This is a bit of a questionable question, but I am curious.

When filmmakers hire actors for a movie/show that has a focus on skin color, and they need actors with a particular skin color to take the role, how do they phrase their casting calls? What are some keywords they use? Or are implications made instead of outright requesting a specific skin color?

Let's say this is for extras, opposed to main characters where detailed character descriptions are available.


3 Answers 3


You say what you need... that's it.

I've worked in casting... for both speaking and non-speaking roles. The laws preventing hiring based on race/gender/etc don't apply to casting.

If you need a crowd of black men as they would have for casting crowds in Selma, then you advertise that you're looking for black males with certain physical attributes (height/weight/age) and ask them to submit photographs and a resume.

If ethnicity isn't important but you want to be certain to get a wide range, you can add something like "all ethnicities are encouraged to submit"... but it's really not necessary.

There are no in-system "secret" keywords because it's not necessary. You post calls for what you need. You will inevitably get submissions from people who don't fit your call but that's par for the course with any job posting.

Some people will use color terms (black/white) and others will use ethnic-centric or regional terms (Hispanic/Caucasian/South Asian/Middle Eastern) and often you'll find the terms mixed together.

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    Which probably is a good thing for everybody involved... ;-D youtu.be/Yg_YYI_pn0A?t=43 Oct 2, 2016 at 23:54
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    I've seen some casting calls published online for e.g. Game of Thrones where they'll even specify what kind of accent they need. Seems pretty straightforward.
    – Paul
    Oct 3, 2016 at 16:40
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    I saw something on TV recently where they showed clips of movies from the 60's (I think) but they were casting pretty-well-known American actors and actresses as Asian characters, mainly Chinese and Japanese. I think Marlon Brando was one. They just dressed them in stereotypical clothing and painted their skin. I suppose we would still have to endure this distaste if casting calls weren't allowed to specify ethnicity.
    – n00dles
    Oct 3, 2016 at 20:23
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    "The laws preventing hiring based on race/gender/etc don't apply to casting." Do you have a cite for that? Because I have several citations that say that there is, at least in the United States, no such exception for race. In fact, a request for "black males" would be illegal. For example, see the Case and Clark memorandum, which says (specifically addressing casting) "there is no exemption in Title VII for occupations in which race might be deemed a bona fide job qualification". Or see Ferrill v. Parker Group where the Supreme Court held there is no race exception as there is for gender. Oct 3, 2016 at 21:10
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    @DavidSchwartz The practice typically is defended by arguing that the role is a certain ethnicity or skin color, not that the actors applying for the role need to be. That is how they usually skirt anti-discrimination laws and SAG-AFTRA rules. You can apply for a "strong Asian male" role as a wily Irish girl all day long, but you won't get the part.
    – TylerH
    Oct 4, 2016 at 14:08

I can't post supporting links to validate this, because they are not public message boards, however...

They just say what they need.

It's pretty pointless inviting diversity if you need to fill a village with "tribespeople" for an 18th Century nautical costume drama set in Fiji.

It's no good beating around the bush & asking for people with "brown skin" if they actually need people of Arabic descent or "white skin" if they specifically need Eastern Europeans.

Generalisations are OK if they really don't need a truly specific nationality, for example, they may ask for "people of South-East Asian descent" if they really don't need very very specific Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc. If they do, then that's what they'll ask for, or "people who are, or look like they are, of Chinese descent" etc.
They don't care where your ancestors came from, only that you fit the required description.
A friend of mine made a lot of money over the years playing Saddam H. who, of course, was of Arabic descent. My friend is Indian.

They will occasionally ask for "caucasian and a range of non-caucasian" people - I was recently on a shoot depicting race riots in the early 70s.
The lines for the plot were clear... 'whites' one side, everybody else on the other, so they needed about 50% 'white', 50% 'other'... which may not have been hugely 'fair' but is what filled the lens in a way they needed for the scene.
[btw, because of the subject matter, everybody made sure to be exceptionally nice to everybody else as soon as the call for "cut" was heard, as for the past 3 mins they'd all been hurling abuse & fists at each other. It was a heart-warming shoot; more hugs & high fives than I've ever seen on set :-)

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    You also make a good point... if the casting calls for "Middle Eastern" and you're Indian, the average casting director won't be able to tell the difference (or likely care), particularly in the case of extras.
    – Catija
    Oct 2, 2016 at 17:25
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    Anecdotally, supporting your point, when the re-enactments on "Air Crash Investigations" have to show a plane largely filled with Asian people, Asian nationalities seem to be used interchangeably - they will say "carrying mostly Chinese people" and not one will look Chinese, they will look South East Asian eg Thai, Viet, Malay, ... Same with when it's supposed to be Japanese people - I'm guessing this is a distinction that is lost on most of the largely American audience for the show.
    – T. Rutter
    Oct 2, 2016 at 22:33

Discrimination laws are not absolute. If the employer can show that they need certain requirements to do the job then it is not discrimination.


  • Flight attendants must be able-bodied and meet height-weight limits. Can't open the emergency exit if you have Parkinson's.
  • Air traffic controllers must have a good speaking voice. People that stutter or have Tourette's need not apply. Stephen Hawking is definitely not going to work approach control at JFK.
  • Firefighters, chemical plant workers etc. may not grow beards. Doesn't matter if you are a devout Sikh, you'll be a dead one if the gas mask doesn't seal properly to your face.

Moving to the entertainment industry, you will usually find that the requirements say you can portray a particular ethnicity or age range. Nancy Cartwright is a 58 year old woman, she's been portraying a 10 year old boy since 1987. But she's never, ever, going to get the live-action part of Bart Simpson. There have been plenty of 30-somethings playing teen roles over the years.

Any role with a well-known appearance can openly and blatantly cast for that appearance. Can you imagine Samuel L. Jackson in the pilot's seat in Sully *? Or Tom Hanks in a bio about Obama when he leaves office? Not going to happen.

However, if the role requires, say, a jewish person they usually cannot require the performer to actually be a confirmed jew. Just that they look mildly semitic. Maybe they wouldn't have cast Fyvush Finkel as Pope John Paul II purely on religious reasons (he did look similar, perfect choice if it's a comedy).

  • Actually, I can. Those mo**erf***ers at the *u**ing NTSB will be **d**m**d *u**i*g sorry they even thought about messing with the original *a*a** m*t**r***k*r.
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    It was OK til the last paragraph... I think I managed to fill in the stars, but what the f*** is 'NTSB'? Bear in mind we're not all American, some may not even be native English speakers - so the joke falls totally flat.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 3, 2016 at 19:27
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    @Tetsujin Samuel L. Jackson was in Snakes on a Plane, and he is somewhat famous for profanity. The snakes were the antagonist in that movie, whereas in Sully the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was made as the antagonist (which is an unfair characterization). While casting Samuel L. Jackson as a white airline pilot in a biopic about Sullenburger is not fitting, it's humorous to imagine him reacting to the NTSB as he did to the snakes. Oct 3, 2016 at 21:40
  • "If the employer can show that they need certain requirements to do the job then it is not discrimination." Right, but race is not one of those certain requirements, at least not in the United States. Congress explicitly chose to make race different from things like gender and handicap status in this regard. Oct 4, 2016 at 0:21
  • @AndyT - by being that race. It's a semantical argument. If you can make an argument that easily, you could discriminate with no care in the world.
    – Davor
    Oct 5, 2016 at 9:01
  • @AndyT - wouldn't those two be of the same "race" in the common way race is used?
    – Davor
    Oct 5, 2016 at 10:11

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