progressive.

Though you might be needed for additional skill sets as well.

"A beautiful, hypnotic snake charmer"?

Obviously. Obviously.

Obviously, I do that on my Saturday mornings.

[ Laughs ] Just Ella, a snake...

-Oh, yeah. -...and a flute.

And a flute.

But if you wanted to play anything else,

I'm afraid you only have one idiom to work toward.

"Think Mindy Kaling,

think a bitchy Mindy Kaling, Mindy Kaling type,

Mindy Kaling-like presence,

kind of Mindy Kaling."

This hits home.

Do you know how many times people -- ugh.

I do, because this is what pops up... Wow.

...over and over and over again.

It's like there's only one person. There's one type.

You could either be Padma Lakshmi or Mindy Kaling.

-Yep. -And there's nothing in between.

Nope. There's nothing in between.

You go to India, and that's all you see --

a bunch of Padma Lakshmis and Mindy Kalings.

But in general,

you can't really count on playing yourself at all.

"Needs to be able to play South Asian,

but open to all ethnicities."

Ouch! That one hurts.

I know. It's like, "How?!

How do you play South Asian

if you're not South Asian?" Right.

I did "Bombay Dreams." Do I need to tell you?

The question for the ages. Yeah.

And lastly, just for fun... Mm-hmm.

...since your character name on "Jessica Jones" is Gillian... Yeah.

...I thought I'd go looking for what the casting world

has to say about other characters named Gillian,

spelled the same way, with a "G." Okay.

And just to make you feel really good,

this is what I came up with.

"Gillian is severely lonely and hunched with depression."

Wow. Read me. Read me, Lynne.

[ Laughing ]

I'm sorry.

It's awful. But it was so funny. Oh, man.

And this is actually the only character

I found spelled that way.

Everything else was, like, Jillian with a "J." Right.

-So,hunched. -We are a special type.

"Think Mindy Kaling,

Something that you've been involved in

that I've watched you be involved in in the industry

is the development of new work. Mm-hmm.

I wonder how you feel

that might be shifting representation

and inclusion in the industry

in terms of new film and television,

just reading new scripts, and new theater. Yeah.

It's not where it should be. You know? Yeah.

That's the thing that I come across every single time.

You know, and it's not just in development.

I see it on social media, you know, with --

there's so many people who are working on new things.

And I see so many -- like every day,

just new project, new concert, new reading, new this.

And I don't see the kind of inclusion

that we see in the world.

You know, I see these casts that are either entirely white,

or they're entirely cis.

There's this notion that trans people

all of a sudden came on the scene,

and all of a sudden we all just want to be stars

because it's such a hot topic now, right?

And the reality is that there are many, many, many of us

who have been in this industry for many, many, many years

and are only getting the visibility now

because the industry is allowing us to have that visibility.

So when I see all of these entirely cis casts, I wonder,

"Was there any thing done to really think about, like,

including trans people in your casts?"

And I most often come across the answer is no.

It's not even a thought to them... Yeah.

...because I think that, particularly in new works,

when people are having their creative teams,

and they're putting their cast together,

they don't think about trans people in a larger aspect,

other than using them

solely in trans roles and trans worlds.

I think the same goes for the disabled community as well... Yeah.

...where you -- there is just this assumption

that all roles have to be able-bodied, and it's --

they don't have to all be cis. No.

They don't have to be able-bodied.

They don't have to be white, you know?

No. Yeah.

Something I talk to a lot of young writers about is

you've got to start at the tiniest,

tiniest beginning of your project --

the little table read you have in your living room... Yeah.

...that you've got to make sure that the room you're in

is inclusive... Is inclusive.

...or else as the project grows -- It won't be.

And you never know where it's gonna grow. Right.

Thank you for having us here today.

I love you. I love you.

Thank you for watching.

Take care of each other, and be professional.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

"Think Mindy Kaling,

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