I met someone for the first time recently, and in conversation the question of "Why did you become an actor?" came up.
I've answered this question in a variety of ways:
a) literally, as the chronological progression of my career path
b) some vague spiritual concept of destiny and the way my life has developed
c) an inherent love of story telling and blah blah blah
But when I was asked that recently, I decided to give an answer I always subconsciously felt: my desire to be an actor was to validate my own life's existence.
My childhood was always rife with feelings of inadequacy. Much of it was due to being an awkward nerd and universal growing pains through adolescence (re: typical emo shit), but I'd say a large contributing factor is the lack of a firm grasp of identity. This isn't uncommon in the second generation immigrant experience, there's a disconnect between how we're geared to adapt to the society around us and the principles instilled in us by our parents, principles which have come from a different society altogether.
From experiences in my adolescence, I've harbored a lot of resentment towards the "Korean mentality", cultural differences that I saw were hindrances to my own personal as well as the Korean community at large's assimilation into American culture. I saw Koreans as xenophobic, misogynistic and generally hostile when I did anything that wasn't "Korean enough". I hated the food (I haven't willingly eaten kimchi since I was 3), I hated going to Korean school on Saturdays trying to learn the language which I thought was useless because, hello, we're in America, and no I'm not going to pretend to be a fucking soccer fan and go all ape shit when Seoul makes the World Cup semis thank you very much.
Instead, I was obsessed with American history and culture at large, soaking in American movies and books and claiming them as my own. In some ways, I lived American life by watching those stories and living them out in my imagination at home. Being a relatively social pariah until high school, I was ripe for consuming "underdog" stories, seeing myself as one that needed to prove my own self worth.
However, that didn't stop me from noticing that Asians were relatively invisible from the media, or even caricatured and derided. But I thought to myself, "it's just because they don't know, they don't know what we're like because our parents are FOBs who can't tell them what we're like. These Koreans are purposely differentiating themselves with their cultural quirks so OF COURSE we're going to be seen differently." There was a small part of me that would say, "You know what? One day, I'll be the guy that changes things for Asian dudes everywhere and make them cool." Back when I was growing up, I had no idea I'd ever leave New York, let alone live in Los Angeles, so this idea was more in the sense of, being a cool guy with cool accomplishments in my general community and have that be an example to all that we were indeed, cool, rather than "I'm going to be the Asian Brad Pitt". But weirdly, I thought the way Asians were portrayed was something that ONE person could change and turn around.
It wasn't until college when I first started seeing racial nuances more clearly, and the hypocrisy of American "equality" and the institutionalism of racism. This past year's political shitstorm has highlighted how clearly racism exists in America, and how there's still a strong sense of "us" vs. "them". And it's silly to me how Hollywood pats themselves on the back for being the "bastion of morality", while the industry at large suffers from a clear diversity problem. It remains one of the few industries that can legally discriminate based on race, by simply putting "Caucasian only" in a breakdown.
When I first thought about going into acting in 2008, I asked an Asian American actor what he thought about the landscape and how it affected his career, etc. He told me that for him, it wasn't really a factor in his decision making process, that through and through he knew he was meant to be an actor and he pursued it and moved to Los Angeles, where he's carved out a nice career. In a sense, he told me that he can only control what he can control, and while the prospects for AAs weren't great, they seemed to be improving.
A few years later, when I was visiting Los Angeles, I had a chance to speak to another successful AA actor about his views, and he told me that while he didn't shun the Asian American entertainment community out here, he didn't feel it was necessary to embrace it for his own career. There's an unspoken stigma associated with AA talent in Hollywood: we're not very good. And while this may read as a stereotype, there is some truth to this statement. I won't go into why this is into too much detail (that's for another post) but it mostly has to do with the combined fact of the Catch-22 nature of the business (how can AA actors get experience when roles aren't being written for them) and the fact that the critical mass of AA performers is still in its infancy; many AAs simply don't pursue careers in entertainment largely due to the fact that its a hard field to break into. They inherit a risk averse mentality from their parents, because as immigrants in a new land, it's doubly hard to succeed not only because of discrimination and language barriers, but without the network effects of having friends and family here growing up.
And the actor I talked to had a point, AA actors who have had enjoyed success in Hollywood typically came up independently, not tied to the AA community at large. This put me in a mentality for a while in my early years that I had to think and act "American" (read: white) to be more "relatable" in Hollywood to the general public. Part of me equated acting more American to distancing myself from other AAs, who held onto their more "emotionless" Asian attributes, and so I clung to this idea that being as "American" as possible would differentiate me from my AA competish.
However, I realized that it was Hollywood itself that had a major hand in portraying Asians as unfeeling robots, and that I had unwittingly bought into this narrative. I also observed that even the most successful AA actors rarely lead the storyline, they usually serve as supporting characters at best. This because Hollywood, while acknowledging we exist, are content to have stories that include us, but only insofar as how we are viewed by America (re: Caucasian people). And the fault of this doesn't squarely fall on the shoulders of those in power, it also lies with us as AA creators. So much content made by AA is as derivative as Bollywood, where AAs make versions of things we've already seen in America, only replacing them with AA characters. Some of the only AA content that did well in the past 20 years was the Joy Luck Club, a story distinctly about the AA experience, rather than a romcom we've seen 20 years ago with AAs plugged and played in the leads.
The recent uproar over cutting out AA characters in comic book franchises has exasperated me because we're expecting Hollywood to solve this problem for us, to put us front and center into the stories they create. But in any character based narrative, Hollywood will be unable to create a fully fleshed story featuring AAs, for the simple fact that many writers are not AAs. AA writers in Hollywood are few and far in between, and those writing stories specifically for AA are even slimmer. To wit, a friend of mine (who is Korean American) recently wrote a fantasy novel from scratch, his first attempt to write an entire fantasy saga. He admitted to me that when he started writing, the characters in his head were white. It was as if he wasn't allowed to even imagine characters that looked like himself in his own stories, stories that were supposed to be based in a FANTASY land.
Unfortunately, the AAs at the top in Hollywood are limited in what they can do and sometimes, what they want to do to help the community. Case in point, some AA producers profit by taking successful Asian film properties overseas and "westernizing" them by replacing all the characters with American (read: white) actors with mixed results, without thinking of possibly putting AAs front and center in these properties. AAs who wield any sort of power in Hollywood balance their efforts between trying to carve out a career or trying to tell AA stories, something that has virtually no track record of success.
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort involving many moving parts, all of them having to work together in sync to make a great product, and then somehow finding the money to pay them all for their time (filmmaking is expensive AF). Having put together a TV pilot myself, I can attest to the difficulty in finding the right people who are not only qualified, but passionate about the story you're trying to tell. And even though I spent a good chunk of money on the project, I was encouraged by people coming on board for cheaper than they normally would have, because they believed in "the cause".
I've researched a lot of black filmmakers who tell their own American story, and I realized that they have had to make their fair share of sacrifices and compromises to get any progress done. But with recent success stories of movies like Moonlight, Get Out and Hidden Figures, they've shown that their personal stories could be universal and relatable, as large audiences come out to see films made with relatively tiny budgets. The black film community is certainly reaping the rewards that so many of their filmmakers fought for. They poured their blood, sweat and tears into perfecting their craft, but they also were able to come together and build from their culture and their identity together.
In order for AA film communities to have the same kind of progression, there needs to be a movement of filmmakers with an emphasis of behind the camera. There's an overabundance of people (yours truly included) who think they will make a difference by simply being the onscreen talent (because that's the easiest thing for them to visualize), but the truth is strides need to be taken in all areas of filmmaking by AAs, ESPECIALLY writing. We need more creators than performers. And it'll be a lot more difficult given that our identity even as Americans is a story that is having its first chapters being written as we're living them out today, but if we're not the ones who start this movement, who will for us? Are we going to continually blame Hollywood for not being able to create the stories that only we can effectively create?
That's partly the reason I've decided to keep the ball rolling after producing my own TV pilot. I'm now assisting production on a short directed by a director that I believe in, Dan Chen. Anyone who knows me will know how anal I am in who I choose to work with, and after working with him on my TV pilot that we shot last year, I can confidently say he is a director who respects the craft of filmmaking but is also about telling real and human stories. These kinds of universal stories are the ones that normalize us, humanize us to the greater society and are the powerful ones that make differences in the world.
But the other reason is a comment from someone who's seen my pilot, who remarked to me, "I felt this visceral feeling that I don't think I've felt when watching a film before. I wondered to myself, is this what white people feel every time they watch something?" I recognize that I need to keep this train going no matter what, and that I know that I must be more of a content creator myself rather than trying to be primarily a performer.
I remember reading about when JD Salinger was alive, movie producers continually tried to obtain the rights to make a Catcher movie. He refused, saying that the book wouldn't work as a movie, even after being approached by some of the biggest talents in Hollywood. John Cusack said that when he turned 21, his only regret as an actor was that he was too old to play the coveted main character role.
AAs are in the unique position of being ensconced so firmly within American society, but have a culture and identity essentially in its prepubescent stage, figuring itself out and determining its own place in the world. In addition to not being able to play Holden Caulfield, they essentially won't be able to play anyone in any story prior to the 1960s in America. There are countless other roles they won't be able to play from the library of the American story, by very virtue of just not being here for the majority of its history. (side note: I'm talking about Asian Americans, not Asians, who of course existed for ages but primarily in stories that took place in, well Asia) Our plight of being invisible stems from not having a place in the American story.
That is, unless we realize that we as AA entertainers have to take responsibility and create the stories of our lives, that maybe someday will be looked at generations from now as an accurate depiction of what our lives were like, what we thought, what we feared, what we enjoyed, what we felt.
And throughout my experiences, I've realized the "no man is an island"-y aspect of a movement like this. There will never be an AA "savior" that changes the game for Asians everywhere, it's a collective movement that needs hard work and effort from a multitude of people before we see progress and ultimately, great art. Throughout working with other like minded people, I've come to a better sense of my own personal purpose by seeing this vision through, whether it be acting, writing or producing, or perhaps something else altogether. I want to create a firm sense of identity as not only Americans, but as people who belong.