Over the course of nearly 100 years, Central Casting has come to dominate the TV and film industry as a major source of employment for thousands of actors across networks, studios, and streaming platforms. But current and former employees say that power has gone unchecked internally, creating what they say is a toxic workplace where complaints of racism, typecasting, and mistreatment are ignored and managers use intimidation and bullying to run the operation.
BuzzFeed News spoke to one current and 11 former employees about their experiences at Central Casting, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution in the industry. Six employees said they sent a group email to company executives in June about how the company can improve the toxic work environment, took part in a subsequent internal HR investigation, and were then laid off in July and August.
The employees said they were told their jobs were being eliminated due to cuts because of the coronavirus’s impact on the company’s bottom line. But some of them were confused; prior to their email to executives, they said, they were in good standing and even praised for their performance. The layoffs felt targeted, six former employees said, which left people fearful of speaking up.
“Laying off those employees fuels the toxic work environment because it looks like a threat,” the current employee said.
Former employees said it was common for staffers to be yelled at and cry openly in the office at their desk. They also said the company buries complaints it receives from actors about work conditions on set, including sexually inappropriate behavior, as well as getting typecast into certain roles based on their race.
“Central Casting is responsible for the treatment, employment, and facilitation of careers for thousands of people, both in their own company and the people they represent,” one former employee said. “There are people who rely on them, and Central Casting couldn’t care less about what goes on there as long as they are getting their money.”
In a statement, Central Casting’s parent company, Entertainment Partners, said “we are already aware of some of these issues and are taking them seriously.”
“Our company maintains a workplace free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation and follows all applicable equal employment opportunity laws,” the agency said. “We investigate all employee complaints thoroughly, including those issues raised here, and review, evaluate and implement changes as appropriate to ensure a safe, diverse and inclusive workplace that is welcoming to all employees.”
With offices in Los Angeles, New York, Georgia, and Louisiana, the agency is the number one hub for background actors to book gigs. Its website and Instagram account boast credits on hundreds of hit shows, including Grace and Frankie, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Law & Order, Dead to Me, You, American Horror Story, Dear White People, The Morning Show, and This Is Us. The agency also lists Brad Pitt, Kristen Wiig, Eva Longoria, and Tiffany Haddish as some of its famed alumni on its website. As one former employee put it, “If you’re working background in LA, you’re working with Central Casting.”
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Background actors opt to be a part of Central Casting’s database, where they are then selected to fill roles on the sets of films and TV shows. Casting directors are then responsible for being the go-between for film and TV productions and the background actors.
But the employees said the same culture of toxicity and indifference they faced on a daily basis in the office affected how Central Casting handled complaints filed by actors about how they were treated on set.
Former employees said it was common for background actors to complain about how they were being typecast into stereotypical roles based on their race. According to the employees, there’s a coded language that’s used to discuss casting actors as “perpetrators, crackheads, and terrorists” and when casting “a main character who goes to school in a ‘rough’ area but lives in ‘a good area.’”
“A lot of Middle Eastern background actors who’ve worked on shows like Homeland and S.W.A.T. would call in [to Central Casting] and be like, ‘I’d love to do other roles; I don’t only want to be a terrorist,’” a former employee said.
One former employee said when they tried to cast interracial couples and Asian Americans for a network TV sitcom, they were told by the production to only hire couples of the same racial background and that they “only want real Asians.” The former employee also said they were told by a white lighting director not to cast “darker-skinned Black actors because they’re harder to light.”
“If your lighting team isn’t good enough to light the whole spectrum of human color, your lighting team needs to be better,” the employee said.
One former employee said they received a number of complaints from actors who worked on prominent showrunner Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, which started streaming on Netflix in May. After working one day on set, they said, background actors called to cancel for the next day’s shoot because they experienced heat exhaustion and weren’t given enough water or allowed to sit down on set for the entire day.
A Netflix spokesperson said this isn’t true and that the production followed all safety guidelines on set.
Another former employee said they got a complaint about how a main actor on the set of ABC’s Black-ish touched a woman background actor inappropriately and made her uncomfortable.
“There’s a massive power dynamic between background actors and everyone else on set, and these productions shouldn’t be able to get away with this when the productions are names like Ryan Murphy and Black-ish and all these huge shows that have huge followings,” a former employee of Central Casting said.
ABC did not respond to a request for comment.
But when it came to protocols for handling the complaints, former employees said, they were instructed to forward the actors to a voicemail number for a talent relations representative — but the same actors would then call back and say they were frustrated that they never got a response. Former employees said they had also received phone calls about incidents of sexual harassment on set; often, background actors would call Central Casting with complaints because they had never received a response from talent relations.
“I noticed that a lot of people would call back constantly who were scared to death about whatever was happening to them on set, and no one was there to help them,” a former employee said. “It was really hard to get a hold of someone who would do something about these problems.”
According to some former employees, actors were hesitant to report incidents that occurred on set because they were afraid they wouldn’t be hired for future jobs. They were also wary of a rumored “blacklist” for background actors, which former employees said is not real. However, they did say Central Casting knows it’s the main agency in town and uses its position to its advantage.
Typecasting and feeding into racial stereotypes is a larger issue that isn’t exclusive to Central Casting — but as the leading agency for background actors in Hollywood, one former employee said, it still perpetuates typecasting in a big way.
“That’s basically what casting is: playing into these clichés that we all have in our brains about certain situations and how we picture certain types of people. It’s not necessarily Central’s fault, because productions ask for casting breakdowns, and a lot of these issues are because of systemic racism,” one former employee said. “It’s about what everybody’s perception of these things are, and it’s hard to pinpoint where that starts — but in casting it was like, ‘Fill in the cliché as much as you can.’”
But the current and former employees said they were ill-equipped to address the actors’ issues, particularly when they faced their own toxic work environment at the agency’s Burbank offices. They said they didn’t receive support when they were treated poorly by assistant directors because the agency cares more about protecting its relationships with studios and networks.
According to former employees, it was typical to be screamed at by managers in the office, as well as by production members they worked with, while trying to grapple with an excessive workload.
Three former employees said their depression worsened during their time at Central Casting due to work-related stress. One of them said they were reprimanded by a senior executive after taking two consecutive days off for their mental health.
“I got called into her office the following day, and there was no question of, ‘Are you okay? Do you feel okay? What can I do to help?’” the former employee said. “She asked me, ‘Do you like your job?’ That was the question I was met with.”
The employee’s direct manager repeatedly brought up the same point, so they became reluctant to ask for more time off, fearing retribution.
But it wasn’t just a grueling workload and the high-pressure environment. Several former employees said they experienced racism from colleagues that went unaddressed, either because they were afraid to complain, or because their manager refused to do anything.
A Black former employee said they were subjected to “racist microaggressions” in the workplace, like when their white colleagues made fun of Black background actors’ names across the room or compared their hair to those of other actors’ photo submissions.
“It really upset me, but I was always afraid to bring it up,” the former employee said. “I felt like I couldn’t say anything about it. I never thought I could speak up against it.”
Another former employee said when they complained about derogatory comments another casting director made about Latinx people and the Spanish language, an executive brushed it off.
Even if someone wanted to file an official complaint, some former employees said, it wasn’t clear who their human resources representative was, and they didn’t know whom to get in touch with when they wanted to document their issues. Others said they feared retaliation if they went to HR.
“HR was the biggest joke in our office, which was why everyone was so afraid to talk to them,” one former employee said.
A current employee said a lot of TV and film productions have picked up again with new COVID-19 precautions on set — but due to the agency’s layoffs this summer, they feel more overworked than ever.
“It’s just chaos,” the employee said.
Earlier this summer, following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and Black Lives Matter protests across the country, former employees at Central Casting were frustrated that the agency wasn’t doing enough to promote racial equity. In June, they sent an email to executives and other colleagues, outlining specific practices they wanted the agency to improve upon.
The proposal, obtained by BuzzFeed News, called for management to hire more people of color into the overwhelmingly white staff, assess pay equality, and implement diversity and inclusion training.
The employees also asked the company to implement nondiscriminatory practices when casting background actors so it doesn’t contribute to racist stereotypes, and also want to “establish a precedent that if any background [actor] is discriminated or harassed on set, [it] will collectively take more initiative to address the issue and develop a clearer record of these aggrievances [sic] with thorough follow-up.”
Former employees said they had conversations with Central Casting executives, an HR representative, and the CEO of Entertainment Partners, where they spoke more about the issues outlined in their email. Two months later, they were laid off.
“I was never written up for anything. I never went to HR with any problems or any issues. I kept it to myself because I knew that if I came forward and spoke up about things that I would face repercussions,” one former employee said. “And I said that to the CEO when we met. I said, ‘I’m terrified of talking to you right now because I knew I would be retaliated against.’”
In its statement, Entertainment Partners said “no employee has been furloughed or lost employment as a result of bringing complaints to the company.”
The company also said Central Casting is in the final stages of retaining outside experts “to help us advance our culture of diversity, equity and inclusion most effectively.”
“We also take seriously the industry issues that have been raised regarding casting and are committed to working with our clients and within the industry to address any issues where they exist and to support the industry’s continued efforts for equitable opportunity for all races, ethnicities, and genders,” the agency added.
At a time when mistreatment in Hollywood has faced a public reckoning, and workplace dynamics on TV and film sets are under greater scrutiny, former Central Casting employees don’t want background actors and casting agencies to be left out of the discourse.
“Hollywood uses background [actors] so much. They make up such an enormous part of the production, and they get treated possibly the worst,” a former employee said. “I know background acting isn’t as visible to people as principal acting, but there are ways we’re perpetuating and contributing to racial stereotypes that could easily be changed.” ●