Few of the movies that showed at the 2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival are going to make it big, but that’s not the point. For a week, members of a community that’s drastically underrepresented in Hollywood got to connect and share work made about them, for them.
The winds may be shifting in regards to representation, though. At a SAG-AFTRA talk hosted by the Conference for Creative Content (C3), panelists spoke with optimism regarding the new wave of ethnically diverse series that have hit television over the past season. Of course, when audience member Phil Yu (proprietor of the popular blog Angry Asian Man) expressed his fear that this could just be a trend and not a new paradigm, the panel bleakly agreed that such is a possibility. The decision-making power in show business remains mostly in white hands, and those are temperamental ones.
The SAG-AFTRA C3 panel consisted of veteran television actors Randall Park (Veep, The Interview, Fresh Off the Boat), Usman Ally (Madame Secretary, Damages), Joy Osmanski (Grey’s Anatomy, Save Me, The Following), Lucille Soong (Desperate Housewives, Freaky Friday, Fresh Off the Boat), casting director/associate Leslie Woo (Silicon Valley, Togetherness, Foxcatcher, Big Eyes), and actor/moderator Parvesh Cheena (Outsourced, A to Z, Transformers: Rescue Bots). The topic of discussion was contemporary casting practice in primetime television.
The participants all had their own horror stories that speak to the blithe ignorance of white executives. Cheena actually asked for them as a prompt to kick off discussion. Ally reminisced about how he would purposefully use his real accent (he hails from Swaziland) in casting sessions until a director would give up and ask him to “do it like Apu.” Woo shared a time when she picked only men of color for a role described as “a hot guy,” and her producer responded with a baffled, “I thought I asked you to get a hot guy.” Time and again, they’ve been frustrated by claims of colorblindness. If the higher-ups were truly colorblind, we’d see a media landscape that reflected the diversity of real American life. But that’s not the case. “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t see black or white; I only see green.’ I think, ‘You’re a fuckin’ racist’” Ally said.
It’s a comment that probably wouldn’t fare well at a mainstream film festival, but the panel was a safe zone. There were a few non-Asian people present, so it was unlikely that an audience member would pipe up with an “Um, actually…” type of response. Cheena encouraged the irreverent atmosphere, jokingly asking whether there is a developing “Asian Mafia” within showbiz, “And if so, how can we join?”
All present agreed that if there were a Hollywood Asian Mafia, Park would probably be its boss. The actor has earned loads of acclaim in recent months for his portrayal of Kim Jong Un in The Interview and his lead role in Fresh Off the Boat, one of the shows leading the aforementioned spike in TV diversity. Park is proud to be “the dad” in the first Asian-American-led sitcom in nearly 20 years, and he talked about how his career has, in part, been a lesson in moderating his expectations. “When I started acting, I was bright-eyed and thought I’d change everything” he said, referring to how he originally vowed that he would never take any stereotypically “Asian” parts. But, as so often is the case in Hollywood, regardless of one’s background, conviction gave way to reality. Specifically, the need to work.
That’s another theme that emerged from the discussion: Compromise, like it or not (and no one fully likes it), is how progress happens, though opinions may differ over how much compromise is too much. Osmanski doesn’t believe that actors of one Asian ethnicity being cast as characters of a different one is that big a deal (“Just be glad we’re out there”), and obviously not all will agree with that sentiment.
All members of the panel concurred that they’ve done their best to bring humanity and nuance to what may otherwise have been cliched roles. All share the hope that the more colorful television landscape isn’t a “trend,” but the wave of the future.