*This post of mine is also published on Forbes Woman.*
Despite seeing her face plastered on billboards across the country all summer, every Sunday evening when I tune into ABC’s hit show, Quantico, watching Bollywood star, Priyanka Chopra as the lead character still gives me goosebumps.
After almost a decade in the US as a South Asian woman, finally seeing a character who resembles my ethnicity in mainstream US pop culture validates my American identity.
The urgent need for diversity in TV and film is no secret. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged investigations into systematic sexism in Hollywood, and the situation is only worse for women of color.
However, the ABC network is single-handedly offering a ray of hope. Currently, it appears they are the only network banking on diverse stars, and not just for the token ethnic face cameo, or roles that reenforces stereotypes.
In addition to being home to writer-producer powerhouse, Shonda Rhimes, who owns an entire evening of Primetime TV with three shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal & How To Get Away With Murder), ABC cast stars like Sofia Vergara to Viola Davis and most recently, Indian-born Chopra in their TV career-defining roles.
Much credit for the network’s successful strategic vision goes to ABC’s Executive Vice President of Talent & Casting, Keli Lee. I spoke with the woman behind so many strong female characters about literally changing the face of American TV.
Anushay Hossain: You are in charge of discovering the ABC network’s biggest and most diverse stars from Kerry Washington to Lupita Nyong’o to Sofia Vergara. What does it take to find great talent?
Keli Lee: I have an incredible and diverse team, and we are constantly looking for new faces and personalities that can shine on the screen. The ability for an actor to resonate with an audience is an instinct for me. I both look deep into the person to see their on-screen potential, while I also work with the studio and network to create the right roles and programs for talent that we believe in.
Hossain: ABC is really one of the only US networks casting women of color in lead roles. Tell me about ABC’s Talent Showcase & why you created it?
Lee: In our business, finding an innovative way to capture audience attention and then hold it is the toughest challenge. We know that diversity drives innovation, and you see that in some of the most inventive storytellers at ABC including Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris, Nanatchka Khan. Those stories need equally remarkable and diverse performers to bring those characters to life and we know that if our network looks a little more like the world, it will appeal to a larger audience.
Hossain: You traveled all the way to India to meet Priyanka Chopra, a major Bollywood superstar, to convince her to take a TV role in America. What was that like?
Lee: Fortunately, globalization also gives us the opportunity to find talent all over the world. Early in my career at Disney/ABC, I was committed to broadening our talent pool to look for actors outside of LA, starting with my hometown of New York City and eventually expanding all over the world. The acceleration of technology (Skype, YouTube, Vimeo, CastIt) allows us to instantly see talent from everywhere.
I first met Priyanka in Los Angeles in 2012 and was immediately captivated by her star power. Even in Hollywood, it’s not everyday that a global superstar like Priyanka walks into a room. And even rarer to meet someone who has the total package of beauty, intelligence, talent, warmth, vulnerability, generosity and charitable spirit. I knew she belonged on ABC.
For the next two years, while Priyanka was busily working on her Bollywood films, I built a relationship with Priyanka’s manager, the dynamic Anjula Acharia Bath, and she and I strategized about bringing the first Bollywood star to lead an American television show. Flashing forward to 2014, I traveled to Mumbai to see Priyanka on set. Priyanka and I discussed the commitment of ABC to tell great stories that resonate with audiences around the world and to deliver and promote strong, empowered women. She took a leap of faith and accepted the deal with us. She bet on ABC, and we’re thrilled to have found the perfect role for her as Alex Parrish in Quantico.
Hossain: You’ve called Eugene Blythe, your former boss at Touchstone, your mentor. What did you learn most from him?
Lee: I learned the importance of nurturing long-term relationships, trusting your instincts and fighting for the people and causes you believe in even if it’s not the popular choice. I watched Gene champion those he believed in. I was one of those beneficiaries as he saw something in me when he hired me from NY at age 24 and asked me to be his successor a few years later when he was ready to retire.
Hossain: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Lee: My family immigrated to the US from Korea when I was 2 years old, not knowing anyone or the English language. We lived in ten different cities until I was 13 years old and moved to New York City. Moving every year was not a fun experience for a teen wanting to fit in and make lasting friendships. However, I learned that the struggles of adapting to a new life in America can create surprising opportunities The immigrant experience and specifically my own family’s experience was to hit the ground running hard, working hard, demanding excellence and never giving up. I guess that I would tell my younger self that all that hard work and the gift of learning how to be adaptable will be the foundation of success in your life.
Hossain: Why is changing the face of American TV so personal to your own journey?
Lee: As a young Korean girl growing up in the US, I learned about American culture through watching television programs. At the time, there was very little diversity on television and no one who looked like me or my family on television. Many years later, as I moved up the ranks at Disney/ABC, I was acutely aware that the television industry had a problem. Television programs did not reflect our population of viewers and when a greater and greater percentage of the population watched TV, the programming did not resonate, perhaps because people didn’t see themselves or relate to the stories. We couldn’t fix the problem overnight, but we had to do something about it.
ABC Discovers: Talent Showcase began fourteen years ago to address the pipeline issue. My talented and tireless team auditions 1400 actors each year from a pool of 15,000 submissions and reads 300 five minute original scenes written by emerging writers to select 14-20 actors, 7-10 original scenes and two to three new directors for a one night live performance in front of the television industry. This program has been the launching pad for Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez, Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy), Randall Park (Fresh off the Boat), Chadwick Boseman (lead in Marvel’s Black Panther), Cornelius Smith Jr (Scandal). We’ve expanded this program to include ABC Discovers: Digital Talent Competition and five other initiatives to find and create opportunities for emerging actors, writers, and directors from around the world.
I approached diversity on TV with a vigor that was unmatched by any previous pursuit and it has been one of the most rewarding journeys of my life. We have a greater and more inclusive talent pool which has paid off with hit shows like Scandal, Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away With Murder, and Black-ish driving great profit growth for ABC.
And there is still more work to be done.
There definitely is more work to be done, much more work. But if Lee continues to show Hollywood the way, we can be sure more young Americans will see their stories reflected on both TV and film.
*This post of mine is also published on Forbes Woman.*