Robert Zuckerman
December 07, 2012 at 02:00 PM EST

Diversity is an emotion-packed word more nuanced than one article or one year. But it should always be an ongoing topic of conversation in Hollywood until it stops being an issue, which it hasn’t.

EW recently talked to a range of insiders — from Beasts of the Southern Wild producer Michael Gottwald and Oscar winner Mo’Nique, who won the best supporting actress trophy in 2010 for urban drama Precious, to Precious casting director Billy Hopkins, and casting director Avy Kaufman, who headed casting for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — about Oscars, diversity, and casting in Tinseltown.

When it comes to the Academy Awards, representing ethnic diversity in the acting categories has been a slow climb. Take this year’s touted field vying for Oscar nominations, announced Jan. 10, 2013, and trophies, awarded at next year’s Feb. 24 ceremony.

The current buzzed-about crop of Oscar contenders follows a well-worn path. The majority of talented names cropping up, including Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field in Lincoln, Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in The Impossible, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables, Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, Ben Affleck in Argo, Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, and John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in The Sessions, are white.

The pool of talented non-white, buzzed-about contenders is much smaller. It includes now 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis and her co-star Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild (despite the film controversially bypassing covering its actors under a SAG-AFTRA contract, which prevents its consideration for the SAG awards), Denzel Washington as a pilot in Flight, Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi, and Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx as slaves in Django Unchained.

Then broaden the scope to the past few decades. In the past 20 years of best acting Oscar winners – 80 total split between best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, and best supporting actress categories – only 12 have been people of color, including black, and Latino or Hispanic winners. (Denzel Washington and Foxx are both among this group.)

Louisiana native and first-time actress Wallis was picked out of more than 3,500 kids of various ethnic backgrounds who auditioned over nine months for the lead Beasts of the Southern Wild role of Hushpuppy, an independent, absolutely fierce 6-year-old girl up against floods devastating her multicultural, swamp-set community, and a pack of vicious, ancient creatures also in route. Henry, an acting novice and Louisiana native as well, plays her equally fierce, independent father Wink.

“We were in the middle of a swamp in 90-degree heat only a few years ago, filming this, and now even being here, talking about Oscar, is crazy. For us, if we get nominated for anything, that’s just the cake,” Beasts producer Gottwald told EW at a recent Fox Searchlight event. “It wasn’t the traditional casting process. It was me and a team of friends who would later go into production on the film going to schools with flyers, into churches. Quvenzhané is so special for so many reasons. To have a young, African-American actress who has never done this before, and is suddenly getting all this attention. It’s one of the many things we’re proud of.”

Gottwald mused about various, and some critical, reactions to the film’s young, white director Benh Zeitlin helming a movie revolving around two main characters that happen to be black, reflecting Louisiana itself.

“Ben is creating his own world, and always was,” Gottwald said. “The characters in the film shifted the moment that Dwight and Quvenzhané were cast. I can’t even think what the movie would be without them. It would be a different film, regardless of race. Their contribution to the movie is so immense. She immediately changed who I thought Hushpuppy was — having this strong reserve. The way Dwight would say things. Benh wanted to take their life experience and have it inform the movie.”

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