Major strides (25 years ago)
Twenty-five years ago, an Asian American industry movement seemed imminent. I was young and returned from Hong Kong as the lead in Clara Law’s Wonton Soup. Major strides were being made with the successful releases of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Map of The Human Heart, The Joy Luck Club, All-American Girl (highest-ranked new series of the season), and Vanishing Son.
My acting success was directly entwined with this movement. From summer ’93 to spring ’94, I booked a high-profile indie film, big-budget commercial film, sweeps-period telefilm, Star Trek: TNG guest star (which was just plain cool), and the pilot episode of Margaret Cho’s ground-breaking series as a would-be suitor. My career was taking off and dreams were tantalizingly achievable. Success seemed right around the corner!
However, despite the nation’s readiness to embrace Asian American actors on the large and small screens, the overall failure of All-American Girl – due to the network’s mishandling of Margaret Cho, unenlightened writing, and negative community reaction – brought everything to a screeching halt. The proverbial balloon popped and studios and networks reverted back to tried-and-true non-inclusive projects.
Popped balloons and fears of backlash
Over the next decade, though, I remained optimistic as I continued to land guest star roles, buoyed by the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition’s efforts to increase diversity on both sides of the camera—but my career eventually plateaued as momentum proved elusive for an Asian American actor in Hollywood. Along with being considered “too manly” and often hearing “we’re not going that way,” I sadly discovered that white writers hesitated to write POC-specific roles because they feared backlash from advocacy groups and feigned ignorance due to their lack of life experience.
Yet, I persisted in following my passion and overall conditions continued to improve with the help of various initiatives (internships, showcases, staffing mandates, etc.), but this forced transition of inclusive change often resulted in feelings of marginalization on staffs and in writers rooms. Some actors did find success as series regulars or supporting leads, but more often than not diversity and inclusion were reflected in the delivery guy, the nurse, or the silent extras in the background. By that time, I reached an age where I just fell through the cracks.
Thus, as an Asian American actor, my optimism waned. I lost confidence that the industry would undergo real and meaningful change, not even allowing me the ability to provide for my growing family. So I left Hollywood.
Business mandates, game-changers, and new optimism
Fast forward in my absence, social media and streaming content begin to wreak havoc on the Hollywood landscape. Tinseltown undergoes a seismic transformation, becoming an ultra-modern Wild West with seemingly unlimited access points and distribution outlets. Decision-makers are forced to adapt or be left behind. Content creators and viewers’ voices demand change on a viral level, and the small screen responds for Asian Americans with the shows Selfie, Fresh Off the Boat, and Dr. Ken.
This piques my interest.
No longer begrudging obligations, diversity and inclusion become business mandates; game-changers like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Jumanji, and Black Panther, as well as Moonlight and Get Out all show that diversity sells, while projects that whitewash take huge hits on social media and at the box office.
My hope, optimism, and fire return as I witness my sisters and brothers making huge strides in the industry and am now fascinated by the amount of content made available to view — absolutely dwarfing what once was. If you want to see yourself reflected on the small screen, no problem: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and seemingly countless other streaming services will provide. The days of force-fed shows are over and many of us have no desire nor patience to watch what doesn’t reflect our world.
Enter Crazy Rich Asians.
First major studio film to feature an all Asian and Asian-American cast in 25 years. Billboards, posters, and trailers can be found everywhere. There is a palpable buzz within the Asian American community. It’s set to succeed.
But this OG Asian American actor has felt this buzz before, and the ghosts of yesteryear creep in.
All eyes are on Crazy Rich Asians to see if an Asian American project can sell on the big screen. Early casting controversies regarding actors’ ethnicities hearken back to community in-fighting with All-American Girl. Unrealistic comparisons are made to box office smash-hit Black Panther — unfair because it sets the film up for failure: not an option.
Crazy Rich Asians is not our Black Panther. It is not an action-packed superhero film from a company that has churned out, with dizzying regularity, major blockbusters with stratospheric budgets and box office numbers.
Crazy Rich Asians is a smart, funny, and touching rom-com, and yes, a historic moment with the weight of a community’s prospects on its shoulders (ridiculous since other filmmakers, celebrities, and producers are allowed to fail repeatedly, confident that a box office or ratings hit will eventually emerge).
Let it be so.
Crazy Rich Asians willsucceed. It will meet opening week $26+ million box office expectations and smash overall projections, paving the way for many other diverse and inclusive projects to get greenlit, until eventually the words “historic” and “groundbreaking” will cease to be ethnic labels.
I’m excited to have timed my return with this period of real and optimistic change.
Mr. DeMille, this Asian American actor is ready for his close-up.
Go. See. Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a Movement!
Tim Lounibos has been a professional Asian American Film/TV actor since 1993.
Previously: Development Director for aMedia, Producer of the Ammy Awards, Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, and Business Administrator for East West Players. Currently, recurring on the upcoming season for Amazon Studios’Bosch.