For some Asian actors, it’s easy to pinpoint their breakthrough role. Penn knows that his is the buddy-stoner road trip comedy “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” with co-star John Cho. Initially, the film did not do well in theaters, but once it hit DVD, it found a following.
“That’s when it really took off and we kind of thought, ‘Wow, okay. So it was not an issue of the audience not wanting to see it. The audience did find it funny. The audience did want to laugh with these characters,’” he said. “It was just nice to know that the archaic mask that I think a lot of Hollywood was using at the time and still uses… was wrong and that having an audience-driven franchise was right. That’s why it’s still a really special thing for us, because the fans found it on their own.”
Since then, Penn has transitioned to more regular TV work that allows him to build a character over time. Many of these roles aren’t specifically written or performed as South Asian. On “House,” he played Dr. Lawrence Kutner after going to a diverse casting call held by series creator David Shore, who now works on ABC’s “The Good Doctor.”
“I remember walking into that audition room and they were reading men and women basically ages 18 to 60,” he said. “I remember asking him a few years later, when I was on the show, ‘Hey, what was the deal with that audition, by the way?’ Usually when you go in, it’s people that look like you and that’s it and here I was walking in and it’s men and women basically reading the same audition sides. He was like, ‘I don’t understand the question because I just want the best actors for the job so of course I’m going to bring in men and women and all ethnicities and all of that.’ I think if you see all of David’s stuff, you see that, that’s very much true because he puts such a focus on great writing and great story telling and this commitment to audiences will watch what’s interesting.
“I find that to be the same in ‘Designated Survivor,’” he added. “David Guggenheim, who wrote the pilot episode, wrote this character Seth Wright. I ended up getting it. I don’t think they’d had an ethnicity attached to it in their minds and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why you see a well-rounded series of characters. We’re an incredibly diverse cast, but very rarely is that ever a plot issue.”
Similarly, working on her breakthrough role in the big-screen “The Joy Luck Club” led Tom to a significant role on TV: playing Julie, the temporary girlfriend for Ross (David Schwimmer) on “Friends.”
“I think the only other person of color on there was Aisha Tyler, wasn’t it?” she said. “One of the producers had seen ‘Joy Luck Club’ and they had always envisioned the character of Julie as being the nicest person on the planet. And the joke is that Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) still thinks she’s a bitch. And my character in ‘Joy Luck Club’ was nice almost to the point of being a little bit shy and wallflowery. They had just seen that movie because it had come out.
“Thank god they’re still playing it in repeats because it keeps me current with the younger crowd,” she said. “Kids will come up or women [will come up] and just tell me how much that meant to them to see an Asian face on screen, that they could actually for the first time envision themselves perhaps going into the business. Because, prior to that, there was not a lot of representation.”
Sircar’s breakthroughs in film included playing a girl who wants to impress Zac Efron in “17 Again” and appearing in the Silicon Valley comedy “The Internship” with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Since then, she’s played a number of roles that are not defined by her ethnicity, such as Aimee on “The Vampire Diaries” and Real Eleanor/Vicky on “The Good Place.”
“I feel like most of my career I’ve played a lot of ethnically ambiguous characters,” she said. “The character was written as Amy Green and they just happened to cast a South Asian actor to play this role and the character’s ethnicity was sort of immaterial to the storyline.”
Sometimes the character remains the same on the page after she’s cast, but in some cases, it evolves to fit her, such as in Zach Braff’s upcoming ABC sitcom “Alex, Inc.,” which is based on the podcast “StartUp.”
“I’m playing a character on a show right now, who is based on a real life person,” she said. “In real life the woman is Persian and the character’s name was a Persian name. When I went out for this role I said, ‘Guys, I cannot pull off Persian. I appreciate the opportunity, but this is too far-fetched.’ My manager and agent said, ‘Just don’t worry about that. Just worry about the actual character.’
“So I did and I got the job, and they ended up changing the character,” she said. “I’ve never played a character closer to me in real life than on this show, which is really new, but very exciting to me. She’s from Texas, she’s Bengali American. I’m Bengali, my parents are from Calcutta. It’s kind of crazy to me that I’m actually playing someone so close to my own real life self. [Zach Braff] plays my husband, and we have two mixed children. It’s a show I wish I had watched when I was growing up.”
Currently, Sircar appears as Vicky on “The Good Place,” although her character also been known as Real Eleanor and Denise. The multiple names come from the fact that her character is actually a demon who takes on different personas to fool four hapless humans into believing that the Bad Place, the afterlife where the show is set, is actually the Good Place. The curious role was beyond anything Sircar could have imagined for herself.
“I had no idea that I would be playing, essentially the world’s best, nicest, kindest human, who is really in truth, a literal demon whose purpose … is to torture people. It was a total surprise,” she said. “I’m so grateful that [creator] Mike Schur went out on a limb and took a chance on me being this horrible, horrible person because up until the end of last season I was playing a diametrically opposite type of character… I always play sort of type A characters who have their stuff together. This character’s decidedly different from that and it’s just such fun to play this ridiculous person.”
Both Tom and Sircar have also been successful as voiceover actors in animated series, a medium that frees up expectations regarding ethnicity or any sort of physical expectations.
The Changing Face of TV
The past few years have brought TV shows with prominent Asian leads into the mainstream, such as Mindy Kaling on “The Mindy Project” and Aziz Ansari on “Master of None.” ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” became the first American sitcom starring an Asian American family to air on network primetime since Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl,” which aired for one season in 1994. The show tells the story of a Taiwanese-American family trying to adjust to life in 1990s Orlando, Florida.
“It means the world to me,” Park said of starring on “Fresh Off the Boat.” “Before the show, it was kind of inconceivable to me that there’d be a show like this, as the last time it happened was over 20 years before that. Over those years I had heard rumblings of people are trying to develop a family sitcom with an Asian American family, but none of it would ever come to fruition. It’s really a dream come true and mind-blowing, especially considering my own interest and investment in the community and in these representation issues. It’s been incredible.”
The show recently kicked off its fourth season, which is a relief since the other primetime Asian American family comedy, “Dr. Ken,” was recently canceled. On ABC’s sister network Disney Channel, the sitcom “Andi Mack” has been gaining attention for the depiction of its multigenerational Asian family. In the pilot, teenager Andi Mack (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) discovers that Celia (Lauren Tom), the woman she always thought was her mother is actually her grandmother, while her cool older sister Bex (Lilan Bowden) is actually her mother.
Series creator Terri Minsky, who also created “Lizzie McGuire,” did not initially conceive of the Mack family as Asian, but instead focused on casting the character Andi Mack first and built her family up from there. “Peyton was cast first. They were just looking for ‘the girl,’” said Bowden, who is half Taiwanese. “Luckily for me, Peyton was cast, and she is half as well. So now they needed to build a family around Peyton.”
Tom said, “Thank god Peyton Elizabeth Lee walked into the room because then they had to find an Asian mom. [Terri Minsky] had always envisioned the character, Celia, as strict and kind of tightly wound and very dry. I played a character just like that on ‘The Newsroom.’ She was a political analyst. No accent. Because the series was originally written for a white Jewish girl, if it was cast the way that it was meant to be, then the mom would have been white and no one would be saying, ‘Hey, she’s a tiger mom.’ I guess it’s hard to separate those images because if you’re going to play a tough mom and you’re Asian, people might say that.”
“I think because the show wasn’t written in mind with the specific, cultural family in mind, it really does a good job of showing everybody as very three dimensional,” said Bowden. “It doesn’t hand you the touchstones of what’s it’s like to be of a certain culture in America. It’s just showing these people as real people… I get to play myself and I get to be apart of an Asian-American family but that’s just so far from anything that’s close to model minority stereotypes.”
Many shows are also giving more significant parts to Asian actors because the overall cast is rich and diverse. This is a trend seen in big ensemble shows like “Designated Survivor,” “The Good Doctor,” “The Gifted” and “The Good Place.” Sircar points out that two other Asians – Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto – are also featured prominently on the NBC comedy.
“This is what 21st century television should look like and be like, where you have, just amongst the lead characters, an African American actor, a Filipino actor, a South Asian actor, a South Asian British actor… It’s so exciting and encouraging and I hope people take note and that more and more television shows start to look like what I think America really looks like. I applaud NBC and the creators of our show for just not caring about any of that stuff and just casting the right person for the job.”
Penn said, “If you look at what there was to audition for when I graduated college versus what there is now, it’s definitely leaps and bounds ahead. That said, you probably have more of the hard data on this, but it seems that it’s still way behind the census.”
Check back for Part 2 of Indiewire’s Asian Americans on TV, in which Asians increase and improve representation by creating their own material and calling the shots.