When Dylan Marron Edited White People Out of Hollywood Movies, There Was Barely Anything Left

It’s one thing to be rhetorical and another to have undeniable proof. The lack of diversity in media has long been considered common knowledge within creative circles and accepted de facto as part of “the game” or “the industry.” However, Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word Spoken (ESW) video series has stirred cynics and shaken complacent audiences and filmmakers.

Every Single Word Spoken is a Tumblr blog where Marron, a New York-based actor, writer, and director, takes films from Harry Potter to Juno and splices together every single instance a person of color speaks. The entire Harry Potter series, which spans eight films and almost twenty hours of media, was reduced to six minutes. This kind of visual data shames viewers into the realization that Hollywood’s diversity problem is not about people of color looking for a handout. The short videos are incredibly powerful. The act of splicing together these paltry moments brings to mind Doris Salcedo’s stitched rose petal cloth or El Anatsui’s bottle cap nets: works that show how, when unified, small voices can project beyond invisibility.

Marron is the child of Venezulan parents. He grew up a brown kid in Miami with dreams of entering the worlds that flashed before his eyes. Like many of us who struggled to assimilate and grew up in homes with budgets that didn’t allow for extravagant forms of entertainment, television provided a type of normalcy and a panoramic window to places that all too often felt out of reach. Movies and TV shows have the capacity to inspire and delight us, no matter what we look like and where we come from. Yet these images project worlds that are almost exclusively full of white faces. Marron’s video series brings into great relief how supposed universal stories are actually quite narrow.

Beyond Every Single Word Spoken, Marron voices Carlos in the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, and he plays boom operator Ari in the web series Whatever This Is. He is also a member of New York’s Neo-Futurist Theater Company. Despite these successes, however, Marron has been frustrated with the lack of parts offered to him because of his very “specific” looks; in the eyes of profit-obsessed producers, Marron’s complexion is more suited for the role of sidekick than leading man. This frustration is what spurred his creation of Every Single Word Spoken.

Below, he delves deeper into the origins of the video blog and how our notions of beauty are partly to blame for Latino patronage of mainstream media.

“From a young age, I was fascinated with the idea of becoming other people to tell stories.”

What movies or TV shows did you watch as a child?
I lived in Venezuela until I was five. For some reason, MacGyver was the most popular American show in syndication down there, so I watched countless episodes of that. When I got a little older I devoured Roald Dahl books and particularly fell in love with the film adaptation of The Witches. As a television watcher, I really stuck to the mainstream. I loved Friends, My So-Called Life, and Felicity.

What inspired you to be an actor?
From a young age, I was fascinated with the idea of becoming other people to tell stories. But really it was also an escape. I could pretend to be other humans while I was figuring out how to be a human myself. I also love how stories – specifically films – so neatly pack up our lives and fit them into 120 minutes of celluloid. We get to dive into these little contained worlds that reflect our own experience, but through a filter.

“As a brown person, I’ve long been aware that I wasn’t seeing my reflection in these stories.”

How did Every Single Word Spoken start? Was there a specific catalytic moment?
As a brown person, I’ve long been aware that I wasn’t seeing my reflection in these stories. I noticed that these universal stories that were meant to be about All of Us were actually just about Some of Us. I suppose the moment that it all came together for me was in January of 2014. I was on a plane back to New York from San Diego, en route home from my first tour with Welcome to Night Vale (a podcast whose creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, truly use universal actors to tell universal stories) and the film they were offering was Enough Said. It’s a really great film. Simple, sweet, well-acted, and well-written. But there was a profound othering of people of color. The only person of color who spoke was Cathy (Anjelah Johnson), Toni Collette’s maid. And the subplot was that she was a bad maid. And it’s not as if this was a dual story where we also get to dive into Cathy’s perspective. It was so one-note. In the world of that story, the small and well-crafted world we were given, people of color have only one representative: a maid and a bad one at that. But the story had nothing to do with whiteness, or the condition of being white. It was a touching, funny portrait of how to date later in life. Of the evolution of relationships – both familial and romantic. Nothing about that is intrinsically white. So that’s when it really hit me that we just cast white people by default. This was, of course, something that I had been keenly aware of as an actor who kept being told that there weren’t going to be many parts out there for me. This was the moment where it started clicking.

Rejection is part of working actors’ day-to-day. Do you find it’s more piercing, more painful when you’re a person of color? How so? How do you deal with it?
Rejection is part of the game. This spans race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age. But there’s a big difference between being rejected for a part and being rejected for the possibility of there being parts out there for you. For a while, I was meeting with agents who invited me into their office because they had seen my work and liked it or had heard about me in the industry, they would repeatedly tell me that I wouldn’t play the romantic male lead and there wouldn’t be that much work out there for “someone like me.” I was just trying to get in the game. I wanted the privilege of being rejected for roles, but instead I was being told that it was unlikely I’d even get to go out for roles at all.

“Film, and all visual media, is guilty of perpetuating these Eurocentric notions.”

Do you talk to non-POC actors about the lack of diversity in film? What do you find? What are their reactions to a systemic issue that benefits them overall?
I think so many of them are unaware of it. Many have reached out because of this project and have given their support, but it’s such an easy problem to not be aware of if it doesn’t directly affect you.

For many, the most striking segments of ESW have been the indie movies. As film lovers, we tend to think of indies as edgy and ahead of the curve. Why do you think that even independent cinema is having a hard time diversifying?
This is a complex issue. Mainstream movies are deeply concerned with markets and making money. In the mainstream sector, they’re nervous about putting a POC in the lead because they are afraid they will lose money. But in the indie realm, they’re making films with the hopes of getting a distributor. They might be nervous about finding a distributor without a bankable lead. Although we’re making huge strides in disproving this myth, bankable is unfortunately equated with white. But I think there’s also something deeper at play here. Making films independently requires connections and access to networks with money. Many independent filmmakers are also film school grads, which can be prohibitively expensive for many, regardless of natural artistic talent. There are always exceptions. Lee Daniels and Ava DuVernay come to mind. But Daniels and DuVernay began in the industry as a casting director and a publicist respectively. Only after years of forming connections within the industry and fostering their artistic talent on the side were they able to get behind the camera to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Both have become mainstream directors but not without finding new ways inside the industry.

“I reject the notion that to cure Hollywood of its diversity problem, we need more directors and writers of color…”

According to some statistics, not even our own people want to see brown people in big-budget Hollywood films. South American audiences, for example, prefer Anglo movies with an Anglo cast. This is to me a real travesty. Why do you think that is? How do we begin to turn the tide within our own communities here in the U.S. and abroad?
We have all been brainwashed to believe that white is beautiful and that white beauty is the paradigm to which we should all aspire. Film, and all visual media, is guilty of perpetuating these Eurocentric notions. Within communities of color, we even have ascribed value to those who appear more white; good hair, light skin, straight nose, light eyes. The bodies we use to tell stories on screen are largely aspirational; we want to see our stories enacted by the people we want to be. It is definitely a travesty that South American audiences prefer Anglo movie stars, but I’m sadly not surprised. To change this, we need to take a look at the big picture and see why that is. It takes a lot of work to unlearn beauty norms, but it is work we must continue to do.

Given what you now know, what would be your advice to a young Latinx actor who is starting out in the biz? What are some tools you’ve acquired that would make it easier for them to help navigate this uneven playing field?
Especially today in the age of the Internet, the power is with the creators. If you develop the tools to tell stories then you are in control of what you put out there. I reject the notion that to cure Hollywood of its diversity problem, we “need more directors and writers of color” because we do have writers and directors of color. But the more forward-thinking creators we have who are telling stories they want to tell, the more likely it is that their stories will be projected in front of bigger audiences.

What has ESW done for you personally? Has it helped your career? Has it been therapeutic? What’s the next step?
It’s been a true honor to get to speak on this issue, especially since it’s one that I’ve been keenly aware of. I am humbled to speak on behalf of a huge population of artists who have been erased or silenced. I now work with an agent who very much gets me and actively works against notions of limitations. But the success of Every Single Word is bittersweet. I am not the first to speak on this issue and I won’t be the last; I am humbled to carry the torch but it’s a torch I wish I didn’t even need to carry.