Does Australian TV have a white Australia policy?

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Young, successful, sexy and white. Is this the perfect casting criteria for a successful Australian television drama? Alicia Vrajlal investigates.


Cast of Channel Ten drama Wonderland Image Source: Channel Ten

Cast of Channel Ten drama Wonderland
Image Source: Channel Ten

It’s a formula reflected by the cast of Network Ten’s Wonderland. Young, successful, sexy and white is the most common recipe for an Australian drama cast, but industry big names say there are some ingredients missing.Jay Laga’aia, an Australian actor, is one of them. Early last year, he voiced his opinion on Twitter: “Dear Channel 10, your new drama Wonderland seems to only have white people in it! Are there any ethnics that aren’t cabbies in your show?” he tweeted, following the show’s initial promotions.

Those are the missing ingredients: ethnic characters. Wonderland’s executive producer, Jo Porter, has previously told the media that the show allows viewers to “see their own lives reflected on screen”. But how can you see your life on screen when it looks nothing like your life on the streets?

Australia is a nation rich in ethnic diversity; we speak over 200 languages. A quarter of Australians were born in a country that is not Australia, while 43 per cent have at least one parent born in another country. But the Australia represented on television shows, like Wonderland, does not reflect the nation’s multicultural mix.

Remy Hii, Malaysian-born former Neighbours star, is another actor who has joined the social media war against Wonderland’s ‘white casting’. He tweeted: “Thoughts so far: Wonderland is about how ten people living in Bondi have got by without befriending one person of non-Anglo descent.”

But the multicultural debate began long before Wonderland aired last year. Mr Laga’aia’s personal experience on long-running soap Home and Away supports his claims of a white-bread television landscape. He played Polynesian priest Elijah Johnson for 18 months. After leaving the show in 2012 he tweeted, “As someone who lost his job on H&A because they couldn’t write two ethnics that weren’t together, I’d like the chance to ply my trade.”

Mr Laga’aia attributes the lack of onscreen multiculturalism to the drama’s scripts. “My comment (on Twitter) was about the lack of experienced writers writing for ethnic characters,” he says. “I was a priest, who was also a UN ambassador; a Polynesian, working in traumatised areas around the world; and a jujitsu instructor. You have to be writing in crayon if you can’t find a storyline that will sustain a character like that.”

Former Neighbours star Sachin Joab, who is of Indian descent, agrees that writers are ignoring opportunities to pursue multi-dimensional characters like his. He played Ajay Kapoor on the show for one year, a character who lost his wife. “The funny thing is that, how can they not expand a story around a single father who has just lost his wife, and his daughter who has just lost her mum?

“A storyline like that would be so relevant to 2013 Australia, yet the producers would rather get rid of all non-white actors and replace them with an all-white cast,” he says.

When contacted, FremantleMedia, which produces Neighours, did not provide a comment.

So, does the fault lie with the writers? “I can understand why actors would assume it’s the writers’ fault,” says Blake Ayshford, who has written for Home and Away, All Saints, The Straits and Love My Way.

“Quite often, screenwriters will write in Lebanese midwives or university professors, and despite this, white people get cast. Ultimately, it will end up being a conversation between the producer and the casting director.”

However, Mr Ayshford says, “Writing works best when it is specific, and the writer writes from his or her own experience. So, when you are generating original work for film and TV, I imagine writers often reflect their own backgrounds, and the majority of writers are from Anglo backgrounds. So the first step is more writers from non-Anglo backgrounds.”

Another well-known actor who has spoken out about the issue is House Husbands star Firass Dirani, who is Lebanese. In 2012, he told Fairfax Media that “there has to be a call for the networks to put on shows with these cultural differences because this is who we are in 2012. Those people on Winners & Losers, in their floral colours and their pastels … I don’t even know people like this. Hopefully the networks start writing shows that cater for different actors and different cultural backgrounds.”

Mr Laga’aia first made his views known on Twitter in 2012, and sparked a media backlash. In retrospect, he believes that Firass has been able to speak out and not necessarily suffer all the consequences of being an ethnic actor in Australia.

He believes there are clear reasons for this. “My comments were in support of my mate Firass. Did you notice how he hasn’t been chased, yet I have? Because they go, ‘Oh hang on, he’s won some awards now, we better not hassle him. Let’s hassle Jay.’ It’s interesting because he goes on to work on House Husbands.”

According to Mr Ayshford, “Firass is an interesting case … I worked on two shows he starred in, and neither of the roles he was chosen for reflected his background in the character note. In both cases, the characters were written first, and then Firass was the standout for the role, and the characters were amended to reflect who Firass is. He would be someone who is viewed in TV terms as a big enough star that he can be put up for all roles,” he says.

Mr Laga’aia further emphasises the benefits that actors like Firass reap. “The acceptable ethnics are Italians and Greeks because they can be assimilated, and I take my hat off to them because if you can work in this industry, you can work in this industry.”

But he believes that those same actors are still stereotyped and culturally discriminated against in the industry, to some extent. “Do you also notice that the only ethnic on that show [House Husbands] has now not only lost his family, his wife, and his kids? Firass lost his wife, and then they couldn’t even write for his kids – they made sure they got rid of his kids. Now he’s that freewheeling exotic guy who can go and chase skirts and girls.

“What happens with the ethnic characters is that they normally start with other ethnic characters around them, and then they slowly lose that; Firass is one example. George Houvardas’ character, Carbo, on Packed to the Rafters was another example.” This was also the case for Mr Joab’s Neighbours character mentioned earlier: he too lost his wife.

Australian actress Ra Chapman, of Korean descent, stars in local drama Wentworth. She has a mixed response to Jay’s claims. “I’m not sure if I agree totally with this, but I think I understand the point he was trying to highlight. It links back to the fact the ethnic characters are often supporting cast, so therefore their character is destined to be written off.

“To say there is diversity in casting because there are storylines similar to the one mentioned is not good enough. It’s a cop out, and promoting and reinforcing stereotypes in the minds of the audience.”

She also admits that she has been typecast in certain roles because of her ethnicity. “Only rarely do I get the opportunity to play the girl next door or similar, where the obstacles my character faces are not defined by her race. There is a struggle for actors of Asian descent to land lead roles which are not exclusively written as ‘ethnic’ or ‘Asian’. I have auditioned for numerous lead roles that are not written ‘Asian’. How many have I landed? One.”

But scriptwriters believe this is often inevitable. Another well-known Australian TV writer, who wished not to be named, says, “The casting directors and producers are trying to not break the spell. They’re putting on TV what they think, in their mind, the audience is expecting.

They want people to keep going along with the drama and not change the channel. Their mentality is that if the terrorist or cab driver is white, the audience will be jarred, that it’ll take them out of the drama. Similarly, they believe that if a hunky footballer is Lebanese or Indonesian, people won’t believe girls chasing him.”

Are there any shows in Australia that accurately reflect multicultural diversity? Ms Chapman believes Redfern Now does. “What a wonderful program, but this is not an example of progressive mainstream programming. It is an ABC production.”

Mr Ayshford need only refer to his own scriptwriting showreel to demonstrate an example. “In Time of Our Lives, I specified a Malaysian doctor in a script, as I was basing the character loosely on a doctor I know. I wanted to pay homage to this person, who has a certain gruff but endearing manner. The producers cast an actor from a South East Asian background and he was great. It did represent the Australia I live in, and it was nice that it happened.”

But one Asian doctor here and there is not enough, and that’s why actors are tweeting in frustration. Will we ever see the true streets of Australia on screen?

Mr Ayshford says, “Until producers can look beyond an actor’s ethnicity, and put all actors into the mix for leads and roles as ‘everyday Aussies’, not just Anglo actors, then non-Anglo actors will find it tough.”

Ethnic actors know this, but that won’t stop them from auditioning and tweeting. Ms Chapman says, “One can dream.”

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