“Lost” showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse confront several accusations of racism, toxicity and more that allegedly occurred during the making of the ABC hit series in Maureen Ryan’s new book, “Burn It Down,” an excerpt of which has been published on Vanity Fair’s website. In the excerpt, Lindelof admits that he “failed” in regards to providing “safety and comfort” in the show’s writers’ room.
Several writers and actors spoke to Ryan about the alleged toxic work environment on “Lost,” which ran for six seasons on ABC from 2004-2010. Harold Perrineau, who starred as Michael Dawson in the first two seasons of “Lost,” spoke bluntly about his white co-stars getting the show’s major storylines. As he put it, “It became pretty clear that I was the Black guy. Daniel [Dae Kim] was the Asian guy. And then you had Jack and Kate and Sawyer.”
A writer on the show said that the “Lost” writing staff was repeatedly told that white characters Locke (Terry O’Quinn), Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) were the “hero characters” and that “nobody cares about these other characters. Just give them a few scenes on another beach.”
Perrineau said he once flagged his concerns to a “Lost” producer about the show’s white cast members being prioritized over cast members of color, be it on screen or during photo shoots. He said he told the producer, “I don’t have to be the first, I don’t have to have the most episodes — but I’d like to be in the mix. But it seems like this is now a story about Jack and Kate and Sawyer.”
According to Perrineau, the producer told him that “this is just how audiences follow stories.” The producer allegedly added that Locke, Jack, Kate and Sawyer were “relatable.”
Perrineau said he later went to Cuse to voice concerns about a script in which his character, Michael, only expressed worry about his missing child once during the episode.
“I can’t be another person who doesn’t care about missing Black boys, even in the context of fiction, right?” Perrineau said. “This is just furthering the narrative that nobody cares about Black boys, even Black fathers.”
After flagging his concerns and just a few weeks ahead of filming the “Lost” Season 2 finale, Perrineau said Cuse announced that Michael would not be returning to the show.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I just got fired, I think,’” Perrineau says. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s happening?’ [Cuse] said, ‘Well, you know, you said to us, if we don’t have anything good for you, you want to go.’ I was just asking for equal depth.”
Several “Lost” writers told Ryan that Cuse and Lindelof “tolerated or even encouraged the overall atmosphere” behind the scenes, which allegedly included frequent racist and toxic remarks.
Monica Owusu-Breen, a writer on “Lost” Season 3, and other writers said the only Asian American writer on staff was routinely called “Korean” instead of by a real name. In another instance, a writer who was adopting an Asian child was allegedly told by another writer that “no grandparent wants a slanty-eyed grandchild.” Lindelof also allegedly addressed Perrineau’s exit in front of writers by saying he “called me racist, so I fired [him]”.
“Everyone laughed [when Lindelof said that],” Owusu-Breen said. “It was ugly. I was like, ‘I don’t know if they’re perceiving this as a joke or if they mean it.’ But it wasn’t funny. Saying that was horrible.”
“All I wanted to do was write some really cool episodes of a cool show. That was an impossibility on that staff,” Owusu-Breen told Ryan earlier. “There was no way to navigate that situation. Part of it was they really didn’t like their characters of color. When you have to go home and cry for an hour before you can see your kids because you have to excise all the stress you’ve been holding in, you’re not going to write anything good after that.”
Owusu-Breen also recalled writing the episode in which Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Mr. Eko was killed off.
“Carlton said something to the effect of, ‘I want to hang him from the highest tree,’” Owusu-Breen said. “At which point I said, ‘You may want to temper the lynching imagery, lest you offend.’ And I was very clearly angry.”
“Lost” writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach told Ryan he quit after Season 2 because of the show’s toxic work environment. He described the writers room as “a predatory ecosystem with its own carnivorous megafauna.”
Writer-producer Melinda Hsu Taylor added, “Damon once said, ‘I don’t trust any writer who isn’t miserable, because that tells me you don’t care.’” She started leaving eyeliner in her desk drawer because “you don’t want to have to go to the bathroom to redo your eyeliner. If you cry at work, you don’t want people to see that you’ve been crying.”
Lindelof responded to the many accusations in two separate interviews with Ryan conducted for the book.
“My level of fundamental inexperience as a manager and a boss, my role as someone who was supposed to model a climate of creative danger and risk-taking but provide safety and comfort inside of the creative process — I failed in that endeavor,” Lindelof said.
“[Hollywood tokenism is] what I saw in the business around me,” he continued. “And so I was like, okay, as long as there are one or two [writers] who don’t look and think exactly like me, then, then I’m okay. I came to learn that was even worse. For those specific individuals, forget about the ethics or the morality involved around that decision, but just talking about the human effect of being the only woman or the only person of color and how you are treated and othered — I was a part of that, a thousand percent.”
Lindelof said he did not recall “ever” saying the “fire [him]” comment about Perrineau, though he added, “What can I say? Other than it breaks my heart that that was Harold’s experience. And I’ll just cede that the events that you’re describing happened 17 years ago, and I don’t know why anybody would make that up about me.”
Expanding on Perrineau’s concerns with the show prioritizing its white characters, Lindelof said, “Every single actor had expressed some degree of disappointment that they weren’t being used enough…That was kind of part and parcel for an ensemble show, but obviously there was a disproportionate amount of focus on Jack and Kate and Locke and Sawyer — the white characters. Harold was completely and totally right to point that out. It’s one of the things that I’ve had deep and profound regrets about in the two decades since. I do feel that Harold was legitimately and professionally conveying concerns about his character and how significant it was that Michael and Walt — with the exception of Rose — were really the only Black characters on the show.”
Lindelof said he was “shocked and appalled and surprised” by the allegations coming from the show’s writers.
“I just can’t imagine that Carlton would’ve said something like that, or some of those attributions, some of those comments that you [shared] — I’m telling you, I swear, I have no recollection of those specific things,” Lindelof said. “And that’s not me saying that they didn’t happen. I’m just saying that it’s literally baffling my brain — that they did happen and that I bore witness to them or that I said them. To think that they came out of my mouth or the mouths of people that I still consider friends is just not computing.”
Cuse issued his own statement regarding the many offensive comments that were allegedly said: “I deeply regret that anyone at ‘Lost’ would have to hear them. They are highly insensitive, inappropriate and offensive.”
“It breaks my heart to hear it. It’s deeply upsetting to know that there were people who had such bad experiences,” Cuse also said. “I did not know people were feeling that way. No one ever complained to me, nor am I aware that anybody complained to ABC Studios. I wish I had known. I would have done what I could to make changes.”