‘I’ve had good and bad casting experiences as a BAME actor – but ten years on I feel optimistic’

Zomboat! star Hamza Jeetooa recalls the ups and downs of a decade of auditions - and suggests some solutions for improving BAME representation in TV and film

The cast of Zomboat!

Studying an MA at Drama School (Royal Central) is basically a mix of rolling around on the floor embodying the roots of a tree and copious amounts of written work. 

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For my final dissertation, I, wet behind the ears and ready to jump onto the moving train that is showbusiness, thought to try and answer a question based on my early assumptions about diversity on screen. The question was “Should Colourblind Casting be used to challenge perceptions of ethnic minorities in British society?” – very wordy, I know. This was nearly a decade ago so don’t judge me.

At the time, I was much in favour of answering this question “ERR YES PLEASE” with an underlying tone of cast me, I’m so here for colourblind casting, anything to work, please, thank you”. Much has changed over the last ten years and although I have a very different personal answer to the question, as ITV2’s zombie apocalypse comedy Zomboat! comes to air this is a good time to reflect.

The buzz-term, ‘colourblind casting’ felt more relevant and exciting in 2010. In a way, ‘colourblind’ auditions seemed to fall under the ‘open auditions’ umbrella. These characters were written in such a way that any actor could play the roles on offer. They were interchangeable.

I’ve auditioned for many projects set up like this and I was very, very happy to do so. These castings were particularly joyful because – and I can’t not veer in this direction for a bit – many castings were not. In 2010 and for a few years that followed, with a name like Hamza, I was very much part of the post-9/11 -7/7 bubble auditioning for antagonist Muslim roles. 

In fact, it felt like there were colourblind castings on one hand and hyper-religious-and-racially-relevant castings on the other.

Sometimes it was ridiculously blatant:

Int. Audition Room. DAY

Hamza stands in position ready to state Name, Height and Agent. 

Casting Director: Where are you from?

Hamza: Walthamstow

Casting Director: I mean. What’s your background?

Hamza: Well. My parents are from Mauritius.

Casting Director: What is that? Is that Muslim?

Fin. 

Another example was a few lines from a British TV script I read which has always haunted me.

“[….] stands behind him and cuts his hair – then, in front of him, she shaves his beard – exposing his face as she does so. Clean-shaven, he looks so young now. Nothing about him says violence or terrorism.”

I still auditioned for that.

I won’t follow a rule of three as I don’t want to bore with negativity here, nor will I state the name of the show or the writer but God help me it’s important sometimes to say things that actually happened.

On one end, I would be auditioning for that character who is ‘a bit terroristy’ but hey it’ll be great pay and exposure and on the other, I’d be auditioning for the ever interchangeable dorky guy from that sitcom set in some workplace.

As I grew, got more experience in the industry, I started to understand the scale, complexity and nuance of the issues I had tried to raise in my ambitious drama school dissertation. 

Some winds of change did start breezing in. When I first heard that I’d got an audition for a new BBC Original Drama Shorts called My Jihad in 2013, I thought “oh for f**k’s sake here we go!” Little did I know it was actually nothing ‘terroristy’ but actually about the internal struggle of a twenty-something unemployed British Muslim looking for love. And it’s one of my favourite projects to ever be cast in.

Hamza Jeetooa in My Jihad
Hamza Jeetooa in My Jihad

The writer, Shakeel Ahmed, drew from his own experiences and the BBC chose to commission his script. His story. A story which turned many stereotypes – even mine about the word Jihad – on their heads and instead brought a relatable story to a wide audience, especially British Muslims. They felt represented.

In his speech to the House of Commons in 2017, British Asian actor Riz Ahmed criticised the use of the term ‘Diversity’ in this industry and instead offered the term ‘Representation’. He called for more of it and I agree.

For me, why colourblind casting is a great device but still falls short on its own is because it seems to fall more under the Diversity umbrella. Like box-ticking quotas, it’s important in actively encouraging attempts to get more BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) actors into projects but it doesn’t go far enough in challenging perception of ethnic minorities in British society. I do wish I chose an easier dissertation question to answer back then.

So what is the ideal? 

In order to achieve better representation of BAME on screen… I believe in two solutions which go hand-in-hand.

1. Creatives of Colour being hired and commissioned

There are always stories to tell about BAME ethnicities, races and religions. But these have to be handled properly. I don’t ever want to read that me having a beard makes me look like a violent terrorist. These stories have the potential to open up worlds that not only embrace contextual specificities but break away from negative ideological and cognitive stereotypes. I’m still not over that beard thing.

We have seen big examples of these in the US with box office hits Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and on US TV with Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None and Atlanta to name but a few.

Interestingly, what these productions all have in common are people of colour in their creative teams behind the camera (writers, directors, producers, showrunners). People who understand the complexity and nuance these stories require.

In the UK, the last series of Doctor Who was a prime example of how this idea flies. British black writer Malorie Blackman wrote the award-winning Rosa Parks episode and British Asian writer Vinay Patel wrote the acclaimed Demons of the Punjab episode about the partition of India and Pakistan. The latter of which I was lucky enough to be a part of (cheap sell here but it’s still on iPlayer, check it out).

Hamza Jeetooa on the set of Doctor Who
Hamza Jeetooa on the set of Doctor Who

We have also seen writers of colour commissioned to create shows inspired by their own experiences – Michaela Cole’s Chewing Gum and Guz Khan’s Man Like Mobeen are recent examples. They also got to be actors in their own worlds they created and want to share with you. Which brings me to the second part of my solution…

2. Non-tokenistic or interchangeable Lead Characters of Colour

The Diamond report (2018) shows there’s an over-representation of BAME on our screens. Uh oh. But it’s not just about scale, it’s scope. In a blog post by writer Vinay Patel (about Master of None when it first came out in 2015), he breaks down Diversity on screen into a 4 Stage Model.

By Stage 3 we are in the Colourblind Casting zone for Lead Characters, “if they are the lead, their ethnicity/background doesn’t affect the story in any way. They are led by the plot…”  This is a great place to be but by Stage 4: “The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world to the extent that they are not interchangeable but said background doesn’t dominate the broader context and concerns of the show”.

Earlier this year, I saw a trailer for a new Danny Boyle film that wasn’t previously on my radar. The YouTube link loaded and to my surprise, there was British Asian actor Himesh Patel standing with a guitar and singing Beatles songs in a film written by Richard Curtis. Boom. I would never have imagined seeing that ten years ago.

And ten years ago, I would never have imagined being cast for a TV comedy called Zomboat! about four twentysomethings escaping a zombie apocalypse. Two of whom are written as British Asian mates from London. Not zero BAME leads. Not one token lead, but two. It’s a show which sits firmly between Stages 3 and 4 of Vinay’s Diversity Model with scope to delve further into Stage 4. Half the lead cast are British Asian but it isn’t a show centred on them being Asian. They’re simply widely-relatable characters in this world fleeing zombies. And similarly to what Himesh Patel said about being cast in Yesterday, that’s a statement in itself.

I can put my money where my mouth is and tell you I’ve been actively part of these solutions as a filmmaker. It’s important to me. Since leaving drama school, I’ve produced and directed a number of short films with a diverse core crew.

British Asian filmmaking partner Natalie Perera (also wife, actor and writer, in no particular order) and I have been busy creating work together where we’ve felt represented, both on and off screen. As an actor, I know loads of and have cast brilliant actors of colour but what has been equally, if not more, beneficial is seeking and working with members of production off-screen from different backgrounds. Actively representing has enriched our storytelling and I see no reason not to. The Diamond report also stated that BAME people are still under-represented off-screen. If we can do it on a smaller scale, it should be happening across the board.

For nearly ten years I’ve worked as an actor and filmmaker in this industry. A lot has happened, both good and bad. But I can’t help but feel more optimistic about BAME representation than I did when I first left Drama school.

So, I guess my 2019 answer to the 2010 question “Should Colourblind Casting be used to challenge perception of ethnic minorities in British Society?” would now be “ERR THERE’S MORE TO IT ACTUALLY” with an underlying tone of “cast me, I’m so here for better projects for actors of colour, anything to work, please, thank you”.

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Hamza Jeetooa stars in Zomboat! starting at 10pm on Tuesday 8th October on ITV2