Passing Strange

Facing a tough industry, some Asian Americans in Hollywood leverage their ethnic ambiguity

April 16, 2010

Actress Janina Gavankar on the set of a video shoot. (Photo by Ejen Chuang)

FOR MOST ACTORS, it all begins on a high school stage. The sky’s the limit: Productions like Grease, The Sound of Music and A Streetcar Named Desire aren’t cast with the same limited palette as they are in Hollywood. Instead, it’s about acting chops. The teenager onstage playing Stella, Stanley or even Blanche may well be a person of color.

However, the range of available roles shrinks considerably after the transition to Hollywood, especially for Asian American actors. In 2008, according to the Screen Actors Guild, 72.5 percent of all theatrical and television roles were white, while Asian/Pacific Islander roles amounted to 3.8 percent.

But an exception holds certain for some Asian American actors — those with mutable features who can “pass” for a variety of ethnic roles. Keanu Reeves, whose roots include Hawaiian and Chinese on his father’s side, has played mostly white characters outside of his surprising role as Siddhartha in Little Buddha. Alternatively, Lou Diamond Phillips, whose background includes Filipino, Scottish Irish and Native American, has played an ethnically diverse range of characters. His most famed roles have been Latino — Ritchie Valens in La Bamba and Angel in Stand and Deliver — but he has also played Inuit, Thai and white. With résumés of roles that reflect a cultural hodgepodge, these actors’ careers make us wonder what it’s like to be an ethnically ambiguous performer in Hollywood.

For actress Janina Gavankar, of Indian Dutch descent, her part as Maria in a high school production of West Side Story was what encouraged her to pursue acting. “I had been training as a classical pianist, percussionist and vocalist, but when it came to becoming a different person, that was the thing that changed it all for me,” she says. In her acting career, where it’s easier for her to list races and ethnicities she hasn’t played, ethnicity has never been an issue for her. “I was born with a freakish face and I can change my face into different people. I went to theater school and learned how to use makeup. Not a lot of people can do that; I am definitely aware of how lucky I am.”

Still, competition is fierce. Gavankar explains the typical character breakdown of a television casting call: “Let’s say it’s a show with five girls on it. The first one is Caucasian, 21 to 25, hot, witty. Second one, 21 to 25, African American. Third one, 21 to 25, [Latina]. Then [for the other two characters], it’s ‘submit all ethnicities,’ which is a term that means all three of those and everyone else. That’s where I fit, though sometimes they’ll let me get into the [Latina] game. So not only are you beating out every single one of those three [races], you’re also beating out everyone else in the ‘other’ category to get that role.”

Filipino actor Brian Rivera, whose career has largely been in theater, has played every ethnicity from Ecuadorian to Tibetan. But as he focuses on landing more film and television roles, he often gets called in for Latino roles. “I have a Spanish surname so I guess that’s the way they market me,” he says. In an upcoming episode of the NBC medical show Trauma, Rivera delivers all his lines in Spanish. “They were mainly calling for older Latino actors; so when I got called in, I was a little bit surprised, but I was down for it.”

And what of the criticism that these roles should go to actors who share the characters’ ethnic backgrounds? “I totally understand that because if there were a Filipino role out there, which is a rarity, I would really want someone Filipino going for it,” Rivera says. “If that weren’t possible, I would hope that person proves enough integrity for the character. That’s something I strive for playing all these different ethnicities.”

Gavankar, whose most recognizable Hollywood role has been Latina lothario Papi on The L Word, also understands the criticism. However, she says, “anyone who’s criticized me for playing a [Latina] role should also be criticizing me for playing someone who’s gay, or someone who’s from L.A. instead of Chicago or the million other things about her that are different than I am.”

For both actors, ethnicity is just one facet of their characters. “When I think about building a human, if you will, I don’t necessarily think about their ethnicity,” Gavankar says. “I don’t think the characters I’ve been hired for are obsessed with their ethnicity. … I build them based on what they’re going through in their life and someone who’s [Latina] isn’t going to have the same universal themes in their life than someone who’s East Asian, African American or Irish.”

Having a versatile look has drawbacks, too. Gavankar lost a show post-L Word because network heads couldn’t see beyond Papi. “The casting directors and creator of the show fought for me. It was a perfect fit, but the head of the network decided that I was too urban,” Gavankar says.

While neither actor has played stereotypical roles onscreen, it’s not off the table either. “I think I’d have to, as far as the game goes,” Rivera says. Gavankar adds, “I’d like to be working 20 years from now on material I want to work on. To be able to do that, I need to gain the respect and earn the right to play these roles.”

For Gavankar, she says, “I would definitely turn down something that I think is a gross generalization of any human, but it’s not like we’re so in demand yet that we can be the one that chooses.”

The tide does seem to be changing, albeit in small increments, toward more open casting. Cable channel ABC Family maintains an open casting policy in which roles are available to actors of all ethnicities (excluding roles that require a specific ethnicity), and Rivera is particularly heartened by the recent success of Ken Jeong, who has appeared in comedy hits both in theaters (Knocked Up, The Hangover) and on primetime (NBC’s Community).

Ethnically ambiguous actors need only look to the career of Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian and English descent, for encouragement. Kingsley has received four Oscar nominations for roles of varying ethnicities (Jewish, Iranian, English and Indian), winning Best Actor for his role in Gandhi. And Gavankar, once thought to be “too urban” by network execs, has joined the cast of The Gates, ABC’s new drama about a gated community with supernatural residents. It airs this summer. “I think people in this industry are realizing there are some really good actors in this community,” Gavankar says. “Good work begets more work. I think we’re just creating it for ourselves by being consistently good.” 

Gloria Kim is a Brooklyn, NY-based writer and designer. This is her first piece for Hyphen.

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