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Bridgerton's colorblind casting signals a 'real shift' in Hollywood

Actress Lorraine Toussaint says Black Lives Matter and Netflix shows like Shonda Rhimes' Bridgerton are positive signs of change in the entertainment industry -- and beyond.

Lorraine Toussaint says she's been sending emails every few months to television producer Shonda Rhimes, offering to play a "grand old dame" in future episodes of Rhimes' groundbreaking Netflix series Bridgerton.  

It's not just because the historical drama has become one of Netflix's most popular original shows, with the eight episodes in season 1 watched by more than 82 million accounts in its first month, according to the streaming service. It's because the popularity of the show has taken the concept of colorblind casting from the stage, where performers of color have acted in historical roles for years and cemented the success of the approach on television. 

Colorblind casting "never quite got to film and then it certainly never really got to television. … Shonda has broken that ceiling," says Toussaint, 60. "The existence of Bridgerton and the fact that it is such a huge hit is such an affirmation and confirmation of what we in the Black community have always known about ourselves as artists."

Bridgerton is just part of what's driving Toussaint's optimism that Hollywood may finally be moving forward in embracing diversity and inclusion and that our society may be addressing institutional racism. The embrace of entertainment executives including Rhimes, who earned initial success as the showrunner for the medical drama Grey's Anatomy, and directors Ava Duvernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood, shows that real progress is possible, she says.

Lorraine Toussaint

Lorraine Toussaint

George Bautista

"I'm encouraged by what's happening in front of the screen, but also what's happening behind," Toussaint said in an interview for CNET's Now What series from her home in New York. "There are more women coming into power at the studio levels, the networks levels. There are women of color who are very high up in the networks. There are a whole slew of filmmakers that are top-notch and at the top of their game. That's how the industry changes."

And that diversity, fueled in part by last year's reckoning over Black Lives Matter, is prompting real discussions and action. "Black Lives Matter has finally surfaced in a way that cannot be ignored. That is touching the industry. It is awakening minds and hearts and opening eyes," says Toussaint, who last year created the Mothers & Sons 2020 Project to encourage Black Americans to vote. 

"Oftentimes racism isn't particularly malicious, but that level of ignorance is no longer excusable," Toussaint says. "We're getting to a critical mass point where we're starting to see a real shift in the business and the industry."

Which is why Toussaint is excited about the prospects of finally playing a "grand old broad" in a period piece on TV in a show like Bridgerton, which is set in Regency England. "I love period," she says, with a laugh. "I was trained to do period, and to be able to do that on film now would be really exciting."

In the meantime, Toussaint, who played a villain of sorts on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and voiced the sorceress Shadow Weaver in the animated series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, remains busy at work. In February, she began starring in CBS' crime series The Equalizer alongside Queen Latifah and Chris Noth, playing "an unconventional maternal figure." The show was just renewed for a second season

And Netflix has acquired the rights to her next film, Concrete Cowboys, about a young Black teen who is "caught between a life of crime and his estranged father's [Idris Elba] vibrant urban-cowboy subculture." It's scheduled to be released on April 2. 

As for what's next, Toussaint says she's looking forward to a post-pandemic world where we can return to see live performances in a theater, noting that the technology that allows her to perform virtually on stage -- what she calls "simulated intimacy" -- doesn't work for her. "The face of theater may change, but I think there's nothing else in the world that compares to walking into a space and having a live interaction." 

Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.