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Asian American TV Actors Expose the Difficulty of Landing Parts – With or Without an Accent

Daniel Dae Kim, Kal Penn, Jamie Chung, and more on role models, problematic auditions, breakthrough gigs, and the changing face of TV.

Randall Park, Kal Penn, Jamie Chung

ABC, ABC, FOX

Daniel Dae Kim made headlines this year for leaving “Hawaii Five-0” over issues of pay inequality, and later, for replacing actor Ed Skrein as a Japanese-American character in the big-screen remake of “Hellboy.” Both instances involved how Asian Americans are still underrepresented in the entertainment industry, and it’s an issue that requires more discussion in order to foster understanding of how the so-called “model minority” continues to be marginalized.

It wasn’t that long ago that very few actors of Asian descent were even considered Hollywood stars. In an interview with IndieWire, Kim reflected on the few Asian actors who were his role models growing up.

“The only two that I can think of were Bruce Lee and George Takei. They were the only two,” he said. “I was a big ‘Star Trek’ fan when I was a kid, and I would watch Mister Sulu all the time. Bruce Lee, of course, was iconic and still is. He’s still one of my idols. Most of the people I looked up to when I was a kid were not Asian. Most kids just watch TV and they accept whatever that’s put in front of them. It wasn’t really until I was older that I realized how few Asian people there were on TV. I don’t know what made me think that I could be one of them, but thankfully I am.”

Having starred in “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-0,” Kim is now a role model for a new generation that has significantly more Asian American performers on their screens to look to and emulate. But following a comprehensive study released in September about the roles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on TV, it’s clear that representation still has a long way to go. While there has been an increased Asian American presence on TV, the roles are often of lower quality: the characters get less screen time, have less meaningful interactions (e.g. less romantic storylines), or are clearly cast as tokens.

As the new fall TV season got underway, IndieWire checked in with Kim and several other working actors to get their take on the changing face of Asian Americans on TV. In Part 1 of this interview series, these successful stars reflect on how they started out, the decisions they made regarding their portrayal of Asian characters, their breakthrough roles, and the evolution of the parts they have now.

Auditions/Getting a Foot in the Door

Asher Angel, Sofia Wylie, Joshua Rush, Peyton Elizabeth Lee, Lilan Bowden, Lauren Tom, and Stoney Westmoreland, “Andi Mack”

Asher Angel, Sofia Wylie, Joshua Rush, Peyton Elizabeth Lee, Lilan Bowden, Lauren Tom, and Stoney Westmoreland, “Andi Mack

Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin

The problems with representation begin with casting, as Asian American actors are offered fewer roles or parts than white actors — and when they are brought in for roles, they are either stereotypical or for less meaty supporting parts. “Andi Mack” co-star Lauren Tom, who has also appeared on “Friends” and “The Newsroom,” at first didn’t understand Hollywood’s casting issues because she hailed from a dance and theater background.

“When I was auditioning for plays for off-Broadway and Broadway, I found it was such color-blind casting that it never occurred to me that I was going to come up against some stereotypical, racist kind of views because I was cast in ‘Hurlyburly’ as a white teenager,” she said. “Mike Nichols had directed that, and I found that they were actually looking for the essence more than what people looked like. I think that’s because film and television are 90 percent visual. And when you go to a play, it’s actually 90 percent auditory. You’re listening more than looking.

“As soon as I moved to L.A., then I started to realize what people were talking about,” she continued. “I wasn’t able to audition for a lot of roles that my Caucasian friends were going up for. I just wasn’t getting the calls. And then, when I did get the call, I felt like, ‘Wow, okay, I’m really coming as an underdog and I am coming from behind so I’ve got to knock it out of the park so much so that they can’t not hire me.’”

Randall Park, who stars as Louis Huang on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” said, “I never really had to deal with blatantly stereotypical roles, outside of maybe a few instances where an audition would come to me and I’d just turn it down because I just felt like it was just too offensive. But outside of that, there were always roles that were maybe a little bit rooted in the stereotype and the roles that I thought, ‘Well, you know, this could be construed as stereotypical if it’s done the wrong way,’ type of thing. That has always been something that I’ve always dealt with as an actor.”

Lilan Bowden, who is half Taiwanese and plays a biracial character on “Andi Mack,” found that many of the roles she’d land auditions for would fall into certain typical categories.

“The roles you get as a minority usually cluster in certain category, where you’re the nerdy Asian girl,” she said. “Or, I noticed as I was gaining more credits and able to audition for bigger rooms, I felt like every year I was going out and testing for at least one pilot where I was the sassy, ethnic best friend. I compared notes with some of my peers, and we have a lot of the same experiences. I still think that we have a lot of work to do as far as entertaining someone who’s not white for the lead role of TV shows.”

Tiya Sircar, who appears in NBC’s “The Good Place” and ABC’s upcoming “Alex, Inc.,” also discovered she’d get passed over for the leads, even if she thought she initially had a chance.

“Early on when I first moved to LA and started working in the business… I would audition to play the lead role on a half-hour sitcom,” she said. “That was exciting and encouraging that they were seeing a South Asian actress to play this role, and then invariably a Caucasian girl would be cast. Maybe an African-American girl would be cast and potentially a Latina actor would be cast, but that was the extent of it. I was seen for all kinds of roles, but those lead roles were sort of saved for mostly Caucasian actresses.”

Kal Penn, who currently stars in “Designated Survivor” and previously had a role on “House,” recalled one bizarre audition in which “ethnic” role didn’t even apply to him.

“From the conversations that I had with my agents at the time, it was very difficult for them to get me in a room, unless it was specifically written as an Asian American or ‘ethnic,’” he said. “I remember there being weird anomalies to this. I went in once to audition for a Spanish-language McDonald’s commercial. I do not speak Spanish… There were two rooms where they were having auditions: one for an English-language McDonald’s commercial and one for a Spanish-language McDonald’s commercial. They were the same script. It was the same commercial. I was there to read for the Spanish one. I just remember so clearly thinking, ‘Everybody who’s here for the Spanish commercial can also speak English. So, why wouldn’t you just hire the people from the Spanish commercial to do both? Why are you hiring two sets of people?’”

Of course, if only stereotypical roles are offered early on in an actor’s career, they often have to make the best of the situation.

“One of the first movies that I did was called ‘Van Wilder’ with Ryan Reynolds,” said Penn. “When I first heard about the audition, my agent had called me and she said, ‘There’s this script. There’s a supporting lead. It’s with Tara Reid from “American Pie.”’ I said, ‘What’s the name of the character? I’m so excited to read this script.’ She goes, ‘The name of the character is Taj Mahal.’ I hung up on her. I didn’t go to UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television to play a character named Taj Mahal.”

"Van Wilder"

“Van Wilder”

Ar/Myriad/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

On the advice of a casting director friend who is also South Asian, Penn took the part with the idea that he could influence how the character was written by suggesting funnier jokes in place of the most egregiously problematic ones. Penn not only landed the part, but he found support from the film’s star Ryan Reynolds, who suggested that they improvise his opening monologue. “He asked the director to keep the cameras rolling and we improvised this whole thing,” Penn said. “They ended up using quite a bit of it, thanks to Ryan’s encouragement.”

In the end, Penn learned to take away the best parts of the role. “I didn’t think he necessarily had to have an accent, I didn’t think there necessarily had to be any racial ethnic signifiers in it, but ultimately he existed and advanced the plot of the film because he’s an 18 year old college freshman who wants to get laid,” he said. “That story is fairly universal, right? This was a character that could have been white or black or from anywhere in the world or anywhere in the country and his plot points would have remained the same. That was an example of, ‘Okay, it’s definitely a stereotypical part. I’m not saying it’s not, but the things I learned from it, and the opportunity to be an integral part, start to finish, of something that’s funny on the merits of being funny, is also there. They were sort of living concurrently in that space.’”

Continue reading for the issue with accents and degrees of Asian-ness

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