Student Spotlight: Danica Rodriguez ’18 rethinks casting

by Ileana Sung | 4/10/18 2:15am


While the conversations surrounding intersectional representation in film and media narratives seem more relevant than ever, it’s not always easy for students to know how to contribute. But film major Danica Rodriguez ’18 has already taken steps to expose biased casting in the media industry.

Rodriguez arrived at Dartmouth knowing that she wanted to study media and eventually work in the media industry. As a member of Dartmouth Television, a club that existed during her first few years at the College, Rodriguez was able to write sketches and skits for her own shows. She fell in love with television after exploring the more academic side of media by taking classes on theory and history. She found inspiration through classes that discuss the media people consume today and how streaming has impacted people’s perspectives.

“A lot of people think that television is a bad thing, but I honestly think it’s the opposite,” Rodriguez said. “If you’re watching television, you can learn so much. It’s a different way of storytelling, and a different way of understanding the world.”

Rodriguez has interned in the casting department for various industries during the past few years, including Warner Bros. Her experience as an intern there led her to realize how important it was to listen to the way actors’ identities impacted their casting room experiences. She found herself gravitating to television shows and stories that focused on people of color, queer people and all the other stories that hadn’t been told as often as she thought they should be.

One way she has attempted to initiate change is through her thesis project, which includes an interactive documentary installation that elevates the voices of often-overlooked minorities by showing the inside workings of a casting office. Rodriguez recreated a casting room in her apartment. There, she talked to 11 New York-based actors about what it was like to audition as a minority. These conversations helped her realize the experience could be wildly different for everyone, though layers of racism, sexism and homophobia tended to be a common thread.

“After the whole ‘#OscarsSoWhite,’ and just thinking about how the show ‘One Day at a Time’ on Netflix, that’s about a Latino family, was struggling to get renewed, I was really bothered,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to hear why these things were happening ... My thesis basically flips the script and makes the actors talk about what they want to talk about versus just reading a script that has been deemed correct for them.”

The interactive documentary installation will be displayed on the second floor of the Black Family Visual Arts Center, and will be like the “upside down of a casting office.” Viewers will be able to look at the documentary footage she took on the computer and go through the drawers to look at various files and papers. She believes this process is something people should be able to touch and explore for themselves.

“There’s so much in actually doing the action and feeling what a casting director is feeling, or what, as a casting intern, I was going through,” Rodriguez said. “Basically, this whole installation is where my brain was at when I was interning, thinking about my future career and how I could make things better. You can go through all the drawers and paperwork, see breakdowns and see how inherently problematic they are — it’s almost like a surrealist nightmare of a casting office.”

Since film is a collaborative artwork and connections are core to the industry, Rodriguez said getting people to participate in her project was an important step.

“All I really had to do was say ‘Hey, I’m doing this project, I want to elevate your voices, could you talk to me?’” Rodriguez said. “It was so wonderful to see people step up and declare that they had something to say. When people do research, it takes two to five years to actually get something published, and that’s why things seem a little late. I don’t want to be late!”

Rodriguez reached out to professors and high school teachers in order to branch out and find more actors willing to participate. Professor Brandeise Monk-Payton, who now teaches at Fordham University, was one of the professors who helped Rodriguez with her thesis. Impressed by Rodriguez’s commitment to bridging theory and practice, Monk-Payton immediately jumped at the opportunity to help and put her in contact with actors of color in the New York City area to interview.

Rodriguez genuinely wants to understand media forms and formations as they relate to issues concerning identity, and change the entertainment industry for the better, Monk-Payton said.

“Casting is an oft-overlooked field of examination in studies of film and media, but it is an important element of production that has quite literal effects on representation,” Monk-Payton said. “I hope that people take away from [Rodriguez’s] experimental project the necessity of understanding entertainment industry dynamics through the framework of intersectionality — it is only by recognizing and amplifying voices that are marginalized in the profession that Hollywood can then start the work of changing its labor practices to be truly progressive and committed to social justice.”

Rodriguez said the primary goal of her thesis is to help people see themselves in stories that they can believe in and relate to. She wants people to think about how different identities affect the stories people are telling.

“I just want people to feel good, help people in positions of power make other people feel good and make everyone feel like they can be a part of this art form,” Rodriguez said. “There are often high barriers to high arts, and they’re very institutionalized — if we don’t get people to do something about it, it’ll always be there. So this is my little way of picking away at that barrier.”

Rodriguez believes it is up to her generation to challenge discriminatory notions that have been institutionalized for so long. Cecilia Torres ’18, a friend of Rodriguez’s who supported her through her academic journey, said she strongly believes that she has the power to inspire other artists and people in the entertainment industry.

“I’ve witnessed the way she has made her thesis interactive and accessible to all — not just those in the film department or with knowledge of the casting world,” Torres said. “Her thesis has always been about changing the narrative and exposing the negative parts of our entertainment industries that she hopes to radically change throughout her career.”