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Yin Chang is reflecting on the differences in her character’s treatment on the original Gossip Girl and the new HBO Max incarnation, revealing that her character’s part was rewritten into a stereotype for the pilot after she read sides that had “more complexity and nuance” for her character, Nelly Yuki.
In a new interview for Teen Vogue, the actress and founder of storytelling platform 88 Cups of Tea expounded on the changes she saw in her character, a student at Constance Billard trapped in various ways within the orbit of the school’s “Queen B,” Blair Waldorf. When she initially auditioned, Chang says she was impressed by her character’s breakdown, the “gist” of which she says was “supremely confident,” “beautiful” and bright characterization.
“The audition for this role came at a time when characters specifically written for Asian American women were so few and far between and I was under the impression, via the sides given for Nelly Yuki’s first episode, that the role had more complexity and nuance than most other auditions I had seen,” she told the magazine. “This was back in 2008, and the initial impression of the role gave me hope that the industry was changing and moving forward in the right direction for Asian American representation.”
But leading up to the shoot, Chang says that characterization changed from “overachieving and effortlessly ‘confident’ and ‘sexy,’ to overachieving and ‘timid’ and ‘submissive.'” For Chang, her role had gone from stereotype-busting to -reinforcing, a character who perpetuated “cultural stereotypes of ‘the model minority’ and this age-old isolating idea that ‘there can only be one’ Asian American individual existing in the same world.”
That writing shift also came with the addition of glasses for her character Nelly, but Chang reveals she was “stunned” after learning the reasoning. “A comment was made about production not wanting viewers to think they were replacing me with another Asian actor who was previously on the show,” she admitted.
She added, “I want to underscore that there’s nothing shameful about wearing glasses or having a shy personality, but it is of concern when a pair of glasses is used as a prop to differentiate between two Asian Americans and furthering that point by altering the character’s initial description/personality.”
The actress expressed that on-screen portrayals of Asian Americans have “very tangible impacts on societal stereotypes,” and portrayals can reinforce “conceptions of race that are harmful.” But she also said that she didn’t necessarily have space on the show to air her concerns.
“I was caught in a position where I simultaneously felt both deeply grateful to have an opportunity as a working actor and upset by the show making Nelly Yuki’s portrayal reductive almost immediately,” she said.
Despite not being in a “situation or a space where I felt comfortable to raise these concerns,” the actress said she still made her own efforts to ensure the character had more dimension than what she was seeing on the page. “I instead focused on finding ways to bring as much texture to the character as one possibly could within the strict structure of a TV script through improvisation of character choices in hopes they’d keep them in the final cut.”
Chang shared that she felt like The CW show, which was co-run by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, did make efforts in the right direction at the end of its run “by having my character come back for the final season with more nuance.” She also holds a largely different opinion of the HBO Max continuation, which features a more diverse leading cast and a different take on privilege. Helmed by original series writer and producer Josh Safran, Chang credits the showrunner for taking a more inclusive approach on- and off-screen, including with her character, who guested on the Aug. 5 episode, “Hope Sinks,” and is now the editor-in-chief of New York magazine.
“I was so moved by what they shared, to know that Josh intentionally wanted to weave Nelly Yuki in as part of the storyline and exercising his authority as a showrunner to make space for a more layered portrayal of the character meant the world to me in regards to representation,” she said.
Schwartz, Savage and Safran did not respond to The Hollywood Reporter‘s request for comment.
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