Growing up in quintessential Midwestern America as a child of ethnically diverse immigrants I would often get asked where I’m from. Being 1st generation mixed ethnicity American, I was always aware that I was being perceived as “different”, so it was never much of a surprise. “St. Louis, Missouri!” I would proudly answer, to which they’d inevitably follow up with, “No, but where are you really from?” I quickly learned this was code for, “What is your ethnicity?” It’s something I eventually embraced by illuminating my unique ancestry with pride while attributing the persistent probes to curiosity and not solely because of the color of my skin or atypical appearance, despite having had run-ins with racial discrimination throughout my life.
When I decided to live my dream of becoming an actor and moved to LA in the mid-2000s, I found myself digging through casting breakdowns attempting to see what roles I could fit. I’d frequently come across the term “All-American” and would think to myself, “I’m from the Midwest and 100% American!“ and enthusiastically submit for it. It wasn’t until I went to a casting workshop at the Screen Actor’s Guild a few years later that I learned it meant: white dude, usually with blonde hair, blue eyes, grew up near a cornfield.
To me, “All-American” meant the cornucopia of beautiful shades of people mixed with the melting pot of cultures they come from.
This 1950s era idea of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ America is something I didn’t think resonated or existed anymore, yet that outdated go-to terminology persists as standard in the entertainment industry decades later.
Next were the many meetings with potential representation and career consultations with agents and managers. Some would comment on my exotic look and how that’s “IN” or “NOT IN” at various moments. Others would say I have a great “leading man” look and vibe, but I’m “TOO ETHNIC” to play a leading man and not “charactery” enough to play the available ethnic roles.
My very existence did not fit whatever stereotype the entertainment industry had deemed fashionable at the moment for “ethnic types”.
With determination, I brushed it off as much as I could and moved onward by honing my skills, cultivating my own and seeking out interesting, culturally diverse projects.
When people try to guess my ethnic background, most guess Native American. Others guess South American, Italian, Persian, South Asian, Eastern European, Gypsy, and I’ve even gotten Inuit a few times. “You’re so lucky, you can play almost anything!” my lovely supportive thespian friends would encourage. And they’re right, I can basically morph into quite a few ethnicities, meaning a ton of diverse characters to play, including American. It’s exhilarating to research characters from vastly varied backgrounds and immerse myself into those cultures.
I guess that’s the great part of being “Ethnically Ambiguous”, the latest coined term the industry has bestowed upon the uncategorizable.
I’ve indeed portrayed Native American warriors, Persian generals, Jesus, Moses, Egyptian Pharaohs, Argentinian, Italian, Croatian, French, Georgian, Armenian, East Indian, the list goes on and yes, I’ve also played various American roles of assorted backgrounds. And while I’m very grateful to have worked on every one of those projects, very few of these roles have been on mainstream network television and studio films – it’s mostly been independent projects by filmmakers who have stepped outside the box with progressive, open minded, creative casting.
With recent movements and awareness focusing on diversity in the entertainment industry, such as “Oscars so White” and the blowback on several failed blockbuster films that have been guilty of the long running Hollywood whitewashing epidemic, the landscape is changing. While we still have a ways to go, progress is important to acknowledge and it seems we are on the precipice of a paradigm shift in terms of diversity. I’m quite hopeful for the future, and believe we can and will get there, but it will require action on all fronts.
The best way for film and television to become a better representation of the population is for diverse storytellers to work their way into the inner workings of content creation and get their culturally diverse stories told.
The Anglo-based and “white savior” tales have been recycled so many times that society is starving for fresh, thought-provoking, cultural content and the numbers certainly prove it. Charles D. King and his nascent company MACRO are trailblazing this movement. He and his team are living proof that it is up to us to make it happen. Writers, directors, producers making conscious, concerted efforts to diversify stories that actually represent what our modern world looks like and is interested in. It’s why I delved into filmmaking and writing and have several stories in development in various formats.
— Nevin Millan Ⓥ (@nevinmillan) October 31, 2017
Ultimately, the ideal would be that we get to a place where actors are not cast in roles based on filling ethnicity checkboxes, but rather based on their capability to inhabit the essence of the role. This, of course, excludes projects such as historical, biopic, etc., where the ethnicity may require a specific verisimilitude.
The point is, true color blind casting focuses on the spirit of the character the actor creates, not the color of their skin or their bone structure and not cross checking a played out list of stereotypes. Hopefully future generations will enjoy that level of ubiquitous open-mindedness.
I’m optimistic that we are moving towards a more conscious, aware environment with women empowerment and diversity on all levels of the spectrum. But more importantly, the cascading effect it will have on culture and humanity as a whole is even more paramount as we move towards acceptance, tolerance, and inclusivity in our globalized melting pot.
Storytelling played such a fundamental role in humankind’s evolution into civilization that it’s up to us storytellers to get this right for the sake of the future.
In honor of the return of epic TV Show, Game of Thrones, for their 7th season, I’d like to share the story of my close brush with the show, which should answer some questions I’ve received regarding the GoT photos of me playing a Dothraki character (see photo).
The photos are from a commercial I did for HBO, AT&T and Game of Thrones a couple years ago (commercial can be viewed below). I worked with HBO execs and several of the behind the scenes team from the actual show, including makeup, hair, weapons, and wardrobe… yes, that is a legit Dothraki wardrobe from the set! AND I got to wield an actual Dothraki sword from the show’s weapons master, Tommy Dunne, who actually designed and made them. Being an actor who enjoys doing my own stunts, I’ve developed quite the affinity for swords and weapons, so that was pretty rad, especially because I’m such a HUGE fan of the show!
Of course my reps and I attempted to parlay this experience into an appearance on the show. With much tenacity by my agent and much prodding from my end, I was able audition for season 6 for one of the Khals. If you’ve seen Season 6, it was for the scene in the Dothraki temple when the “Great Khals” are meeting to discuss important matters. I got several auditions deep into it, including submitting a read in the Dothraki language, but ultimately it didn’t work out. Last fall (2016), however, they brought me back in to audition for a recurring role on Season 7. This time around, I DID book the part, woohoo!! But due to some last minute schedule changes, it became logistically impossible for me to get to the set in time since I was in LA. So, unfortunately they had to go with someone more local to the set. While it was a total bummer having gotten that close to being on the show and having the opportunity taken away at the last minute (we were literally making travel plans one minute, and the next morning it was over), I take solace in the fact that I booked a recurring role on the top show on the planet and I’m super grateful for the entire experience.
It’s been exciting to have come this close to being on a such an amazing, renowned show, and an honor to be only the 4th American actor to don an official GoT costume (behind badass cast members Jason Momoa, Peter Dinklage, and Pedro Pascal). So, keep your fingers crossed for a season 8 appearance! I’ll be sure to update on my website as well as social media if and when that happens.