Asian American TV Producers Speak Out About Making the Shows They Want, Whether or Not Networks Are on Board

The onus of increasing Asian American representation on the screen isn’t solely on actors. If the parts simply aren’t there, then no amount of preparation can help if an actor can’t even get an audition or see a casting director, which is an issue discussed in Part 1 of IndieWire’s series about Asian American representation on TV.

More roles for Asians can only happen from the ground up. As Hollywood is only beginning to truly understand, diversity happens in front of and behind the camera. Until Hollywood starts seeing Asian actors as actors first and Asians second, that means Asians must step in to call the shots. They must be the producers, the directors, and the writers to create a more inclusive and culturally accurate television landscape.

IndieWire spoke with a number of Asian American creators to learn how they’ve tried to work the system to tell the stories they want, for the audience they want, with the talent they want.

Creating for Others

When Daniel Dae Kim left “Hawaii Five-0,” he turned his focus from acting to his production company, 3AD. The first series the company has produced is “The Good Doctor,” ABC’s medical drama about a surgeon (Freddie Highmore) who is autistic and has savant syndrome.

“One of the primary reasons I became a producer is because I wanted to create the world that I wanted to see on TV,” Kim said, who is an executive producer on the series along with “House” creator David Shore. “So often as actors, we’re subject to the roles that we’re offered or auditioning for, but one role in one show is a small piece of a larger puzzle. It’s satisfying to me to be able to create worlds from the ground up. I can tell the stories I want to tell, I can populate them with the kind of people I would like to be telling them, and thematically it’s nice to be able to choose those stories. It’s also nice to be a job creator.”

Joo Won in “Good Doctor,” Freddie Highmore in “The Good Doctor”

KBS, ABC

“The Good Doctor” has been doing well in the ratings since its debut and is the No. 1 new network drama for the fall so far. Although Kim is aware that having a white male lead isn’t shaking up the status quo, he understands that the show’s success could help greenlight his other properties.

“We have since our inception had nine projects in active development,” said Kim. “Eight of those projects specified a lead who was either female or a racial minority. One project did not, and that project was ‘The Good Doctor.’ The reason why we didn’t specify that kind of casting was because we thought the autism element of this show was the thing to focus on, and so as we looked for our actor, we knew that there would be very specific challenges because of that.”

Based on a Korean drama of the same name, “The Good Doctor” may not feature an Asian in the lead role, but the entire cast is diverse in an organic way, and that includes an Asian woman, played by Tamlyn Tomita, in a position of power as a hospital administrator on the show.

“We left [casting] wide open in terms of race,” he said. “When it came to filling out our cast, it was very important to all of us that we have a cast that reflects the world that I see, one with women in very powerful positions and actors of color who populate a hospital in the same way Caucasian actors do. It’s just about showing the world and all of its diversity.

Daniel Dae Kim

ABC

“My company has always been interested in telling the stories of people we haven’t heard from before,” Kim added. “Even though this is about specifically autism and savant syndrome, the themes of feeling marginalized and feeling excluded, even though you have something to offer, is something that resonates with me very personally. I’d like to be a part of the solution and I think being a producer.. I would like to be on the right side of history.”

For those without the deep industry contacts that Kim has, YouTube is the ultimate democratic playground for anyone who wants to create their own content. Three college friends — Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu — turned their YouTube channel into a professional media company, Wong Fu Productions. “Those guys are very inspirational,” said “Fresh Off the Boat” star Randall Park. “They just did it all on their own and created an empire.”

In 2003, the trio began making content that was geared specifically toward their interests. Nearly 15 years later, their channel is just shy of 3 million subscribers and includes thousands of short films and series that reflect their own personal experiences and points of view, often in a satirical light.

Wesley Chan and Philip Wang

Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Last year, IndieWire spoke with Wang and Chan about their YouTube Red romantic comedy series “Single by 30,” which reflects the plight of Peter (Harry Shum, Jr.) and his best friend Joanna (Kina Grannis) as they near 30 and haven’t been married yet.

“We’ve always been trying to highlight or feature Asian American males in solid romantic leads and Asian couples as lead roles,” said Wang. “I think this is the first time there’s been an Asian American male romantic lead on a billboard in LA. That was a huge moment for us.I’m glad that we can be pushing forward in this way because you never really see Asian guys much less Asian couples being romantic. ‘What? We can fall in love?’ Yes, you’ve been doing that since the beginning of time, but we’ve never been able to see it in a mainstream way.”

Chan added, “We’ve never been able to see it [on screen] because all we’ve been seeing is the kung fu and the same old stereotypes. When people watch the show, the fact that he’s Asian American isn’t really a big deal. I think that thanks to shows like ‘Master of None,’ people are more aware of that or more accepting or more interested in that certain perspective.”

Inspired by the first-ever black “Bachelorette,” Wong Fu also created “Asian Bachelorette.” Take a look:

Creating for Yourself

Park, who has appeared in some of Wong Fu’s productions, has also been creating projects for others, but not before he started making them for himself.

“Actors just need to become constant creators on top of doing the traditional auditioning thing,” said Park. “Doing that will stretch your muscles as an actor and give you time in front of the camera so that when those opportunities do come, you’re ready because you’ve been acting this whole time. Just act as much as possible. And if you’re not getting those opportunities to act, create those opportunities for yourself.

“I was always writing little things, web series and shorts, and just kind of doing things and creating acting opportunities for myself that were different from what was being offered to me, as far as auditions were concerned,” he continued. “The things that I made for myself here and there got the attention of certain parts of the industry and led to me playing roles that were a little bit different from the standard fare. I feel like now, there’s kind of no excuse for young actors to not constantly be acting… and creating their own dream roles, and making projects where they can perform these roles.”

Randall Park

Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

Mindy Kaling’s career began when she wrote something to amuse herself: She portrayed Ben Affleck in the off-Broadway play “Matt & Ben,” which she had co-written with her best friend Brenda Withers, who portrayed Matt Damon. The unconventional casting and hilarious pop culture references caught the attention of an industry that recognized a unique voice when they heard it. It led to her eight-year stint on “The Office” and then to creating her own show, “The Mindy Project.”

Kaling has always been a proponent of romantic comedies, and “The Mindy Project” is the culmination of all of those years of watching and studying the genre. “As a genre, it’s been so degraded over the past 35 years that it’s like an admission that you’re an idiot,” Kaling said to IndieWire in an interview last year. “When I talk about my love for romantic comedies, I think people feel a lot of pressure to only name classic ones from the 1970s or something.”

But as rom-coms have been disappearing from mainstream cinemas, they’ve been thriving on the small screen as TV series. “The Mindy Project” is ending its six-year run this year, and while it’s been on the air, a host of other wide and varied rom-coms have found a home on TV. In fact, it’s a genre that appears particularly suited for the medium because of its ongoing storytelling.

Mindy Kaling, “The Mindy Project”

Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock

“So much of the best romantic comedies come from falling in love with characters,” observed Kaling. “When you love characters and you want to see them again, I think that’s why television lends itself to that. I know certainly on this show you get the benefit of slowly building a relationship between two characters over the course of years, which is such an enjoyable feeling as a viewer. That’s just something that movies can’t provide. I mean, sequels exist, but to get that feeling satiated and come back every week is such a nice feeling.”

Kaling has been hailed as a role model for women of color for not only creating her own show, but also showing that leading ladies don’t have to follow the cookie cutter image that had been trotted out for decades. In tailoring a show to her own interests, she was able to inform the viewer’s experience of what an Asian American woman could be. Ken Jeong did the same for his ABC comedy “Dr. Ken,” and Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari made their mark with the Emmy-winning Netflix series “Master of None.”

Comedian and actress Lilan Bowden is half-Taiwanese, and her hapa status has made her experience in Hollywood slightly different. On Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack,” Bowden plays a character who is biracial like her.

“I think it’s also a unique experience being half-white as well as Asian American,” she said. “Especially in Hollywood, it’s hard because it’s harder to cast the family around you, it takes a little bit more thought. For a lot of roles you assume the feedback that you’re ‘not Asian enough’ because you see who they actually cast and it’s somebody who is a full Asian is cast. But then again, you’re not really in the same market as people who are more comfortable with being leads of shows, which are Caucasian women, I think.”

Peyton Elizabeth Lee and Lilan Bowden, “Andi Mack”

Disney Channel

Although Bowden may not be producing her own shows yet, she has also learned the value of writing her own material in order to better represent her experience in the world.

“They say write what you know. What’s interesting about addressing [my ethnicity] in my material is that it wasn’t my intention,” she said. “I started doing improv since I was 14, so it’s been a part of me for a long time. It wasn’t ever in my interest to be writing about me as an Asian American, or my Asian American background, I just wanted to write jokes.

“But the feedback that I got as an Asian American was so curious and so interesting that I felt like I had to incorporate it as part of my voice,” she continued. “So a lot of my comedy, my original pieces, don’t necessarily have to do with me being Asian American, but with other people seeing me as Asian American. I did a one-person show at UCB where I played a bunch of characters talking to me and defining me. A lot of my comedy deals with navigating that world or commenting on the stereotypes. I do a bit where I do all of the top 10 most offensive Asian accents and different types of them. So that’s not really about me being Asian, it’s commentary on me being Asian.” … It’s kept me sane in this industry,

Bowden added that creating her own projects has “kept me sane in this industry, whereas an actor you go out all day and you read other people’s lines and you’re judged by other people. At the end of the day I got to go home and got to prepare for a show that I did, a live show, where I could make everybody in the room laugh. Pursuing comedy — it gave me my value back.”

Building Community and Speaking Out

In Alan Yang’s Emmy acceptance speech for “Master of None,” he was outspoken about needing more opportunities for Asian Americans on screen. Taking the time during an awards show to create a platform for discussion was a smart move for someone who’s been looking to build a community of fellow creatives to support and amplify each other.

“I’m definitely trying to get to know the people who are in the industry now, people who are trying to get out there and do it,” Yang said. “I’ve had lunches with Steven Yeun and Constance Wu and Randall Park and people who have been working for years trying to get to that next level. It’s cool that we can have shows where they’re the stars.

“That just hasn’t been the case for very long and we’re really, as an Asian American community, in the infancy of having any sort of toehold in entertainment,” he added. “By that I mean the number of people who are the leads of shows, who are the showrunners of shows, who are directing, and on the business side, running studios, making decisions, greenlighting movies and shows. That’s all a long process that we are just at the beginning of.”

Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari, 68th Primetime Emmys

Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Perhaps it was Yang’s speech or perhaps his work on the stellar second season of “Master of None,” but his community got a little bit bigger when Jay-Z got in touch to have Yang direct the music video for “Moonlight.” Although Jay-Z isn’t Asian American, Yang immediately understood the thrust of the song and created a concept that encapsulated how African Americans are also underrepresented in particular roles onscreen.

Bowden first spoke about some of these issues on the They Call Us Bruce podcast by Jeff Yang and Phil Yu. She developed her community through comedy. “My background is in improv comedy and sketch comedy and so both of those are team sports,” she said. “I’m also involved with a show at Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles and now in New York, they just brought it to New York, called Asian AF. It’s produced by my friend Will Choi and Keiko Agena — Keiko was a main character in ‘Gilmore Girls.’ They do a variety show that I get to be a part of on the improv group Voltron. They got Margaret Cho to perform at the show, Lewis Tan had performed at the show. These shows are changing the culture.”

Choi, Bowden noted, was behind the creation of a T-shirt reading “Scarlet & Emma & Tilda & Matt,” which have become a viral hit. “They made them those shirts as a response to whitewashing and he started selling them at Asian AF shows, that’s where they started.”

Lilan Bowden, Asian AF

Asian AF

The t-shirt names actors who have been guilty of taking whitewashed roles — parts that were originally written as Asian characters, or roles in which a white savior steps in to help out hapless Asians. The shirt isn’t just a rallying cry for Asians to try to protect their presence onscreen, but also used as a tool to teach others. Although a mere t-shirt probably didn’t change Ed Skrein’s mind when he stepped down from a “Hellboy” role in which he would have played an Asian character, it was one of the many messages that were brought to his attention when he first accepted the role. Once again, the community and its voice grew when Skrein decided to stand with Asians on this issue, which showed that change is possible.

“Within the industry, there’s more awareness of these issues, so I definitely can see the change happening,” said Park.

Lauren Tom, who co-stars with Bowden on “Andi Mack,” said “Maybe it’s really that television is moving faster than film. Film still seems to make a lot of mistakes.”

Lauren Tom, “Andi Mack”

Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin

The biggest whitewashing issues, incidents of yellowface, and stories about white saviors do tend to occur more often in movies, or at least that’s the impression lately. In contrast, TV shows now star more Asians in meatier roles. Plus, as is the case with “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Andi Mack,” Asian families are at the center of the story.

Asian American representation in television isn’t perfect, but it’s improving. Perhaps this is why, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose new voting members, it selected from many stars known best for their TV work, not film, and who are people of color. That includes Tom.

“I feel like that finally things have gotten so bad, you know with the whole #OscarsSoWhite Campaign, people are starting to rally together and really find their voices and that made such a huge difference,” said Tom. “They just inducted me this year. I think 40 percent of the people that they inducted this year were people of color and women. I’m so excited and honored that they want me to get in there and try to help as well to make suggestions as to who else we should invite. Hopefully, it will be more balanced in the nominations and the voting.”