Chuck James went through hell as a gay assistant in Hollywood. Now, he wants to make sure the next generation doesn't have to swim with sharks
When Chuck James began working in the mailroom at William Morris in the '90s, it was the best of times, the worst of times at the storied talent agency. It was the "heyday" of Hollywood, James recalls, when "agents were as famous as the clients." Personal relationships and schmoozing, through an endless stream of lunches and cocktails, pumped movie-making lifeblood. And for the assistants who worked for these power players -- James was hired as one at ICM after William Morris -- it was a nightmare "every other day."
"The first few desks I was on were terrorizing," recounts James, adding, "It was also a different time when the employee handbook didn't really exist. It was a time of yelling and screaming and judging -- this is outside of being part of the LGBT community or being gay at that point."
Today, James is one of the most influential agents in Hollywood; he is a founding partner at ICM Partners, which, pending negotiations and a probe from the department of Justice, will soon merge with Creative Artists Agency, a powerhouse of acting and writing representation. His A-list clientele includes Regina King, Megan Fox, Meredith Vieira, Karamo Brown, Lana Condor, and Bob the Drag Queen.
But ascending the entertainment industry as a gay man was no crystal staircase for James. In his 20s, out to friends and eventually family members, he quickly realized being open at work wasn't an option: "It was definitely at a time that it was not advantageous whatsoever to be...let's say different," he shares.
"It was never a celebratory existence for me, being true to myself in terms of my work," recalls James, noting how white straight men were "the power base" in Hollywood, and it was advantageous to conform to this "ultimate boys' club" as much as possible. James policed his mannerisms and attire accordingly, taking care to never wear "a pink tie" or any other tell. But he wasn't always able to completely hide his gay identity. In fact, he was once terminated from ICM by a senior agent he didn't name in this interview due to what he perceived as antigay bias.
Found family saved the day. James pointed to the late, legendary agent Ed Limato -- whose clients included Richard Gere, Diana Ross, and Denzel Washington -- as an important gay mentor who protected him from "the wolves of the business." Eventually, his ascent as a "full-fledged agent" at Paradigm Talent Agency, and the support group from mentors and female clients like King, who he has represented for about 30 years, enabled him to be out and proud in the workplace. "Those are the people that accepted me early on," James says. "And if I didn't have women or women of color supporting me, along with someone like Ed Limato...I don't know if I would've survived."
James sees his return and climb at ICM, where he was once ousted, as a progressive sign of the times. However, he notes that it's unacceptable to be the only out partner in a company with hundreds of employees. To amend this, James launched an initiative, LGBTQ+ InQlusion, in 2019 to promote queer acceptance, education, and outreach both inside and outside ICM. The initiative was inspired by a queer intern who once asked James if such a program existed; the company did not at the time, and a "mortified" James immediately set the wheels in motion to create one.
The group tackles a range of tasks, from organizing panel discussions with LGBTQ+ leaders and clients, to rethinking hiring practices, fundraising for nonprofits, and educating employees about the importance of pronouns in email signatures. While COVID-19 has limited InQlusion's recent activities, the group is resilient. "We are still way too small, but we are mighty and when hopefully this pandemic finishes or [abates], we'll be back out in the community," James asserts.
InQlusion's work is needed. Despite recent gains, James knows Hollywood has "a ways to go" regarding diversity, particularly at the top. "What bothers me is just having to educate people at the highest level that we shouldn't have to educate every day, which we do," he says. "At this point, everyone should take the responsibility to understand and know the communities that are out there."
This, for example, manifests itself in client invitations to attend film festivals in antigay places. "I wouldn't send the devil there," James declares. Additionally, his work is frustrated by "a whole secret LGBTQ community" of Hollywood power players -- in front and behind the camera -- who "are more homophobic than people I know not in the community," he shares, adding, "They wouldn't come within 20 miles [of] an InQlusion meeting. And that's hard for me to sometimes look at them in the eye and say, 'I need your help.'"
It was his work advocating for more inclusion that revealed these double agents; he compared the experience to "when you move your sofa and you realize what's under it, because you haven't vacuumed in six months or a year or whatever. It's like, Oh shit, those people are scary."
However, James looks forward to ICM's likely merger with CAA, where he can join forces with fellow gay power agents Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane in creating positive change for the community -- and himself. "I think it's going to be the first time that I'm going to be able to walk down a hallway within a new company that I feel completely 100 percent welcome and not judged," James marvels. He jokes he'll wear a pink tie on his forehead.
The change he advocates for is not only internal. Hollywood productions can influence the world, and James is overjoyed to witness a seismic shift in how the industry treats projects and people that center LGBTQ+ visibility. Today, "everyone realizes the powerful impact of what and how our community brings -- not only dollars, [but] eyes to our business," he says. "[Inclusion is] an incredibly profitable and smart and rewarding business model."