"This Is Our Watershed Moment": Hollywood's Asian-American Leaders Have a Plan to Push Inclusion

THR_180730_THR-AsianExec-01-0063 - THR - H 2018
Yuri Hasegawa

With 'Crazy Rich Asians' as a catalyst for change, more than a dozen executives, agents and creatives break down their mission to give voice to "all underrepresented people" in entertainment: "One group lifts the other."

For years, they've worked their way up their career ladders in virtual silos, so when WME partner and lit agent Theresa Kang-Lowe invited 10 top Asian-American agents, executives and creatives for what was planned as an hourlong dinner May 5, the party ended up closing down e.baldi in Beverly Hills.

"We had powerful conversations that were different than the conversations we have in mixed company," says journalist Lisa Ling of the night that at times grew emotional. "We took different roads to get here, and when we had that dinner, I ?felt like, 'Wow, this is home. We realized we can actually do things for each other.' " Adds writer-?producer Diana Son (American Crime, 13 Reasons Why), "I realized I have never been on a staff with another Asian-American writer, and I have been writing for TV for almost 20 years. There is a joy that I feel just to be in this group and a sense that I can be myself."

Kang-Lowe was inspired to assemble this gathering, which has since grown, in part by seeing the close fellowship enjoyed by some of her diverse and female clients, who include Lena Waithe, Gillian Flynn and Ryan Coogler. ?"I was thinking, 'Where is our organized community?' I wanted to see a group of peers come together on a larger scale," she says, adding, "It's not just about Asian-Americans. It's about making all underrepresented people have a presence. One group lifts the other."

Another obvious point of galvanization for them has been Crazy Rich Asians, the first Asian-American-focused studio film in 25 years (and the first-ever studio ?rom-com to focus on characters of Asian descent), bowing Aug. 15 from Warner Bros. Not every stakeholder at the dinner felt a strong personal connection to ?the film (which is set among ethnically Chinese one-percenters in Singapore). But all recognized that the fate of future Asian-centered projects in Hollywood — where 5 percent of characters in 2017's top-grossing 100 films were of Asian descent — will hinge on its success.

"We have so much talent and socioeconomic power, but what we haven't really done is coalesce a unified voice," says Son. "This is now our watershed moment."

The growing network of friends and colleagues is poised to seize that moment, with Emmy nominations for Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy and Killing Eve star Sandra Oh (the first woman of Asian descent to receive a lead actress mention) and a host of high-profile, culturally specific projects in the pipeline: Ali Wong just wrapped the Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park, and ?Son is developing the HBO drama pilot Slanted, which centers on four Asian-American women (one of them inspired by fellow diner Wen Zhou, CEO of 3.1 Phillip Lim).

Lim himself is branching into film, producing an indie Romeo & Juliet take featuring immigrant Chinese teens, while Ling and Sorry to Bother You producer Nina Yang Bongiovi are teaming to develop a biopic about pioneering Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama. And Kang-Lowe, working with Apple creative exec Michelle Lee, helped shepherd Min Jin Lee's 2017 National Book Award finalist Pachinko, a multigenerational Korean family epic, through a five-buyer bidding war to land as a series at Apple. The Terror co-showrunner Soo Hugh is attached as showrunner. Another of Lee's projects at Apple is the immigrant-centered Little America from Oscar-nominated Big Sick writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, with Master of None co-creator Alan Yang also among the executive producers.

"The creator side is already fighting, but there's so many brave voices that need to be ?fought for on the business side," says WME partner and talent agent Phillip Sun, whose clients include Donald Glover, Michael B. Jordan and Chinese actress Liu Yifei, who'll star in Disney's Mulan. "People label the flood of diverse casting as an '#OscarsSoWhite' or 'diversity wave,' but a wave ultimately crashes. We're going to use it to catapult as many people forward as we can, not only ?on the artist side, but also the executives and producers who have been banging the drum for underrepresented voices."

Adds his colleague, Endeavor Content agent Kevin Iwashina, "Early on in my career I felt that being Asian would prevent me from getting in the room, so we'd do whatever we could to 'normalize' ourselves. Now, I use my identity to help create community."

At the group's second, expanded meeting July 30 at Bavel in downtown L.A. (after their THR photo shoot), the talk centers on Emmy noms (Oh couldn't make this get-together because she's in London shooting Killing Eve's second season) and more ideas for creating and promoting inclusive projects as the stakes rise in Hollywood and beyond.

"We've got a monster in the White House and we've got the ugliest parts of our culture rearing its head," says Veena Sud, who previously earned an Emmy nomination for writing The Killing. "And the rest of us who are in the path of this monster's bullet train — our lives are on the line. We have to speak up now."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.