By Solvej Schou
Updated December 07, 2012 at 02:00 PM EST
Credit: Robert Zuckerman

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.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Mo’Nique, who played an abusive mother in Precious to a victimized daughter portrayed by Oscar-nominated newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, has been vocal about how people of color, like herself and Sidibe, are represented in film. In her own Oscar acceptance speech, she pointedly thanked Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black performer to win an acting Oscar, in 1940, for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind.

But with studios and many industry folks tight-lipped about the continued process of including more gifted non-white actors in movies slated for Oscar contention, Mo’Nique asked for a way to officially regulate the inclusion of people of color in Hollywood in general.

“When you provide the statistics that you have, regarding the racial disparity from award shows to just work for the actors and actresses of color in Hollywood, it makes it blatantly obvious that a problem exists,” Mo’Nique told EW by email. “However, when you ask actors and actresses of color what do they feel about this subject, you already know the answer to the question because we’ve heard them for years saying the treatment is not fair, but we are not the decision makers.”

So who are the decision makers? In part, they’re the Academy voters. According to a Los Angeles Times study this past February, Oscar voters – who work within various parts of the industry – are nearly 94 percent white, 77 percent male, with a median age of 62, compared to black members making up about 2, and Latinos less than 2 percent.

A study by the University of California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism out earlier this year that looked at best picture Oscar-nominated films from 1977 through 2010, found that of speaking characters in those movies, a majority 78 percent are white, 11.6 are black, 7 percent are Asian, and only 1.9 percent Hispanic.

“Maybe we should try something bold, like instead of asking the people who have to endure the disparity in Hollywood about what they think, why not ask the decision makers who are creating the disparity in Hollywood about what they think,” added Mo’Nique. “At that point, along with discussions on creating an entity designed to police this industry for equal opportunities for people of color, just like in the regular work force, then we would be on our way to fairness and parity in this business.”

University of Southern California film professor Amanda Pope, whose specialty is documentary films, not only lamented a lack of representation when it comes to Oscar touted movies and actors, but also the double-edged sword of representation in films such as The Help, which brought out beautiful performances from Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and Oscar nominee Viola Davis, albeit playing stereotyped roles for black women: maids.

“It’s a bleak picture. For the Academy to honor African-American actors in the The Help, it’s almost an old pattern. Can people get attention other than playing maids? What about great, sexy, individual characters?” asked Pope. “The actors exist, but the roles need to be written. In documentary, we’re bringing along some wonderful young filmmakers who will challenge the status quo, who are both people of diversity and women. But they’re not ready yet for major Oscars. Give them 10 years and the opportunity to work.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Opportunity is what it truly comes down to. After screenplays are developed, written, and gain backing to film, when it comes to who snags a role, whether black, Latino, Asian, white, or any other background, casting is everything.

In the case of Beasts of the Southern Wild and color-blind casting leading to Wallis being chosen, no one can deny her absolute strength on-screen as a powerful young black girl, her face set in a permanent expression of determination, her hair natural and afro-ed out. That image is sadly rare.

For Life of Pi, adapted from a book about a young man shipwrecked in the ocean with a Bengal tiger, source material dictated the main character’s background as Indian. Granted, a movie such as Lincoln focuses on the post Civil War-era inner sanctum of politics, historically mostly white and male. Hawkes and Hunt, too, are based on real-life people, who happen to be white.

Pi, the book is written. It’s an Indian family. I just care about the story. Suraj was cast because he’s brilliant,” said Life of Pi and Lincoln casting director Kaufman, who has cast dozens of other movies, including The 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2005 Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain. “Often, everyone wants to create a feeling, and make sure that you’re representing a proper world. When I’m casting, and it’s not for a specific ethnicity, I try to look for people of different backgrounds for the same role. If it is a novel, and we’re following a specific story, or if it’s historical, like Lincoln, then yes, I stick to things honestly.”

Kaufman noted her own personal need to bring attention to differences, to kind of reflect from the inside, out, and into Hollywood and beyond.

“I do feel like we’re sharing one big world and we feel like we forget that time-to-time,” she said. “I’m a mother, and it’s important to do that [acknowledge diversity].”

As for Hopkins — who is white and a father to black teenage twins with his ex-partner Precious director Lee Daniels — diversity is also both personal, and very important.

“There are films such as Precious, which was a black film, with amazing performances recognized for their own merits,” Hopkins, whose credits also include Pineapple Express, Monster Ball, Good Will Hunting and Wall Street, said. “In The Paperboy, David Oyelowo has a part that was originally written for a white person, that was originally smaller in the novel. I just cast a film, The Dark Side [shooting in New York], where the part was white, and an Asian girl was cast. Whenever I can, I try to do color-blind casting, and it’s very hard to do.”

Why is color-blind casting so difficult? Hopkins noted a complicated web of concerns from directors, producers and studios that can actually backfire when it comes to truly representing a range of roles.

“When directors and producers say they want to do it, it raises so many issues. We live in such a PC world now. To me, it’s become so PC, people worry about things you really shouldn’t have to worry about,” said Hopkins. “New York is such a melting pot, yet some films cast in New York can be so white, and that’s not realistic. There are PC concerns if you cast a black person in the bad character role. It gets very tricky. There’s a debate about if you can cast a minority person in this part, or that part, and then everyone is cast white.”

The Academy declined to comment for this story.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 93 minutes