A few years ago, when I was still pretty new to the industry, I was called in to audition for a role that required an “Asian woman” with improv skills. The only information I had been given was a list of star names attached to the project and a very vague description of the scene. But I was just happy to be going to an audition. When I got there, the casting assistant handed me some sides labeled “Asian nail salon technician” and said, “This is a comedy…so an accent would be good.” My pre-audition happiness immediately became internalized audition rage because they were basically asking for a cartoonish Asian accent. Let’s just say the audition didn’t go so well.
Had I known I’d be reading for a stereotypical character with two lines — the accent being the butt of the jokes — I would have had my agent pass on the project. But as an Asian-American actor, I can’t afford to pass on every audition that calls for an “Asian accent,” especially when the roles are good. The problem is, I can’t really do one.
I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Silicon Valley. My parents are from Taiwan. So although I am of Chinese descent, people have compared the way I talk to MTV’s Daria or Ellen Page in Juno. I sound very American. At my very best, I might be able to do a bit of a Korean accent or a Hong Kong–British-sounding one. I’m not proud of my inability to do a Chinese accent, but then, I don’t see my white actor friends mastering the distinctions among French, Spanish, or German accents either.
And what is an “Asian accent” anyway? Mandarin? Cantonese? Japanese? Filipino? Vietnamese? Korean? Hindi? If a casting director doesn’t bother to specify, there’s a good chance I can get away with my personal, made-up Asian accent. And there’s always the possibility that the role is a roughly drawn — potentially racist — caricature.
For that reason, Korean-American actor Randall Park has said he avoids roles with accents, and even asked the producers of Fresh Off the Boat if his character’s one was necessary. But the real-life basis of the character has a Taiwanese accent, so Park worked “really hard” to improve the accuracy of his version over the course of the season. “Because the character speaks with an accent, it’s important to me the character not be stereotypical,” Park said in an interview with the Center for Asian American Media. “I never want to play caricature.”
When I read interviews like that, I know I’m not alone and that times are changing. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a good example of writing that takes a caricature and flips it. On the surface, the show’s delivery guy Dong, played by Ki Hong Lee, is an Asian stereotype portrayed with a questionable Vietnamese accent. The good news, though, is that he — spoiler — becomes Kimmy’s love interest, which opens up a door to Dong’s character development on the show. Jimmy O. Yang’s thick accent, as Silicon Valley’s Jian-Yang, mostly just says “foreign,” but I hear there’s more character development in store for Jian-Yang this season. Plus, Kumail Nanjiani’s accent, as Dinesh, is an only slightly dialed-up version of the Pakistani actor’s speaking and standup voice.
As for me, this pilot season, I’ve had all sorts of auditions — from roles “open to all ethnicities” to roles written specifically for Asian-Americans (in fact, one character breakdown specified “she speaks with an American accent,” which made me crack up, yet appreciative). I’ve also had many opportunities to portray substantial characters who should have an Asian accent — and that’s where my lack of accent gets a little bit tricky. But I need to suck it up and put myself out there as best as I can, because otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity.
One time, a casting director redirected me to do an even thicker accent because the character was supposed to be recently emigrated from China. Gulp. I would prefer that I could do an authentic accent in my repertoire, but until I’m able to spend time learning a real Chinese accent, my makeshift Korean/Hong Kong–British accent is what I have to work with. And in Hollywood, being of Chinese descent doesn’t preclude playing North Korean, Japanese, Hawaiian, etc. — and taking a stab at those accents as well. In preparation for a role that required a North Korean accent, I found a few TED Talk videos with North Korean refugees and spent time listening, repeating, and trying to make it my own the night before the audition. But there’s only so much I can do. And I’d rather not let an accent affect my ability to live that character’s life. Accent or no accent, I have to be the best actor that I can be.
In that respect, we Asian-American actors have some more work to do than our white counterparts, especially if we want to avoid perpetuating the stereotypes that keep us in a limited array of roles, like the nail technicians and delivery men who swap their R's and L's. When it comes to meatier roles that require an Asian accent, I catch myself thinking they should just cast someone from Asia who can speak English. Then I remember, hey, I’m an actor, and it’s an opportunity to stretch myself. I’m grateful these roles exist at all and that Asian-American actors are owning them during this season of change.