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'Lost' takes an odd path to diversity

Television | TELEVISION

Ahoy! An island in a sea of stereotypical casting.

February 13, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

When J.J. Abrams turned in an outline for "Lost" last year, Lloyd Braun, then ABC Television Group's chairman, bragged excitedly to a buddy, "This, my friend, is 'ER.' "

Braun was so convinced by the 25-page outline in his hands, a hybrid of "Survivor" and "Cast Away," that he ordered a two-hour, $11-million pilot with no script, just the creators' vision of plane crash survivors on an eerie, not-so-deserted island.

"The outline was, quite honestly, the best piece of television I've ever read," said Braun, who had conceived the show and is now the head of Yahoo Media Group. "I was out of my mind."

Then came the reality check: The two-hour pilot, featuring an ensemble of 14 actors, would have to be finished in 12 weeks -- at the end of pilot season, when supposedly all of the hot talent had been scooped up. Which meant that co-creators Abrams ("Alias" and "Felicity") and Damon Lindelof, a writer-producer on "Crossing Jordan," and casting director April Webster would have to pull off a casting feat for the history books.

What they came up with broke new TV ground, but not just for its warp-speed casting efficiency. They also -- somewhat inadvertently -- managed something with more profound implications: They assembled an ethnically and geographically diverse cast, then hammered out a show for them that favored humanity over tokenism -- a casting and writing coup that has sparked water-cooler chatter beyond the island's frightening man-eating monster, polar bears and other spooky human inhabitants. With its unmatched pan-demographic cast of characters who all defy stereotypical expectations, the show reflects the world as it is increasingly experienced by young people, who are less racially identified than older generations. "Lost" moves a step beyond even "ER," long considered the gold standard of diversity. In the Chicago emergency room, an institutional hierarchy to some degree dictates character development. On a remote island, anything goes.

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Keeping an open mind

Openness was job requirement No. 1 for 25-year veteran Webster, who casts "Alias" and was hired by Abrams and Lindelof to find the would-be castaways. With no script -- the creators had not completed it -- and few audition scenes, Webster alerted agents in New York, Los Angeles, Europe, Canada and Australia, and left the rest up to the universe. The passengers of Oceanic Flight 815, which departed from Sydney, Australia, and was heading for L.A., were supposed to come from all over the globe.

Steve McPherson, who headed Touchstone Television, the studio that produces "Lost," before it became his job as ABC's head of prime-time programming to schedule the show, said time pressure may have helped Abrams and his team buck the usual casting patterns and create truly innovative TV characters. "It just shows you what you can do when you don't try to control it too much," Webster said. "These actors were so willing and able to not know. And in that way, they helped the writers create such interesting people."

As a result of the speeded-up schedule and lack of clear script requirements, actors were cast for parts that didn't exist and other characters were altered to fit the qualities of actors the producers wanted to hire. Even the role of Jack, the show's doctor-hero, played by Matthew Fox, changed from a guest spot to a series regular when Abrams decided to let him live. Jack originally was going to be killed by the show's unseen monster and left hanging on a tree, which then became the unfortunate fate of the airliner's pilot.

"Because it was all so new and fluid, if they saw a great actor for another role, they'd create it right then and there," Braun said.

Case in point: Yunjin Kim, who was born in Korea and grew up in New York City and auditioned for the part of Kate, the fugitive-murderer, who ended up being played by Evangeline Lilly, a Canadian actress. What Kim did not know is that Abrams and Lindelof had a vague idea for another character who does not speak English, and meeting Kim was the spark for two more characters.

"She had this incredible career in Korea," Lindelof said. "One of her movies ["Shiri"] outgrossed 'Titanic,' and she was so talented, we really wanted her. So we thought, What if she's Korean and we have a couple and they're alienated from the rest of the group because they can't communicate?"

She became a character named Sun, and a search began for Sun's husband, Jin, who was scripted as a waiter before he married into a wealthy family and began working for his father-in-law's highly questionable business. Enter Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean-born actor who grew up in New York and Philadelphia. Jin and Sun speak in Korean, and how the show handles it is a TV first: When they're alone, their conversations are subtitled; when the other castaways are nearby, there are no translations.

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