By: Jackie Dallas
Growing up I remember being fascinated with the world of acting. I got my first taste in elementary school when it was announced that my class would be putting on a Thanksgiving play. That afternoon, I went home and dreamed about being a pilgrim or an Indian princess… It would be considered culturally insensitive now, but this was the 90s. When I went to school the next day to get assigned our roles, I was crushed to learn that all of the speaking roles went to the more extroverted and outspoken children of the class. When I asked if there were any more parts to play, I was told that the rest of us would be assigned as ‘food and things’ like the turkey, corn and blankets. Imagine my disappointment to learn I was assigned to be a blueberry. Besides, the teacher explained, there were no Asians in Thanksgiving. That was my first lesson in diversity. There isn’t much color outside the lines when it comes to American storytelling, even if it’s not their story. Also, who eats blueberries on Thanksgiving?
Fast forward to five years ago. I’ve just decided to quit my career and move cross country in a loaded SUV to pursue acting professionally. Many of my professional peers perceived it to be impulsive and reckless, and really, who could blame them? A female Korean-American about to hit 30, heading to Hollywood with no experience was a risky move and there was no precedence for success. There was no ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ or ‘Killing Eve’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was still only just a book. Asians, and more specifically Asian-Americans (or Asian-Canadians) were pretty much just relegated to supporting roles at best, and I quickly learned that there were about 5 politically incorrect categories of female Asian characters on TV and film (and even less for men): the nerdy quiet Asian, the assertive bitchy Asian, the cool ghetto Asian, the clueless immigrant Asian and the fetishized exotic Asian. I can’t tell you how many times I auditioned to be a sexy samurai or a tiger mom, and when it came to accents, more often than not, they preferred it. I remember one of many auditions for the role of a nail technician that I had. I walked in and introduced myself and politely asked if they wanted an accent for the character. Yes, they confirmed, and so I proceeded to do the scene with the best Korean accent I could fake. At the end I got the feedback “That was great, can we try it again, but can you be more Asian?” I don’t recall my exact reaction, but I knew what they were asking for, even if they didn’t know how to put it into words. Paraphrasing, they meant “that wasn’t the right accent we were looking for, can you be a different kind of Asian?” I did a second take with a more tonal and exaggerated Vietnamese accent and that got me to the next round of casting.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an Asian-American actress was defining where I draw the line. Some things are easy to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to. You can quickly determine if you are comfortable with nudity levels or sexual situations, and on a professional level, there are special notations and clauses for that on breakdowns and contracts. However, when it comes to cultural jabs and perpetuating negative stereotypes, many of us have become complacent, and even eager in accepting any role that is offered to us, even if it’s at our expense. I am just as guilty in that. After all, when you’re a new actor that’s starting out, you have very little control over what opportunities are sent your way and consider that there are only a handful of roles written for females and ethnic characters, and suddenly you justify it with a ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ mentality.
In the short span of time I’ve been working as an actress, two very significant things have happened in Hollywood. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have given women a rising voice in the industry, and recently there has been a very deliberate push for diversity in TV and film. I’ve noticed this shift in casting over the last few years and it’s subtle but significant. Small costar breakdowns for generic roles such as ‘Assistant’, ‘Nurse’ or ‘Teacher’ were commonly listed as ‘any ethnicity’ which was an acceptable opportunity to get a token of diversity into an episode. Now, however, we are finally seeing more leading and recurring roles with character names being listed with ‘please submit all ethnicities’. It’s a small nuance, but suddenly, there are doors being opened, or at the very least unlocked to ethnic actors. I know there is still lots of hesitation about the casting of Asian actors in leading roles, but hopefully with the box office success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and the sweeping of awards by Sandra Oh for ‘Killing Eve’, studios and producers will see that that it is not the ethnicity of the actor that determines the success of a project. In fact, there has been a surge in the popularity of Asian narrative stories with ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, ‘Searching’ and ‘Always Be My Maybe’, none of which feel the need to emphasize or even address the ethnicity of their leading actors. It feels so much more grounded and natural, and as an Asian-American, it feels authentic.
Being a female Asian actress has its own unique set of challenges, but just being an actor is already an arduous career full of auditions, rejections and long periods of waiting for something that may never come. If there is one thing that I’ve learned on this journey, to be a successful actor, it takes more than just skill, it requires confidence, persistence and patience to wait for the right time to shine. As an Asian actress, I feel that time is now. I hope that one day I’ll be able to work alongside some of my idols who have helped pave the way for aspiring actresses like me. Thanks to bold and inspiring women like Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu and Ali Wong, being Asian is no longer the sole defining character description, it is just a single facet in the complex leading characters that we can play.
Jackie Dallas is a SAG-AFTRA actress and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. She is best known for her role as Jen on Stranger Things, and has appeared on several TV shows and feature films. She is an advocate for women and diversity in Hollywood.