The ‘class ceiling’, a barrier in the entertainment industry
The Washington Post
A recent study shows that actors coming from working-class backgrounds face some problems in their careers
There have been a slew of studies about how hard it is for women and non-whites to break into the entertainment industry, and a new British Academy of Film and Television Arts report reinforces those notions with the help of British actors.
Rogue One star Riz Ahmed, for example, explains that he nearly couldn’t go to drama school, because he didn’t have the money. And Moonlight's Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris credits colourblind casting for supplying her big break in 28 Days Later.
But the report briefly mentions one other interesting variable: the “class ceiling” that holds back strivers who weren’t born at the right level on the social hierarchy.
One anonymous industry influencer, who was interviewed for the report, puts it this way: “In film, you have to know the people who make the decisions (about film funding) and speak their language, but it really helps if you have family money and backing. Being BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] is not the issue, it’s being working-class and not having contacts or money to smooth your way.”
The study doesn’t ultimately rule on the complicated race versus class issue and to what extent they’re connected.
Possible discrimination against working-class actors has been a recurring conversation across the pond for some time, especially as posh British school kids, such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Thomas Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne and Emily Blunt, have shot to fame in recent years.
Vocal actors from working-class backgrounds include James McAvoy, Ian McShane and Oscar nominee Julie Walters, among others. In past interviews, all three assure they have nothing against the prepsters who are raking it in, but they worry that arts funding has dried up, making it nearly impossible for newcomers who don't have the resources to go to drama school.
Walters credits a grant to study English and drama that helped her break into acting. But those grants aren’t available anymore.
“It’s shocking how that flow of talent has just stopped,” she told Radio Times in 2015. “It will change the population of actors, which is terrible really. It won’t be representative of society.”
McAvoy, meanwhile, worked at a bakery to pay his way through drama school. He aired his concerns about the new privileged class of actors to the Herald of Scotland.
“That’s a frightening world to live in,” he said in an interview, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, our culture starts to become representative not of everybody, but of one tiny part, and that's not fair to begin with, but it's also damaging for society.”
This is a particularly stubborn issue in a land that still glorifies its princes and duchesses. Superficially, this British problem becomes an American problem in an era when American characters are often played by Brits.
But it’s also an American problem because inequality is an American problem —increasingly so.
Research shows the gap in income and wealth between the haves and have-nots is at historic levels. And so is the lack of social mobility. According to one report, fewer than 10 percent of those born into the bottom fifth of wealth distribution will make it into the top fifth, and 20 percent of people in the middle fifth rise to the top tier.
Even as there has been a push for more racial diversity in entertainment here, it may not necessarily help the class gap. Shonda Rhimes, for example, had to overcome a lot as a female black showrunner, and she’s credited with changing the face of television with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. It doesn’t diminish these accomplishments to say that Rhimes had a middle-class upbringing. She’s the daughter of a professor and has an Ivy League education. The same goes for other trailblazers, such as Mindy Kaling, whose parents were an architect and a doctor, and Jenji Kohan, the Orange Is the New Black creator who grew up in Beverly Hills, the daughter of an Emmy-winning television writer.
The pattern has often gone unnoticed in entertainment, though sometimes it appears egregious enough to cause a sensation. Girls came under fire when viewers realized that all four of the main characters are the daughters of prominent artists, musicians, writers and newscasters.
Of course there have been some stories of class mobility. Steve McQueen was abandoned by his parents, then sent to a boys school for troubled kids; Gene Hackman left Iowa to enlist in the Marines at 16; Harrison Ford was a carpenter and stagehand before he was Han Solo; and Texas native Tommy Lee Jones made it to Harvard —but only with the help of a need-based scholarship.
This year’s Oscar nominees show a somewhat mixed assortment of backgrounds. Supporting actress contender Octavia Spencer grew up as the daughter of a maid in Alabama, and a recent New Yorker profile of nominee Viola Davis revealed that she grew up destitute. But supporting actor nominees Jeff Bridges and Lucas Hedges probably made their way to acting more easily; Bridges is the son of two actors and Hedges’ father is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of About a Boy.
The class discrepancy in the US did get some attention recently. During a heated conversation at a Sundance Film Festival luncheon, Salma Hayek and Daily Show alum Jessica Williams got into a debate about the difficulty of making it in Hollywood as a black woman. Hayek got on the wrong side of Twitter with the way she seemed to invalidate Williams's point of view.
“Baby, I’m Mexican and Arab,” Hayek told Williams, according to the LA Times. “I’m from another generation, baby, when this was not even a possibility. My generation, they said, ‘Go back to Mexico. You’ll never be anything other than a maid in this country.’ By the heads of studios! There was no movement. Latino women were not even anywhere near where you guys are. I was the first one. I'm 50 years old. So I understand.”
Williams quietly responded, “You don't understand.”
Hayek no doubt had to suffer through obstacles on her way to success. But her critics were also quick to mention that she had one advantage. She grew up wealthy in Mexico, the daughter of an opera singer and an oil company executive.