Excerpts from 2012 Diversity Leadership Forum Closing Plenary: Media, Marketing and the Desirable Demo from the Asia Society on June 11th, 2012 featuring Saul Gitlin, SVP of Strategic Services for Kang and Lee, Stephanie Mehta, the Executive Editor of Fortune magazine, Pitchet Ong, Corporate Pastry Chef for Sugar & Plumm and Sendhil Ramamurthy.
The webmasters of www.sendhilramamurthy.net have purchased this panel and will be posting it here over the weekend. If you would like to purchase the video of the panel, please go to http://fora.tv/2012/06/11/Closing_Plenary_Media_Marketing_and_the_Desirable_Demo. It is well worth the $50.
Stephanie Mehta: Sendhil, I’m going to follow up with you. Are Asian-Americans considered “Cinderellas” when it comes to entertainment as well? (this term was used by Saul Gitlin to describe Asian consumers. Wealthy, entrepreneurial, well-educated but not accepted as a valuable consumer by traditional marketers)
Sendhil: Yeah, I think so. To kick back to something Saul said a minute ago, talking about the Hispanic population and how they’re catered to marketing-wise. You know, I think that’s a huge thing certainly on television but very much so in studio films. I’m thinking of one example in particular because it involved me (laughs) and it was a big studio film and I won’t say what it is (laughs) and there were “warriors” that were going to be from all different parts of the world and one of the warriors was written as an Indian warrior and I guess the studio that I’m speaking about, they did research and for whatever reason, they actually ended up, after I’d gone in on this and auditioned, changing the character to Hispanic. Because the demographic, whatever research they did (and I don’t have access to what the research was) told them that it would be more profitable and reach a larger audience if they changed that character to a Hispanic character. And so, this is very much what Saul was getting at that it certainly permeates into my business as well.
Having said that, things have gotten a lot better. I mean, I don’t think you can turn on a television show and not see Asians on them in some way, shape or form. Saul and I were actually speaking about this in the green room earlier… is it that Asians play “certain” characters? They play “the doctor” or “the smart guy” and that’s still very much still the case and I don’t know what it takes to change that yet otherwise I’d be doing it but I think it’s a question of time and also a question of people realizing that, like Saul said, it’s a very affluent section of the community, Asians. And at some point, and hopefully, I say this in all the interviews that I do because I’m hoping it gets out there… at some point I think that studios and networks and producers and writers as well because listen, those characters have to be written as well, that we’ll see that because at the end of the day, it is a business. They call it “the business” for a reason and it’s about making money. And somebody will figure it out that Asians in particular have a lot of disposable income and spend some of that on entertainment and the ancillary products like action figures and whatever else is out there.
Stephanie Mehta: Do you think it’s different in Independent work versus major studio work? You’ve obviously worked for both. Are Indies more open?
Sendhil: Without question. Actually, if you were to look at my resume, I have not done a studio film ever. I’ve never done a studio film. Not because the opportunity hasn’t been there and I have gotten- but they’re just roles that I didn’t want to do. Because I think certainly in studio fare, so far with very few exceptions, the roles that are written for Asians tend to be incredibly stereotypical and I think as an artist, you just have to make a decision whether you want to do those roles or not. I certainly don’t fault people for doing those roles but it’s just not something that I’ve have chosen to do. And I find that the more interesting roles tend to be in the Independent world where maybe the bottom line, while important, isn’t ‘as’ important as it would be to Disney or Universal or Warner Brothers or whoever it is making these tent-pole, hundred million dollar budget movies. I think that certainly there are opportunities for, and I can’t speak for all actors, but for me certainly, the more interesting characters that have been written and the characters that I look for are written in the independent world. Because a lot of time in the ones that I look for, it’s not written as an ‘ethnic’ character, you’re not writing for, making this guy Indian, or making this guy Chinese or Korean or whatever it happens to be.
Stephanie Mehta: Sendhil, I’m going to ask you the “Asian Parents” question. Were your parents supportive of your acting career?
Sendhil: Surprisingly so. It’s not normal (laughs) but you know, my parents are doctors and it was kind of expected that I’d go into the family business and I thought I wanted to be a doctor until they got me these internships in the hospitals and I saw what it was like and I was like “this is awful!”. You have to be around sick people all day. That’s a problem if you’re going to be a doctor, you have to like that and I didn’t. I hated it so that was my first clue that this might not be the right profession for me but I still went after it, I still went to Tufts University as a pre-med guy and did all of the pre-med requirements and I was about to take the MCAT and then I just got on a Peter Pan bus and I came here to New York and ended up auditioning for drama school, very quietly… I didn’t tell anybody and I got in before I had to take the MCAT. So then I just thought I’ll just drop the bomb and tell them and they were shocked. I mean obviously, they were totally shocked because I had shown absolutely no inclination towards acting as a child. But, you know, I also hadn’t shown any inclination towards medicine either (laughs) so I just kind of… that was kind of the crux of my argument, as weak as that sounds now, that was kind of the argument that I went to them with. I was like, “Ask the people that you’ve set me up with for internships? Was I any good? No, I was awful!” (laughs) I shouldn’t be a doctor, I certainly shouldn’t be a doctor. They said, “So, be an engineer!” (laughs) That was, like, the fallback. But you know, I think that they got behind me, they wanted to be supportive, and they always told me that the average age for entering medical school was 26 so I could still go to drama school, fail, and then become a doctor which is what I kind of think they assumed would happen and hoped would happen and I think may still hope happens. No, not anymore. But yeah, you know that’s kind of what Asians do, you know? You go and you get your education and I’m glad that I did get a good education but I couldn’t have done any of this without them because they paid for drama school, they were incredible supportive but that is not normal. I know plenty of other Asian actors who I’ve had the opportunity to work with since I’ve been acting professionally who did not have that support and I think that’s something that’s important. As parents, now… I have small children now and I really hope they don’t go into acting (laughs) but if they do, I will now have no choice but to support that decision.
Saul Gitlin: Can I make a comment? Wasn’t your breakthrough role on Heroes playing a doctor?
Sendhil: Yes! So there was that!
Saul: You did it!
Sendhil: I did it! I was like, “Listen, I’m playing a doctor!” and seriously like straight away they said, “But he’s not an MD, he’s a scientist so…” (laughs)
Saul: That makes the difference!
Sendhil: Yeah, he can’t prescribe drugs! (laughs) So that was kind of… can’t prescribe them legally.
Audience Member: How has social media influenced your industry and how has that influenced you as Asians in that industry? Does it help you? When the public has a voice, they can support you and give you feedback. Just kind of curious about that.
Sendhil: Yeah, I mean listen, social media is huge. I’ve actually been pulled up by the studio because I don’t have a Twitter account. And I think I’m actually going to be strong-armed into getting a Twitter account now because it is important. It is a way to stay in touch with the fans and everyone is tweeting. I don’t have a Twitter account. There are four people pretending to be me on Twitter but it’s not me.
So yeah, listen there’s been talk about putting it in actor’s contracts now that they have to maintain a Twitter account or at least to have a Twitter account. It is very, very important. When you look on any television show that you watch, you will see in the bottom left hand corner, there will be hashtag Covert Affairs or hashtag Burn Notice or whatever show it is that you’re watching. Top Chef, all of them. It’s what’s trending. It’s a way for them to kind of measure this and now, what I don’t know is when they go… for television, they have these things called the up fronts, the up front ad sales which I’m sure you all know. I don’t know how much of the social media stuff is presented to the ad people. That’s something I’d be curious to know, I don’t know if Saul knows the answer to that, I’m not sure but it seems to be incredibly important to the studio and the networks that the stars of the show have an active social media presence, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or preferably all of them. It’s really important. So I’m going to get on to that. (side note: unless hell freezes over, Sendhil will likely never have a Twitter or Facebook account, which is why he’s been kind enough to allow us to run @SendhilFans ,SendhilRamamurthy.net Facebook page, and www.sendhilramamurthy.net Official Website for him.)
Audience Member: My question is for Sendhil. At the risk of sounding like a crazy fan, in your show Covert Affairs, your character has kind of gotten to a certain level and is struggling to go up higher and we’ve talked a lot about hitting that ‘bamboo ceiling’ and being challenged to go up higher, I wanted to hear your reflections on how that stereotype is kind of hitting you as an Asian American.
Sendhil: Yeah, I mean as far as my character’s struggle with moving up within the hierarchy of the CIA, I’ve never looked at it as kind of like an Indian thing. It’s weird because the character was actually written as a blond haired, blue eyed, Yale lacrosse player. That’s what the character was and that’s actually what they cast. If you were to see the original version of the pilot, which I’m not in, it’s because someone else was playing my part and for whatever reason, they didn’t like that guy or like what he was doing so they brought my character on in the second episode of the series to take on that role. And so it was kind of this limbo land for awhile where they weren’t sure what they were doing. So I went to them and said, “Just write this guy. Don’t write him as Indian, don’t write him as South Asian. Just write him as a guy and still make him the Yale lacrosse player but change it tennis because I play tennis and just write it like that. For all intents and purposes, ignore his ethnicity and let him just be a guy within the CIA and let’s see how that goes.”
But they went VERY far with it and gave me a white dad (laughs) and like, I was like “woah!” (laughs) so great, I think? But, you know as far as the character hitting a ceiling, umm I don’t know if it was their intention and certainly it’s not how I have looked at it is that it had to do with race it just has to do with the way it is at the CIA. It’s a very… it’s… you know, for lack of a better word, you know, it’s a bit of a clusterfuck there. You can’t really, it’s hard to move up there and so I think that’s what they were trying to reflect because the show’s producers are very much in touch with the CIA and we go to the CIA and worked with them, spoken to actual CIA operatives who are our age and this is the kind of feedback that we got.
Audience Member: Thank you for coming here, particularly Sendhil because I’ll be telling my girlfriend later that you were present and she’ll be very angry at me and there will be lots of fun to be had. (laughs) This is a two part question for you. In your profession, what do you see are the major things holding back incoming Asian talent, whether there are cultural concerns or certain behavioral patterns they’re engaging in themselves and also conversely, of Asian talent that you see coming into your field, do you see any common factors driving them into the field?
Sendhil: I think certainly for the influx of Asian talent into television and film, it’s a question of writing. Because… there’s two parts actually. It’s a question of writing and then it’s also a question of the powers that be seeing or auditioning different ethnicities for a part that may not be written as such.
Now listen, if you’re looking for a Nazi soldier, I’m not expecting to go into the room and audition for the part but if it’s, you know, Joe Schmo the lawyer on Law & Order or whatever it happens to be, then there’s no reason why, you know, I couldn’t go in and audition or you or … that’s something that has to change and it is changing. It’s slow but it is changing. And then the other thing is writing. Characters need to be written that are not culturally specific but just interesting characters that Asians and Hispanics and African Americans can go in on and be considered for and I think that something that’s changing at a quicker pace actually than executives letting people even be considered for the parts.
Stephanie Mehta: In general, extreme of any kind works for reality television. (speaking of ethnicities that play up their ethnicity for reality television.)
Sendhil: Playing up that “extreme” is also why, I think, you see a lot of, not just Asians but other ethnicities, being successful in comedy as opposed to drama. There aren’t a lot of… certainly I think if you look at the South Asian presence on television, a large, large majority of it is in comedy. You look at Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, you look at these guys that are really breaking out, they’re doing so through comedy and I haven’t quite figured out why that is besides the fact that they are writing their own material a lot of the time which is clearly the way forward. But I think a lot of it has to do with… I would get asked to go in on sitcoms when I was first starting out and I’ve never really been a sitcom guy, I don’t particularly watch them very much but I just wanted to work so I would go in and it would really… some without more subtlety than others, in more subtle ways than others would say, “Be more Indian” or “Do it more Indian” and so I talked to my agent and said I’m not going in on sitcoms anymore because that’s not what I do and it hurt me, it definitely hurt me. Like when I first left drama school, it definitely hurt me because I just didn’t work for awhile and I was here in New York doing theater because theatre moreso than any other kind of filmed media tend to do a lot more color blind casting. And that’s not really something that is pervasive yet in film or television. But it is moving in that direction. It’s just moving at an incredibly glacial pace for my liking.
Stephanie Mehta: And it’s interesting that the two actor/writers that you mentioned, Aziz and Mindy, the characters they play speak unaccented English and Aziz’s character is named Tom Haverford.
Sendhil: They’re both writers on the shows. And that’s why when Mindy called me up and said, “Will you come and do The Office”, I went because I knew she’d just be writing this character and that’s exactly what she did.
Stephanie Mehta: Speed round question, you didn’t know this was coming but when do you think, when do you predict the year when we finally have and Asian American President?
Sendhil: Yeah, no. I’m thinking a good 40-50 years. (laugh)