In the past, Asian American actors seemed to be shy about addressing Hollywood’s double standards that kept them from getting significant roles in television and movies.
To be fair, many actors in general have chosen to duck controversial issues (e.g., only recently have more and more women felt safe in speaking out against the salary disparity between them and their male counterparts). So it’s refreshing to read more and more interviews with actors from our community about the hurdles we’ve faced.
Leading the charge is Indian American actor Aziz Ansari, who’s currently starring in “Master of None” (all 10 episodes of the first season have just been released on Netflix). In the Nov. 10 issue of The New York Times, he wrote an essay, “Aziz Ansari on Acting, Race and Hollywood”:
“Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents…
“And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low. (The numbers for women are depressing as well.) In 2013, according to a recent report produced by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, only 16.7% of lead film roles went to minorities. Broadcast TV was worse, with only 6.5% of lead roles going to non-whites in the 2012-13 season. In cable, minorities did better, getting 19.3% of the roles…
“Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40% of the American population, when Hollywood wants an ‘everyman,’ what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The ‘everyman’ is everybody.
“When we were looking for an Asian actor for ‘Master of None,’ my fellow creator, Alan Yang, asked me: ‘How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?’ After a long, hard think, we came up with two (Steven Yeun on ‘The Walking Dead’ and Daniel Dae Kim on ‘Lost’). It made me realize how important it was not to give up on our search…
“And to anyone worried that it may be ‘weird’ to cast someone who looks a certain way to play a certain part, because it’s not what people are used to, I say: Arnold Schwarzenegger… Look at ‘The Terminator’: There had to be someone who… thought: ‘Wait, why would the robot have an Austrian accent? No one’s gonna buy that! We gotta get a robot that has an American accent! Just get a white guy from the States. Audiences will be confused.’ Nope. They weren’t. Because, you know what? No one really cares.”
In an interview with Vulture.com published on Oct. 25 (“Remember That Time Hollywood Was Racist? Aziz Ansari Does” by Samuel Anderson), the actor asserted bluntly, “Look, if you’re a minority actor, no one would have wrote this show for you. No one would have been like, ‘Hey, how about we get Aziz to do this ten-episode show and have him play this thoughtful character?’”
(By the way, Taiwanese American Yang was part of NBC’s diversity writers program, one of many pipeline programs generated from the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition’s pressure on the top four networks beginning in 1999, of which I’ve been a part. Yang was a writer/producer on “Parks and Recreation” when he met one of the show’s stars, Ansari, and they decided to create “Master of None.” Mindy Kaling also came out of NBC’s Diverse Staff Writers Initiative, which gave her her start on “The Office” and led to her creating and starring in “The Mindy Project.”)
On his Nov. 10 appearance on “The Late Show,” shortly after Stephen Colbert pointed out they’re both from South Carolina, Ansari quipped, “Stephen’s the first late-night host from South Carolina… and the bajillionth white guy. Very interesting measure of progress.”
Colbert asked if Ansari’s appearance counted as a sign of progress, and the guest replied, “It’s really diverse right now. It’s 50% diverse. It’s like an all-time high for CBS.” Colbert had to laugh and shake his hand as the audience roared with laughter.
In his New York Times piece, Ansari mentioned calling up Fisher Stevens (who played an Indian with brownface make-up in 1988’s “Short Circuit 2”) to understand why he took the role. The comedian even agreed with MANAA’s concern that Ridley Scott cast a black actor to play the decidedly Asian Indian character Venkat Kapoor in “The Martian” and tried reaching people affiliated with the production who could answer his questions, though to no avail.
In GQ Magazine (“’Fresh Off the Boat’s’ Constance Wu Still Isn’t Sure About This Whole TV Thing” by Alex Wong, Sept. 21), Constance Wu made a strong case for making ethnicity a strong part of an Asian character’s background, which might also account for the success of her sitcom:
“It’s something I’ve started to think about in the past year. I came to the realization that too many Asian actors would say, ‘I just want to have a role that has nothing to do with me being Asian, and that’s when we’ll be successful, when I can be like Tom Hanks or Jennifer Lawrence.’ I understand that, because we’ve always been peripheral characters who have supported other characters with actual, real stories. But the thing that’s alluring about those other characters isn’t their whiteness, it’s that they’re given rich stories that have a complete emotional arc, and those stories oftentimes have to do with their background.
“I think wanting a role that has nothing to do with your racial identity can actually be indicative of an element of shame and embarrassment, and I don’t think that’s healthy for us. Now, I definitely don’t think every Asian actor’s story should revolve around their race. After all, we have problems—like heartbreak, financial difficulty, or dealing with death—that everyone deals with.
“But the lens with which we go through those experiences is special, and it’s unique to us. If there’s a reason Asian Americans haven’t broken through in entertainment, it’s probably because we haven’t taken advantage of how special our viewpoint is. It’s not something to be ashamed of. If some motherf***er made you feel ashamed for it and teased you about it on the playground, then they’re the *ssh*le. Don’t let that be the thing that dictates how you’re perceived…
“I was talking to a friend the other day about HBO’s ‘Togetherness.’ I was like, ‘It’s a show about white people.’ And he said, ‘Oh, come on, they’re just people.’ But if somebody says my show is about Asian American people, nobody bats an eye. If you think about what that says about the normative context of TV, white people are allowed to exist as just people…
“I don’t think it’s bad to say our show is about Asian people, but if you’re going to do that, then qualify other shows too. It gives creators an awareness of what they’re creating. Right now, shows that are accused of being too whitewashed have this defensive tactic in which they respond with, ‘I didn’t even think about that; it didn’t even occur to me.’ So, instead of using your intelligence to escape culpability, use it to consider the framework from which you speak.
“I could talk about this all day; it really pisses me off.”
Ken Jeong, star and executive producer of “Dr. Ken,” explained to Time.com (“If It Wasn’t for ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ ‘Dr. Ken’ Wouldn’t Be on the Air” by Nolan Feeney, Oct. 1) how having control over his series means handling racial issues more intelligently:
“My wife is Vietnamese and I’m Korean, and we’ll address some cultural issues, but we’ll do it very organically. We don’t do it the way white people want us to or think we do. That’s the worst. Any Asian-based theme is thoroughly vetted and managed with a fine-tooth comb by me. There’s not going to be a hackneyed dog joke. There’s never going to be a half-baked, stupid Asian bit, which would really bum me out because my life is not like that. I don’t talk like that. I’m in the writers’ room every day. After I get off the phone with you, I’m about to go into the writers’ room. I’m always the guardian of that.
“In the pilot, if this were 20 years ago, you’d definitely be making an Asian-not-being-a-good-driver joke with Molly getting her driver’s license. That never happened on our pilot. I think we’re making a lot more quiet progress than whatever’s overtly recognized, which is just thrilling to me.”
If That’s Not a Sign of Confidence in a Show, I Don’t Know What Is Department: Tuesday, ABC announced four sitcoms that had already received a full season 22-episode order were being asked to produce two more episodes apiece: Wednesday night’s “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs,” and “Blackish,” and Tuesday’s “Fresh Off The Boat.”
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.
Guy Aoki, thank you for sharing your detailed insights in the TV industry.