Actress/screenwriter Ursula Taherian talks to Awards Daily about her award-winning short film The Brownlist, and why the world isn’t black or white or dark brown.
In the opening moments of the short film The Brownlist, actress Ursula Taherian (playing a version of herself) kills it in the audition. The casting agents love her, too—except for her skin color. Even though the role calls for an Afghan, which she is, she’s not dark enough—she’s a “Half-ghan.”
Back in November, I first saw The Brownlist at the Napa Valley Film Festival where it received riotous applause, and today the film drops online (March 25). I had a chance to chat with Taherian through email about the creation of the film (she’s also the screenwriter), the true auditions that served as the genesis of the story, and what she wants you to know about MENA actors.
Awards Daily: How did you get the idea for The Brownlist? It’s hilarious and fun, but has a definite bite to it. Were the experiences in the film based on real experiences?
Ursula Taherian: With the exception of one scene (you’ll know it when you see it), everything in the film is based on personal experience. Hey, comedy is other people’s (or your own) pain, right? I was getting close on so many big roles, but ultimately not booking them because I was told I didn’t “look Middle Eastern enough.” Enough for what? Enough for whom? What does a Middle Eastern person look like? We don’t all look the same! 50 Shades of Brown, people! Oooh, that sounds like a sequel to me… I came to understand it was the “idea” of what a Middle Eastern person looks like that I wasn’t living up to. I later discovered that Middle Eastern people were actually considered Caucasian and unable to fulfill diverse hiring quotas anyway. I know, my brain broke, too.
So, I decided I could either sit in my room and cry (which I also did) or I could do something about it. I wasn’t getting acting jobs because I wasn’t brown enough so I created my own acting job about not being brown enough. And what I learned is that there is truly nothing more rewarding, more creatively satisfying than using art to take a stand on something you are passionate about.
AD: That’s so inspiring that you turned the frustration of not getting jobs. . .into a job! What was the worst “stereotype” audition you ever had?
UT: A lot of the Middle Eastern roles I go out for involve a head scarf and an accent, which is fine if it serves the story and makes sense for the character. But more often it feels like a “costume” to “show” the character is Middle Eastern. Not every MENA (Middle Eastern North African) person is Muslim, and not every Muslim wears a head scarf, and sometimes the accent just doesn’t make sense.
AD: TV is getting more diverse, but it seems like Middle Eastern characters have been left behind, with only 1% of MENA actors in roles on TV. Why do you think that is?
UT: I think it’s because MENA people have primarily been seen as only one thing, thus limiting the roles available to them. According to a study by MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC), 78% of MENA actors are portrayed as terrorists, tyrants, agents or soldiers—and of that, 67% speak with an accent, further reinforcing the idea that MENAs are foreigners.
AD: How did your years of being in the industry prepare you for this? You mostly work in acting, but you wrote the script to The Brownlist.
You’re right, my experience is primarily in acting, and prior to that, finance and accounting. I never thought of myself as a writer, or producer, or filmmaker, I suppose until I was one. Prior to The Brownlist, I co-created a web series called The Breakup Diaries (over 2 million views on Funny or Die), but that was pretty much it. I learned to write by reading a LOT of scripts—seeing what worked and what didn’t, and watching a lot of television—learning the musicality of comedy. The idea for The Brownlist was brewing for a while but I wrote the script in one night in a moment of what Elizabeth Gilbert refers to as “Big Magic.”
AD: Your film is certainly a conversation starter for change. Have any casting agents approached you about it? Or have you gotten into any awkward conversations since the release of the film?
UT: The reception in the film festival world has been 100% positive—we won the Jury Award for Best Short Film at Geena Davis’s Bentonville Film Festival, which is the diversity festival—but I’m bracing myself for what may come once I release it into the wild. Be kind, Internet Trolls. 😉 I’ve only shown it to one casting director (it took me almost 10 minutes to press the send button), and she responded with nothing but praise and congratulations.
AD: That’s great! And so well-deserved. What do you hope audiences gain from viewing this film? And where do MENA actors go from here?
UT: At its core, my film is about breaking down stereotypes and re-shaping the way the world sees people from the Middle East—we’re not all terrorists, we don’t all look the same, sound the same, think the same, worship the same. My message is that within diversity lies diversity.
On a deeper level, the film explores the universal themes of self-acceptance and “enoughness”: the idea that what makes us unique is what makes us enough. The world isn’t black (or dark brown) and white, and neither are people, and that should be celebrated!