Guest Authored By Asian-American Actor + Novelist :: Raymond K. Wong
[Written for Hollywood Actor Prep.]
I could be a serial killer.
Or at least, as an actor, I could play one. There’s nothing inherently limiting about my abilities or even my looks to play a serial killer.
Except the fact that most serial killers on TV and in movies are not Asians.
When it comes to race or ethnicity, the casting process becomes frustrating for racial minorities such as me. It’s not even about typing anymore — as some of my acting coaches said, “Typecasting is actually your friend; that’s how actors get work.” For a long time I rather resented that. After all, we creative people tend to believe we can do anything we want. Why must I only play a computer whiz or doctor when I can play a serial killer? But over the years, I’ve come to accept that everyone has a type. Unless you are Russell Crowe or some actor’s actor who has proven his or her versatility, “type” is a good thing.
Racial typecasting is not.
I remember going to one casting call. The character description was very simple: age range and gender. The only other description was that the actor must be Chinese. OK. I’m Chinese. No problem. When I got to the audition, there were a roomful of Asian actors already lining up. I almost turned around and left. It was not so much that I hated competition — we all do! It was that I thought, at the time, the situation was pathetic: All the Asian actors in town (and in the 500-mile radius) were hungry for work, and their agents sent them out regardless of whether they were, in fact, of Chinese descent. There were Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, even a few South-Asians in the mix. And they all looked desperate.
The sad fact is, we Asian actors are limited to playing Asian roles, and there aren’t that many Asian roles to go around either. Chances are, when you see Asians on screen, they are either bit players (thus, they’re just a “number,” to fill the space for those “random Asian characters”) or you see the same actors (Chow Yun-Fat? John Cho? Ming Na?). Once in a while, an Asian actor may break out and play a character who was not conceived or written for Asians — Sandra Oh’s character in Grey’s Anatomy, for example. Or John Cho’s in Flashforward. And these characters and actors make an impression long before they start performing the roles because of the rarity of such characters.
I’m not saying this out of bitterness. I’ve actually had some success stories to tell, and my Asian-ness both helped and hindered me in my acting career. I started acting in my early 20s and I was lucky enough to be cast in Rob Marshall’s South Pacific (Pittsburgh CLO) as Henry, the Polynesia housekeeper of Emile De Becque. The next year, I was cast as a Chinese exchange student in Peter Yates’ Roommates starring Peter Falk and Julianne Moore. So I got my foot in the door playing stereotypical Asian characters. I was starting out, and I welcomed the opportunities despite a few things:
- I realized, later, that I was only cast because I was the few Asian actors who could fill the roles — I was very green as an actor, and had there been ample competition (such as the cattle calls I went to in later years), I wouldn’t have been so fortunate
- writers, then or now, lack enough imagination to write against racial stereotypes or perceptions
- casting directors do not have enough power or insight to cast against types
My realization came a number of years later, when I hit some brick walls. Part of that was my own fault; I needed to sharpen and improve my acting skills. I took lessons. I acted in community and regional theaters (and was cast in non-Asian roles such as the Pirates of Penzance, and Dimas in Triumph of Love). But the brick walls persisted.
- the casting directors simply wouldn’t cast me in anything not written as “Asian”
- my agents wouldn’t even send me to auditions if the roles were not described as Asian
Needless to say, the opportunities dwindled. And whenever there is an Asian role to be cast, there is that mob of “hungry Asian actors.” Also, the roles are more often than not written stereotypically, almost caricatures of what Hollywood thinks of Asians. Seriously. We’re going into the second decade of the 21st century, and Hollywood is still stuck in the 50s sometimes. It is frustrating.
I decided to go into commercials and print ads instead. Ironically, that’s where Asians tend to flourish now. Companies and advertisers understand diversity much better than Hollywood filmmakers, and not because these execs are more enlightened. They just understand their markets better, and where the money comes from. Asian consumers are everywhere and they demand representation. They love to see Asians in their commercials and print advertisements. With the expanding global economy and commerce — with China, Japan, and the emerging Asian markets — they have to be inclusive, and they know they can’t play to the stereotypes because they are offensive to their Asian partners and consumers. Recently I did a GE commercial, playing a Chinese aviation engineer. Now that was a great gig and the commercial was a success (it won a few awards). I also get more requests now, playing everything from doctor to banker to young dad to corporate execs (OK, I have the “white” collar looks — so that would be my type. Can I please play a white-collar serial killer?). They’re a lot of fun, and they pay the bills.
But we all know “commercial actors” are not really actors. Or are we?
Still, the brick walls exist in Hollywood. We have to do something. After a number of dry years, I’ve had more auditions (mostly episodic TV) and I see more roles of “any ethnicity” being cast. Still, more often than not, I would find out the actors who get those roles tend to be white (not even black or Latino). I remember going to an audition a few years ago for an “LA type Asian metrosexual.” It specifically asked for “Asian” and I thought it was refreshing. I didn’t get the part. When the movie came out, the role was played by a Caucasian man. And I thought, “How typical!” Is it a fact that there simply are more white actors out there? Or that white actors are more talented? Or the filmmakers are discouraged to cast Asians in “non-Asian” roles? Or casting directors still can’t see through the racial barriers? I honestly don’t know.
Actors have enough brick walls already. We Asian actors shouldn’t have to deal with yet another wall, one that is extremely difficult to break despite our skills and abilities. Often we feel we’re not in control because there’s nothing we could do about it. No matter how much we learn and improve our craft, we still can’t break through that wall. As long as Hollywood still sees Asians as exotic or different or foreign, the brick walls persist. Things are changing, fortunately. I, for one, was excited about John Cho playing a character named Dimitri! How about that? And his race wasn’t even important. And shows like Flashforward, or Lost, are more aware of racial diversity and their stories are more global than ever. That’s a good thing. It would please me to no end when shows like 30 Rock, which is set in the racially and culturally diverse New York, would include more Asian actors without pointing conspicuously at their race.
An Asian actor could only dream.
Or become a serial killer. ”