Thu, Apr 13, 2017 - Page 13 News List

‘We’re the geeks, the prostitutes’

Hollywood roles remain few for Asian Americans — and when they are wanted on the casting couch, it’s often to play offensive stereotypes

By Sam Levin  /  The Guardian

Actor Kal Penn has spoken out about racial stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood.

Photo: Matt Sayles, AP

Pun Bandhu’s training at the prestigious Yale School of Drama didn’t help much with the skill he needed for so many auditions after graduation — the “Asian accent.”

The Thai-American actor — who has appeared in a wide range of TV shows and films over the last 15 years — said he was once told that an accent he used for a Thai character, modeled after his parents, was not working for an “American ear.” Instead, the director went with a Chinese accent.

While much of the recent debate around Asian representation in Hollywood has centered on whitewashing — when white actors are cast to tell Asian stories — working actors said a lack of opportunity was only one part of the problem.

Asian American actors said they rarely, if ever,got auditions for leading roles, and when they did get parts, they were frequently secondary to the plot or portrayed offensive tropes. Asian men said they were often relegated to roles as tech nerds, assistants, doctors — sometimes highly emasculated, desexualized characters. Asian women, meanwhile, regularly go up for parts as masseuses and sex workers or characters described as submissive, fragile or quiet.

“We’re the information givers. We’re the geeks. We’re the prostitutes,” Bandhu said. “We’re so sick and tired of seeing ourselves in those roles.”


Asian American actors said there had been an increase in diverse roles in recent years, though, and some were hoping that the recent controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell — which starred Scarlett Johansson in the remake of an anime classic — would inspire directors and producers to stop whitewashing Asian characters. The film flopped, earning only US$19 million in the US in its opening weekend, a small sum relative to its US$110 million budget. One Paramount executive said the casting backlash was partly to blame.

Emma Stone, Matt Damon and Rooney Mara have all faced whitewashing criticisms for their roles in films that ultimately performed badly at the box office. But improving diversity and representation in film and television goes far beyond avoiding casting blunders in commercial movies.

“We’re so desperate for opportunities,” said Kanoa Goo, a mixed-race actor who is Chinese, Hawaiian and white. “Often it’s pretty one-dimensional. It’s the tech computer analyst who doesn’t have much to say. His role is really just in service of the leads.”

Goo, who appeared in the 2016 film Other People, said most of his auditions were for parts specified for Asians or non-white actors, and sometimes those roles could feel tokenized — designed to check off the diversity box.

“Within the sort of marginalized group of diverse actors, Asian-American actors are still at the very bottom. They are still the underdog,” he said.

Asian characters made up only 3 to 4 percent of roles in scripted broadcast and cable shows in the 2014-15 season, according to a recent University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) report . Of the top 100 films of 2015, 49 had no Asian characters, and zero leading roles went to Asians, according to another study.

In addition, “the quality of roles is problematic,” said Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor who co-authored the diversity report.

Lynne Marie Rosenberg, an actor who runs a Tumblr called Cast and Loose, which publishes offensive character “breakdowns” from auditions, said she frequently saw casting calls that listed nearly all ethnicities — except Asian.

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