One would think an Asian producer would promote and fight for Asian actors to be represented in a role that is written in its originality as Asian. One would think this is a no brainer. Duh, as I like to say. Well, guess again. According to Masi Oka, one of the producers of Netflix's adaption of Japanese manga Death Note, they couldn't find any Asian actors who spoke perfect English. I call bullshit!
Three fierce Asian American actors are calling Mr. Oka out on this ridiculousness, they are calling out the whitewashing of Death Note. Zoë Kim, Jenapher Zheng, and Sylvia Ray are proving their point that there are PLENTY of Asian-American actors out that speak perfect freaking English. How? They gathered a bunch of Asian- American actors and made a video.
You probably didn’t watch the video... your loss. You really should. Let’s talk to these awesome ladies.
Alex: What was your first thought when you found out about Netflix's Death Note adaptation?
Jen: That it would feature white actors as leads? My heart sank. The story is precious to so many of us, and I think it's disconcerting that every time we hear that another classic anime or Asian-centered film/game/show is getting an American remake, we almost expect that we (the Asian-Americans) will get left out of it. Asian-American representation is important not only because we don't see enough of it, but because it strengthens the cultural meaning of what is being interpreted. Often, American remakes of Asian classics weaken the poignancy of the original story because they fail to put the story into proper context. Having Asian-Americans tell an Asian-inspired story generates deeper meaning than eliminating racial/sociopolitical ties with the source material, and thus erasing the roots of what made that original story so popular.
Sylvia: (Eye Roll) White. Here we go again. How many people sent in videos? How did you guys choose the people that ended up in your video?
Jen: I think Zoe can better answer that question, haha.
Zoe: We received an overwhelming amount of submissions and were not able to include everybody. We tried to include the people who we thought could really have been cast as the lead roles in Death Note while trying to show diversity within the Asian-American community.
Alex: Were any of the people shown Hapa? And if not why?
Zoe: Unfortunately we didn’t get any submissions from Half-Asians (other than Sylvia!), but would have loved to include them if we did.
Sylvia: I'm Half Korean and Half Mexican and I have a cameo in this film. I was also the Camera Operator!
Jen: Ideally speaking, we would want to incorporate Hapas and Asian-Americans of all backgrounds, but of course we could only go with what we had in that small time frame. In the future, this is definitely something to remedy.
Alex: What are your views on Asians who are mixed or white-presenting? Do you think they have the right to represent Asian-Americans?
Jen: I don't think there is any one person or specific “brand” of Asian who can represent the entirety of Asian-America as a whole. Mixed folk deserve to have their stories told as much as any other racial group, and I don't feel as if we have to choose between anyone to reach common ground. The point of representation is to have representatives from all along the spectrum, to establish the idea that there is a myriad of experiences from which there are stories to tell.
Zoe: I think people have the right to represent themselves however they identify themselves, the way I have the right to represent being Korean as well as being American. A wide spectrum of countries, cultures, and backgrounds make up our beautiful Asian-American community. Half-Asians have unique experiences and their stories are just as important as any other. That said, I think sometimes it can depend on the material, intent and circumstance.
Sylvia: It's hard to put such pressure on any actor or filmmaker to represent any group of people. However, I feel that Asian's that are mixed and/or from an adopted family are no less Asian than me, Jen, or Zoe. We should all support each other, otherwise, we will end up self-sabotaging the movement! As for "White-Presenting", we all come from different backgrounds and different families and, despite what people think, we also look very different. We need a spectrum or roles out there for us from "white" to "Asian"!
Alex: What do they think the Asian-American community can actively do to combat white-washing, yellow-facing, etc.?
Jen: Keep making art. Good art. Succeed so much at your art form that people can't help but notice. Tell the story of your experience in the way that only you know how. Call out injustice when you can, and support your community as much as possible. Make it a priority to advocate for representation, because your voice matters and can uplift many others.
Zoe: Speak up and resist, together. We are no longer a silent minority and it’s up to us to make sure the industry (and rest of America) hear us. Support Asian-American artists and their work. If you’re an artist, be an advocate for our stories and tell your story truthfully. Lastly, despite how small the market for Asians in Hollywood might seem, understand that it’s not a competition. We need to stick together to create an undeniable demand.
Sylvia: We can do a few things: Create: We need to create our roles for ourselves and keep hustling until we can't be ignored. Write, Direct, Act, Produce, anything! Boycott: Don't watch the shows and movies that have got it all wrong or have all white casts when they could have easily included many different people. I'm tired of watching trailers and seeing White White White. Nope. I'm only giving my money to things that I actually want to see more of. Educate: Point out the problem to people and explain why it bothers you and why inclusion is important. Support: Share videos like Jen and Zoe's. Give money or time if you can. Lift people up and praise them when they get it right.
Alex: Do you have any future projects you are working on?
Jen: Acting-wise, I'm working on a piece for Hollywood Fringe (where I tend to perform every year) and will soon rehearse for a piece that's going to China at the end of this year. Content-creation-wise, it remains to be seen. Me and Zoe are definitely open to the idea of creating more of these videos should inspiration come up again.
Zoe: I’m also working on a piece for the Hollywood Fringe Festival! It’s called The King’s Language, and it’s a historical one-act dramedy performed by an all-Asian cast. There’s traditional Korean music, movement, singing but spoken primarily in English – a fun canvas of colors with an inspiring message at its center (more info can be found at: http://hff17.com/4503). Aside from that, I’m finishing up a script for a feature film that I’ll shoot next summer and starting development for a full-length play. Both stories centered on Asian-American characters, of course! I’ll also be headed to Rutgers University in New Jersey this fall to start my training for an acting MFA.
Sylvia: I'm writing, producing, and directing strong female-led narratives through the production house VKTRY Creative. We write leads that are women of color and that are multidimensional characters. We also support other artists in any way we can. I am also an actor.
Alex: Any words of advice for the Asian-American actor?
Jen: You matter, and your dream matters. Keep going. See you around.
Zoe: Do you (no but really). Work on your craft and blind people with your talent until they’re color-blind. And don’t you dare quit.
Sylvia: Don't create boundaries for yourself and don't allow anyone else to create them for you.
Thank you ladies for being part of the solution! Rise up my fellow Asian-American actors. Let’s keep fighting until we are heard and represented in this crazy industry! Special thanks to Melissa Slaughter for making this interview happen!