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AMC Embraces Diversity in Television

Tamron Hall, Melissa Bernstein, Angela Kang, Marti Noxon, Julianna Margulies, Lorraine Toussaint, Jenna Elfman, and Rhea Seehorn speak during the “Kick-Ass Women of AMC” Panel. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for AMC)

2018 is the Year of the Woman for AMC with females taking the lead in The Walking Dead, Preacher, Dietland, Better Call Saul and Into the Badlands. Rich in diversity, these shows feature fearless women from different racial, economic, and sexual background; battling everything from zombies, stereotypes, sexism and more. It is because of this diversity, each female character is grounded in a sense of realism that draws people from all backgrounds to these shows.

During the first annual AMC Summit, AMC brought behind the scenes creatives Melissa Bernstein (executive producer, Better Call Saul), Angela Kang (showrunner, The Walking Dead), and Marti Noxon (showrunner, Dietland) along with actresses Julianna Margulies (Dietland), Lorraine Toussaint (Into the Badlands), Jenna Elfman (Fear the Walking Dead), and Rhea Seehorn (Better Call Saul) to talk about Hollywood’s struggle with diversity, breaking the glass ceiling and how change is for the better.

While the Me Too Movement started in Hollywood, its impact has been felt all around the world. Bringing sexual assault into the light, there’s been a shift and a call for women to take roles both in front and behind the scenes. In addition, there’s an increase of roles written for women as well, which now sees them doing the rescuing instead of need rescuing.

The Walking Dead Executive Producer and Showrunner newcomer​ ​Angela Kang, expressed how her job is literally a dream because growing up there just weren’t female role models in executive positions in the entertainment industry that she could look up to. This lack of diversity, often made her question her career goals. This is why her new role as is so important to her.

“Honestly, when I was a kid, I didn’t think this was a job I could have. I didn’t think there were women, or Asian women running a show. That wasn’t a thing, and how there’s so many more women who are showrunners, and that’s exciting because that means the next generation can go, ‘hey! Of course this is a job I can have!’ It sort of breaks some of the barriers to entry, and that makes it an exciting time in our industry.”

Despite Kang’s new role, she’s worked as a rather successful writers for years, penning some of the show’s most popular episodes. She credits her success on being uninhabited to write strong powerful female characters.. These positive and “kick-ass” portrayals of women help to create equality on the show.”Our characters they’re women – they go toe to toe with the men. We don’t write damsels in distress. Or sometimes if they are the men are males in distress. The women save the men just as much as the men save the women. It’s really a story about survivors who help each other through the apocalypse.”

These powerful female characters also help to change the narrative about women’s place in society, which is a reflection of the real world. More women are taking roles behind the cameras which not only create more complex layered characters but there’s also freedom in storytelling.

Julianna Margulies from Dietland expressed the newfound freedom in storytelling. Known for her work on The Good Wife, playing the “woe is me, my man is cheating on me” Alicia Florrick, considers her Dietland villainous role as narcissistic mean girl Kitty Montgomery with “no moral center” is refreshing. “What I find interesting is that if she were a male she would just be considered an amazing boss, but because she is a female, she is a villain because she gets what she wants and she’s really good at her job and she tells people to fuck off and is very brash.”

Described as Devil Wears Prada meets Fight Club, the show takes on the war of the sexes that’s a newfound freedom in storytelling.

“​​For me I’ve seen a freedom suddenly to our voices. What we’re seeing is that there’s a tolerance level now that is respected. There’s a respect for it, and a cognizant discussion about it.This isn’t about women vs men, this is about good people vs bad people, in the era of the Me Too movement.

The best thing in my mind that has come out of this is for the women that are coming up in this industry, who I can’t imagine will ever be asked to go into a hotel room alone with a producer, a director or anyone who might be their boss or give them a job. That there is this conscious collective discussion that that is not okay and is not needed. Unlike when I was coming up and was asked to dress sexy and go there on a Saturday and you were just constantly in fear and afraid to speak out about it. That’s gone.”

Julianna Margulies, Lorraine Touissant, Tamron Hall, Marti Noxon, Jenna Elfman, Rhea Seehorn, Melissa Bernstein, and Angela Kang attend the AMC Summit (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for AMC)

Based on the 2015 novel by Sarai Walker, Dietland is a satirical call to arms, focusing on issues of female empowerment, body-image concerns, rape culture and the rising level of organization as women demand equity in boardrooms and bedrooms. These topics have been in the headlines for months, although not nearly so much when producer Marti Noxon wanted the book rights years ago. ​However, Walker had a harder time being convinced television was ready for her novel. “It has just been surreal…I thought there was no way that this will ever be on TV, there is just no way someone will put a fat woman as a lead character in a TV show​”.

Despite these challenges, Noxon she could change the world with Plum. Plum was a character who could really connect – connect with viewers in much the same way she connected with Noxon. “I knew it could work, when I figured out that Plum in the book is such a likeable character. That her inside voice made me fall in love with her and that everything that happened to her, felt like it was happening to me.” ​

For Noxon, Dietland asks “the classic question of a revolution — does it require violence and a real threat to the ruling class to keep change moving forward? Should women arm themselves? We deal with the beauty industry and how beauty and violence are linked. The violence we see against women is related to the violence we do to ourselves looking for an ever-moving target, that ideal of beauty that will make us lovable and precious.”

In order for Dietland to reach a wider audience and be relatable to AMC’s diverse veiwership, producers and writers felt it was necessary to makes some changes to the role, first by ageing up Plum Kettle from her twenties to her forties. Joy Nash who plays Plum Kettle is a larger woman (which is not usually seen in leading female roles) who is miserable and restricted in every part of her life as she hopes to meet her weight loss goals. Thanking that her weight is holding her back (which is a reflection of society), she works as a ghostwriter for Kitty Montgomery, the high-strung editor of Daisy Chain, a fashion and beauty magazine based in New York City.

Plum is recruited by a band of feminist assassins — led by the heiress to a weight-loss pyramid scheme — who embark on a protest murder spree of prominent men accused of sexual misconduct. “The revolutionary part comes in the storyline, which is a feminist revenge fantasy that asks why women don’t fight back — with violence — when faced with sexual harassment and assault.”

“Walking around the set, it’s impossible not to notice the number of women working on the show, from crew members to the DP, Alison Kelly. Noxon had to invent a few male characters not in the book to bring a little balance to the gender equation.” I like men, I really didn’t want the show to reflect a world where men weren’t a part of this struggle.” Behind the scenes, Noxon has long worked to open doors for women on the set, particularly in cinematography and crew positions. “It was my first time ever working with a female DP,” Margulies explains.

Actress Rhea Seehorn is appreciative she’s able to draw on her personal strengths as a woman to help mold her role as Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul. It is this hands-on approach helps her create a character women can see in themselves. She credits AMC and the producers for allowing this process to happen. “That’s how they approach my character and that is not only what they tolerate in my contribution but what they expect in my contribution is making her a three-dimensional human being that never has to fit in the slot of what female characters are or what female characters do. She’s a human, which should not be revolutionary but for some reason it is.”

This new shift in Hollywood regarding female diversity has changed how actresses approach roles and the level of comfortability they have with themselves. Fear the Walking Dead‘s Elfman revealed that she appreciates where she’s at in her life and career when it comes to her character as Naomi. The beauty about Fear of the Walking Dead is that the women are able to look their authentic selves. There isn’t plastic surgery, fancy wigs and makeup. Women embrace their looks, their wrinkles and freckles. “I don’t care about looking beautiful. I don’t care how close the camera is. I want the viewer to experience my humanity via the storytelling of the humanity of the writers.”

For Into the Badlands, racial diversity was important in the casting room. Seeing a strong female African-American woman onscreen in the role of Cressida, a self-styled Prophetess and mentor to Pilgrim was rare in television. Acting as a spiritual guide, political counsel and chief military strategist, this is a role many African-American female actresses fought for because of its rarity. Often African-American female roles are written as “the maid”, “ghetto” or “a drug user.”

Award-winning Trinidad and Tobago-born actress, Toussaint who landed the role as Cressida was attracted to her character because of its strengths and never saw herself as breaking the mold. “I come from these women that didn’t know that they couldn’t do it. They didn’t know about a glass ceiling. So I just didn’t expect one.”Now because of Toussaint and others, future woman will know they can surpass the glass ceiling, because it’ll no longer exist.

Working on these diverse shows, have forever changed these actresses lives. Toussaint summed it up best with: “All the women on this panel, we have enough experience where we’re offered and lucky to be offered roles. And now we’re not sitting like the girls on the side waiting to be chosen by the boys.”

 

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