The following interview for our Spring 2021 BackstageFest, a virtual celebration of the year's best and buzziest TV, was compiled in part by Backstage readers just like you! Follow us on Twitter (@Backstage) and Instagram (@backstagecast) to stay in the loop on upcoming interviews and to submit your questions.
Historically, American television and film have cast a noted preference to nonwhite voices. But with the increasingly urgent call for more diversity onscreen and behind the camera, representation is starting to shine through for talent of all backgrounds. At the close of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, five AAPI actors—Jamie Chung (“Lovecraft Country”), Jessie Mei Li (“Shadow and Bone”), Olivia Liang (“Kung Fu”), Alice Lee (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”), and Christina Chang (“The Good Doctor”)—spoke with us during BackstageFest about representation within the industry, hurdles they have faced throughout their careers, and what change is needed but yet to come.
Despite the disparate opportunities for AAPI women in Hollywood, Chung wanted to pursue acting for the love of storytelling.
“Going into it, [I] knew it would be an uphill battle, and it still is after over 13 years in the business. It’s constant; you’re always fighting for your perspective, you’re always fighting for authentic roles, and there’s not a lot of characters for ethnic actors and we’re fighting for the same role. But it’s for the storytelling, because when you get that great story, it’s so rewarding.”
Chang believes one of the ways to improve onscreen representation is to also have people of color behind the scenes.
“If we don’t have the people in the room who are doing the hiring, whether it’s the showrunners or executive producers or studio executives, who have an understanding or sensitivity in understanding learning [about AAPI culture], it’s really frustrating. We need more writers of the rainbow.”
Lee is an advocate for stories that integrate race into characters’ personal narrative.
“A lot of creators when they say ‘open ethnicity,’ [don’t realize] it’s a commitment. If your character is going to be Asian or Black or Latina, that’s a part of their identity, and their stories will probably change. That’s a commitment to getting a writers’ room that has people of that color in the room, and I think sometimes creators are afraid of that. It can’t just be a passing thought, there’s more to it than that. If you cast someone of color, the story has to shed light on that.”
Liang said there is a generational gap that is part of the rift between the AAPI and Black community.
“When I think about what has happened with both of these communities in the last year, I myself, as an Asian American person, have become so much more empathetic to the Black experience. For the first time in my life, I was afraid of getting hurt for the way that I look. It’s so silly, but that’s when it hit me that Black people have felt this every single day of their lives. To pit these groups of people against each other, is like, ‘Why would we do that?’ ”
Representation onscreen can bridge the gap of understanding between all people, Li believes.
“People genuinely do form their worldview based on what they’re watching, especially young people who are the most vulnerable. Let’s just say you don’t know anyone in your day-to-day life who is Black or brown or Asian; you’re going to believe the stereotype that someone feeds you. But if you put on a show that you like and there’s a well-written character and you like and sympathize with them, it can make all the difference. I’ve met people who have genuinely changed their minds about people based on a character. We’re all human beings with very different experiences, but when we can actually see them and get to know them intimately, that’s when real change happens.”
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