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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


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To Use an Accent or Not to Use an Accent, That Is the Question

One of the issues that Asian American actors face is often being asked to use a stereotypical accent for a role. On one hand, accents can reflect the way many Asian Americans speak, especially immigrants who come to the United States later in life. On the other hand, many Asian Americans don’t have accents at all, and these “ethnic” ways of speaking are often used to signify stereotypical traits.

Tom was born in Illinois, but she identified using the accent with the way one of her family members spoke in real life.

“My grandmother was an immigrant and she had a very strong accent,” said Tom. “My brother and I used to try to imitate her since the time we were 5. Her voice is really in my body and in my bones. I always felt like as long as the writing felt authentic enough — there are so many millions of people out there in the world who have an accent.

“I got a little flack from the Asian community once in a while about doing an accent, but you have to stand somewhere,” she continued. “I tried to bring as much integrity to those parts as I could. I could talk to the writers and go, ‘This line is not really accurate and it’s not going to fly well if it’s about eating dogs in China. It’s just going to be very offensive.’ I felt like the writers didn’t want to be offensive, they just didn’t know what might be sensitive and what might not be sensitive.”

Lauren Tom, "Andi Mack"

Lauren Tom, “Andi Mack

Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin

Penn can appreciate both sides of the issue, but he personally chose to be open to using an accent for the sake of his career. “I tried to view that the way anybody would view any other job, which is, ‘Okay, I’ve got to start down here and work a couple of years in these jobs that I don’t want in order to take the ones that I do.’ I know plenty of folks, including folks like John Cho, who were adamant about never doing that and they never have. They’ve chosen not to and they have tremendous, incredible careers because of it. I think you can see it’s sort of multifaceted.”

The actor also determined that his biggest issue wasn’t the accent itself, but the way accents are often used in comedy. “If it’s not grounded in how it’s being brought to life, that’s just boring,” he said. “My experience has been accents have generally masked bad writing. They’re looking for something to punch up a joke. The writers are not quite there with being able to write better jokes, so they think, ‘Let’s just make an accent out of it and that will just be funny.’ That’s always a bummer because it’s just not challenging. It’s not interesting. It still definitely happens.”

Sircar echoes this sentiment. “Yes, there are some roles where yeah, this is a character I want to play,” she said. “She happens to have an accent so I’ll go ahead and do the accent. Then there are times… it’s a comedy role where part of the comedy is that this person has this ridiculous accent. Those are, just generally speaking, not roles that sort of appeal to me and I don’t really want to play a character that speaks like Apu from ‘The Simpsons.’

Not Asian Enough or the Wrong Type of Asian

Sircar also notes that there are times that using the accent isn’t enough in an audition if she doesn’t fit the picture of what the casting agents want to see in an Indian or South Asian woman.

“I would also audition for roles for people with accents, Indian women from India, and I’d go out for them because how many options do they really have, especially at that time, maybe eight, nine years ago,” she said. “Invariably they’d say, ‘Oh, she was great, but she wasn’t quite authentic enough.’

“I got that a lot, and it’s true, I’m from Texas, I can turn it on. I say ‘y’all’ a lot. I guess that gives me away. I’m not authentically from India, so it’s sort of this catch-22,” she said. “I’m a very bicultural person. I’m very American. I was born here, I was raised here, but my parents are from India and I retain a lot of that part of my culture. So I’m pretty straight down the middle. I have friends who are South Asian who have an easier time going in between their American selves and their more Indian selves. I guess I’m just not one of those people.”

Tiya Sircar, "The Good Place"

Tiya Sircar, “The Good Place

Vivian Zink/NBC

Another instance when actual authenticity is bypassed in favor of what a casting director wants, is when an Asian actor plays the part of character who has a different Asian cultural background. For example, Kim will be playing a Japanese-American part for “Hellboy” even though he is Korean-American. For the most part, this practice is accepted right now because there are a dearth of prominent Asian roles available.

Jamie Chung, who stars in Fox’s “The Gifted” and has appeared on “Gotham,” has played Chinese roles several times even though she is of Korean descent. The results have been mixed. She had no trouble playing the Disney-fied Chinese character Mulan without an accent for “Once Upon a Time,” but she’s also been called to put on a Chinese accent for other roles that didn’t go so well.

“I failed miserably and will never do that again,” she said. “But I did the work. I listened to the accent. I put in the work. Did it come out great? No. Did I learn my lesson? Yes. Will I ever do it again? Absolutely not. It’s the privilege to have these opportunities. It’s not always what you hope they turn out to be, but you take those chances. You make the mistakes, and you learn. That’s how you grow as an actor. A lot of people don’t have that opportunity to do it.”

Chung, in particular, has had to reflect on how roles for Asian actors are evolving in the U.S. Although she had played Chinese in the past, she wasn’t able to land a part in John Chu’s upcoming adaptation of the novel “Crazy Rich Asians” because the producers were looking specifically to cast actors of Chinese descent. But when she learned that Henry Golding, who is half white and half Malaysian/Singaporean, landed the starring role, she said in a CBS News interview, “That is some bullshit. Where do you draw the line to be ethnically conscious? But there’s so many loopholes, so I kind of get screwed.”

Jamie Chung, "Gotham"

Jamie Chung, “Gotham”

Jeff Neumann/FOX

Even though some in the Asian community supported her statement – especially noting that this would’ve been an opportunity for a full-blooded Asian male to play a romantic lead – Chung still experienced backlash for her criticism. After all, Golding is still more Chinese than Chung is, and he’s also hapa, a word adopted from the Hawaiian language (meaning “half”) to indicate someone is is part Asian. The casting of someone who is partly Asian for Asian roles is still considered acceptable over casting someone who isn’t Asian at all.

“I did say something ridiculous, and I apologized for it,” Chung admitted. “I realized that I’m perpetuating something that I’m totally against. It’s so easy to do that, because it’s something you’re so used to hearing or saying: Are they Asian enough? What the fuck does that mean? Or culturally, I am Korean. Am I acting too American? What the fuck does that mean?”

Continue reading for breakthrough gigs and the changing face of Asians on TV

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