Here's What Happened When an Actor Tried to Publicize a Racist Casting Call

Here's What Happened When an Actor Tried to Publicize a Racist Casting Call
Illustration by Angelica Alzona. :

Hollywood is in the business of representation. Actors pretend to be others, directors control artistic images, PR departments manage their clients’ images, and agents—if Entourage’s totally convincing portrayals are to be believed—claw each others’ eyes out to represent actors. But Hollywood also fairly regularly fails to represent the lives and the interests of anyone who is not a straight cis white man, most visibly, in casting notices and choices.

It’s common for a casting call to offend, intimidate, or exclude individuals and groups of people. There are blogs, like CastAndLoose and Lady Parts, devoted to bringing such posts to the public’s attention. For actors going after Hollywood roles, offensive casting calls are virtually impossible to avoid, and nearly all job listings of note are curated exclusively on just two websites: Backstage and Actors Access.

But as Audrey Alford found out, actors can’t even sound the alarm about it.

Alford, co-founder of the New York-based Ivy Theatre Company, first saw the casting call for a Nick Jonas summer tour video partially quoted in an actor friend’s Facebook post in May. The job description, which had been posted on Actors Access, requested “stunning female models,” “the kind of girls Nick Jonas would have a crush on,” as in, “mainly Caucasian,” with possible, “ethnic flare, like Indian or South American.” A woman who looks exactly like “Emily Ratajkowski”, for instance.

“I wasn’t surprised because I’ve seen a lot of casting notices quoted and a lot of them are sexist and racist,” Alford told me. “But I was shocked at the level of objectifying and racist language that was used here.”

When her friend expressed reservations about sharing the full casting call in a screen grab on social media for fear she’d lose work over it, Alford offered to do it herself. She hoped that a casting call associated with a high-profile performer would be exceptional enough to open up a dialogue. “The reason why I decided to take a stand on this one is because it’s for a major artist, from what I understand a reputable casting agency, so they should know better,” Alford said. “And also, who cares who Nick Jonas is attracted to? This is a job.”

A few hours later, just after midnight on May 26, Alford posted a screengrab of the casting call to her Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The screengrabs Alford posted caused a minor stir—in a matter of hours gossip columnists were picking up the story, beginning with Perez Hilton. In the next 24 hours, a few more news sites wrote posts about the casting call, some placing blame on Jonas, others, noncommittally, on casting director Amy Gossels. But without comment from the Jonas camp, the story died down quickly.

On the morning of May 28, Alford received an email from Gary Marsh, founder and CEO of Breakdown Services, Actors Access’s parent company. At the time, Alford did not know who Marsh was, but she could tell from his title he was likely a big deal in Hollywood. A quick Google Image search confirms he has posed with his arms draped around the shoulders of Demi Lovato, Ashley Tisdale, Miley Cyrus, and the like. [Ed. note: See correction.]

“Yesterday you posted copyrighted material on social media,” the email read. “We also know you have illegal access to the website. Please be advised that we are filing a complaint with Twitter and will be pursuing all available legal remedies.”

Within minutes of receiving the email from Marsh, Alford threw a screen grab of the email up on her Twitter too.

A few days after that, on June 1, Alford received a cease and desist letter from Steven P. Krakowski, a lawyer representing Breakdown Services, claiming the casting notice contained, “proprietary information of value which is Breakdown Services’ property,” and that the act of sharing a screen grab of it constitutes a “willful copyright infringement under federal law.”

The letter informed Alford that Breakdown services would be entitled to seek damages of up to $150,000 if she did not comply with the lawyer’s stipulations that she remove the screen grabs from her social media accounts and reveal the name and contact information of the person who provided Alford with the screenshot within 10 days of receiving the letter.

“When I first opened the letter, my stomach dropped,” Alford told me. “I felt really powerless because I knew I didn’t have the money to get a lawyer and fight any sort of lawsuit, even though I’m right. I felt like this company that has more money than I do will probably get away with it.”

Gary Marsh described Breakdown Services’s case against Alford to me over the phone, saying, “Breakdown Services publishes, through a proprietary list of clientele, casting notices that are for a very specific purpose and process within the entertainment industry. This material is copyrighted.”

“And as a journalist,” Marsh added, “I’m sure you understand copyright law.”

I talked to Mitch Stoltz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF is a nonprofit group focused on “defending civil liberties in the digital world,” which includes issues like privacy, free expression, open source software and encryption. Stoltz told me that copyright adheres automatically to any content, so long as it’s minimally creative. “A scribble on a napkin, a tweet, all those things are copyrighted automatically,” Stoltz said.

But then there’s something called fair use, a legal doctrine that protects individuals who repurpose copyrighted content, usually in order to comment on it, critique it, or parody it. It’s why a publishing house can’t seek damages from a critic for using a quote from one of their books in an unflattering review, and why Donald Trump is unlikely to sue you and win for retweeting his tweets with your own captions. In theory, fair use protects free speech and makes sure everyone in America isn’t constantly being sued.

“The purpose of copyright is not to protect a company from embarrassment or to shut down a discussion on an issue,” says Stoltz. Instead, copyright law is supposed to benefit the public, Stoltz says, by “promoting the arts and advancing our common store of knowledge.”

The problem, according to Stoltz, is that penalties for infringing upon copyright law are so high that it’s easy to bully most people with just the threat of damages, whether or not they are legally winnable.

Stoltz felt that Alford’s case probably fell under the latter category—that Breakdown Services “has no legal grounds to try to make [Alford’s post] disappear.”

When I asked Marsh why he thought Alford’s case wouldn’t be treated as a typical invocation of fair use, he responded, “I think that’s a good question for an attorney.”

The vast, historical exclusion of minority groups and women from Hollywood has been written about for decades. Issues recently scrutinized include colorism in the new Nina Simone biopic; the dearth of trans actors; wage gaps dependent on the race and gender of actors; the Bechdel Test, #OscarsSoWhite, racist and confused celebrities, and on and on.

The reporting on these issues is bountiful and necessary, and, anyway, it’s not as if Hollywood is doing much to hide its prejudices. But actors who publicize their industry’s infamous inequities are often the ones who feel they need to hide.

Alford told me she has no intention of complying with the terms of the cease and desist that demands she name the person who took the screenshot, because it could jeopardize that person’s career in the entertainment industry. “The whole reason my friend sent me a screenshot is they were afraid of being blacklisted,” said Alford.

Breakdown Services, however, seems to think they know who sent Alford the screenshot. On May 28, Sarah (not her real name), a friend of Alford’s, replied to one of Alford’s Facebook posts containing the initial email from Marsh with the seemingly innocuous comment, “Girl I have an aa account feel free to say you got it from me! WTF.”

Sometime in the next couple days, over Memorial Day weekend, Sarah says she became curious as to whether the Nick Jonas casting call was still up at Actors Access. Though she had recently taken a break from acting and hadn’t logged into the site for several months, Sarah had renewed her annual subscription to Actors Access at the beginning of the year with the expectation that she’d pick up her career in the future.

Sarah says she was surprised when a message popped up saying that her account had been disabled, and promptly dashed off a letter to Actors Access’s general email account, asking what had happened. Per Sarah’s account, a representative from Actors Access told Sarah to give them a call during the week. Sarah explained that it was difficult for her to make personal phone calls at her job and that she would rather resolve the problem over email. Later that day, according to Sarah, Marsh left a message on her phone, asking her to give him a call back. From that point on, the only response she’d receive from the representative was a message saying that Marsh awaited her call.

She says she realized then that Alford might have taken her up on her offer to take the fall—maybe Marsh thought in earnest that she had taken the original screenshot. Not wanting to endure any more entanglements, legal or otherwise, Sarah decided not to fight the block or respond to Marsh except over email. At this point,” she told me, “I wanted everything in writing.”

Sarah’s Facebook comment could easily be read as an alarmed friend expressing outrage and solidarity, and Sarah claims she hasn’t been on Actors Access in months (“I think they could prove that,” Sarah told me), but when I spoke to Marsh on the phone, he said he viewed her comment differently.

“She actually admitted to it,” Marsh told me, referring to Sarah’s Facebook comment. “She said ‘tell him it came from me.’” Marsh confirmed that Sarah’s account access was revoked because of the comment she made on Alford’s Facebook post. Marsh confirmed leaving a message on Sarah’s cell phone, too. “I left her a message and she never called me back.”

In order to understand how Actors Access and Breakdown Services functions within the Hollywood milieu, one must know what a script breakdown is. A script breakdown can do lots of things: track technical aspects needed to pull off a production, convey directorial analysis, or list character descriptions. The latter can be lifted and repurposed for a casting call. Breakdown Services analyzes scripts for movies, television, and video games, then distributes the casting call portion of the breakdown among agents and actors. Actors Access, a company within Breakdown Services, is essentially a job-listings aggregator, a forum where actors can view casting calls and post their own. Around 98 percent of all breakdowns for film and television are filtered through Breakdown Services, according to the company.

“This information is vitally important and we try to get the studios and the casting directors to get it directly to actors so they can be involved in the process so it doesn’t just go through agents and managers,” Marsh told me.

Actors Access—along with a handful of other top, reputable casting sites like Backstage and Playbill—is essential for most working actors, too. Gwenevere Sisco, a co-founder of Ivy Theatre Group along with Alford, has been using Actors Access for around eight years. “The first thing an acting school and the acting community tells you when you’re given an introduction on how to get jobs is that you need to get an account with Actors Access and an account with Backstage,” Sisco told me. She says she’s gotten the majority of her work as an actor through Actors Access, either directly or through networking with industry people she’s met on the site.

In addition to curating and sharing casting calls, Breakdown Services is sometimes involved in creating their content, according to Marsh. “Sometimes we read the script and we create the breakdown,” Marsh said, “our staff writers do that, and that gets approved and casting takes place because that breakdown went out. So we are vital for the process of projects getting cast.”

Breakdown Services is primarily a messenger, which means it clearly isn’t the party most responsible for reining in offensive casting calls and changing a Hollywood culture overly determined by white straight cis males. That would be the job of casting and film directors, production companies, agents, copywriters and many others. But in claiming that these casting calls are also the private property of Breakdown Services, the company is trying to have it both ways. It’s owning a problem it didn’t create.

The idea behind Breakdown Services is to democratize the casting process, so that actors have the opportunity to go after whichever jobs they want (for a small annual fee), but the company also depends on those with the most access in Hollywood being on board. According to Marsh, this is why people like Alford, who draw attention to discriminatory and offensive language used in casting notices, are part of the problem. “What’s disheartening here is that this kind of reporting, of taking a picture of a breakdown that went out by accident and by mistake ends up where that the casting director or production company will never use Actors Access again,” Marsh told me. “But they’ll still use Breakdown to release it to agents and managers. So actors will lose the opportunity to control their careers and choose jobs that they are right for.”

“In a misguided attempt to make herself seem important,” Marsh suggested, “she’s ruined opportunities for actors. She’s hurt actors.”

Preventing people who use these casting websites from publicizing its content may make good business sense, but Lynne Marie Rosenberg—an actor, writer and creator of the popular Tumblr CastAndLoose, which curates and parodies offensive casting notices—told me that protecting this kind of information is far more damaging to the majority of people who work in the entertainment industry. Rosenberg believes that if actors never shared these casting notices with the general public, the industry would have even less of an incentive to address its racism, misogyny, body shaming, and heteronormativity. Rosenberg’s own activism has borne this theory out.

“I have found more than anything in my work that the more I am vocal about this, the more people come out of the woodwork and say this really bothers me too, how do we do something about that,” Rosenberg said. “Directors, producers, casting directors have all come to me, and I have people who approach me wanting to get help diversifying their cast. All you have to do is start talking about it and you can enact change.”

When I asked Marsh whether the production company responsible for the Jonas casting call had signaled to him in any way that they would stop posting their breakdowns through Actors Access, Marsh admitted that he hadn’t received any official notice of such a decision, nor had there been any communication whatsoever between Actors Access and the production company on this matter.

But, according to Marsh, this means very little. “If you put your hand in a fire and it gets burned,” says Marsh, referring to the producers he works with, “you’re not going to put your hand in that fire again. It’s logical.”

Fine, it’s logical. But according to Marsh, it’s also never happened before, to his knowledge. Alford’s exposition of the Jonas casting call, according to Marsh, is an issue Actors Access has hardly ever observed or dealt with before. “We released 43,000 breakdowns last year in North America,” Marsh told me, “and this is the only circumstance like this that I’m at all aware of.” Marsh said he couldn’t recall a single other instance of an Actors Access user taking content from the site and sharing it with the general public.

The fluke is further compounded by the fact that, according to Marsh, the Jonas casting notice was posted by the casting director, without approval from the production company. When the casting director reread the breakdown, she realized the wording was inappropriate and pulled it from the site within 30 minutes of its being published. “It’s like when you send an email,” says Marsh, “and then you press send and then you wish you hadn’t sent it because you see there’s something wrong with the way you worded something.”

Marsh said that Actors Access takes great care not to post anything that would be offensive to women, people of color, or the LGBT community, but they’re not able to catch everything.

Rosenberg’s experience of Actors Access has been to the contrary. “A great deal of what is on my Tumblr comes from Actors Access,” she told me, though CastAndLoose no longer posts screenshots taken directly from casting websites, so viewers can’t determine the source of casting notices from the Tumblr post alone.

Rosenberg told me that in March 2015, Marsh, whom she’d never spoken to before, left a message on her cell phone saying that he was from, and asking her to call him back, nothing more. When she did, later that evening, Marsh informed her that he’d disabled her Actors Access account and demanded she shut down CastAndLoose immediately. Marsh confirmed the phone call and its contents with me.

The next day Rosenberg saw a new anonymous comment on her website. According to Rosenberg, it said, “When will you be removing all the content on your tumblr as per your conversation with Gary Marsh.”

That’s when Rosenberg began removing attributions from posts on CastAndLoose.

I asked Marsh if Alford’s case was the only one where Actors Access had sent a cease and desist over copyrighted material. “It’s only time that I am aware of,” he said. “If something like this had happened in the past I have a high degree of certainty I would have known about it.”

There may not have been a previous case exactly like Alford’s, one in which Twitter and Nick Jonas figure so prominently, but Breakdown Services does have a history of taking legal action against individuals they believe to have improperly shared access to their site and content from it. In 2013, for instance, Breakdown Services sued former talent manager Adam Seid for allegedly sharing his access to the website with others. The company sued three individuals in 2014 for allegedly using aliases to sell access to the website. In 2006 the company sued a competitor, Now Casting, for allegedly lifting a notice from its website. At the time, Now Casting CEO Bob Stewart told Backstage that Marsh had a tendency to use legal action to maintain a virtual monopoly over the breakdown business, “We know that Breakdown Services has sued people in the past under different circumstances,” Stewart said, “so we have done our absolute best.”

These lawsuits highlight a critical tension in the entertainment industry. The artist’s right to privacy can sometimes exacerbate another, equally pressing problem for artists: inequality of access.

This inequality works primarily on two levels in the acting community, both of which Breakdown Services at times perpetuates, even if its role is a comparatively small one. As Rosenberg puts it, breakdowns are “just an aperture to much bigger issues in the industry and the culture.”

First, actors need to be able to network, to find parts they want to go after, and have a fair shot at getting the role they audition for. Casting sites like Actors Access withholding these opportunities from actors who speak out against the content on their site or merely comment on how it interferes with their access to work. But a much larger and more common problem, Rosenberg tells me, is the frequency with which actors are blacklisted by casting directors and production companies for publicly criticizing the industry.

“I think the fear is more blacklisting in the industry than it is actual legal action,” Rosenberg says. “I think actors in particular feel generally disenfranchised when it comes to whether or not they can speak up when they think something is wrong. Women in particular are expected not to make waves, cause problems, speak up for themselves.”

The second is that there are far fewer dynamic roles and opportunities period for anyone who isn’t a straight, cis white man, and derogatory language used in casting calls can be emotionally deleterious for anyone reading them who doesn’t fit these categories.

But what can casting websites do, if anything, to weaken Hollywood’s gatekeeper mentality and help ensure actors have truly equal access to work?

All the actors and former actors I talked to for this piece suggested that casting directors not write and casting websites not post casting calls that are bound to offend large groups of people. That’s a start, but it’s the material opportunities for actors in a misogynist and white-washed Hollywood landscape that really need to be uprooted, and that requires powerful people changing their minds about what sells and whom they feel comfortable seeing on screen or on stage. “I would like to see a world where you’re not allowed to specify race in a casting call unless there’s a narrative reason to do so,” says Rosenberg.

Marsh also suggested a way for people in the entertainment industry to weed out offensive and exclusionary content from casting websites: Just pick up the phone and call Breakdown Services.

“My job isn’t to be a cop, I don’t want to be a cop,” Marsh said. “They force me into this, these people. They’re basically lazy. If they did the work themselves, got permission to publish [these casting calls] then there would be no need for this and it would save me thousands of dollars in legal fees.”

“Look at all the damage this has done,” Marsh told me, “[Alford] could have picked up the phone and said, hey guys, this doesn’t seem right, take a look at it. Of course, you wouldn’t have had an article to write, if that had happened.”

“I wouldn’t have had an article to write if you hadn’t sent her a cease and desist,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” responded Marsh, confident, somehow, that I had just agreed with him.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Gary Marsh who founded Breakdown Services was also President and Chief Creative Officer for Disney Channels Worldwide. These are different men. Jezebel regrets the error.

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