“What was once said of the British aristocracy–that they did nothing and did it very well–is a definition that can be applied to movie actors. For gifted movie actors affect us most, I believe, not by talking, fighting, fucking, killing, cursing, or cross-dressing. They do it by being photographed…Great movie actors have features that are ruthlessly efficient…The point is that a fine actor on screen conveys a staggering amount of information before he ever opens his mouth.”
–Robert Towne (screenwriter, Chinatown, Shampoo)
Dear Asian American actor:
There are a number of things I’d like to say so pardon me because I’m going to skip the pleasantries and get right to the point. Some of what you’re about to read might hurt, but there’s a very important reason why I’m telling you all this which I’ll get to in detail later in Part II. But know this: we are now at a critical junction in our growth as a community. We have a real opportunity to make the type of impact in Hollywood that the generations before us could only dream of. It’s time to step up to the plate and swing for the stands.
Now, “stardom” is a term that’s loaded with all sorts of implications. But here’s the stark reality—currently, there is no Asian American actor we can define as a true star. “What?!” I hear you asking. “But what about Lucy Liu or John Cho or others like them? Aren’t they movie stars?” Sorry to burst your bubble, but none of them are stars. See, there’s a difference between being a star and being famous or a celebrity. William Hung may be famous (possibly the most recognizable Asian American male in the U.S.), but he is not a star. In Hollywood, there’s only one definition of stardom that matters and it is this—can you get a project greenlit and open a film?
If you can answer “yes” to that, then you are a star. Nothing else matters. If I can attach you to my script and take it to Warner Brothers and tell them you will be starring in it and we need $10 million or $50 million or even $100 million to make this film and they greenlight it, then congratulations because you are a star, my friend. Lucy Liu may have arguably been the most recognizable Asian American actor in recent history, but no way a studio will trust her to open a movie unless she is co-starring opposite Cameron Diaz or Drew Barrymore or Josh Hartnett or even Cedric the Entertainer.
But what about the Harold and Kumar films, you may be asking? Didn’t John Cho and Kal Penn star in those? Yes, they did and they were awesome, but those movies did not get greenlit because of the actors attached to them. They got made for other reasons and had other actors been cast instead, they still would have gotten produced. That applies to most of the other “Asian American”-themed films out of Hollywood including The Namesake, The Joy Luck Club and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. None of these got greenlit because of the cast.
This isn’t a knock on Lucy (who I think is super-talented) or any other actor. But as Robert Towne’s quote above alludes to, becoming a movie star is not easy. It’s not just about being a talented actor, there’s another intangible, elusive quality that movie stars possess. I don’t think anyone can describe exactly what it is, but when you put someone who has “it” in front of the camera, you can see and feel it. But here’s where it gets even more unfair–even if you have this “star quality,” it doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually achieve stardom. You still have to work your ass off and even then you may fail.
At the end of the day this is just one person’s opinion, but I feel I’m somewhat qualified to discuss this—I’ve been doing Asian American theater for fifteen years now; for ten of those years I was Co-Artistic Director of an Asian American theater company, I’ve worked in network TV, have some film experience and I’ve worked with or closely observed countless Asian American actors over the years. If you asked these actors and they were to answer honestly, most of them would admit that stardom is a goal they hope to achieve. However, if you were to ask me how many of those actors I honestly felt had a realistic shot at stardom based on factors like their type, their talent and the amount of passion and commitment they brought to their craft, I could count that number on one hand. Maybe less than one hand.
Here’s what multiple Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (All The President’s Men, Misery) said on this topic:
“To be a star, yes, you have to have talent, and my God, do you ever have to be lucky, but riding alongside is this: desire. One so consuming that you are willing to piss away everything else in life. Stars have no friends, they have business acquaintances and serfs. They can only fake love on screen.
But they get the good table at Spago.
And if that is your heart’s desire, and it is a lot of people’s heart’s desire, get rid of everything personal that might hinder you, and good luck. I promise to stare as you go by.”
Now, Goldman takes an extreme position, but I don’t disagree. If you want to be a star, you have to work at it 24 hours a day; it has to be the only thing in your life. It has to be more important than your day job, the 8-hours of daily sleep you’re not going to get, your family, your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse—everything! If you’re not invested in that way, I guarantee you that there are plenty of other actors who are and they are going to kick your ass when the potential “big break” comes along.
But you may be saying, “well, I’m an Asian American actor and Hollywood is racist. I’m never going to get a real shot anyway.” If you believe that then, absolutely, it’s never going to happen. Look, there are some very real obstacles for Asian Americans in this business. We all know what those obstacles are—they’ve existed for as long as there has been a film industry in America. But you can just keep bitching about them ensuring nothing will change or you can do something about it.
Yes, it’s hard, but then I think back to our pioneers like Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa who were bona fide movie stars at a time when it was a thousand times harder to be an Asian American in both the industry and in America. True, they were often relegated to stereotypical roles and weren’t allowed the versatility of their white counterparts, but they were genuine leading men and women and had careers that lasted decades longer than anyone around today. These guys were on their own and didn’t have the sort of community support system like we currently enjoy, yet they still did better than any actor we have now. It amazes me that almost 100 years ago, someone like Hayakawa had his own mini-studio and was producing, writing, starring in and distributing his own movies. If he could do it back then, what’s stopping us today?
In Part II of my letter (coming soon), I’ll discuss some of the obstacles to stardom for an Asian American actor and offer some tips on ways to possibly address them and talk about why I’m even tackling the topic of “Asian American stardom” to begin with.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the start of a new week.