Film Forward

Jason George Has Faced Discrimination In Hollywood. Here’s How He’s Fighting For Diversity Now.

"The belief that people can bond together to make their lives better is kind of in my blood."

Television fans will recognize Jason George as an actor who has been a staple on shows from Sunset Beach in 1997 — a role that earned him a Daytime Emmy nomination — to Shonda Rhimes' beloved hit Grey's Anatomy — which really landed him on the primetime map. But what you might not know about George is the work he does off camera to help bolster diversity on the small screen as chair of SAG-AFTRA's diversity advisory committee for the last 15 years.

SAG-AFTRA, the result of a 2012 merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is a union that represents approximately 160,000 people of varying professions in the entertainment world. As someone who is both a part of the union and also works alongside the union, George is following in the footsteps of his mother who was president of the teacher's union where he grew up in Virginia.

"The belief that people can bond together to make their lives better is kind of in my blood," the 45-year-old actor — who also appeared on shows such as Off Centre, Eve, What About Brian, Eli Stone, and Mistresses — told A Plus during a recent phone interview.

That conviction was first put to the test when George spoke out about the issue of "painting down" in Hollywood, which he described as the act of taking a stuntperson who is not of color and applying makeup to make them look like someone of a different race or ethnicity instead of hiring a stuntperson of color. This issue — similar to blackface — has deep roots in show business and, despite the assumption that the problem was solved, is reported even still today.

Credit: Benjo Arwas
Credit: Benjo Arwas

"I just happened to have done a movie just prior where very well-intentioned but uninformed producers couldn't find the stuntperson they needed to double me for the stunt work and they started to paint down a caucasian person. I objected and things changed," George explained. "So when we were sitting in negotiations and they said that that stuff didn't happen anymore I shared my work experience and things changed right there in the room. That's when I realized that the union makes a difference and it just takes people showing up."

George said that fighting for issues like these lead to more work for the group who had previously been marginalized — such as stuntpeople of color in the "painting down" example. This creates opportunities for those who didn't have them before and helps educate higher-ups of the ability these marginalized groups have to offer if just given a fair shot.

"In the very short term they feel like little degrees of change, but when you track that further out — you change things three or five degrees — and you get further down in time and further out from that original point, it makes a huge difference in the way things work," George said, noting that it's more than a black-and-white issue even though that's what everyone thinks of first.

While things have progressed during the 15 years George has been promoting best practices for diversity in film and TV through SAG-AFTRA — for all groups thanks to what he calls "the United Nations of protected classes," those who "need extra care because they have been traditionally and systematically underrepresented in media" — that doesn't mean he hasn't experienced some moments discrimination in the workplace.

"I remember very, very early in my career working on this one project and one of the writers pulling me aside and — again, was completely well-intentioned — saying, 'Hey, don't worry, we're here for you. Anything you need, let us know. We've got the Ebonics dictionary … the slang dictionary,' " George recalled. "I realized they were saying that because I was one of the very few performers of color on the project and that was their version of how they would support me. By being prepared to speak the way they perceived African Americans to speak, to write that voice."

"You need to do something, you need to assert yourself. The question is are you aggressive and you blow them out of the water or do you educate in a way that they will actually be able to hear what you have to say?" George continued, noting that he took the latter route. "I just reached over and touched their arm and said, 'Write what you need me to say. And when I say it, it'll be Black. Tell the story you want to tell and it'll be fine. Write a human being and we'll make it work from there.'" 

George admits that he took the writer's intention — or at least chose to look at it — as them wanting to be authentic because, as he points out, "unless you have a Black person in there writing with you, you don't know that story." You may have "ideas" or "a theory," but until you "hire some folks of color that can give you actual experiences" you won't truly know.

"That was the first — but not the last — time that some kind of interaction like that happened in the course of my career," George — who has been married to Indian-American poet Vandana Khanna since 1999 — added.

Throughout the years, George has seen the industry change thanks to technology making it cheaper to produce new projects. He credits this for giving birth to creators such as Issa Rae — whose "unique voice" ranges from web series Awkward Black Girl to HBO's woke series Insecure — and shows like OWN's Ava DuVernay-created Queen Sugar, a "simple show … about a family trying to keep its legacy alive." This change has been "really gratifying to watch" for George who says that there is now a place for these shows and voices because there are so many platforms.

Credit: Benjo Arwas
Credit: Benjo Arwas

With his work with SAG-AFTRA's diversity advisory committee, George said he has also popped up at a few showrunner boot camps with the Writers Guild of America to teach those running their own shows or looking to create their own shows "all the things you need in order to make a good show."

"To the WGA's incredible credit, they started making diversity an actual key part of that and I would go lead a conversation about how diversity, on camera and behind the camera, helps you stack audiences in a world where television is dropping ratings on the regular," George explained. "You need to make sure that as many people as possible have some point of access into your show. Whereas the idea used to be you can make a great show and you probably should make it diverse because that's a good thing. Now people are coming to understand that your show is better because of the diversity you have in it, that its success is because of that diversity."

One way in which George has seen this exemplified throughout the years is with SAG-AFTRA's American Scene Award, an award given to producers and networks "who are being truly inclusive in their hiring practices, for the people who are getting it right." Better yet, the nominees and winners are finding success in mainstream awards proving to George that "their excellence is not despite their diversity but because of the inclusivity they show."

"What I loved watching is how over the years it's become harder and harder [to know] who is going to be receiving that award because there are so many great things happening. There's certainly room for improvement — there always is — and some areas do better than others, but in general, when we sit down, it's a hard conversation every year," George continued. "For that to stop being such an easy conversation when there's only one or two people being inclusive in hiring and the stories they tell, that's a great statement on where we are — but it's also a way to say there's so much more that needs to be done."

Thankfully there are people in Hollywood who are working hard to make sure progress is happening — and George just so happens to have two of those women as bosses: Shonda Rhimes and producing partner Betsy Beers. Working for these two, he notes, is a "phenomenal experience."

"When we do a table read I see people of every hue, women in [a] power position, and men not threatened by that," George explained. "They are businesswomen and they are going to get it done, tell a good story, and make that money. But, they're also trying to put a message out there and trying to do good at the same time. The people they work with, they try to make sure everybody has a chance to shine. The idea of inclusivity is not just the color of your skin or your gender, it is about we're going to give you the same shot we give everybody else and it's up to you to make it count. They epitomize that, I think. The rest of Hollywood is busy trying to hoard what's theirs, but they're inviting people in and helping it grow."

On these Shondaland shows — which George has been a part of on Grey's Anatomy as Dr. Ben Warren in addition to 2011's short-lived Off the Map as Dr. Otis Cole — diversity is seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, with no character feeling like the "token" anything. 

"The key is there are no token characters, everybody has some story to tell. That might not be the lens we're looking through — on Grey's Anatomy Meredith Grey is the lens through which we look at this thing," George added. "This show rotates around and everybody is going to have an episode and have a story arc that is theirs at some point and time. You are a full-fledged character as opposed to purely a function of somebody else and purely a function of getting a story out."

What this means is that George, who will be pulling double duty in Shondaland this season by continuing to be a series regular on Grey's Anatomy as well as joining an upcoming firefighter spin-off is — hopefully, at least — done playing the "Black best friend."

"Playing the Black best friend has been a good portion of my career and any Black man in Hollywood will tell you they played the Black best friend in this, that, and the other thing," George concluded. "You write a person and, once you cast somebody and an ethnicity lands on that character, you fill in the rest of them naturally. [Shondaland] definitely doesn't feel like any tokenism or anything like that. I think part of that, again, is because they have a lot of different people in that writer's room."

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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