The “Hollywood Reckoning” may have been used as a buzz phrase this year, but it is more than just abstract. It involves the very real lives of Black actors and crew members who have endured (often silently, in order to survive financially) countless microaggressions, full-out racism and other toxic incidents at work.
Leonard Roberts is ready to tell his story. On Wednesday evening, Variety published an op-ed from the actor titled, “Heroes Was Supposed to Be Leonard Roberts’ Big Break. Instead, It Nearly Broke Him.”
In the lengthy op-ed, the actor (who has credits such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Drumline, American Crime Story and Love Jones) recalled his experience with a toxic work environment on the set of Heroes. Roberts portrayed D.L. Hawkins in the superhero drama series created by Tim Kring (who also served as the showrunner). One of the standout parts of the op-ed was Roberts’ disclosure that his co-star Ali Larter, who portrayed his on-screen wife, fostered a tense relationship between the two...and it got so bad it led to Roberts’ exit. When Roberts brought up these concerns, Heroes’ higher-ups expressed indifference, according to the actor.
About Larter, Roberts wrote:
Episode 6 began filming in August 2006. 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.
Later, she found me and said she hoped the “discussion” could stay between us. I didn’t know how that was possible, given said “discussion” was had at elevated levels on a soundstage in front of the crew. Also, my co-star never once thought to include me, her scene partner, in any part of a “discussion,” in which I would have gladly participated. So I found the appeal to my sense of solidarity after the fact strange and somewhat hollow. Nonetheless, I assured her I was fine with getting the work done in any way she and Beeman could agree on. We completed the scene with the straps of my co-star’s top clearly visible, resolving the matter to what I believed was her satisfaction.
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.
“In 2006, I set out to cast the most diverse show on television,” Kring said in a statement. “Diversity, interconnectivity and inclusivity were groundbreaking hallmarks of Heroes. So too was the huge, diverse cast that continually rotated off and onto the show, with none ever being written off based on their race. Looking back now, 14 years later, given the very different lens that I view the world through today, I acknowledge that a lack of diversity at the upper levels of the staff may have contributed to Leonard experiencing the lack of sensitivity that he describes. I have been committed to improving upon this issue with every project I pursue. I remember Leonard fondly and wish him well.”
Roberts also deftly linked his personal experience with that of the general racial unrest in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, with an allegory involving his daughter:
“Daddy, why are there wood boards over all the store windows?” my eight-year-old daughter Evan asked as our family walked our dog along Venice Boulevard. Two-and-a-half months into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the streets were quiet, as a curfew was in place. Stores all over Los Angeles were being boarded up after looting had followed a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in nearby Santa Monica the day before.
“Well, the store owners have decided to cover the windows just in case,” my wife said. Before Evan could say “in case of what?” I interjected with, “Because people get scared when Black people demand things.”
At the time the op-ed published, Larter had not provided a statement despite an off-the-record conversation between Variety and her representative. However, hours after the original op-ed (and notably, after being taken to task via social media by Black Twitter and more), Larter released the following statement (which...isn’t a real apology for several reasons which speak for themselves in the statement):
I am deeply saddened to hear about Leonard Roberts’ experience on Heroes and I am heartbroken reading his perception of our relationship, which absolutely doesn’t match my memory nor experience on the show. I respect Leonard as an artist and I applaud him or anyone using their voice and platform. I am truly sorry for any role I may have played in his painful experience during that time and I wish him and his family the very best.
Other than a few skeptics who used the fact Larter has worked with other Black actors following her tenure at Heroes (which doesn’t prove shit), Roberts received an outpouring of support on Twitter from industry peers and fans alike.
“I want to give a heartfelt thanks to @adambvary, @KateAurthur and @Variety for the space to tell my story in this way,” Roberts wrote. “Your passion, purpose and patience have helped me feel free of this in a way I only dreamed possible. I am overwhelmed.”