Press tour: 'Undercovers' team agrees race shouldn't be an issue, but it is
Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw topline NBC's new spy series
When I wrote about my initial impressions of the "Undercovers" pilot, I found it impossible not to mention (and salute) the significance of a big ticket fall action show hitching its star to a pair of relatively unknown black actors, in Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
It's the sort of thing that shouldn't be worth mentioning at all, which several readers tried to argue (not that they could cite an iota of prior precedent for what executive producers Josh Reims and J.J. Abrams are doing here). Still, the very first question at Friday's (July 30) Television Critics Association press tour panel for "Undercovers" dealt with race-blind casting.
[More after the break...]
"When J.J. and I wrote the script originally, we decided we wanted to write it like 'The Philadelphia Story,' you know, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn. But they're dead, so we didn't hire them," cracked Reims.
He continued, "So when we finished the script and went into the casting process, we started out by saying, 'Let's just see every possible incarnation of a person. We don't want to see the same people we've seen on TV 10 million times because it will look like many other shows that are on TV, which are perfectly good, but we want it to look different.' And so we saw a bunch of people. And when Boris and Gugu came in, which was much later in the process, we sort of knew immediately, like, 'OK, these are them.' We didn't go out of our way to say, you know, we're hiring two black people to be the leads of the show, but we certainly did not ignore the fact that it would be great if we could do that and if we found actors who were great enough. And luckily, we found one of them in Gugu, and then we hired Boris too."
In "Undercovers," Mbatha-Raw and Kodjoe play a pair of married spies who left espionage behind to launch a catering company only to get pulled back into the cloak-and-dagger world.
Although he may not be household name everywhere, Kodjoe is a known quantity from shows like "Soul Food" and movies like "Madea's Family Reunion," while Mbatha-Raw is a British TV veteran. Both are ridiculously attractive, but in an industry that usually favors marquee names, they're unlikely choices to topline an expensive fall tentpole even if you leave race out of the equation.
But Kodjoe knows you can't leave race out of the equation.
"I think it's important to recognize the fact that it is somewhat -- I don't know if you want to all it revolutionary, but that is -- it's not the norm, although it should be the norm because that's what the world looks like," Kodjoe said. "The world is diverse, and we come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes, and shades. But... traditionally in TV it hasn't been the case, and therefore it needs to be commented on. So I want to make a point that it is important that we get a chance to, I don't know, be trailblazers or door openers or whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, let's keep in mind or let's inspire people to regard it as normal so that more and more people don't consider it taking a chance, but just being creative. And at the end of the day, that's what we all try to be. Even though it's a corporate industry and even though it's show business, to have that freedom is something that we aspire to. So Josh and J.J. have, I think, you know, led the way, and hopefully the world will open up to it."
Pressed to acknowledge the significance (importance?) of the casting choice, Reims shied from any sort of "pioneer" label, but admitted there's an upside to the "Undercovers" course of action.
"[W]e weren't going to hire two black people because they were two black people," Reims maintained We're thrilled that we got to hire two black people because it was certainly something we wanted to do, like I said, not from the beginning, but once we finished the script and started talking about it. But we're not -- we don't consider -- and I've discussed this with Boris for a long time now. We don't consider that we're, you know, revolutionizing TV, but at the same time, we do realize it is a big deal. And we're happy that we can do something that -- yes, we all wish it wasn't such a big deal at this point in time that there are two black characters who are the leads on a major TV show on a major network, but unfortunately that's the way it is right now. And, you know, certainly we've seen since -- even since the casting of this show was announced, we've seen other shows have cast, you know, black leads that maybe, who knows, wouldn't have happened. So if we can do that and other people realize, you know, 'Oh, look, this is working well," then that's great. But like I said, our plan was not like, 'Let's, you know, revolutionize all the history of TV and cast black actors.' It's, 'OK, if we can cast black actors who are great, it will be great.' And it worked out, and they're great."
While Reims and Abrams went against the casting grain on one front. In a different way, though, they find themselves right in the middle of an industry trend. Although their characters are Americans, Kodjoe was born in Austria and raised in Germany, while Mbatha-Raw hails from Oxford, England and sports and accent to match.
Reims recalled, "[W]hen we started casting, J.J. and I said adamantly to the casting people, 'We are not hiring any foreign actors for these roles. We can't deal with people faking American accents. It never works.' And then we ended up with the two of them. So it shows you how much we know."
"Undercovers" premieres on NBC at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, September 22. And I promise that once we acknowledge the race thing sufficiently, we can stop talking about it.