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We Asked a Casting Director What It Means to Be an Empowered Woman, and Here's What She Said

Donna Morong helped launch stars like Anne Hathaway, Heath Ledger, Jennifer Garner, and others, so we were curious to find out how she defines 'empowerment'.

What does it mean to be an empowered female? Last month I interviewed Dr. Caroline Heldman, PhD as the first in a series of blog posts at Verily exploring this layered and complex question. Our second interviewee is Donna Morong.

Donna Morong is a highly respected film casting director in both Los Angeles and New York. With over 25 years experience, 15 as a top executive at the Walt Disney Company's film division, she has discovered and helped launch such stars as Anne Hathaway, Heath Ledger, Jennifer Garner, Rachel McAdams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Chris Pine. She continues to cast feature films while she teaches and co-runs the Aquila Morong Studio with fellow casting director Deborah Aquila.

What do you think it means to be an empowered female, and more specifically, what do you think it means to be an empowered female in the entertainment industry?

I think that definition is always evolving and changing, and I think it's constantly changing as the industry changes. At its essence, it's about your ideals, your own moral center, and your own tastes. That to me is what empowerment is really about. While we always have to compromise to a certain extent, empowerment means you're not fundamentally compromising your ideals in order to be successful.

As a casting director, do you see less female roles, especially leads, and how does that differ between TV and film?

I only work in film but I do watch television, and I think that television has many more opportunities for women. Unfortunately in film I would say it is still men who are predominantly making movies, and men who are telling the stories, and men who are the dominant characters in most movies. It's kind of a boys club. I think that will only change when there are more women filmmakers; there aren't nearly enough. The woman who made "The Hunger Games" films was my old boss, Nina Jacobson. She is a real trailblazer and an extraordinary woman in this industry. But unfortunately there aren't enough women like her in positions of power. That's sort of a sad fact, and I do think Hollywood is very much in a transitional period right now.

The 2012 documentary Casting By told the story of how Marion Dougherty empowered other women to get into the casting side. Have you seen more women since you've been involved in casting?

I think the reason there are so many women in casting is because casting really requires  you to be very empathetic, be a really good listener, and be able to understand and feel what the director is envisioning. You have to be a great interpreter, and I think women have traditionally been good at that. It's also not a field that’s very respected. There's never been an Academy Award for casting, while there are for production design, editing, and cinematography. Casting is a craft and an art form at its best. But it hasn't been respected, and I’m afraid it has to do with the fact that it's predominantly women who do it.

Casting By is really interesting because Marion unfortunately passed away, and the kind of casting she did no longer really exists. It was at a time where she was able to exercise her influence and her taste and bring wonderful actors to Hollywood. There are still casting directors like that, but so much of Hollywood is a real grind. I do know casting directors that worked the way that Marion did, and I try to myself. But I think in the mainstream that's really hard, and honestly, I think the way that business was being conducted kind of crushed her spirit in the end.

Are you often the only woman in meetings? Are there advantages or disadvantages to this?

Yes, I find that very often I am the sole female voice in meetings. It doesn’t bother me. I certainly like working with women. I like working with women directors, and I wish there were more. I wish there were more roles for women too; that's what bothers me.

Another thing in the film industry that bothers me is ageism. There’s a huge amount of ageism, especially for women. Some of the standards that women have to live up to are very different than the standards that men have to live up to. I feel like women in Hollywood have to get plastic surgery and they’re not allowed to age the way men do, which is very upsetting to me. Women disappear after age 50; it’s like they drop off the face of the earth. It’s as if a woman’s appearance and her sexuality is what's being portrayed on screen, not her intelligence, her intuition, and all of her other qualities like her kindness, her power. All of those things are less important.

What do you think it would take to have more balance in gender and equality in Hollywood?

There have to be more opportunities for women directors and producers, especially at the highest level—the studio levels. There certainly are some wonderful women, but the culture is still predominantly white men. There has to be more diversity—diversity of color, diversity of opinion, and diversity of taste. How will that occur? I’m not sure what it would take to make that happen. Time, certainly, because the world is changing.