An emotional Melissa McBride, who plays the strong and resourceful Carol on The Walking Dead, seemed to sum up the resonance of a pair of panels at an AMC Network event devoted to Hollywood’s new diversity. With the company’s second-annual summit working through an agenda covering the theme that “Story Matters,” discussions on “Who Gets To Tell Stories in Hollywood” and “How Stories are Told: Voices of Genre” offered a current snapshot of life in front of and behind the television cameras through the lens of #MeToo.
But a question about the evolution of McBride’s well-loved character from domestically abused wife to symbol of strength in a dystopian world brought a halting response from the star. McBride fought back tears, talking about knowing women who’d also faced abuse.
“I would love to see a day where this doesn’t happen,” she said. Then, citing the character’s upward arc—and the fact that Carol has survived in the series, unlike the character in Robert Kirkman’s source comic books—Walking Dead universe chief content officer, Scott M. Gimple, added, “I was dead set against [killing off Carol] because I thought it would be a great story of the person who came from abuse to become the hero.” The overarching lesson of that decision—and, seemingly, Hollywood’s current #MeToo movement—Gimple added is that, “Everybody can become the hero.”
The two panels featured stars and showrunners from the company’s popular series, including Killing Eve (which Sarah Barnett, President of Entertainment Networks for AMC, announced had been renewed for a third season), Sherman’s Showcase, The Terror: Infamy, Luther, This Close, Brockmire and Into the Badlands. Much of the discussions cited television’s generally positive record when it comes to diversity, with AMC Networks retaining some bragging rights. Barnett, who introduced all the panels and is five months into her new role, noted her particular pride that the greenlit third series in The Walking Dead universe will have two female protagonists.
Of course, as in any such discussion a few important reality checks were thrown in. Tawny Newsome, who plays the title character’s new broadcasting partner in season 3 of IFC’s Brockmire, added some humorous clarity when she mentioned that some talent agents in Hollywood have said, “‘It’s a hard time for white dudes now.’ I just want to say I am not the one standing in your way; it’s the seven other white dudes in this show.”
Suggesting that many more in-roads must be made, Lily Mariye, a director on AMC’s The Terror: Infamy, set in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, said that while people have hired women as directors, “They must now rehire them.” Mariye added that she has been witnessing the vital but very slow change in perception of which actors are being cast in myriad roles. When two investment bankers are listed in a script, she said, she has brought up the idea, “Can one be a woman? Can one be a Latino woman? And they say, ‘Hmmm; OK!’ But the default, if you read the script, is everyone thinks it’s white men.”
It’s a habit even established, award-winning stars find it hard to break free from. Sandra Oh, the Golden Globe- and SAG Award-winning title character on BBC America’s Killing Eve stressed that television has always been better in terms of diversity than movies, going back to the 1950s, because “women were at home; that’s where the eyeballs were.” And yet, when she was first sent the script for Killing Eve, she had trouble recognizing which characters she’d be asked to play, since Eve—in both the script and the novellas upon which the series is based—is not listed as being Asian. “I could not see myself in this leading role, and it shocked me,” she said.
All panelists agreed that the massive opportunity from greater content (thanks, in large part, to streaming options, including the company’s own AMC Premiere) has also made widening perspectives easier, and -influenced diversity decisions across the board. Shoshannah Stern, co-creator and co-star of This Close, a Sundance Now series about two deaf friends navigating life after their breakup, pressed the need for current trends to continue. “We need to have more of everything everywhere,” she said through a sign interpreter. “The more there is the better.” Addressing important changes, such as the hiring of Lauren Ridloff to play Connie, the first deaf character on AMC’s The Walking Dead, Stern added, “How can Connie survive in that world? Because people adapt. It doesn’t always have to make sense. A lot of things happen today that don’t make sense. Disabled people have existed since the start of time. We just haven’t seen them.”