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Being An Asian Actor Is Hard Even Without Scarlett Johansson Taking Your Roles

When you're constantly passed over for even the "Asian" roles, it can be incredibly difficult to pursue a career in acting.
April 21, 2016, 4:00am

Last week, the first picture from the American live-action remake of the Japanese cult favorite manga and anime Ghost in the Shell was released. It's been a year since Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead role of Major Motoko Kusanagi (now simply called "Major"), a female Japanese "cyberbody," and the new photo reignited the controversy around whitewashing in Hollywood. Outrage swelled when the film's studios, Paramount and DreamWorks, were accused of conducting CGI testing on Johansson's scenes to "shift her ethnicity"—in other words, to make a white actress look more Asian. (Paramount Pictures acknowledged the tests, but denied they were for Johansson's character.)


As an Asian American, it's upsetting to continuously see white people take the roles of Asians onscreen. But for Asian American actors, it's actually a major career barrier. When you're constantly overlooked for roles because you're not white, how hard is it to pursue an acting career?

Scarlet Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming remake of 'Ghost in the Shell.' Photo via IMDB

"My agent told me that I should get plastic surgery to make my eyes look smaller and mono-lid."

Sarah, a Chinese American actress with a decade of experience in film and TV, told me she wasn't at all surprised by the recent news. (Sarah asked that we not use her real name, for fear that it would negatively impact her career.) "This keeps happening because the majority of decision makers at the top aren't Asian. Or if they are, they're making decisions that are 'white-friendly' since they have to please their white bosses with numbers about profit estimates."

Sarah is now transitioning to do more behind-the-scenes work, but when she was working as a full-time actress in the early 2000s, she was told she didn't look "Asian enough" to get cast in the "Asian" roles. "My agent told me that I should get plastic surgery to make my eyes look smaller and mono-lid," she said. She looked too "ethnic" for the white roles, but not stereotypically "Asian enough" for the Asian roles.

Ming-Na Wen in 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Photo via ABC Studios

In some ways, the tide is starting to change. In 2015, there were more minority leads on television, and Asian Americans starred in popular shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken. But all told, only 4 percent of characters on television were Asian last year, according to the Hollywood Diversity Report, and white actors still took the roles of Asian characters in film—like Emma Stone playing a mixed-Chinese woman in Aloha, or Tilda Swinton made to look Asian in the forthcoming release of Doctor Strange.

Several Asian American actresses—like Ming-Na Wen from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Constance Wu from Fresh off the Boat—recently spoke out against the cultural insensitivity surrounding the Ghost in the Shell casting. I asked Sarah why it seems like the conversation about racism in Hollywood is only happening recently.


"Oh, we talk about it privately or with other Asian entertainers, but definitely not in public or in print," she told me matter-of-factly. "If it can be traced back to you, it's really bad—you don't want to offend all the old-school people in the industry who are the decision makers. Some people do get away with it, but they don't land major roles like Constance and Ming-Na. Those people are now at the top of ladder, so they're protected by that. It's the actors still climbing the ladder who keep quiet."

Sometimes Asian Americans looking to make it in Hollywood face hindrance even earlier in their career from well-meaning people. Ken Jeong, the creator and star of Dr. Ken and of the Hangover series fame, recently said in an interview with the New York Times that his UCLA acting professor once told him, "You're a good actor, which is why I'm telling you: Stay the hell out of LA. There's not much of a future for you. Go to Asia."

For 30-year-old Justin Wang, his acting dream was squashed by his own parents. "I've always wanted to be an actor ever since I was a kid. In fourth grade, a casting director came to my school looking for a Chinese kid to play a scene in a movie, and she specifically asked for me since I had been in a few plays and musicals by then," he remembers. "But my mom ignored her calls on purpose since it'd cut into my studies and be a waste of time, according to my parents' mindset."

Wang continued to take drama classes until freshman year of high school, when he says his parents flat-out told him, "You're not white. You're not going to make any money as an actor." Wang says he cried himself to sleep that night.

As an adult, Wang understands that his parents were unsupportive of his passion out of legitimate fear, which is based on the scarce representation of minority groups in the media. The current statistics are sobering: Less than 1 percent of the Academy are Asian, 52 percent of movies and TV shows feature no Asian characters at all, and only 5 percent of movie roles go to Asians.

That's not bad for a minority group that only accounts for 5.8 percent of the population in the United States. But whitewashing Asian characters is about more than just representation—it's about cultural ownership. In the case of Ghost in the Shell, there's no dispute that the beloved series is a Japanese story, set in a futuristic Japan, dreamed up by a Japanese writer. That doesn't change when an American studio buys the rights. Choosing a predominately white cast feels like an insult to the culture that created the original version, and one less opportunity for Asian American actors to catch a break.

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