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Rick Najera, Jeff Yang Talk Hollywood's Racial Wage Gap


Let's talk television for a few minutes. We've already told you about the big lineup of new shows you can dip into this summer. Summer's also a time when shows that return in the fall may get a shakeup or a casting change. Now, that's not new. But the case of the CBS police procedural "Hawaii Five-0," the reason the actors left is making news.

Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park failed to reach an agreement with CBS on new contracts. It's being reported that the issue was that they wanted pay equal to that of their co-stars Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan, who are both white. And Kim and Park are Asian-American. Now, the issue of a racial pay gap in Hollywood is hitting a nerve, especially for our next two guests. Jeff Yang is a CNN commentator and the host of "They Call Us Bruce," a podcast about the Asian-American experience. Jeff Yang, welcome back. Nice to hear your voice.

JEFF YANG: Always great to be back.

MARTIN: Rick Najera is a writer and director of shows like "In Living Color" and "Mad TV." He's also the author of the book "Almost White: Forced Confessions Of A Latino In Hollywood." Rick Najera, welcome back to you, as well.

RICK NAJERA: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: They both are with us from our NPR studios in Culver City, Calif. So we're - let's just, in the spirit of full disclosure, you actually have worked for years on a project for CBS called The Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase. And it's - this is the same network that produces "Hawaii Five-0."


MARTIN: I did want to ask your reaction when you heard about this controversy involving Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park and their salaries.

NAJERA: I'm not speaking for CBS in any way, but personally, being an actor of color and a writer of color and working in diversity, I find that diversity's our strength. CA just came out with a study, and they found out that films that had diverse casts were three times more, on the average, going to make more money basically, which everyone in Hollywood wants. So I think diversity works. So I don't know what the policy was with CBS. And I know they've been great with the CBS Diversity Showcase. And Randall Park actually came from a CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy show and so did many others.

MARTIN: Randall Park being the - one of the stars of "Fresh Off The Boat." We turn to Jeff Yang for that. Jeff. Jeff's son...

YANG: Full disclosure.

MARTIN: ...Is also...

NAJERA: Full disclosure.

MARTIN: ...One of the stars. He plays Eddie Huang on the show. So I have to ask you, what was your reaction when you heard this? And I do want to know, frankly, Jeff, if this had been something that had been rumored.

YANG: There was definitely buzzing in the Asian-American performing community here in Hollywood that negotiations weren't going, perhaps, as well as expected. Everyone was shocked to see Daniel and Grace walking away from, ultimately, what could be as much as $2.5 million, right?

NAJERA: Easily.

YANG: But the fact they did so is, in a way, a really powerful statement. And seeing as how "Fresh Off The Boat" is going into its fourth season, when, you know, lots of negotiations start happening as well, it's something to kind of put in context. It's like, we've gotten to the point now where it's not just about inclusion. It's about truly fairness in how we're represented, how we're treated and how we're ultimately paid.

MARTIN: Well, this is a question, though, for both of you. The Hollywood trade magazines like Variety in reporting on this write that CBS considered Park and Kim supporting actors. And so they say that that's the reason O'Loughlin and Caan made more because the show is actually built around their chemistry. On the other hand, Park and Kim have appeared in every episode of that show since it's been on the air for seven years. So, Rick, I'm going to ask you, as a person who does casting yourself, does that argument that they were actually supporting characters hold water?

NAJERA: The writers' room can decide whether that actor is a supporting actor or a leading actor. So it's very easy to make that decision. So you can sit there and say, well, we have two Asian actors on a show set in Hawaii, which is predominately very Asian, let's make them leads. They can make that decision early on. I think Hollywood's kind of catching up to that thought and wants to. It's just everyone in Hollywood wants to be second, no one wants to be first.

MARTIN: Jeff, thoughts?

YANG: I want to add to that. When they actually decided to unveil the show, this reboot of "Hawaii Five-0," this kind of classic cop-thriller drama, they actually leveraged the huge popularity of Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park front and center - literally. If you look at the billboards they put out there, it was Grace and Daniel at the center and these two mostly more anonymous white dudes on the sides and for good reason. I mean, Daniel's coming off of "Lost," this hugely successful...

NAJERA: She was off of "Battlestar Galactica."

YANG: And "Battlestar Galactica" - giant cult hit. They were the ones who were known. They were the ones people wanted to see. So for them to then be retroactively kind of relegated to non-lead status after that is really, really questionable.

MARTIN: Is there something that should be done about this? We've seen a lot of activism around pay equity for women in Hollywood. Where do you think this goes next?

NAJERA: I'll start in one way.

MARTIN: That's Rick.

NAJERA: I mean, first of all, the - I don't know if you can really put a rule, but I think what you can have is a vision. And I think the leadership of such like the Writers Guild of America and SAG and AFTRA - and when they really push for inclusion and diversity, most networks are actually open to it. It's not that they're against it. A lot of times, you have to hold a network's hand to explain how it works, how we should do, what we should - happen.

And the success is a showcase. For us, the CBS Diversity Showcase, the most successful showcase in America, is a show and is showing the talent of people of color and diverse population, LGBTQ included. And they get jobs. That's what's helping. Now, that's not saying it's the only solution, but it's one of the solutions. And I think when people have a vision for making those choices and commitment to it, then you see change in Hollywood.

MARTIN: Jeff? Final thought.

YANG: Yeah, one thing we have to remember is we've gotten to a point now where it's not just about the money. I mean, even in this particular incident, reportedly, the difference between what Daniel and Grace were seeking and what the network was willing to offer was around $5,000, which is basically couch money for CBS. It was about the status. It was about the respect that is accorded to actors who are critical to the success of a show. And we are in a situation now where the unwillingness of Hollywood to accept Asian-Americans, that people of color can carry movies is ultimately harming the industry.

MARTIN: That's Jeff Yang. He's a CNN commentator, the host of the podcast, "They Call Us Bruce" and the dad of Hudson, who plays Eddie Huang on "Fresh Off The Boat." Also with us, Rick Najera. He's a writer and director. Among his ongoing projects is the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase. They were both with us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

NAJERA: Thank you.

YANG: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VENTURES' "HAWAII FIVE-O") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.