In a landmark year for Asian representation in American film and television, the peak of 2018 was the massive success of Crazy Rich Asians. Not only was it the first Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club 25 years earlier, but it was the highest-grossing romantic comedy released in the last decade.
But some of the key players involved in that surge — like Manny Jacinto, who plays Jason Mendoza on the hit NBC comedy The Good Place — told BuzzFeed News they hope that whatever gains were made in 2018 won’t be a flash in the pan, and that the momentum will carry through this year and beyond.
“I really do hope and fight for the fact that we keep this change going, or this shift happening, rather than just have it be an #AsianAugust that happened back in 2018,” Jacinto said.
The success of Crazy Rich Asians kicked off the hashtag #AsianAugust, which was popularized by the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) in reference to the success of the film Searching and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
But there was success beyond August. Last year saw the return of Sandra Oh with her Golden Globe–winning performance on the BBC America show Killing Eve. Network shows like The Good Place increased the amount of Asian leads on television, and the pioneering sitcom Fresh Off the Boat became the first network show with an Asian American cast to reach syndication.
And behind the camera, director James Wan helmed Aquaman, the most successful film in the expanded DC Comics cinematic universe, and Chloé Zhao made many “best films of 2018” lists with The Rider. Sandi Tan and Bing Liu were both considered top contenders for 2019 Best Documentary Oscar nominations for their films Shirkers and Minding the Gap, respectively, with Liu eventually making the final cut. Even in animation, projects like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Bao included Asian characters that were more than bit parts.
Last year was an especially big leap forward, when as recently as a 2016, a UCLA study showed that minorities made up less than 20% of all leads in both film and broadcast television.
In addition to Jacinto, BuzzFeed News talked to actors Lana Condor (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and Greta Lee (High Maintenance) about how their lives have changed, how they feel about #AsianAugust, and how they’re making sure the momentum stays strong in 2019.
“It’s really amazing to have kind of nurtured a community throughout this whole year because it makes me feel understood, and we’re all fighting for the same thing,” said Condor, who was born in Vietnam and adopted by a white American family.
There was already solidarity among fellow Asian actors before 2018, according to the trio, but 2018 only amplified it.
Jacinto, who is Filipino Canadian, said that after last year, “it’s less so becoming more competitive, and more so like, ‘Hey if he wins, we all win,’ because if his face gets shown, then they’re going to want more faces like that onscreen and change is going to happen.”
Lee and Condor said they’re excited to now see more roles for Asian actors that focus on normalizing the inclusion of their characters, rather than tokenizing them.
Lee, who is Korean American, finds power in characters that are viewed as people first, and not part of the self-congratulatory narrative that can sometimes come with including an actor of color.
Lee, for the most part, has found the most success taking on those types of roles, even when it’s as a guest star on Girls as Soojin, Homeless Heidi on High Maintenance, or an upcoming role in an episode of Comedy Central’s new show The Other Two. It’s a privilege, Lee said, she never has and never will take for granted.
At an earlier stage in her career, Condor echoes the same sentiment, citing her new show Deadly Class, where she plays the mysterious Saya, as an example of what she views as representation done right. She told BuzzFeed News at a Los Angeles screening of the show in early January that it does a “really good fucking job at doing representation in a way that just shows what the fucking world looks like.”
Part of the actors’ concerns with #AsianAugust lie within the discussion of normalization versus tokenism. Jacinto and Lee called the hashtag an effective “marketing tool,” but as Condor put it, “If you put it into one month, then we’re compartmentalizing, and we’re not normalizing everything.”
Still, it’s fair to say the pros of #AsianAugust have far outweighed the cons. From a business standpoint, Lee said that in 2018, “people were able to really acknowledge that there’s this huge gap in the industry in terms of showing Asians and Asian Americans.” So now, from a marketing sense, she said “people are looking for stuff that hasn’t been seen, and because Asians have literally not been seen ... practically speaking, it makes a lot of sense that people would be excited.”
Ultimately, money talks, but Condor and Jacinto cite folks dressing like their characters in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Good Place as meaningful ways fans have embraced feeling represented by them. Condor also added that she, like Netflix, sees her social media followers rapidly increasing after starring in a film that didn’t even have a theatrical run as another form of leverage for more representation.
“I say the follower increase is like ticket sales, so a follower is a [guaranteed] ticket,” she said.
But Lee said they aren’t resting on their laurels, because if anything, “the last year has revealed how far behind the status quo is in terms of representing us.”
“It feels like we’re playing catch-up, and there’s still a lot to go,” she said.
For instance, representation for South Asians actors hasn't had a prominent place in those conversations. But if Sundance, where films lead by actors Mindy Kaling and Geraldine Viswanathan were acquired by Amazon and Apple, respectively, is any indication, 2019 may be a good year for actors in that community as well.
As for Lee, Jacinto, and Condor, big things are already waiting for them in 2019. In addition to their current television shows, Jacinto and Condor will star in the highly anticipated sequels to Top Gun and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, respectively. Lee is headed in a different direction after Russian Doll, co-creating a pilot for HBO with former Girls writer Jason Kim called KTown.
Movies are also still in the picture for Lee, given how she voices one of the secret characters at the end of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
“2018 put [Asian actors] in a position where we can’t be ignored anymore, and so 2019, whether the industry likes it or not, we’re here to stay,” Condor said. “And we sell tickets and we get views...how can we be ignored? We can’t!”