ViacomCBS’ Tiffany Smith Anoa’i

Tiffany Smith Anoa'i
Tiffany Smith Anoa’i

Before the merger of Viacom and CBS Tiffany Smith Anoa’i, was a trail blazer at CBS Entertainment, created a new path, uniquely her own, that broadly defined diversity in TV programming. As the Executive Vice President, Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications, she works to show a world in entertainment that reflects all of us, inclusive of race, ethnicity, gender identity, disability and more.

Smith Anoa’i shares her story and explains how life-changing events acted as a catalyst to her self-made role at CBS Entertainment. She talks about how she expands the thinking and biases of her colleagues, from writers to casting directors, so that they see the world in a more inclusive and life affirming way. For Smith Anoa’I, it’s important that all actors have the opportunity to shine.

Bette Midler said, “When you are passionate about something, you should pick up your flag and run with it.” That is exactly what Tiffany Smith Anoa’i has been doing. As a young girl, she wanted to be a broadcast journalist and report on sports after seeing Jayne Kennedy on TV. It wasn’t until realizing she preferred to work behind the camera, instead of in front of it, while doing a very life altering internship, that her career as a publicist took off leading her to CBS.

While working as a publicist for what had been one of the three major networks when she started, she knew she wanted to do more. She wanted to see more of reality, more of what you see when you walk out the door, more people like her represented on TV.

Letting her passion drive her, she made a PowerPoint and the case that CBS needed more than a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative for their entertainment division. They needed an office, and it needed her. Her title is now Executive Vice President, Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment.

ABILITY Magazine’s Shelly Rohe and Chet Cooper sat down with her in her office to talk about diversity in casting and the projects she’s currently working on to bring more diversity to Hollywood.

Smith Anoa’i: I’d like to introduce Kelley Cape our intern.

Kelley Cape: Hi, I just started interning here recently, but I have six-plus years of experience in neurodiversity. I interned for the National Foundation for Autism Research over a summer and I’ve been doing a lot of activism work in redefining what disability means in popular society. I’m super-involved in that community and couldn’t be more passionate about it.

Cooper: Where do you go to school?

Cape: I go to USC. I study communication entrepreneurship. I’m a junior.

Cooper: And your favorite color? (laughter)

Cape: My favorite color? That’s probably the hardest question of them all. Today, it’s blue.

Cooper: I like that, “today it’s …”

check this out

Smith Anoa’i: I like being able to change it up a little bit. That’s important.

Cooper: [speaking to Tiffany] Kelley is a great find.

Smith Anoa’i: She is, believe me. And normally, I will say that normally we always get an amazing group of applicants, but—and not just because she’s sitting here–but she blew everyone else out of the water, honestly. It was the preparation, the professionalism. And again, I’m not looking for an expert because it’s an internship. This isn’t a job. It’s much more like—I always say that the internship has to benefit the intern much more than it benefits me personally, or even the department. She was incredible. We’re so lucky to have her.

Cooper: So she’s not getting the benefit? You are? (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: Exactly! We’ve been having her sit in with us to be exposed to this business, you have to see how it operates. It’s not just, “Can you make a copy? Can you fax something?” You know? That’s why I said, “OK, we’re doing this interview this morning. I want you to sit in.”

Cooper: Nice.

Smith Anoa’i: Any of our major meetings, whatever it is, she’s right there. Because then you can make that decision whether you really want to do this as a career and make an educated opinion on, “OK, this is what I want to go into.” When I was an intern, I was like, “Oh, this isn’t what I want to do.” It provided that exposure also.

Cooper: We support a program called ‘Find Your Calling’. It is a multiple-day workshop about the industry so people can understand the many aspects. It’s about inclusion and bringing people into the mix of things to see all the aspects of what the industry has to offer, what CBS does. They can experience and see anything excites then for their career plans? We finish the workshop with producing a video. The students experience in front, and behind the camera. Neurodiversity has been a big issue. We came back not that long ago from presenting at the Neurodiversity in the Workplace, at Kennedy Krieger Institute? Do you know about Kennedy Krieger?

Cape: I don’t.

Cooper: They’re in Baltimore, a big program on neurodiversity.

Smith Anoa’i: You’ll have to look it up.

Cape: That’s awesome. I will.

Cooper: Tell us about the path that has you sitting in front of us today.

Smith Anoa’i: It’s been one heck of a path, honestly. I started here at CBS as a publicist, and it is 20 years ago this month. If I looked it up it would be right around this time. It was the 1999-2000 television season, and that particular season is something where the diversity talks sprouted.

At that time, there were three major networks, and they were presenting their fall lineup. There wasn’t any person of color in a leading role, no one with a disability, no one of veteran status, no one LGBTQ+–not the character–across all series regulars, across all three networks. That’s when it started, the diversity talk, if you will, started.

I was the only person of color in the department. A lot of the questions came to me in the sense of “The NAACP’s on the phone, what do we say?” I’m like, “They speak English. Just talk to them.” (laughter) “Let’s just have a conversation.” It kept on kind of defaulting that way.

I was looking at our shows, how they were made, how we promote and market them. And we’re all—when you just said the workshop that you-all do, Find Your Calling–For me, how I’m in this desk now sitting across from you-all, there will be a catalyst for everyone’s career at some point–And for me, it was the death of my father. My father passed away, and we had that time to grieve. And I felt that it was one of those where I kept hearing his voice–not literally, figuratively–saying “What do you really want to do?”.

I had two weeks off for bereavement. I channeled everything I could into research of Nielsen numbers research on having an inclusive television broadcast network across all platforms. I did this PowerPoint, had the numbers, armed with everything, came in to my boss when I came back.

And I was like, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?” “Sure.”(He responded.) I said, “I don’t think you’re managing me in the most effective way. This is where television is going, and we’re not even in the ballpark.”

At first, he was taken aback. “Who’s this little girl in here telling me that I’m not managing her effectively?” But I could see it in his eyes that he understood I wanted to make the company better. I wanted to add value.

It was two years in the making. It was two years of “No. Not right now. We don’t have the budget. What would you do all day.” Blah-blah-blah.d And then when I met with our former chairwoman, Nina Tassler, I gave her my pitch, a PowerPoint with updated numbers and blah-blah-blah. She said, “We would be stupid not to make this happen.”

Cooper: That was a good response. (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: It’s a great response. And I was a one-woman band for a few years. Now, fast-forward, I have a whole team.

Cooper: Including interns. (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: Including interns, full, year-round interns. Not just in the summer. And that’s the shorthand of how I’m sitting here and why—what the catalyst was, why I’m passionate about it. Obviously as a woman of color I want to see not only myself, but those who are around me in media, and specifically in television. That’s why I work here.

The biggest part of it all, though, was that television is a window into people’s worlds. It’s also free. To me, if you’ve still got bunny ears, you could get a couple of channels. Cable, you pay for, but television is free. And it is not only in our living rooms, but it’s everywhere. It’s in our hands now. I think we hear stuff perpetuated so often that, “I saw it on television, so it must be true.”

I want to make sure that if we are broadcasters and we take that first part of the word–you want to be as broad as possible. Inclusive storytelling makes everything richer. It’s not the same story. It’s not a stereotype perpetuated over and over and over again. We give more opportunities to have richer storytelling.

Rohe: What was that quote about what you see when you walk out the door? You said that what you see outside your door should be reflective of—

Tiffany Smith Anoa'iSmith Anoa’i: Yes, it’s a window. I’m saying–to me, television is a window to the world to open up. If you are not seeing yourself reflected, then you are limiting what it is to me for anyone to even have a job within that. How would I ever know to be whatever that television is even wanting me to be part of it if I’m not visible? If I’m not—or if one story has always been told, that’s what is that we go with. So it’s always been something like, “Oh, that’s just how it’s been done.” I think that’s what it is.

Rohe: Take us back to day one. What did you start doing when you started this position?

Smith Anoa’i: Day one–and I’ll tell you, even when I left her office when she said we’d be stupid not to make this happen–I walked across this lot right here, and I called my husband and I said, “They said yes!” And he said, “Didn’t you want them to?” (laughter) But it has been one of those—we get used to no’s. I didn’t know if this is going to happen.

So, day one, it really was organizing how we did business and who we did business with. It was really looking at the whole process, from casting and even before it has to be cast. Let’s go back to development. What agencies are we working with? I sat in meetings with everyone so that they knew that this position existed, that we are here and that we want not just your everyday clients that you’re used to pitching and stories. So, I think that day one was really making sure that everyone knew that I existed.

I wrote on three Post-It notes, “What do I want this department to be known for?” It was exposure, access, opportunity. Those were the pillars, “That’s our North Star.” Exposure, access, opportunity. Because in order for someone to be either working in this business as an executive and/or in front of or behind the camera, you have to be exposed to the business in some form or fashion, right? You have to be exposed to it.

Then the next part of it, someone has to say “yes,” and give you that access, whether it’s an internship, under five lines on a soap opera, or in the mailroom. You’ve got that access.

Then the next is opportunity. “Let me show you what I can do” because I think that this industry was never built in mind to be inclusive. It was never—To me, it’s been systemically one way for years. There’s been to me a Do Not Enter sign on the door for many, many years. And now, in my role, and with this team, that sign has been taken off.

Rohe: Where at some point do you start—it feels like there was momentum within the industry?

Smith Anoa’i: I think that it took a while because you’re trying to change something that people don’t think is broken. You’re also trying not to be seen as a police. I don’t want to be known as the diversity police.

I don’t want to be known that I’m trying to take away your creativity. I want it to be much more that I’m not taking away, I’m adding. I’m adding something that perhaps you never thought of. I’m adding something to be a resource to you. I’m adding. It’s not taking away.

I think the first part was really that I always say that they should call me Professor Smith Anoa’i because I feel that I’m teaching all the time. I think that there was a huge part of education. It was really necessary for not only this role, but how it could benefit every other department.

I think that the other part of it is in the industry by far, social media. It is one of those that now we are seeing #ShowUsYourRoom, right? “What does your writers’ room look like?” You can’t hide behind that it is not an inclusive room. Or just—what’s the directing one on Fridays? Oh, Female Filmmaker Fridays. That’s another hashtag. You’re seeing women behind the camera. So, I think that social media definitely again provided that exposure, and you couldn’t ignore it.

Cooper: [looking at Shelly] You’re smiling. (laughter)

Rohe: I just love hearing your story, it’s so awesome. Did you grow up in Samoa?

Smith Anoa’i: My husband’s from Samoa. My name has an apostrophe in it. There’s a funny story because my maiden name is Smith. Growing up no one ever asked me how to spell it. I was like, “I wish someone would ask me how to spell Smith.” My mom’s name is Nancy, so it was Nancy Smith, and people would comment, “Sure your name’s Nancy Smith.” Like it was made up.

And then when I met my husband, he said, “Well, I gave you a last name that has five letters, 15 syllables, and an apostrophe.” (laughter) “You got what you asked for.” I’m actually a native Angelino. I grew up in Malibu. I’m a beach baby, so I think that I’m very calm because I grew up near the water.

Rohe: Nice! This past Media Access Awards, you gave an award to Jay Ruderman. Can you talk to us about the connection with the pledge?

Smith Anoa’i: Yes. I love the pledge. We’re still the only network that did that, and I find that asinine, honestly. The pledge is “I’m going to audition performers with disabilities for our picked-up pilot.”

All of us are already doing it. But if you can’t make a public pledge to that? It doesn’t make sense to me. But I digress. How it came to be–I think that one of the things in my education of overall talking about diversity–When I saw the word “diversity”,–and even if it was 19 years ago or today–I can look in someone’s eyes, and I can see that they’re thinking of someone black. Always.

Cooper: My eyes?

Smith Anoa’i: Not yours. (laughter) I’m using it broadly. Normally, that’s what—diversity is synonymous number one, with ethnicity and race. It is never thought of as neurodiversity, as a performer with a disability, a veteran, LGBTQ characters, women over 50. Not thought of, right? So I think that, in my passion of educating people, whenever we would talk, we would ask them, “OK, you have this role”—I forget what show it was. I think it was S.W.A.T.–And they were going to Venice Beach. The cops pull up–the SWAT team pulls up to a basketball game going on. And I said, “You know what? The Paralympics are in town next week. Why don’t we have them outside playing basketball?” And it was like I had solved the hardest math problem ever known to man. It was just, “Yes, why not?”

Because nine times out of ten, it’s much more. As opposed to coming from malice, they’re just not thinking about us. That’s the other thing, which is to me a little bit more disheartening. “Gosh, you didn’t even think?” Those were the things. To me, it was my mission that I really wanted to—with performers with disabilities, I wanted to make sure that was at the forefront of the diversity conversation.

And then the other part was casting. What we found that casting directors’ offices are notoriously on the second floor of buildings in Hollywood that don’t have elevators. So, anyone who uses a wheelchair wouldn’t even be able to make it, right? Or any other physical disability that would prevent someone from stairs. They couldn’t even go to the audition. That was another thing. So, we have a first-floor audition space here on the lot for any production that wants to utilize it.

Jay Ruderman found out about this and what we were doing with casting– plus what we were doing with Easterseals’ filmmaker challenge that I was a part of. And we met and started working together. And finally last year, when he said, “Will you sign this pledge? A public pledge because you do need that.” And I was in the room, and I said, “Absolutely.” And we’re continuing to work together.

There was an email from a casting director that said, “With our pledge to the Ruderman Foundation, we were able to create this role for someone who uses a wheelchair. This is who we’re selecting. It was so organic and natural. We wanted to let you know.” It was like, “It’s working!” Because you have to put it out there.

Another thing we did that I’ll share with you–At the beginning of the season we meet with executive producers to show them (a handout). “This is who we are. These are the initiatives we have. These are a few of the organizations we work with. These are our statistics.”

In the middle section, where you see kind of percentages, I said, “These are FF, fun facts.” But I like to call them frightening facts because of the disparities. I want to make sure that this (handout) is something—and I laminated it also so they couldn’t throw it away–This was something at the top of the season.

We’d go in, talk to the entire writers’ room. So they haven’t written any episodes yet. They haven’t thought about characters. Whatever it might be. We have this (handout), and they all have it in their writers’ room as a reminder. I want them to know that one in five people (have a disability). It’s one of those that’s top of mind, and that has been really invaluable as we move forward.

Cooper: I feel really bad that you’re going to change this because you’re going to add abilityE (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: Of course, we are! And we have to change it because this is old. It’s about to change shortly. We’ll put that right there. Plus, I have to also change the logo because now we’re ViacomCBS. So, this is six months old, but it’s still a nice reminder, right?

Rohe: I love that it’s laminated.viacomcbs diversity sheet

Smith Anoa’i: I did laminate it because I knew it would go right in the trash if I didn’t. Or get lost, maybe not intentionally.

Cooper: Have you been to this comedy—[looking at the information sheet]

Smith Anoa’i: Comedy Showcase? We created it, and I’ve been at the helm for the past—this was our 16th year. Our Showcase is one of the things that I am definitely most proud of. Did you attend this year?

Cooper: No, I didn’t even know!

Smith Anoa’i: What?

Cooper: I’m a firm believer that humor is part of a healing aspect in life. So, add disability and humor, I’m always there.

Smith Anoa’i: It was wonderful. I will make sure that you’re on the list for next time. It’s always the third week in January. We will make sure that you’re there.

Cooper: Shall we tell the intern? (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: Nope, I will already know! I will tell Joshua right now! (laughter)

Cooper: That’s great. We just—the magazine’s been around 30 years, and from the beginning we have a humor therapy, and the writers are always people with disabilities. The longest is Jeff Charlebois, do you know him? He does such a great stand-up.

Smith Anoa’i: I’m very familiar with him.

Cooper: He has a great voice, he can sing. Sorry, back to—

Rohe: We were talking about lamination. I love that there is a permanency to something that may be temporary. I think it’s so neat you did that visual reminder of how—like you were saying, in TV and Media Access Awards.

We started to talk to you about casting and what we’re doing. It’s kind of along that line that when you see something or if you don’t see something, it becomes unimportant. That group that you’re considered part of is obsolete or not thought of.

When you’re talking to casting people and writing people, what are you saying? It’s understood that lead roles probably need to be that–the money draw is the lead actor. Can some parts of the rest be nonlead roles be given to people with a disability? Do you do other things like that?

tiffany smith anoai
Tiffany Smith Anoa’i CBS Studios Los Angeles

Smith Anoa’i: Oh, yeah, all the time. We’ll come in as a constant. We’ll look at every script, especially when we’re saying we’re to be utilized as a resource, we want to make sure that, “OK, what world is that taking place in? Where are we in the world? Where can we—why does it have to be?”

I would say that they call me the “Why not? woman” to my face and behind my back, too. Because I’m constantly asking that question, “Why not?” In order for anyone—Like you mentioned, that of course they need a name to sell a show, mostly. But we make the names, meaning not me, but collectively in the industry.

How did they get to become a lead? Because someone gave them an opportunity after an opportunity after an opportunity and saw that potential.

My thing is that yes, where I’m not saying, “We have to have the lead roles or whatever it is, but you have to give someone so that they can learn this business, and if that is an extra role, a background role.” Under five, now guest star, now co-star. You lead up to that.

But if you’re completely eliminated and never given the opportunity, then we will hear those myths that “The pool is too small. No one is available. We can’t find anyone.” And that’s all horseshit, as far as I’m concerned because if you really—To me, it might take a couple of phone calls. Whereas I know that this business runs very quickly, and I need to cast my show and I need to do it right away, and I can’t wait for two days to cast one role. I understand all of that.

However, to me, I feel that not only casting directors, but writers as well have to put that out there and ask for it. It has to be in there. So I don’t like the term “blind casting.” I want you to see me! All of me! I want them to see! It’s not one of those, “Oh, anyone could do it.” We have to be specific about this.

Rohe: Is there a formula or something where you would say, “For this many people we need this many people with a disability?”

Smith Anoa’i: Not a formula, but especially with the pledge now, you have to audition. It’s one of those that—and I don’t want it to be only when the role calls for it. It’s one of the things like, “OK, I’m at the DMV. Oh, look at where—” Again, where are these shows taking place and why not someone, a performer with a disability? Why not? If we see it in real life, and I’m not saying that these are documentaries and we’re doing The History Channel here. It is still entertainment, but we still have to build authentic worlds because that’s what our audience expects. And that’s the other part.

check this out

When I was talking about all of the social media stuff, your business will not be sustainable if you’re not having authentic interactions with it, where it’s just like, “OK, I’m in a medical drama based in San Francisco, and I don’t see a Filipino nurse in that cast.” You’ve had to have gone out of your way to do that. (laughter)

Cooper: Have you been to the Philippines?

Smith Anoa’i: Absolutely.

Cooper: Most people don’t know they have a sort of nursing school industry in the Philippines.

Smith Anoa’i: Yes. That’s why the proportion of nurses, especially from the Philippines, and having migrated to Spain because they’re their sister and brother country. The amount of nurses as well as caregivers in Spain has skyrocketed with Filipinos.

Cooper: [asking Kelley] If you were sitting here asking questions, what would you ask?

Cape: That’s a good question. (laughter) I would definitely ask how diversity played a role before your professional career, growing up. How did it affect your life in college, before having the professional decision to do it?

Cooper: I was going to ask the same question. (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: See? You had it right there. (laughter) I think that anyone who is from a marginalized group, you are always made aware that you’re “othered” by others. I didn’t have—it wasn’t anything specific that—it’s not like I grew up in the Deep South in the ’60s and experienced so much racism. It wasn’t so much that, but it was one of those where I didn’t see myself. And what the real–I think first time that I even recognized that, I was a big football fan.

My father and I would watch football games. It was half-time. It’s 1976, I remember I’m sitting on his lap. We’re watching the game. And a woman comes on the screen as a sports broadcaster. Her name is Jayne Kennedy. First black female sports broadcaster on CBS. I looked, and I was—I can remember this—I turned and I was like, “Daddy, a girl can do that?” And he almost cried.

He was like, “Of course they can! Absolutely they can!” And that was the day that I was like, “I’m going to be a Jayne Kennedy. I’m going to be a sports broadcaster.” But I didn’t see me on TV, and that was really the catalyst for why—I didn’t even say at first—I mean, I knew she was—I could recognize that she was black because she looked like me. But I hadn’t seen that. I said, “A girl can do that?” And that’s how I—then once I got into the newsroom, like I was telling you about internships, I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do this!”

I watched the production and everything and I was like, “I don’t want to be in front of the camera. I want to be behind. I want to tell people what to do, not just listen and do stories.” That would be the answer to that, Jayne Kennedy.

Tiffany Smith Anoa'i
Tiffany Smith Anoa’i in her LA office

Cooper: I’m glad I came up with that question. (laughter)

Smith Anoa’i: Me, too!

Cooper: It shows the power of what you see on that screen.

Smith Anoa’i: Oh, it was so powerful. I can—like, I have goose bumps because I really remember feeling that I saw her. No one looked like me. No one looked like my family on TV, at all.

Cooper: That’s what we’re trying to do with abilityE.

Smith Anoa’i: At the Media Access awards, there was—do you remember who gave this quote? They were saying, with performers with disabilities who weren’t born with a physical disability, “It’s the only minority group that you could join at any time.”

Cooper: They’re called TABs, temporarily able-bodied.

Smith Anoa’i: Is that the quote? I don’t know if they said “minority” or just “group” that you could join at any time.

Cooper: We say “the only minority you can join at any time”, but it’s said both ways. It’s the largest minority, and the reason is that all other minorities are in it as well. When we think about employment, if you’re an African American woman—with a disability, it becomes more difficult to find employment.

Smith Anoa’i: Yes.

Cooper: Have you heard about the NIH statistic about disability?

Smith Anoa’i: No.

Cooper: On average, everyone will experience one or more disabilities for 13 years in their own lifetime. I describe it as the bell-shaped curve of life. If you’re on the top of the curve and you’re starting to go downhill on the other side, as we pick up speed, we pick up more and more disabilities. Hearing is usually the first that goes, and then things like osteoporosis, cancer, etc.

We say it’s the fabric of life. You might be hit by a bus and not have a disability, but on average—and as medicine gets better, we live longer, so it’s a quality of life issue as well.

Smith Anoa’i: I’ll use that one.

Smith Anoa’i: Exactly, but not with that! (laughs)

Cooper: I was with an actor who uses a wheelchair and went into a building that has an elevator, but it’s such an old building that the buttons are so high that the person in the wheelchair cannot get to the button for the casting office. If I hadn’t been there, they would have had to wait for someone to come in. And it was a very small, narrow office that people in the waiting room had to move their chairs to allow a wheelchair to get through. They’re not thinking ahead.

Smith Anoa’i: Not at all. That was my biggest thing. When I saw that it’s not so much that—you can’t say—I mean, I think that institutional racism, sexism, all of that has been around for years and is still very prevalent. However, I still feel that it is just not thinking at all. “This is what a family looks like.” Because it’s been regurgitated down our throats for our whole lives. My Three Sons. This is what—a woman doesn’t work. For me, it’s been institutionalized of what fill-in-the-blank looks like. Right now, that’s why we’re still having so many firsts.

check this out

Cooper: TV’s so powerful because you can change those dynamics.

Smith Anoa’i: Exactly. We have a casting director luncheon. We do it annually, and we get every casting director for every show. It’s not only just the network and studio casting, but it’s also each show has a casting director. We usually have guest speakers. This year we had Nyle DeMarco.

We also had another actress, Azita Ghanizada, who has started a coalition group for Middle Eastern and North African actors — Mena Arts Advocacy Coalition. It was one of those that we heard a lot of the casting directors–and there were 67 of them in the room that day–and they kept using the phrase, “Diversity is a priority for us. It’s at the top of our minds. We always ask our producers if we can open it up for every role. Like, if it isn’t specific, we’d like to open it up. We always ask them if we can open it up to diversity.” I kept hearing that, similar to what you were saying, and it kept hitting my ear.

So I asked them, “What are we opening it up from? What is closed?” And then they said, “Oh, well, you know.” And I was like, “No, I don’t. What are we opening it up from? If the baseline straight white male, then it feels like you’re putting a square into a circle. I don’t want to hear that we’re opening it up. It should be open to everyone.”

Cooper: What was the response?

Smith Anoa’i: Again, flabbergasted. (laughter) They looked like, “I never thought of that. And they don’t understand, that there was lots of biased language in casting. There’s so much biased language especially for casting directors, there’s no school for casting directors. You don’t go to school to be a casting director. You might work within the industry, but you don’t get a certificate, a degree.

You bring in your own biases on what a firefighter looks like, what a doctor, a leading woman looks like. Everyone has it. I have biases, of course. Everyone has natural biases. But those are the things we’re trying to get them away from, that language. It’s like, “The pool is too small. We won’t be able to find someone. They won’t have the acting ability.” How do you know? If you don’t give someone the shot, how are you going to know that? And the pool is so small? Why do you think the pool is so small?

Shelly Rohe and Tiffany Smith Anoa'i
Shelly Rohe and Tiffany Smith Anoa’i

Rohe: My background is in casting. I started as assistant to a casting director and then I had a brain tumor and ended up using a chair. Chet asked me one day in my big Aha! moment, “When you were casting, did you cast people with disabilities?” I had worked with people with disabilities prior, so I was thinking, “No, I did what I was told.”

Smith Anoa’i: Mm-hmm.

check this out

Rohe: I did what I thought the director or producer wanted. I was so nervous to deviate from that. It’s so amazing that you give permission that way to think for themselves.

Smith Anoa’i: Yes, absolutely! That’s the other thing. To me, when it says—and that was the other thing I gave them at the casting director luncheon. We all see on break-downs, “Submit all ethnicities.” That’s how they’re saying that they’re being inclusive. “Well, we tell our agents to submit all ethnicities.” And it’s like, it’s our job to make sure that all ethnicities are in the room. That’s our job. You can put that one little line, but how much do you pay attention when you’re on the airplane and the lady’s going over the seat belt or the man’s going over the seat belt tutorial. I don’t pay attention to that. It’s the same concept. I think it says to submit all ethnicities, but very often they don’t.

Cape: I think that’s a diversity inclusion topic, too, where it’s one thing to be invited to the party and another to be asked to dance. There’s a big difference between diversity and diversity inclusion.

Smith Anoa’i: Of course! Because casting can plug in people. But if we’re really going to be inclusive, we’ll make sure that we’re looking at our writers and making sure that they’re given the opportunity to write full stories for everyone, and not just one singular part of the population.

What I’m really excited about with this merger with Viacom is now we are together with Nickelodeon. We have the opportunity to be over children’s programming. That’s huge.

We are with Paramount. That’s film now. We are with all of the cable groups over there. Our world has now expanded so much more where I can give many more laminated sheets out (laughter) to so many more people that the conversation is no longer to me à la carte. It’s on the main dish with everything. I think that’s what’s next, continuing all of the initiatives that we have, building out new ones, and hopefully more people signing the Ruderman pledge.

check this out


sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: