Years ago, some Hollywood executives told one of actor Leonardo Nam’s representatives that he had “hit the top of the Asian tier” as far as his salary was concerned.
Nam currently portrays fan favorite engineer Felix on HBO’s Westworld, but his journey through Hollywood has been littered with offers to play stereotypical Asian roles—and an unwillingness to compensate him for his work. When he heard the “Asian tier” comment—the kind of thing that few white men in Hollywood are ever likely to have been told—he felt both furious and helpless.
“It’s crazy,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “When you’re hit with that kind of oppression, that kind of bullying and racism that is just stuck in your face, you feel a sense of paralysis.”
So when, years later, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park decided to leave CBS’s Hawaii Five-0 after reportedly being unable to negotiate a salary on par with their white costars, Nam was excited. “When Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park came out publicly about that, I was so much in awe of them,” he said. “It has definitely changed the level of conversation, and it’s still something that needs to be encouraged.”
This weekend, Nam, along with Kim and Park, will be honored at the 16th annual Unforgettable Gala, a celebration of Asian Americans in Hollywood put on by Kore Asian Media. The gala, which will stream tomorrow night, will also honor rapper and actress Awkwafina, director Justin Chon, snowboard champion Chloe Kim, and others after what could be considered a banner year for awareness about the place of Asians in entertainment.
2017 saw a number of things to both celebrate and lament when it came to Asians in pop culture. There were the whitewashing scandals surrounding films like Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, and the upcoming Ni’ihau and Hellboy. (Hellboy eventually reversed course after its star, white actor Ed Skrein, backed out over the controversy). But Jay Park became the first Asian American to sign with Jay Z’s Roc Nation label; it was announced that Young Jean Lee will become the first female Asian American playwright to have a show on Broadway; and the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians went into production, becoming that rarest of things: a major American motion picture with an entirely Asian main cast.
Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina, told me how excited she was when she heard that Crazy Rich Asians was being adapted into a movie. “I remember being like, ‘Oh my god, I want to be in this movie, and if I’m not in it, I just want it to exist,’” she said over the phone last week. (She wound up being cast, by the way.)
Lum said that she was hoping for the movie to bust some familiar racist myths in the entertainment industry. “Movies are a gamble and people don’t want to take chances with money on people who don’t sell,” she said. “And in this case...the assumption [is] that Asian people don’t sell.”
There have been a number of exceptions to this assumption—including Lum herself, whose unapologetic, unfiltered, and hilarious charisma has landed her in movies like Neighbors 2, and the upcoming Ocean’s 8 (alongside Rihanna!!). But Asian people are not the center of those films. Crazy Rich Asians is different, so it’s under a particular kind of pressure to become a Girls Trip or Bridesmaids-level success.
“I had a conversation with [producer] Nina Jacobson, and she said this movie will literally define how minorities are represented in the future,” Lum told me. “There has not been a movie like this. It’s going to set some kind of precedent, and in a way, the world will be our focus group.”
Perhaps because of this, she said, the experience of simply being able to work with a number of other Asian actors in a film that didn’t center whiteness was a once in a lifetime experience.
“I would hang out with the cast and I remember this one night we were hanging out and I looked at everybody, Gemma [Chan], Sonoya [Mizuno], Henry [Golding], and I could see that we were all once ‘that Asian’ in a movie,” Lum told me. “And I also knew that we are all are not quite Asian and we’re not quite American or British or Australian. And I think that was kind of beautiful.”
Of course it’s not like Hollywood, which has a rather illustrious history with racist or exoticized caricatures of Asians, has suddenly become a respectful and representative utopia.
“I would be lying to say that they have all changed,” Nam told me. “I still get calls for roles and projects that I don’t see as evolved.”
“Any shift in Hollywood is provoked by a political disruption,” Lum said. She credits Hollywood’s recent focus on acknowledging people of color as actors, writers, and creators to political movements like Black Lives Matter. “A political shift told people that it’s not okay to cast white actors as Asian people. It’s not okay to say racist things in major Hollywood movies, to make fun of Asian people. And that opened up the field: cast Asian American actors in Asian American roles, to let them tell their own stories.”
Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the only reason 2018 is shaping up to be such a crucial year. We’re also set to see a Netflix romcom starring Randall Park and Ali Wong, and a potential Korean-American family drama on NBC, among other projects. It’s a sign that we may finally be witnessing something resembling the kind of inclusive programming that’s long overdue when it comes to Asians. Hopefully, all the groundwork laid this year and before will ensure that this is a permanent shift.
“Slowly but surely it’s turning, and it’s wonderful to be out there on there front lines, to notice that change,” Nam said. “Is there more to go? Yes, there definitely is? But is it better than it was before? That’s definitely true as well.”