New Generation of Actresses of Asian Heritage Making a Headway
Breaking into Hollywood is challenging enough for a woman, much more if you are Asian, colored, or minority female.
But pioneering Asian women in Hollywood broke the ceiling and opened the doors for other Asian actresses to come in.
During the early years in Hollywood, Asian actresses were typecast as bar girls, prostitutes, uneducated servants, or subservient wives or girlfriends. They had to go through constant rejections to land roles, often thankless supporting or cameo appearances.
The new generation of actresses of Asian heritage has indeed come a long way from their pioneering Asian sisters as they have now become lead actresses in both television and film and have even branched out to working behind the cameras as producers, directors, and writers.
The following are some members of the new generation of Asian actresses who are opening more doors to the next generation of Asian performers.
Oh is the first woman of Asian descent to win two Golden Globe Awards – Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Grey’s Anatomy, 2005) and Best Actress – Television Series Drama (Killing Eve, 2019). She is also the first woman of Asian descent to host the Golden Globe Awards show in 2019 when she co-hosted the 76th Golden Globe Awards.
Going back to that night of January 6, 2019, when she won the Best Actress Award and also co-hosted the Globes, Oh said in an HFPA interview for Killing Eve in 2019: “That night was so special for many reasons, and mostly because Crazy Rich Asians was in the room. I really could feel them and their support and that there was a real posse of Asian Americans and Asians in the room and that felt different for me. It felt very, very significant and I wanted to acknowledge that moment. It was great.
“I was so pleased to get the ask to co-host the Golden Globes, being the first person of color to host in any kind of way of the Globes. I knew that’s significant. Again, you put it in your back pocket because I can’t worry about it because all I’m worried about is hitting the jokes.
“But I absolutely knew that it was significant, and I knew I had to be ready to hit it out of the park because we get one shot. Hopefully, this shot will then lead to other people getting shots and then other people getting shots. But I feel very aware of the significance of it.
“It takes an entire career to get to the point where you can get this type of offer. It’s been a great career. It continues to be a great career.
“…About how we are moving, how is the culture moving, I can say that it is. It’s not an end, it’s a moment but I know that it’s real. Now in the third decade of doing this work, I can just see that reflected in the people who I’m talking to and in the response to my own career.”
On her journey as a woman of color in the workplace, Kaling said in our interview for Late Night in 2019: “Having written on The Office for eight years, I had lots of chances for storytelling but never an opportunity on anything of women of telling the story of how I got into the business and it’s the thing that most people, particularly young women, want to ask me about.
“When I started at The Office, I was the only woman, and I was the only minority on the staff. I always try to be careful because that staff was filled with great writers like Michael Shur and B.J. Novak who’d identify as feminists but it was still terrifying because I had this terrifying feeling where if you’re the only woman or the only minority and you have an off day and the rest of the staff is white you think, oh God, this is what they’re going to think of all Indian people, all Indian women.
“I was the diversity hire there. For a while, it really embarrassed me that everyone knew that the reason I was hired was because NBC paid my salary and made it free so I could be there. I always felt this Scarlet Letter of, they don’t think I’m as funny as them but the only reason I’m here is because I’m free. I really wanted to write about that in Late Night but tell it in a funny way.”
On how important it was to showcase her Asian community, family, and friends in her show, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, Awkwafina commented in 2020: “Depicting a specific Asian experience was both the highest priority and the lowest priority. I’ve spent a lot of my career, having my own struggles with how properly to represent people and to have that title but also realize that everything that I do I am simultaneously representing.
“It’s important for us because like you said, it is often historically the lowest common denominator when it comes to diversity, and then even in diversity within the past 10, 20 years, it was diversity without representation. Now more than ever, maybe focusing specifically on specific experiences, it’s focusing on an experience and how it universally ties to everyone else and how it is an honest portrayal of an authentically written group.”
Yeoh talked about the change of roles that people offer her in our interview for Crazy Rich Asians in 2018: “The most significant before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was when I did Tomorrow Never Dies, the James Bond movie. For everyone, they would say it puts you on the map right away because the James Bond movies are seen globally.
“They are so popular, but I waited two years. I did not take on another role until Crouching Tiger because the roles that came to me were the very stereotypical Chinese Asian roles which I feel that if I take them on, I endorse the fact that I agree with these representations of us. I would prefer not to work and touch.
“I’m blessed that I can choose. I can say I can do that. It’s hard for an upcoming actress. They don’t always have the choice to be able to make these kinds of options in their lives because they must pay the rent. They have families to upkeep.
“I’m single. Fortunately, my parents were well off enough that if I had to wait, they will be ready to assist me. But then over the years, what I’ve found is like you must go and seek the roles as well because one thing is sitting and waiting for the roles to fall in your lap.
“When Danny Boyle came to me with Sunshine and he wanted me to play the captain, I was the only Asian representation. I said, don’t you think the future will be much more balanced, that we would have more Japanese, Chinese not just the Russians and the Americans who would be up in space.
“Immediately, it clicked so if you look at Sunshine, it was half. There were Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, and me so it was a good balance of the mix. But sometimes, we have to convince filmmakers, storytellers that this is the right representation. Don’t make us a token of being the right palette. We need the colors so let’s put all the pieces together because we have amazing stories to be told.”
In HFPA’s interview with Chopra for Baywatch in 2017, she was asked if, as a woman of color, she was finding it more challenging to get more roles or has it become easier for her to get parts. She said, “As a woman of color, it was very important to me, and I did when I came from India, to really put my foot down about the kind of parts I would play.
“Yes, there are parts out there which are not written for colored girls or a woman of color but like Alex, for example, in Quantico, it was not written for someone who looks like me. It was written for an American girl.
“Victoria in Baywatch was written for a man. It was actually called Victor Leeds and was supposed to be played by this big Hollywood actor but that’s the challenge that I find most. I don’t settle.
“Women of color or, in general, women in the entertainment business have to stand up for and fight for better parts. We want parts that make sure that as artists, we deliver as much so people have faith. Slowly, we’re in a much better place, especially in television. Representation is a lot better.
“Movies are still catching up. Baywatch, for example, if you look at the TV show in the ’80s and you look at what the movie stands for in terms of representation, it’s a lot more like what the world looks like today. That’s what needs to happen – that people need to be cast for merit and not for the color of their skin, whatever that might be.
“That’s where entertainment needs to go and that should be our normal. It takes a lot of strong women who you’ve seen in entertainment today to come out and stand for wanting to do great parts.”
“You are more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood film than Asian women on screen,” Gemma Chan told The Huffington Post in a 2015 interview
Chan, who studied Jurisprudence to pursue law at Worcester College, Oxford, said that she didn’t consider an acting career previously because “growing up, I never saw any Asian faces on TV, so it didn’t feel like a viable option.”
“I’ve been fortunate in my career, but, yes, there have been many times when I have been told my audition has been canceled because they’re only going to see white people. The statistics are really depressing.”
Kelly Marie Tran
Tran talked about being the first Southeast Asian Disney Princess, the importance of representation, and the significance of being in an all-Asian cast in our interview for Raya and the Last Dragon in 2021: “It’s a really big deal. It feels like such an honor to be a part of this movie that so accurately represents this special part of the world that I don’t think is celebrated that often. I’m really excited for people to see it and hopefully see themselves in this character that I just love so much.
On having an Asian story and an all-Asian cast, she remarked, “That is a huge deal for me, and everyone involved. From the beginning of this process, we all knew how important it was to make sure we were honoring this part of the world in a really specific and authentic way.
“There were trips that were taken to different countries in Southeast Asia; there was an entire story trust, that the filmmakers were always in conversation with people who grew up in these cultures, who were experts in this specific part of the world, and I’ve never had the experience before as an actor where I walked into the room and looked at the script and recognized so fully parts of my upbringing in ways that I couldn’t really explain.
Wong was quoted in The Huffington Post in 2018 as saying: “There are more Asian Americans creating opportunities for other Asian Americans and that’s a really great thing. People obsess about casting and representation but really, all the real work is behind the camera.”
She added, “Casting an Asian American into a bad role, where they’re shoehorned into these stereotypes is worse than not having cast them at all.”
When the HFPA interviewed Constance Wu for Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, she emphasized the importance of having writers writing Asian American stories.
Wu said, “People who tell the stories the best are the ones who lived the experience so I’m always trying to encourage Asian American writers. When I started Fresh Off the Boat, I asked my manager, can you introduce me and give me coffee meetings with all the Asian American screenwriters you know because I want to know them, and I want to know that I’m behind them and if I can help them in any way that helps.
“I feel like I’m part of the movement. Even people who are against the movement or Asian Americans who feel like they’re not represented, in a way I feel like they’re a part of the movement too because they’re making their voices heard.
“Maybe they haven’t felt heard before. I love this thing Gloria Steinem says about how we’re all linked, not ranked, so nobody’s better or worse than everybody else. We’re all linked in this journey to be a better, more inclusive person together.”
Other Asian American actresses are also shining in Hollywood. Hailee Steinfeld (Dickinson, Pitch Perfect) is the younger of two children of Cheri Domasin and Peter Steinfeld. Steinfeld loves to say that she got her acting genes from her maternal granduncle, Larry Domasin, who is a former Filipino child actor and starred with Elvis Presley in Fun in Acapulco.
Finally, there is Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical, tick, tick…Boom!) who is the older daughter of Filipina Gina Guangco and Gregory Hudgens.
Many more actresses of Asian lineage are finding roles in Hollywood, but the hope is that someday, it will no longer be news but a common occurrence.