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Where Are the Asian-American Movie Stars?

After an uproar over the whitewashing of Asian characters in 'Doctor Strange' and 'Ghost in the Shell,' THR looks at how Asian-American representation can be improved in Hollywood.

As diversity continues to be the buzzword that isn’t going away, the ancient Hollywood practice of whitewashing has come under fire. When photos were released last month of Tilda Swinton playing The Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson as the Major in DreamWorks’ manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell, both characters that were Asian in the original comic books, it sparked a fresh wave of backlash that followed on the heels of the criticism that greeted Emma Stone’s portrayal of a part-Asian character in Aloha last year. (Marvel has explained that Swinton’s version of the character is Celtic, while Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson tweeted that he is “listening and learning” from the Asian-American community’s response to “Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping & erasure.”)

“Nothing can be more frustrating than the fact that there aren’t enough roles that [Hollywood] allows us, and then to take a role that is written Asian and turn it into one that you can no longer be considered for is adding insult to complete injury,” says Maggie Q, one of more than two dozen Asian-American actors and filmmakers who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about what can be done to increase their representation in film. She notes that no Asian actresses were asked to audition for the Aloha part (even Q, who, like Stone’s character Allison Ng, is part-Asian and hails from Hawaii). “You already have a community of people fighting to be taken seriously.”

This time, Asian Americans in the industry are hoping to seize the moment to force a larger discussion about how the casting process should work, the need to develop stars with potential bankability, the role that executives and directors can play behind the scenes, potential organizational strategies moving forward and the impact that the developing Chinese film market could have — both positive and negative.

Casting white actors as Asian characters is a practice that has been around for nearly as long as cinema has existed, as recent viral videos from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Vox have shown. Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains the starkest and most notorious example, but John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn and Marlon Brando all took their turns at dramatic portrayals of Asian characters. Linda Hunt and Luise Rainer even won Academy Awards for doing so. 

But while the practice may be familiar, it still stings when a high-profile role for a character originally envisioned as Asian is handed to a non-Asian actor — especially since there already are so few roles available to them. According to USC’s latest study on diversity in entertainment, released in February, Asians represented just 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters across film, television and digital series in 2014, and at least half of those projects featured no such Asian characters at all.

Addressing a system that regularly overlooks Asian actors, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang says, “For those in power, it’s on you to create stars who aren’t just straight white guys. They’re gonna be fine  there are so many roles for handsome white guys and God bless them, they’re great at what they do. That’s why it’s especially infuriating when there are specific Asian roles  those are so few and far between  and you choose not to [cast an Asian actor]. This person [could have been] the only Asian female lead in a movie all year.”

The industry’s usual response it that there are simply no Asian-American actors with the kind of marquee value needed to promote a major release. While the internet offered up the names of several Asian or Asian-American actresses who could credibly portray Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi, none of them come close to Johansson in terms of star wattage. Hollywood has no A-listers of Asian descent, a fact that Aaron Sorkin pointed out in an email to former Sony co-chair Amy Pascal (revealed during the 2014 hack) explaining his skepticism over the studio’s ability to mount a movie version of Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys. One of the main subjects of the nonfiction bestseller is Bradley Katsuyama, a financial services executive who is Asian-Canadian. “If I turned in a terrific draft of Flash Boys, why would it have a better chance of getting made than Steve Jobs?” he wrote. “The protagonist is Asian-American (actually Asian-Canadian) and there aren’t any Asian movie stars… Aren’t you asking me to spend another year writing a movie you won’t make?”

“I understand the argument that the business is risk-averse, but that’s just an excuse to be cowardly,” says Yang, a former Parks and Recreation writer who cites one of that show’s supporting players as a counterpoint. “[Hollywood] cast Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. He wasn’t a movie star until they put him in those movies. For people who are making decisions, you have to take that risk.”


Contrary to Matt Damon’s infamous claim on Project Greenlight, producer Teddy Zee, a former executive at Columbia and Paramount, says “the key to all this changing is encouraging greater diversity behind the camera. Studio executives, writers and directors are predominantly white males. So what products get made? The ones that reflect back upon a white male existence.”

“The conversation’s at the table when there’s an Asian-American decision-maker: executive, director, writer,” says Sung Kang, whose character in Justin Lin’s four Fast & Furious films was originally envisioned as black. “Directors like Justin, one of him will equal maybe 200 actors that will be able to have a career because of someone like him.”

Another of Hollywood’s prominent (and rare) Asian-American directors agrees. “Now that I’m in this position, I see a responsibility on myself and other filmmakers and executives to help cultivate more diverse voices,” says Jon M. Chu, who THR exclusively reported is in talks to direct Color Force’s adaptation of the 2013 bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians. The project, following a Singaporean heir who brings his Chinese-American girlfriend home to meet his family, will have a predominantly Asian cast, says Color Force founder Nina Jacobson, and after the news broke, Chu tweeted that the movie will feature “amazing Asian actors cast in EVERY SINGLE ROLE. #itstime.”

“There’s so much that passes for conventional wisdom that’s just bias in disguise,” Jacobson says. “How many times did we have to hear that women couldn’t open movies? And that’s just not true. It’s just bias disguised as truth and as an excuse for making safer, whiter, frequently more male-skewing choices.”


Filmmaker Karyn Kusama says that hiring the right casting agents  she tapped Sig De Miguel and Stephen Vincent for her recent indie thriller The Invitation — helped her to get the diverse cast she wanted for her movie: “It’s helpful when you can find those casting directors who understand that the real world is actually more diverse than it’s often represented.”

Many actors acknowledge an increasing trend of opening casting calls to all ethnicities, which allows studios and producers to say that they searched around and then simply cast the best actor for the part. But Asian actors seldom happen to be best for the part because it’s typically “an archetypal character that’s been written for a white kid and they expect us to perfectly fit,” says actor Justin Chon (Twilight, 21 & Over). “I go to a casting room and it’s a mix [of actors] all going for the same role. Sometimes you read a role that was obviously written for, say, a Latino or an African American and they open it up to everybody else. The role wasn’t meant for us in the first place, so you blame the actor. But it’d be crazy to say all Asian-American actors suck.”

Chon’s not the only one calling for more specificity in creating parts. In a lengthy interview with Fast Company published on May 2, former The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, now working on A&E’s Damien, said that inclusion needs to start much earlier in the process. “On Damien, I changed my practice and wrote gender and ethnic backgrounds directly into the script,” he said. “I can’t create a character without thinking of race, gender, age, class, where they grew up  a complete person. Colorblind casting implies the default is a white person, but you’re willing to cast a person of color. That’s just bullshit.”

Last year, Media Action Network for Asian Americans co-founder Guy Aoki visited each of the top Hollywood agencies to encourage them to package projects with Asian and Asian-American actors in the cast. But he admits it may take time for any changes to ripple out.

“The problem is that we’ve been meeting with the top four TV networks since 1999 and even when they wanted to do the right thing, it still took about three years [for results] to show up on screen,” says Aoki, who says MANAA also plans to meet with the studios. “And with motion pictures, it takes even longer for the whole process from development to actually having it made, and so many projects die along the way. So it remains to be seen if the agents do try to package it that way. It remains to be seen what the individual studios try to do on their own.”


It’s no secret that diversity initiatives have thus far borne more fruit on the small screen than on its larger counterpart, with ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken representing the first two Asian-American broadcast network comedies in two decades. “It has been the most fulfilling year of my career developing, writing, and starring in my own show,” says Dr. Ken‘s Ken Jeong. “For the first time I had a significant say in the creative direction of a project which I was a part of, and I took full advantage of it.”

Like John Cho and Kal Penn in New Line’s two Harold & Kumar movies, Jeong’s acting career took off with R-rated comedies like Knocked UpRole Models and The Hangover. But less than a decade later, Jeong says fewer of those films are being made in today’s climate: “I would love to see a return of the low-budget R-rated studio comedy. It can help open the door for new careers like it did mine.”

Actor Joel de la Fuente, who plays Inspector Kido on Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, hopes that TV opportunities can be a first step towards grooming stars. “We need more series regulars who are Asian-American because, for so many artistic and economic reasons, [main characters] are developed, given a voice [and get] to be primary storytellers,” he says. Fresh Off the Boat star Randall Park adds that his work on the show has indeed opened up opportunities for him in film (including James Franco’s making-of-The-Room movie The Masterpiece and DreamWorks‘ ensemble comedy Office Christmas Party), and that many of those roles were not written for a specific ethnicity. 


Several of the actors and producers whom THR spoke to said there could be silver linings to the recent highly-publicized slights  the whitewashing incidents as well as the Asian jokes at the Oscars. “What happened at the Academy Awards was the best thing to happen to the Asian community in America,” says Zee, one of the 25 Academy members who signed the letter in March decrying the jokes. “We are handed this opportunity on a silver platter to educate all of Hollywood and all of America.”

Agents of SHIELD‘s Ming-Na Wen agrees that speaking out is an effective way to effect change. “We need to continue to voice that it’s not acceptable. And unfortunately, culturally it’s not in our nature to do that,” she says. “I’m tired of the soapbox, frankly, but when something is vividly wrong, I feel the need to at least say something about it.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ Ken Leung says that when he arrives on location for NBC’s The Night Shift, where he’s a series regular, he’s often directed to the parking area for the extras. “The security guard assumes I can’t possibly be in the main cast. We’re all responsible for the larger culture that conditioned him to think a certain way,” he says. “It’s such a reflex now, so if we don’t step in somehow and shake that up, it’s gonna stay that way forever.”

Academy member Arthur Dong, a documentary filmmaker, says that Asian Americans are still in their nascent stage as activists and recommends looking to other communities for inspiration. “We got this momentum going, we got the world listening, and right now we don’t have an answer [to the representation problems],” he says. “There are various [Asian American media] watchdog groups  CAPE [Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment] and MANAA and Visual Communications  that are not organized like GLAAD is, which organized decades ago to deal with [issues] and to be out there as soon as something happens. One of the conversations [among the Academy letter signatories] was, do we need to form something like that? It’s a complicated question, but one we need to address because this issue should not die.”


China’s looming dominance at the box office naturally raises the question of whether that will translate to more Asian faces onscreen. Chinese A-listers like Li Bingbing and Fan Bingbing have made glorified cameos in Hollywood tentpoles-turned-co-productions such as Transformers 4 and Iron Man 3, but those familiar with the Chinese side say that more organic collaborations will be demanded soon. “Chinese partners are going to insist on having a voice at the table, if nothing else for economic protection,” says Joy Luck Club producer Janet Yang, who now works primarily in identifying partnerships between Hollywood and Chinese studios. She adds that many in China noticed that The Martian‘s China-set scenes employed actors who spoke with accents in the wrong dialect. “Why didn’t they bother to get it right? What I hope will be achieved is very honest conversations. [U.S. studios] will benefit from a Chinese partner who can cast with the right stars who can be authentic.”

Q fears that this won’t necessarily mean more opportunities for Asian Americans. “Asian-American actors get a little lost in this game. Hong Kong, Chinese and Taiwanese audiences are going to want to see their own stars,” she says. “The caveat is that they don’t speak English. We’ve all seen these films, where you try to combine the right actor with the Asian actor from Asia who speaks a modicum of English, but not at the level where they can have the amount of chemistry it takes for a successful film.”

One prominent Hollywood agent told THR that the holy grail is in developing Asian-American actors who can become stars on both sides of the Pacific. But a few already exist: Q and Daniel Wu, now starring on AMC’s Into the Badlands, are Americans who built successful careers in Hong Kong before crossing (back) over to the States. “Starting in Asia was interesting because my career was so confusing for Hollywood. Before I got Mission: Impossible III, I met with the big agencies at the time, and I don’t think they were as aware of the global market. There was almost zero interest in me as an entity,” Q says. “My agency now [CAA] was the only one that said, ‘This is unique. Half the world knows you already.’ That for Daniel and I both was a huge plus because we could bridge the Asian gap and they could bank on us to do movies here and be able to sell them in foreign territories. That was something very unique that has only happened to a few people that I know of.”


Along with Crazy Rich Asians, there are several other projects in development with the potential to cast Asian or Asian-American leads, including Disney’s live-action Mulan and the recently announced video game adaptation Shinobi that Marc Platt is producing. (There are also Netflix’s Death Note and Twentieth Century Fox’s Battle Angel Alita, both based on Japanese manga, but the former will star Nat Wolff and The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley, and THR exclusively reported that the latter has narrowed the search for its heroine to three non-Asian actresses: ZendayaMaze Runner 2‘s Rosa Salazar and Independence Day 2‘s Maika Monroe. Zendaya also has been announced as part of the voice cast, along with Meryl Streep, Mel Brooks and Nicole Kidman, of The Weinstein Company’s animated The Guardian Brothers, about a Chinese family in danger of losing their wonton soup shop.)

Facing a chronic dearth of opportunity, many Asian Americans in the business are focusing on creating their own. “I’m trying to parlay whatever success I’ve had into creating content,” says Hawaii Five-0‘s Daniel Dae Kim, who launched his production banner 3AD in 2013 with a deal at CBS TV and is now developing an adaptation of the popular Korean medical drama Good Doctor. “One of the central principles of my company is to find stories from the underrepresented and be true to those stories. There are powerful people in this industry now who are Asian-American. The question is, what are they doing about it? Are we producing content that helps fix this problem?”

Fortunately, come next year, at least one Asian-American film lead is guaranteed: Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran has landed a major role in the next installment of the Star Wars franchise (J. J. Abrams, who is executive producing Episode VIII, has stated that his production company is aggressively looking to cast their films with more diversity). Sources say the character was not written with a certain ethnicity and that other contenders included current It Girls Gina Rodriguez and Bel Powley.

Says Tran’s manager, Anna Lewkowska of Arc Artist Management: “With this role, Kelly is given an amazing opportunity to break ground for Asian-American actors and hopefully we will see more Asian Americans getting these film roles in the future.”

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