From racism and stereotyping to acceptance and celebration, Asian American actors chart community's portrayal in Hollywood over the years
Actors Will Yun Lee and Tzi Ma talk about the changes that are making movies with Asian/Asian American cast as profitable possibilities
Hollywood has come a long way since trying to convince us that Mickey Rooney’s grotesque Mr.Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ was the best representation of Asian Americans it could offer. Over the years, we have seen Asian Americans on our screens go from being offensively stereotypical immigrants with an aversion to English to ambitious nerds and action heroes to now being represented in their abundant flavors.
With movies such as ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Always Be My Maybe,’ we are witnessing a full spectrum of representation of not just various personalities, but also nationalities.
Actor Will Yun Lee, who currently plays Dr. Alex Park in ABC's 'The Good Doctor,' notes that the first 15 years after he moved to Hollywood in 1997, times were difficult purely because there were so few roles available for Asian American actors. “There were only five to six jobs a year that were meaningful enough,” Lee tells MEA World Wide (MEAWW), adding how even those jobs that were so few and far between would revolve around “an Asian-themed episode - whether it was a Chinatown episode or a Triad.”
The scarcity of acting jobs also made it difficult for him to hone his craft, says Lee, who considers himself lucky to have landed some roles that bent the stereotype. People like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, Lucy Liu, Jason Scott Lee made a huge difference to the way Asians are seen in American entertainment, he says, adding how seeing them on-screen gave him the sense of inclusion and identity that we all search for.
Last few years have been pretty substantial for Asian American representation, he claims, especially since it was only recently that he started getting calls for characters that are three-dimensional and rounded out even on the page.
“Usually as an actor of Asian-American [heritage], you would have to really fight your way to bring [the character] to life… Fight for it in the room or fight for it on the floor saying I'd like to do this. I'd like to do that. But with shows like ‘The Good Doctor,’ the biggest growth is that you rarely ever hear anything about race and it's a very diverse cast and it's kind of how I grew up,” he says.
Veteran actor Tzi Ma seconds this, saying how movies such as 'The Farewell,' starring Awkwafina, in which he portrays her father, has helped challenge perceived notion of Asian-Americans, who are as much a part of the American tapestry as other hyphenated Americans.
Ma tells MEAWW how “It’s important for us to have as many voices out there so no one has to carry the burden of speaking for all Asian-Americans because that wouldn’t be possible, and no one will be happy with that.” For this, as Lee points, it is as important to have Asian Americans behind the scenes, as much as on the screens.
They are the silent heroes fighting behind closed doors for Asian American characters, he states. Recollecting an incident from his 2004 movie ‘Torque’ directed by Joseph Kahn, he elaborates how the Korean-American director fought for him to be cast despite others making it clear they wanted someone from “a different cast” to play the character that he ended up playing.
“Joseph Kahn fought for probably four weeks before I even got an offer made to me,” he says, adding, how the director fought for him saying it was important that “if you're going to have a movie about Japanese motorcycle than you have to have an Asian American in that movie riding a motorcycle.”
Surely enough, Asian Americans have found their way behind the camera as well, and big production houses have finally come to understand that movies focused on the community sell. Take the upcoming live-action ‘Mulan,’ for example. As Ma, who portrays Mulan’s father in the film, puts it, with a near 300-million-dollar budget, this is the largest budget Disney has committed for a film to date
“To invest in an all Asian/Asian American cast like that is groundbreaking to say the least,” says Ma, adding how his Netflix show ’Wu Assassins,’ also became another first in the streaming ecosystem with a near all Asian/Asian American cast. “I believe we’ve come a long way within a very short time relatively speaking once meaningful change started to happen a few years ago.”
“I believe #oscarsowhite, #metoo, #diversity all played a role with this change. With these opportunities available for us Asian American actors, in stories that are better researched and better written for and by us, we will excel,” he adds.