How Asian Actors Are Finally Breaking The Sidekick Stereotype

In 2014, Hollywood has made landmark strides in bringing more diversity to their programming. And, we're not just talking about women showrunners dominating at the Golden Globes, or the first transgender woman getting an Emmy nomination. A slew of Asian American actors are finally breaking into important roles in both film and television. Conrad Ricamora starred in the first gay sex scene featuring an Asian-American actor on ABC's boundary-pushing How To Get Away With Murder. Disney had a No. 1 box-office hit with Daniel Henney in the lead role of Big Hero 6. And, John Cho got the chance to play a romantic lead on a major network sitcom on ABC's Selfie. Sure, the series was canceled, but Hulu picked up the remaining episodes after outcry from thousands of fans. It's no secret that Hollywood has long struggled with a diversity problem, even going so far as whitewashing roles — i.e. casting white actors in roles intended for Asians, including in films like Cloud Atlas, Dragon Ball Z, and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
When there are roles for Asian-American guys, they're usually given parts that are stereotyped, emasculated, or both. Randall Park, star of The Interview and the upcoming ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, says he can relate. "Similar roles kept coming my way," he says of his start in the industry. "The lab technician, the doctor with one scene in the episode, crime shows set in Chinatown." While there has been some progress for women and black actors, Asian-Americans actors have struggled to find heftier parts and are rarely considered for starring roles or the romantic lead, let alone anything remotely sexy. In a recent study conducted by the University of Southern California, out of the 3,932 speaking characters evaluated from 600 popular films made between 2007 and 2013, only 4.4% were Asian. The same study found that Asian men were least likely to be depicted in a romantic relationship.
"It's been a gradual change that I've seen in the last few years," says Albert Kim, a writer for the Fox's Sleepy Hollow. "In television, there's a big commitment to diversity. Especially in recent years, you've seen a lot of hit shows with people of color as leads."
Chris Morgan, a Hollywood film producer and writer who's worked on the Fast & Furious franchise and 47 Ronin, says he believes it's just a matter of time before Asian-American men score major roles.
"We just need to get a major film with a rich, sexy [Asian-American male] character — that's going to be a moment that breaks doors open," he says. "We already have so many actors like Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O), Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), and Sung Kang (Fast and Furious) who are [doing that]."
Kim agrees, and says that he's impressed by the caliber of Asian-American actors in today's market. He recalls how John Cho nabbed the role of Andy Brooks on Sleepy Hollow, a role that originally came without a specific ethnicity attached to it. It's the same way Cho landed the role of Henry Higgs on Selfie, originally written for an older British guy. And, the same way that Ricamora won a recurring role on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder. "The guy who auditioned before me was white, the guy who auditioned after me was black," Ricamora says. "I did one scene with the casting intern and the tape circulated through to the director, to Shonda Rhimes, then the ABC team."
Ricamora's steamy onscreen sex scenes with one of the leads, played by Jack Falahee, got everybody buzzing. The actor has appeared in four episodes as a recurring guest, and he will play more of a major role when the series returns January 29. Rhimes, who's kept relatively silent when talking about race, sexuality, and gender casting in her shows, lashed out earlier this year after an infamous New York Times article called her an "angry black woman."
She later echoed her sentiments to The Hollywood Reporter in October. "I find race and gender to be terribly important; they're terribly important to who I am," she said. "But, there's something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it ... that pisses me off."
Ricamora said that working with Rhimes was a refreshing change from his experiences in audition circles where he'd be pigeonholed into playing specific, one-note roles.
"Instead of [the show] being about an Asian guy who has sex with his white boyfriend, or it being labeled a 'gay' situation, it was just about a couple in love," Ricamora says. "That in itself is progressive."
Growing up, Ricamora — who's half German/Irish, half Filipino — admitted that he also had a skewed outlook on masculinity and sexiness. "The standard of attractiveness had to do with being white," he says. "You could be the hottest Asian or black guy, but if you're not the white guy, you're almost less than or a second-class citizen. But, now people's perceptions of what is sexy is broadening. And, mine is too. I didn't have a lot of Asian-Americans to look up to, like, 'Oh, wow, he's hot,' or 'She's hot.'"
Daniel Henney, one of South Korea's biggest stars, can relate. Also half Asian (Irish and Korean), the 35-year-old was raised in Michigan in a predominantly white community.
"I grew up in a farm town and was the only Asian," he recalls. "So you looked at television for inspiration. Even then, there was nothing aside from martial artists and sidekicks with accents." Henney was on a modeling assignment in South Korea in 2005 when he was introduced to the producers of My Lovely Sam Soon. They cast him in the series, and he quickly became the country's biggest sex symbol. It was in Korea, Henney says, where he developed his acting chops.
“In Sam Soon, I was a terrible actor," he admits. "But, then I really fell in love with acting and learned the very craft. It was nice that I was able to make my mistakes while I was younger and in another country."
Henney began to receive international attention following his second film, My Father. That role helped land him his first major American film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where he played Agent Zero. "The role was originally written for a German," he says. "It's very common when I go into rooms that the character isn't written for an Asian-American, but they think they may like you so they bring you in."
Henney says that because of certain prejudices, it's a challenge landing those leading roles. "It's been that much more rewarding when you get the part," he says. "The Asian man has been desexualized, and [that's] something I always fought against. If you spend time in Asia, there's a lot of amazing male actors who are very sexy and talented."
Harry Shum Jr. is best known for playing Mike Chang on Fox's Glee. Originally a minor role, it was expanded because of his charismatic take on the part."If you are given that stereotypical role, make something out of it," Shum says. "Chang was molded into a character that wasn't there yet, but I made it specific. It could have easily gone [the stereotypical] direction."
The actor gained a huge Twitter following, and he has since wrapped up a major role in the Netflix feature Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Legend. Shum — who was discovered for the show while professionally dancing for the likes of Beyoncé, J.Lo, and Mariah Carey — says his unique upbringing is one reason for being able to expand outside of playing a typical Asian-American.
"I don't even know what that would mean," he says. "I was born in Costa Rica, so I never even considered myself Chinese. I had an identity crisis when I first moved here."
It was while growing up in San Francisco that he was able to find who he was.
"I always went outside my race and hung out with people who were different from me," he recalls. Which is one reason Shum doesn't focus too much on his ethnic background.
"John Cho is extremely admirable in that sense," he says. "On [Selfie], he's allowed to be in this world and be this dude who happens to be helping this horrible person. No one's looking or pointing out his race. I'm like, okay, there's this Asian-American lead that we need." Shum says that for Asian-American males to continue in Hollywood, actors in this demographic need to "step it up."
"I think the American audience is ready for good content no matter the face," he says. "If it's put out there and good and there's power behind it, there's no reason that an Asian-American won't be a leading male. As long as the person behind that lead is strong enough to carry the role and puts charisma into it, it will all fall into place. It's just a matter of time."
Times may be changing, but there's still a ton of room to grow. Until these guys can be in the same league as the Zac Efrons, Channing Tatums, and Matthew McConaugheys of this world, it's still an unfair playing field.
But, that has hardly deterred these actors. For Shum, it has only inspired him to work harder.
"When I first moved here and started getting into the business, an agent told me this: 'I hate to say it to you, but in this industry, it's 50% talent and 50% business,'" Shum says. "I was like, okay, I'm going to take that and I'm going to be 100% talent, but keep that 50% in mind. I always remember that even if they don't want you, or even if you don't fit that role, as long as you're making sure you're doing your part, everything will be good."
Ricamora wears Florsheim Tierney, available at Florsheim.
Shum wears Private Stock The Rainhill Slant Placket Cotton Shirt, $458; and The Mendip Silk and Linen Inseam Block Pant, $498, available upon request at Private Stock.

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