Constance Wu, Niecy Nash, Yalitza Aparicio, and more tell EW why revolutionizing the Academy Awards is vital for film's future.

By Joey Nolfi
July 22, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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After five years, several aggressive inclusion strategies, and thousands of new members invited to join its voting ranks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally capped its 2020 diversification initiatives. Aimed at doubling the number of women and people of color among its membership since 2015, the first phase of the Oscars' strides for parity ended on a high note, but its newly anointed voters see this moment more as a launching point for doing the work to foster a representation revolution both inside and beyond the Academy's scope.

As the Academy heads into a period of uncertainty amid ongoing societal calls for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered Oscar-positioning fall festivals and upended film production and release dates for major movies around the world, EW spoke with 11 new members about how they feel the Academy is handling its role in creating an equal platform for all of Hollywood. Read on to see how the Academy's 2020 class — including Cynthia Erivo, Eva Longoria, Niecy Nash, Yalitza Aparicio, Lulu Wang, Constance Wu, Park So Dam, and more — feels about the need for an Oscars host, the lack of diversity among nominees, Parasite's Best Picture victory signaling a broader Academy scope, and where they feel the biggest changes have yet to come.

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Does the Academy have a responsibility to foster change in the film industry?

EVA LONGORIA (ACTORS BRANCH): It's a responsibility of many industries and governances to reflect people in which they represent… and the Academy is no exception. It should reflect the people who work in this industry.

JESSICA ELBAUM (PRODUCERS BRANCH): The Academy has the honor of giving out what are widely considered the highest honors in the business. If they're not actively creating a culture of inclusivity, they're signaling that white, male voices are the only ones who deserve the highest honors and are the only ones who deserve to decide who gets them.

NIECY NASH (ACTORS BRANCH): We all do. People want to see themselves and know that they matter. You don't want to be in a place where we'll take money from [audiences] to watch certain projects… but they don't see themselves. That's not fair.

CYNTHIA ERIVO (ACTORS BRANCH): For most actors, the aim is, at some point in their life, to be part of the Academy or to be nominated for or win an Oscar. The choices that are made tell the rest of the world: This is who you should be looking at, the crème de la crème of the acting community, of the film community. If it never varies, we're telling people that only one set of people are included and deserve the accolades and the eyes that look at them.

YALITZA APARICIO (ACTORS BRANCH): I consider it important that they take advantage of the reach they have to be an example of inclusion and respect. Considering that a movie like Avengers: Infinity War reached attendance [figures] of 2.9 million viewers in Mexico, this helps us see how many people can get the message that we want to share for society [through film]. If we show them gender violence or stereotypical cultural representations, we'll damage their ability to reflect…. Throughout its history, the Academy has functioned as an institution based on the values of male and heterosexual whiteness. It is all about representation and power.

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How can the Oscars' diversity initiatives effect real change, and not just be performative?

ERIVO: Being performative is like if you buy a new mirror, and there's that film on the mirror. [That film] is performative. It's useless after a while. It keeps everything looking good, but if you don't take care of the thing that's beneath it, that also gets smudged. What the Academy is doing by including those who are diverse, we're getting more people of color, Black people, younger people, and they're taking care of the mirror, of the actual thing, the actual object. We can hear different voices and we also get a seat at the table to make decisions about what we see and deem to be worthy of watching. You can't make those decisions if you're just standing in front and singing songs.

PARK SO DAM (ACTORS BRANCH): Being invited and joining the academy itself is like a dream. I will also work as a member of the Academy so that Korean films can be known and introduced to more people.

KWAK SIN AE (PRODUCERS BRANCH): I don't see significant change happening immediately; however, it's certain that the increase of people of color and women will allow the Academy to embrace more diverse visions and positions. The fact that Parasite, with little bias towards a specific gender in the composition of its main characters and produced entirely in Korean and starring Korean actors, received various Academy awards — including Best Picture —reflects such movement.

NASH: As you have this influx of people who are able to vote, you still have to remember how this group looked, predominantly. You're adding to the sauce, but there's still so much in there that was already established. It's just like putting a little bit of salt — or in my case, pepper — in the sauce. How much will it change the flavor profile instantly? It remains to be seen.

LONGORIA: The gatekeepers of a certain gender and a certain race are only going to continue to choose what they know and what they're familiar with…. How can we get nominated if we can't get stuff made, but then we get stuff made but then we're not nominated? We need to build the pipeline of talent that our industry demands. There are so many outlets for content now, so that means more opportunities and positions: writers, directors, PAs, grips, DPs, and producers, but if you keep going to that same talent pool to hire those positions, we're not going to get our stories told or our movies and TV shows made. Once we do get over the hump and we do see a breakthrough of the glass ceiling to get something made and it's on, that's where the Academy has to come through and recognize this piece of work and art is equally as valuable as the ones that came before it.

LULU WANG (DIRECTORS BRANCH): I was accepted into the directors' branch. I felt that my voice and my vote was more needed there as far as the makeup of the members in that branch and the type of films that get nominated every year, the type of films that win, and the type of directors who are noted. I felt that my vote would be more valuable…. It's absolutely a boys' club, and I'm very excited to get in there and mess things up a bit.

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How did a lack of representation at the Oscars affect you earlier in your career?

WANG: It's a little bit sad to say, but in a way, my expectations were pretty low. What the last year [with The Farewell] taught me is that my expectations shouldn't have been so low, because I never expected to be nominated, much less win, because that's the status quo. We see man after man get the majority of the nominations amid a general lack of diversity. My expectations were low because the awards that mean the most are what they're supposed to be: When you get an award, it's meant to be an award from a jury of your peers, but I never saw the Academy as a true jury of my peers, so why should I expect that they would see my film as representing their experience, or why should I expect them to validate the story? Within what the makeup of the Academy has been, historically, a film like mine and many others from the last season, were otherized.

NASH: In most spaces and places, the people who put a program in place to say what's good, what's great, what's success…. I automatically know as a woman of color I have to be exponentially better in order to be seen. That's not just in entertainment, that's period. When you're raised and reared in an environment that already tells you that you can't be average, you have to be above and beyond just to be in the game…. Not seeing people who look like me win, it's just what I knew.

APARICIO: When I was a child, watching Mexican television, I couldn't find faces that looked like mine or stories that were familiar to me. When I entered the world of cinema, this feeling got worse. In Mexico, little by little, we're watching films with different Indigenous languages and with actors from Indigenous communities and with more diverse features. But, in relation to the Academy, I can't remember any Latinx face that has inspired and shocked me, since I considered them so different from me or so different from the people around me. I guess that says a lot about the long way to go.

ERIVO: You're seeing the same votes go to the same people over and over again, which doesn't make sense…. There are actors who don't have time to sit and watch all the movies that they're deciding off the cuff on what is familiar, so what needs to happen is we need to make sure that people are actually watching the films and making decisions based on what they actually see. We also have to start talking about what people are making. What are the rules? What makes you viable to be nominated for an Oscar? If behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, your film is completely white, how is that contributing to something that's new and diverse if it's exactly the same as it was before?

KELVIN HARRISON JR. (ACTORS BRANCH): It might be an issue that goes beyond the Academy in a lot of ways. The films that were being celebrated mostly didn't include people of color. When the nominees are announced, I don't really think twice or blink at it. I just go, Okay, these are wonderful performances and I'm glad we're celebrating them, but why aren't there more movies where people of color got a chance to be in this space? It goes beyond the Academy and stars with studios and production companies and what's being greenlit and what isn't, which filmmakers are getting an opportunity and which ones aren't.

CONSTANCE WU (ACTORS BRANCH): I'm sure it affected me on subconscious level, but when I was younger, I was always focused on the work of exploring the truth of the character's life rather than the critical reception in any sort of establishment or career. As I grew up and began listening to people's experiences, I started learning more. I'm glad that people are being vocal, because it's a vital education for me, too.

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How will the Academy's expansion of Best Picture to a firm 10 nominees impact representation?

CHARLIE OLSKY (MARKETING AND PR BRANCH): It's been exciting to see movies that may not have been in previous eras considered Oscar movies suddenly winning Best Picture. Specifically Moonlight and Parasite. That has an effect on the industry. The Academy is the awarding branch, not the funding branch, and you want to get the funders to have their own diversity initiatives, but I think it's important to have people recognizing greatness as not just one particular stripe.

HARRISON: It's all going to come down to whether or not the movies are there in the first place. If a few [diverse films] make it in, it makes it difficult for me to believe if it's because we're trying to be diverse…. It still comes back to what movies are being made in the first place and if everyone is getting a fair shot in the process of promoting their film.

Should Best Director and other categories expand to 10 nominees for more inclusion?

LONGORIA: It was quite shocking for Greta Gerwig to not be nominated [for Little Women] when her film was nominated [in several other categories]. The director is responsible for all of those people. That was completely shocking. Adding more isn't the solution: Let's give that space that was earned by her. We're not checking a box. I don't think women and people of color want a handout. We want equality.

WANG: I think it should expand. There's no reason not to…. It almost feels intentional to leave out those last few. There's more harm done for progress if we limit those numbers than if we expand and are able to recognize more filmmakers that are not normally recognized…. Films don't make themselves, so it shocks me when films are nominated, performances are nominated, the film is nominated, but the director is not nominated. Who do you think made that picture? If it's 10 Best Picture, it should be the same number of directors.

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What does Parasite winning Best Picture means for the future of Academy inclusion?

WU: I loved watching Parasite in theaters. I loved a lot of the Best Picture-nominated films this year, but Parasite was undoubtedly the best. It made me feel very happy that the best picture won Best Picture.

LONGORIA: It's not just an award. Getting an Academy Award opens doors. It's a door of opportunity, it's box office, it's marketing dollars, it's a whole machine that gets behind a film, filmmaker, or actor. It's life-changing for some. It's more than a piece of metal. It means something in a metric system that we've not been part of, and I hope to do my part within that system.

KWAK: The "Oscar winner" title helped increase the number of admissions by a significant amount. The fact that audiences who wouldn't have watched the film if it hadn't been for the Oscar title were encouraged to watch Parasite bears great significance. In other words, Parasite was able to break audiences out of their viewing habits. As such, Parasite winning Best Picture contributes to narrowing our distances, lowering the barriers, and expanding audiences' viewing experience.

PARK: Even now, when I think of the moment, I am grateful for the fact that we were together at the glorious site and I still feel overwhelmed. It was a moment of pride and pride in Korean culture and art. I think Parasite is the starting point, and I hope more Korean films will be noticed in the future.

HARRISON: It was inspiring and encouraging. It brings us back into the conversation around getting away from tokenism…. Everyone can agree that that film was the film of last year. It's inspiring because they were celebrated and awarded for their great work.

WANG: I was excited by the Parasite win…. We had Roma the year before, so it's not like we're not open to diversity. I think the progress with a film like Parasite is that more people are starting to see films that are subtitled than ever before, and that's a huge step forward, just being open to seeing those films as entertaining. That's a huge advantage for an American audience.

Do the Oscars need a host, and what other changes should be made to the ceremony?

LONGORIA: I never think these shows need a host! The host comes out and introduces the other presenters…. Here I am standing here introducing somebody else standing here because they're going to introduce the winner. It's always been an unnecessary step. Especially in this cancel culture, it's going to be hard to find a new host without a past!

NASH: It's almost like the line to get into heaven. You've got to be so above reproach. There's this need to make sure whoever is standing there is perfect, absolved of every sin, evolved past whoever they were when they were younger, and that they're the voice of the people. There's so much pressure. And you're talking about having an actor stand up there? Good luck, Chuck! If that's the case, you might as well leave it!

ELBAUM: I missed the host. I always thought it gave the show a different flair every year, but I understand why no one wants to do it. Everyone is so critical of the host, and now with social media you don't need to host events like this to remain at the forefront of everyone's minds. When the pandemic ends, I hope someone will want to host again. I think everyone who lived through this will have a special appreciation for live performance.

OLSKY: What's the best way to say, "Why was Eminem up there?" It's not even just a diversity question, it's a taste question. Was that meant to be young and relevant? Because I don't think it was either of those things…. People watch if there's something they care about up there. That's the general idea. I wouldn't want to see everything turn populist, because there've been initiatives that weren't popular, like when they tried to get Best Popular Film out there…. I prefer [a host]. It gives it a little oomph. There've been terrible shows with hosts, but last year's show seemed just fine without one.

HARRISON: I enjoy the show either way. I love seeing actors get up there and do their bits, it's exciting, but I love a host. People argue about whether it's too long or short. I enjoy the Oscars however they choose to give me the Oscars. We get a choice, so if you don't like it, tune out!

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Can the Academy diversify preferences when it comes to film genres?

ERIVO: There's bias [in the music categories] leaning toward something that is, for lack of a better phrase, less Black. I was surprised we were nominated [for Harriet] this year. I hope we open our eyes to what music means, why it's written, and what it communicates, and I hope we start paying attention to, rather than what the song is or sounds like or what people are used to, what the content of the song is, what it's saying, and the message it gives. This year was really fun to watch, musically, from the maestro who conducted [at the Oscars] to [Hildur Guðnadóttir] winning Best Original Score. We're starting to allow women into the circle, but I'd like to see if we can stretch that and allow women of color — and Black women — into that circle of composers, writers, and musicians.

NASH: I hope [we can eliminate the comedy bias], because anybody — especially any actor who's done both or attempted both — will tell you comedy is harder. You can go to a class called How to Cry 101, taught by a renowned so-and-so, but you can't teach somebody how to be funny. That's you using your innate instrument to bring people to a place of joy.

PARK: Being able to exercise the right to vote as an Academy member is a glorious and exciting experience in itself. We will make efforts to introduce and promote colorful Korean films and to be loved more by the world.

Which 2020 films have your Oscar-focused attention so far?

WU: I haven't seen that many films this year because I like to go to the movie theater, and obviously movie theaters haven't been open. So I've only seen Eurovision, which I enjoyed. Dan Stevens had me doubling over with laughter. He was so great in that role that you forget that he also played Matthew in Downton Abbey. That ability to morph like he did between those two roles and genres, that's the mark of great acting!

ELBAUM: I loved Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

APARICIO: Midnight Family, by Luke Lorentzen and Lorena, Light Footed Woman, by Juan Carlos Rulfo, both documentaries!

WANG: I think it's too early to tell, and I haven't watched a lot because I'm on writing deadlines. I can tell you the films I'm most excited about even though I haven't seen them: First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's new film, I anticipate I'm going to love. I'm also excited to watch Shirley, Josephine Decker's new film, but it's going to be an interesting year.

KWAK: A South Korean feature, House of Hummingbird, [was] released in South Korea in 2019, but it'll be available for American audiences in 2020.

OLSKY: A lot of the great things I've seen are documentaries, like Crip Camp, Boys State…. Minari was just fantastic. It's an A24 film, it's terrific and felt like something that'd become, in other years, a slow-growing favorite. It's a gem.

ERIVO: There are a couple documentaries that might end up at the Oscars. Boys State, which came out at Sundance recently, broke me in half. I was sobbing. There's another movie coming soon by a wonderful director, Radha Blank, The 40-Year-Old Version. It's shot in black and white on 35mm. It's spectacular!

LONGORIA: Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez in Wasp Network. Penelope blew it out of the water with her Cuban accent. It had my Cuban friends saying, "Is she from Cuba?" Edgar Ramirez is stunning. You can't take your eyes off him as an actor. The whole cast is phenomenal. The storytelling, the delineation of that script, the twist…. It's a story that nobody knows about and nobody cared about. Like, why do I care about five Cuban spies that were against the United States? [Olivier Assayas] did a great job.

HARRISON: The last thing I saw in the theater was Swallow, but that was so long ago! Haley Bennett is wonderful in that. I've also seen First Cow, but this was before quarantine.

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