Hollywood has long been a hostile place for Black actors, a trend that has only recently started to shift. But for Leonard Roberts, who starred in the first season of the 2006 hit series Heroes, experience with racism on set nearly sidelined his career.
In a guest essay for Variety, the actor opened up about being fired from the series after his main co-star, Ali Larter, purportedly made it clear she didn’t want to work with him, despite Roberts always maintaining a professional attitude during their interactions. He also revealed that his character was described in the script as a “white man’s nightmare,” and was subject to racist tropes and stereotypes. His requests to collaborate with writers on the show — which is industry standard for series regular actors on a television show — went unanswered.
The part of Roberts’ story making the most noise on social media involves his co-star Ali Larter throwing a tantrum when asked to do an intimate scene with Roberts — a reaction that was quite the opposite as when the situation involved her romancing a white man.
[My character] D.L. Hawkins was in an interracial marriage with Niki Sanders, a white woman played by Ali Larter. The script suggested D.L. and Niki had a volatile relationship — and it wasn’t long before art was imitating life, with me on the receiving end of pushback from my co-star regarding the playing of a particularly tense scene. Coming from theater, I was familiar with passions running high in the process of bringing characters to life, so I later gave her a bottle of wine with a note affirming what I believed to be mutual respect and a shared commitment to doing exceptional work. Neither the gift nor the note was ever acknowledged.
On another occasion, during the staging of a bedroom scene, my co-star took umbrage with the level of intimacy being suggested between our characters. In a private rehearsal, Greg Beeman, our director, asked if she was willing to lower the straps of the top she was wearing and expose her bare shoulders only above the sheet that covered her, in order to give the visual impression she was in the same state of undress as me, as I was shirtless. My co-star refused Beeman’s request, and I was instantly aware of the tension on the set. I remember instinctively checking to make sure both my hands were visible to everyone who was there, as not to have my intentions or actions misconstrued. Despite Beeman’s clear description of what he was looking for visually, my co-star insisted she was, indeed, being asked to remove her top completely, and rehearsal was cut. She then demanded a meeting with Beeman and the producers who were on set and proceeded to have an intense and loud conversation in which she expressed she had never been so disrespected — as an actress, a woman or a human being.
While that was my first episode, my co-star had been working on “Heroes” for over a month, and she’d shot another scene that called for Niki to seduce Nathan Petrelli, played by Adrian Pasdar. After watching the episode, I asked Pasdar if there had been any concerns similar to what I witnessed during my episode. He replied to the contrary, and mentioned her openness to collaboration and even improvisation. I pondered why my co-star had exuberantly played a different scene with the Petrelli character involving overt sexuality while wearing lingerie, but found aspects of one involving love and intimacy expressed through dialogue with my character, her husband, disrespectful to her core. I couldn’t help wondering whether race was a factor.
Roberts goes on to describe the fallout from his tense relationship with Larter, which ultimately resulted in him being written off the show before the end of the first season. “Don’t think of this as a situation where the Black man loses and the white woman wins,” a producer on the show told him, though by all accounts, that’s exactly what happened. The gaslighting continued when, according to Roberts, one of his castmates asked, “Can you really say you lost your job because you’re Black? C’mon, man. They’re gonna always keep the hot blonde on the show. That’s just Hollywood.”
Read Roberts’ full account of his experience on Heroes here.
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