“Heavy Character Actresses” Need Not Apply? Women Get Real on Casting

Special Features   “Heavy Character Actresses” Need Not Apply? Women Get Real on Casting Broadway actress Kathy Deitch fights back against limiting artists of a bigger size in the entertainment industry.
KATHY DEITCH_HR.jpg
Kathy Deitch

Last month, a casting breakdown hit the Internet that said, “We are not looking for heavy character actresses.” Not once—but four times.

Kathy Deitch is turning “outrage into action,” she says. “That’s what our show is about. We have a lot of fun, and we talk about entertainment, and we gossip and stuff, but it really is so we can say, ‘What’s up with that? How do we check this in the world?’”

The new show is called Plus This!, a live talk show aired every Thursday at 7 PM PT and streamed on Zinna.TV, in which Deitch and her friend, actress Eva Tingley, invite guests to talk about the issues actresses face if they’re just a bit bigger than their co-stars or colleagues.

Deitch made her Broadway debut almost 20 years ago, cutting loose nightly in the 1998 production of Footloose as Urleen, an angst-ridden teen who’s able to twist and shout her way around the town of Bomont. But, as for Hollywood, “We can’t only have Melissa McCarthy,” she says. “I’m sorry. She’s not the only one.”

The idea for the talk show stemmed from reading an article entitled “Is American Fashion Finally Embracing the Plus-Size Woman?,” in which the author references a study by Plunkett Research that says roughly 67 percent of woman in the United States wear sizes 14-34.

“That just was so shocking to me,” says Deitch. “We’re way in the majority. We’re like really the majority of women, and yet we are invisible, and we aren’t represented anywhere. And that was the thing that really upset me and [made me think], ‘Oh, I have to talk about this.’ We have to talk about being seen, and I wanted a platform.”

L.A.-based Tingley felt the same, especially working primarily in film and television. “I always wanted to be an actor,” she explains, “and growing up in L.A., I was discouraged because I wasn’t a stick figure. I was by no means heavyset at all; I was very thin. I played soccer, I swam, I was a very competitive athlete. Still, I had agents who, when I met with them, said to me, ‘You have like a…belly.’ And I didn’t. I just wasn’t one of those string-bean kids. I just wasn’t. I was really healthy and fit. But at that time, it was not okay to be that.

“Finally, as an adult, [I thought], ‘I’m doing this.’ I had to fire an agent once who told me, ‘You know, Eva, if the breakdown said ‘attractive’ I wouldn’t submit you.’ I thanked him right then and there and said, ‘Thank you so much for saying that—because you don’t see me. I might not be a size 0, but I am by no means unattractive. So, thank you for saying that. I’m going to move on.’ I chose to not have any representation at that point, rather than have somebody who didn’t see me. Then, six months later, I booked a part on my own on Scandal that was for ‘Sexy Secretary.’ And everybody else that was in that casting office was a string bean, and then there was me, and I booked it. I booked ‘Sexy Secretary,’ [a part] that agent would not have even submitted me for.”

Deitch and Tingley are frustrated with breakdowns that eliminate bigger-sized actresses from leading roles or characters seen as “sexy” or “liberated.” They explain that woman of their size are typically called in for mothers or slobs, with no in-between; they can’t be seen in a role that simply doesn’t address their weight at all.

“I cannot tell you how many pilot scripts I have gone in for where it called for a woman of a certain size,” says Deitch. But, it’s not just film; occasionally, the theatre industry slips up, too—most recently with the Encores! audition breakdown for The Golden Apple, in which it stated in the description for four different characters, “We are not looking for heavy character actresses.”

“Who felt like they could do that?” Deitch asks angrily. “And who felt like that was even a good idea, first of all? … It’s a reading series. Encores! should actually be something where people of all body types can participate even more so because I don’t have to, you know, develepé for a whole eight counts!”

Following an uproar from performers like Deitch and Tingley, the casting breakdown was changed to say, “Please note the changes for the following roles (Lovey Mars, Mrs. Juniper, Miss Minerva Olive, and Mother Hare) in the breakdown of Golden Apple. We sincerely apologize as we do not want to exclude anyone or any type in the casting of this production.”

Conversely, “I don’t want to only go out for it if the breakdown or the storyline says overweight or chubby or plus-size or plump or pleasantly plump,” says Tingley. “Why is it that I have to identify as a plus-size actor? Why isn’t it that I’m an actor [and] I happen to look like this? Why does that affect the story in any way?”

Moving forward, Deitch and Tingley want to see actresses of their size play all kinds of roles, from the love interest to the heroine, without addressing weight as a joke or an obstacle to overcome. They want more actresses to be seen.

“There’s a place for everybody,” says Deitch. “There really is a place for everyone. And I would encourage [aspiring actresses] not to hide because that’s one thing I do see when I work with kids—the bigger girls like to hide in the back, and they don’t want to dance out as much, they don’t want to sing out as much, and I have to get on them about their confidence. So, I would definitely say: Don’t hide, and hang in there, and don’t ever do anything that you think is degrading to who you are. That’s the most important thing: You don’t have to do it because someone said you should. Standing up for yourself is important.”

Did Deitch ever dance in the back? No way.

“A.C. Ciulla would never let me put myself in the back [in Footloose]!” she says. “As we were singing, in that opening number, I was always in the front. I was always in the front.”

Follow Plus This! on Facebook and Twitter, and watch the show here.

READ IS WEIGHT JUST A NUMBER? ACTING, AUDITIONING AND BEING AUTHENTIC AT A BIGGER SIZE IN THIS GIGANTIC INDUSTRY

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

The cast of <i>Footloose </i>
The cast of Footloose
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