Sure, diversity on and off screen has made some strides in recent years, but there’s still so much work left to be done. That’s exactly the point of TOKENS, a new series now available for streaming that offers a funny, bold, tongue-in-cheek look at issues of diversity, inclusion, and representation in the entertainment industry. Created by Winnifred Jong and produced with Trinni Franke, TOKENS follows actors from an on call casting agency that specializes in diversity, meaning whoever is “on call” gets randomly dispatched into unexpected roles so that producers can meet their diversity quotas. Think Uber, but for actors.
“Initially the concept wasn’t about people of colour, it was just actors,” Jong explained in a recent chat with The TV Junkies. However, she soon realized what an important platform the series offered her and that “if I’m creating something, I have a responsibility to tell stories that can make a difference.” Jong said it was that realization that made the whole concept of TOKENS become clear to her and she knew she needed to get funding to properly shoot the series.
“We weren’t going to short change the story. It had 28 speaking parts and lots of different sets and situations, but we didn’t want to compromise that.” Jong, who directed an episode of Coroner earlier this year and will direct upcoming episodes of Private Eyes and Nurses, said she and Franke applied to “practically every fund.” After finally securing the money needed, they went to work assembling a diverse cast. Connie Wang (Second Jen) stars as Sammie Pang and she’s joined by Ryan Allen (21 Thunder), Shelley Thompson (Trailer Park Boys), Sharron Mathews (Frankie Drake Mysteries), Daniel Maslany (Murdoch Mysteries, Four in the Morning), Jessica Greco (Northern Rescue, The Hummingbird Project), Chelsea Clarke (Degrassi: Next Class), Christina Song (Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek) and Russell Yuen (Blood and Water).
Jong said that she was able to get such a strong ensemble in part because “they like me,” grabbing many actors from previous series she’s worked on, but more importantly “they also support the project.” She said many of the actors could relate to the stories in TOKENS. “The background story for each of them was relevant and they understood it. I don’t know how many times the actors came to me and said ‘how did you know?’ Even though I wrote towards some of my experiences, it became an anthem to their experiences as well and it became this thing we were all trying to do together.”
The inclusivity of the stories and the project wasn’t just prevalent on screen, as the TOKENS set behind the scenes took on a similar feel. “Trinni and I wanted to have a really fun, inclusive set that didn’t have any pressure. We just wanted to create the atmosphere that’s in the written script on set as well.” Jong said that kind of work environment was necessary for a series that shot over the course of just 8 days. In addition to fun, they wanted to also make it diverse, meaning that they “tried to keep the mix of women and men and when we did second unit day it was 80 per cent women of colour.”
Jong and her team have dreams beyond just one season of TOKENS and “want to make it into a full series.” She said the team is trying to get as many views on the episodes as possible to “prove there’s an audience for this material.” As she pointed out, “just like when you make Wonder Woman, a lead female superhero and directed by a woman, you need it to succeed. Black Panther needed to succeed. Kim’s Convenience needed to succeed in order for the people who hold the purse strings to recognize that there’s an audience.”
Want to do your part in helping unique, diverse stories succeed? Then check out the first season of TOKENS which is all about “following your dreams.” That’s exactly what Jong did by making this series, and its use of humor and relatable situations really means that TOKENS “opens the door to everybody.”
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TOKENS is available now for streaming on YouTube here.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.