Republished with permission from Projekt NewSpeak.
Ever since I moved to Los Angeles from Williamsburg, VA over two months ago, I’ve been living my dream of becoming a social justice activist and actor. During my time here so far, I’ve been able to accomplish my goal of being an activist and within the APA community in this city, I’ve been able to meet wonderful folks that share my passion and for that, I am blessed.
Things haven’t been too shabby being an actor as well and today, I got my first break at Hollywood with a background role in the movie Young Americans starring Topher Grace and being a guy totally new to the entertainment business, it was exciting because not only did it pay, I get a SAG voucher for it. (To go into what SAG means will be cumbersome, so go look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t know and are really curious.) When the casting person dealing with the extras took one look at me and told me that I was assigned to the Math Olympians club, I was not surprised nor was I upset. Why?
Before I go any further, I must recount to you a conversation I had with my good friend back when I was at the College of William & Mary. Our discussion was about the limit we draw for ourselves in the roles we accept and the roles that we reject. My friend stated the honest truth that as a black actor, he could be casted as a urban street thug or an HIV-afflicted drug dealer. For me as an Asian, I could be casted as a math geek/computer expert, Yakuza thug, or a grocery store owner. If these roles are offered to us, do we reject them simply because they are stereotypical to our respective ethnicities? At first, I was hesitant to accept these roles if it would perpetuate the harmful stereotypes that Asian Pacific Americans have already but my friend makes an argument that if we feel so strongly about them, perhaps it is our duty as an actor to take these roles and make it our own. We infuse our own unique personalities so that we make our mark in the roles and thus we can leave the set proudly with satisfaction and a good paycheck coming in our mail a week later.
I will say though that I didn’t take the assignment without having a light-hearted yet poignant response to the lady who inherently thought that all Asians are good at math. So I responded in sly humor:
Me: “But I actually suck at math.”
Extras casting director: “….You’re not actually doing math.”
Me: “I know, I know, I’m just messing with ya.”
For the first time, I felt the slight hand of Hollywood and its over simplistic ways. The main character, played by Topher Grace, would have a yearbook picture where he’s in the Math Olympians club with all the “real” members being Asians. White guy in math club with all Asians! *Insert canned laughter*
Fortunately, through the act of fate or sheer coincidence, there was another white guy who was assigned to the Math Olympian club, much to the dismay of the extras casting director (I also learned that show business is hella messy and most of the times, the crew really don’t know what they’re doing so the actors just have to follow along).
Fortunately, not all the Asian actors on set were relegated to being math nerds as there was one Japanese actor who played the part of a stoner. Rock on, my stoner man.
When it came to do the photo shoots for the Math Olympian yearbook scene, I thought about my conversation with my friend and I applied it to where I was now. To be an activist and to be an actor can often collide with each other and it was in this moment that I needed to figure out how to balance both of my passions. I decided that if I was to be a math nerd, I would be the most attitude-filled badass Asian math nerd there was. If these yearbook montage shots actually make it into the movie, you will see me with a Gene Simmons KISS expression while holding up Topher Grace on one of my shoulders. As a starting actor, I must realize that I cannot say no to every role that is based on a stereotype, not especially if it’s a role that I can make my own. This is after all, Hollywood, the industry most infamously known for churning out non-stop remakes and sequels and casting Caucasians to play, well, everybody.
The movie comes out on January 28th, 2011, and while many more yearbook montage scenes were shot with me (there’s one with me in a graduation gown doing a high five with Topher, me dancing with a girl for senior prom, and me hanging out with a group of friends), there may be a chance that none of these will actually be in the movie. Or it may just be the Math Olympians scene and audience members will once again be hit in the face that all Asians are math nerds. Except that there will be one Asian guy who’s doing the KISS, Gene Simmons style. That guy will be me.