Would you attend a casting call looking for “inbred types”? What if a film asked for “deformed” or “unusual” people? Does that describe you? Would you still show up if you read that “regular-looking” people need not apply?

On Feb. 26, Pittsburgh-based casting director Donna Belajac was fired from the production of Shelter, a supernatural horror thriller starring Julianne Moore and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, after her casting call for background actors was deemed offensive by the film’s producers and others. The casting notice, published in a news release and posted on Donna Belajac Casting’s website, asked for “men and women of all races, 18 or older…including an albino-like girl and deformed people — to depict West Virginia mountain people.” The notice sought “unusual body shapes, even physical abnormalities as long as there is normal mobility…. ‘Regular-looking’ children should not attend this open call.”

The casting notice provoked seething reactions from many leading West Virginians, including Gov. Joe Manchin, U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, and the president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil E. Roberts Jr., who asked The Associated Press, “Why must it be automatically assumed…that those who live in the hills and hollows of places like West Virginia are all afflicted with physical abnormalities?”

In response to the uproar, Belajac seemed to make things worse in a Feb. 26 interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It’s the way it was described in the script,” she said. “Some of these ‘holler’ people — because they are insular and clannish, and they don’t leave their area — there is literally inbreeding, and the people there often have a different kind of look. That’s what we’re trying to get.”

Casting Director Donna Belajac

Casting Director Donna Belajac

Belajac said she hoped the characterization was not offensive and that it was not meant to generalize “about everyone in West Virginia,” but her statements did little to clarify the issue, and she was fired a short time later.

“On behalf of the entire Shelter production, we regret and are deeply sorry for the very insensitive casting call sent out without our knowledge by our casting director,” producers Emilio Diez Barroso and Darlene Caamano Loquet said in a statement Feb. 26. The producers also said the movie is not set in West Virginia, nor will the state be mentioned in the film.

“West Virginians proudly refer to themselves as mountaineers,” Jacqueline Proctor, deputy commissioner and communications manager of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, told Back Stage. “There’s nothing at all shameful about that. But when you couple it with other words that are structured to depict something that screamingly says stereotype, or is in some ways dismissive to the person that they’re trying to identify, then that is offensive.”

Barroso and Loquet would not comment for Back Stage; Belajac did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Specific, Not Offensive

Belajac combined a regional stereotype with other, physical stereotypes while using what some would view as judgmental words, such as normal, unusual, and regular. In doing so, she could have offended people beyond West Virginians, including minorities and the disabled, who have been working for many years to eliminate such language in the entertainment business. The controversy also raises a larger question about the casting process: How do casting directors find the specific types they need for background and other roles without offending the very people they want to hire?

Most pre-employment inquiries regarding age, sex, sexual identity, nationality, or race are prohibited by federal law (as described by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission). They are also against the rules established by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and their employers, principally film and TV producers and advertisers. (Actors’ Equity Association has similar provisions in its contracts with producers.) For example: A casting notice cannot state that filmmakers are looking for “deformed people”; rather, the notice should say filmmakers are seeking “performers who can portray deformed people.”

Adam Moore

Adam Moore

“You can be as descriptive as you may want in your character breakdown,” said Adam Moore, associate national director of affirmative action and diversity at SAG, who is based in New York. “Beyond not wanting to interfere with the producer’s creative prerogative, there’s First Amendment stuff. I mean, we don’t want to tell people what they can and can’t make. But if you’re asking about specific things, about what one of our members actually is as a human being? Well, you can’t do that.”

Moore often acts as a middleman and tries to discreetly connect productions with the performers they need. If they’re seeking actors with disabilities, for example, he might send them to an organization such as the Media Access Office in California or the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts in New York.

Moore can also serve as a consultant, working on casting breakdowns with producers and CDs to help them fill their needs in a more sensitive and effective way. He said he tries to balance the producers’ goals with SAG’s rules, to create language that will encourage people to apply rather than walk away insulted or offended.

But Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, said she would probably not have been able to find actors for Belajac because “no one fits this description. They’re not asking for an actor to play someone, or to get into makeup or wear a body suit. They’re looking for ‘deformed people.’ I’ve never heard anything that was so extreme, so insulting, and so exploitive. It’s amazing that any rational thinking person with any humanity whatsoever would think that this would be an acceptable casting breakdown.”

Jensen and Moore both noted that Belajac’s request for “normal mobility” is particularly offensive to the disabled community. Moore said that neither Belajac nor anyone else from Shelter‘s production crew had contacted his office for assistance regarding this casting call.

Discretion Helps

According to CDs interviewed by Back Stage, no news release or statement should ever be issued to the public without a producer’s approval.

“It’s got to be right,” said Winsome Sinclair, chief managing partner of Winsome Sinclair & Associates, a casting office based in New York. For nearly 20 years, WSA has cast principals and extras for movies, including Black Snake Moan, Inside Man, and Malcolm X. “It’s a reflection on my casting company, it’s a reflection on the production, it’s a reflection on so many other people. And I’m sending it out beyond our control, so it’s a P.R. situation.”

Casting director Elizabeth Gabel, who is based in New Mexico and has cast background actors for films such as No Country for Old Men, 3:10 to Yuma, and the upcoming Sunshine Cleaning, said she tries to avoid going public with any casting call of a sensitive nature such as the one for Shelter. Instead of an open call, she suggests a more discreet approach. “You don’t advertise,” she said. “You go into the hospitals and you make contacts with nurses and doctors and social workers, or you go to homeless shelters.”

For example, when she begins casting for the fourth installment of the Terminator film series, Gabel said, she wants to hire some performers who are amputees, and she will rely on contacts at a Veterans Affairs hospital and other places to help her. Jo Edna Boldin, who has partnered with Gabel as a location CD in New Mexico, worked with the Special Olympics to cast the Johnny Knoxville comedy The Ringer. Others might look to schools, churches, or even the Yellow Pages to fill their needs.

Citing Examples

If an open call ends up being the only option, some casting directors suggested they might simply refer to other films to describe what they’re looking for. In the case of Shelter, they said, it could have helped to mention Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes instead of asking for “West Virginia mountain people.” And never tell “regular-looking” people, or anyone else for that matter, not to apply, they said. Accept everyone, then decide later who works for the film and which headshots might be filed away for future projects.

According to the Pittsburgh Film Office, the producers of Shelter have hired Nancy Mosser Casting as Belajac’s replacement. Mosser, who would not comment for Back Stage, is also the local casting director for The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron. At the same time that Belajac was looking for her extras, Mosser released a casting notice seeking extras and a handful of speaking roles for The Road. Although the post-apocalyptic setting requires similar types, Mosser used more-general language when drafting her notice — seeking, for example, “a very slim and un-muscular cast” and “a thin man of any ethnicity who is missing one or both legs.”

Mosser Casting’s website now also features this notice: “We are currently casting dayplayers and extras for the feature film entitled Shelter starring Julianne Moore and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. We need all types between 8 years and 100 years of age…. No experience is necessary for extra work.”

This “News Analysis” was published in the  March 27-April 2, 2008 issue of Back Stage and online at BackStage.com.