(If you haven’t yet, read Pt. I here. It provides the context for this letter and may answer questions not specifically addressed here)
Dear Asian American actor:
In part one of this letter, I discussed the fact that there is currently no true Asian American star and what goes into the making of a star and how that might apply to Asian American actors i.e. you. Let me continue on this thread today and also humbly offer some advice on the subject. Again, this is just one guy’s opinion so take it for what it is, but it’s also an opinion formed from many years of working in the biz, the community and with hundreds of Asian American actors on all sorts of projects.
Now, let’s say you’re lucky enough to book a significant role in a Hollywood film or a series regular on a TV series. These are major accomplishments and you should be justly proud, but this does not make you a star. I repeat—this does not make you a star. I bring this up because I’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions: an Asian American actor gets cast in the aforementioned film or TV show and all of a sudden they think they’re Brad Pitt or Sandra Bullock.
It’s not completely their fault. Our community is so desperate for role models that if one of our actors makes any sort of dent in Hollywood, they are almost treated as if they are the Asian Pitt or Bullock. They’re invited to every Asian American event, they’re given awards from every Asian American organization, their faces end up on the cover of every Asian American publication where they are anointed “superstars”—in short, we put them up on a pedestal. Is it any wonder that an actor being treated that way doesn’t begin to believe their own hype?
Again, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of our Asian American artists as long as you keep things in perspective. But it’s easy to lose that perspective when you’re inside that yellow bubble. Because the reality is—when you step outside of that bubble into the “real” world, you’re just another actor. You may be working more than some of your fellow actors but when that job comes to an end, you’re most likely going to be back on the cattle call/audition circuit with the rest of the masses.
Do you remember Ernest Liu? No. Well, back in the mid 90s, he booked one of the most coveted parts for a young Asian American male—playing Harvey Keitel’s adopted son in the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino film From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. He was one of the leads alongside Keitel, Tarantino, George Clooney, Salma Hayek and Juliette Lewis. And what happened to his career after this breakout role? Well…nothing. I don’t know Liu and he’s probably a nice kid so this isn’t a knock on him, but Hollywood is littered with similar stories. Just because you get a shot doesn’t mean it will lead to other better or even comparable things. It’s a tough business so don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.
So in short…don’t act like a star because you are not a star. Even our most successful actors of recent years like Lucy Liu or Jason Scott Lee only really had a short run of a few years. Always be humble; always realize that no matter where you are, you will always have much room for growth. This may seem like the most obvious advice, but I’ve seen Asian American actors, who maybe have one legitimate credit on their resume, give “star” attitude to my fellow Offender Justin. And I’m thinking—you’re really going to piss off probably the most successful director in Hollywood who actually is invested in promoting an Asian American agenda? Is that smart? You don’t think he’s going to remember? Let me just add this in case you don’t already know…the one topic that all filmmakers talk about when they get together with other filmmakers is…actors. Specifically, actors who’ve made a strong impression on us. In particular, actors who’ve made a strong negative impression on us.
Now, what’s even worse is meeting Asian American actors who aren’t even at that level in their careers who display bad habits. I realize that this isn’t an issue that’s only true for our community, but there is a sense of entitlement present in many of the Asian American actors I’ve met that I find problematic: Actors who seem to think that partying and social networking are more important to their careers than working on their craft. Actors who can barely talk and walk at the same time who think they’re too big to understudy or take a small role in a play. Actors who blame their lack of career success on everyone else except themselves.
Even if everything I’m bitching about were all true, why should it matter? Well, because we always bemoan the lack of opportunities for Asian American actors but sometimes the powers that be will make an effort to try to be inclusive and…we’re not always ready.
Look, there are very real obstacles that an Asian American actor faces, but all actors face their own set of obstacles. Maybe if you’re white, it’s slightly easier to have a career like Tom Hanks, but it’s still really fucking hard. And as much as it is sometimes justified to put the blame on Hollywood or some other external power, other times we have to take responsibility for our own fucked up situation. I can give many examples from personal experience or from close colleagues of when opportunities arose for Asian American actors and you know what…they blew it. But in the interest of time, I’ll just share one such story from my fellow Offender Justin.
When The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (which was directed by Justin) was released, some Asian American media reported that the studio behind the pic (in this case, Universal) would not let Justin cast an Asian American in the lead. This was untrue.
When Justin was hired, he asked the then head of the studio, Stacey Snider, if he could cast an Asian American actor in the lead role of the troubled high schooler who’s sent to Japan to live with his father. To her credit, she said he could audition Asian American actors and if he genuinely felt one of them was the best actor, he had her blessing to hire him. To make a long story short, the Asian American actors who came in were ill prepared and gave bad auditions. There was no way in good faith that Justin could cast any of them (Justin though, of course, created the role of Asian American character Han and fought for fellow Offender Sung who won the part through his hard work and talent).
It’s always heart breaking when we confront examples like this. As an actor, it’s up to you to be ready and make that great impression, even if you don’t get the role, because people will remember. I can’t stress that enough.
Here’s another example from another Justin audition experience that proves the converse: I know a lot of people in the community knock Bai Ling and dismiss her. But she came in on another project and knocked her audition out of the park. Justin didn’t cast her because she wasn’t right for the role, but you know what—she made a strong impression. Whenever someone disses Bai Ling in his presence, Justin (who doesn’t know her personally) always points out how she gave one of the best auditions he has seen from an Asian American actor. And you can bet if the right role does come along in the future, he’s not going to hesitate to cast her.
First, I believe there is a genuine shift happening in the industry. Again, it’s my humble opinion, but I can’t ignore what I’m seeing around me. There are more opportunities opening up for Asians in the business and that includes for actors. It may not seem like it when you hear news about how Mickey Rourke is supposedly playing Genghis Khan or something like The Last Airbender casting controversy arises, but there is change afoot. Just look at how many Asian faces you see as series regulars on TV now, for example. True, they are mostly in supporting parts and we still have a ways to go, but I couldn’t have imagined coming even this far just five years ago.
Let me be so bold as to make this statement: I don’t think there’s anything preventing an Asian American actor from becoming the next George Clooney or Angelina Jolie anymore. And if I can be even bolder, I think you’ll see someone ascend to that status in the next five years. A genuine movie star. A genuine Asian American movie star. Something we don’t have at the moment. The only thing that I believe can get in the way of this now is…ourselves. It’s all on us to do it. Or not.
Which brings me to reason two and this is a more personal one.
I’ve hinted before that when my fellow Offenders and I started this blog, it was with the idea that we could use this as a foundation to create an online community so we could build upon it and use it to expand into even bigger and better things. Our launch of our Interpretations Filmmaking Initiative is one step toward this (BTW, a limited number of extra tickets to our sold-out filmmaking panel on May 2 will be released this Thurs. at the DGA box office only) and our ultimate goal is to expand into areas like YOMYOMF Films where we will develop and produce everything from webisodes to full-length feature films. To successfully do this requires a community of like-minded, dedicated and talented artists including actors. Let’s face it—as much as you may hear that stars don’t carry as much clout anymore, one of the best ways to still get a movie green-lit is to have a star attached.
Speaking from a purely personal and selfish perspective, I need Asian American stars in order to do the type of projects I’d like to do. We dream big here at YOMYOMF and we have ambitious plans for what we want to do. And if you think some of the advice I’ve passed on here is harsh, it’s because this is a harsh business. It’s easy to always put the blame on others for what we don’t have, it’s much harder to really look within ourselves and be honest about our own faults. That’s just human nature. But that might also be the difference between us having a shot at achieving something wonderful or not.
Believe me when I say it is difficult to find fellow kindred spirit artists—colleagues with the talent and all the other right qualities that make them a good fit. But when you do…or rather when we do, you can bet we will do everything to support and nurture those folks because we know how rare that is to find. And ultimately that is what this letter is all about. Strive for nothing less than to make that great impression. Work your ass off to be the best you can be. Have the right attitude and humility that will make you both a great artist and human being. I promise that if you genuinely are able to achieve these things, you will be noticed. And that is, as they say, the start of everything.
Break a leg, my friends…