Bet­ter luck in Hol­ly­wood

After strug­gling to find work be­yond stereo­types, they are be­com­ing more vis­i­ble in the US, where the mar­ket is big­ger

The Straits Times - - BRIEFING -

Asian-Aus­tralian ac­tors say there are few roles avail­able for them in Aus­tralia and those parts are of­ten an­cil­lary or based on out­dated stereo­types. Many of them are head­ing straight to Los An­ge­les and suc­ceed­ing, like Chris Pang in the box-of­fice hit Crazy Rich Asians.

MEL­BOURNE • They have found a home in Hol­ly­wood, ap­pear­ing in some of the big­gest films and tele­vi­sion shows of the year.

But on a balmy evening l ast month, sev­eral young AsianAus­tralian ac­tors were re­lax­ing to­gether in a place where they are rarely recog­nised – the coun­try where they grew up.

Over beers at a rooftop bar in Mel­bourne, they were re­flect­ing on their year’s work.

“It’s the most I have ever au­di­tioned,” said John Har­lan Kim, 25, a Korean-Aus­tralian ac­tor who moved to the United States five years ago and re­cently wrapped a four-sea­son stint on The Li­brar­i­ans.

Chris Pang, 34, who ap­peared in last year’s box-of­fice hit Crazy Rich Asians, agreed. “Right now, di­verse con­tent is sell­ing and it’s hot,” he said. “It’s now or never. We’ve got to keep the mo­men­tum go­ing.”

For many of Aus­tralia’s most lauded white ac­tors, mak­ing a name for them­selves at home was a crit­i­cal mile­stone on the way to suc­cess in Hol­ly­wood.

But Asian-Aus­tralian ac­tors say there are few roles avail­able for them in Aus­tralia and those parts are of­ten an­cil­lary or based on out­dated stereo­types.

So many Asian-Aus­tralian ac­tors are head­ing straight to Los An­ge­les – and suc­ceed­ing.

There is still much to over­come. Many ac­tors of Asian de­scent say they con­tinue to be over­looked, es­pe­cially for ma­jor roles. And yet for some, this feels like a mo­ment of prom­ise.

The world­wide suc­cess of Crazy Rich Asians and crit­i­cally ac­claimed per­for­mances by Asian-Amer­i­can ac­tors, in­clud­ing San­dra Oh (Killing Eve, 2018 to present) and Lana Con­dor (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Be­fore, 2018), has cre­ated an in­cen­tive for more di­verse casts as Hol­ly­wood (parts of it, at least) seems to be learn­ing that mul­ti­cul­tural en­ter­tain­ment is good for busi­ness.

Ac­cord­ing to a study last year by the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les (UCLA), the top-gross­ing global films in­creas­ingly have casts that are in­creas­ingly di­verse, even though the ma­jor­ity is white.

“Films with casts that were from 21 to 30 per cent mi­nor­ity en­joyed the high­est me­dian global box-of­fice re­ceipts and the high­est me­dian re­turn on in­vest­ment,” the study said.

Ac­cord­ing to UCLA, the per­cent­age of films with pre­dom­i­nantly white casts fell to 37 per cent in 2016, from 51 per cent in 2011.

Also in 2016, the most re­cent year for which there is com­pre­hen­sive data, Asian ac­tors ap­peared in 3.1 per cent of Hol­ly­wood film roles, com­pared with 12 per cent for black ac­tors and 78 per cent for whites.

Asian-Aus­tralian ac­tors, in par­tic­u­lar, are be­com­ing more vis­i­ble.

Malaysian-Aus­tralian ac­tor Jor­dan Ro­drigues ap­peared in the 2017 hit Lady Bird.

Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who grew up in Syd­ney, ap­peared in The Great­est Show­man (2017) and Ho­tel Mum­bai (2018).

Remy Hii, who was in Crazy Rich Asians, will star in the next Spi­der­Man film; and Des­mond Chiam is set to star in Reef Break, a crime thriller to air in the United States this year on ABC.

Their suc­cess over­seas in such a wide range of roles has am­pli­fied a con­ver­sa­tion in Aus­tralia about whether the coun­try’s en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try needs to be more in­clu­sive.

It has been a par­tic­u­larly busy year for Pang. Be­sides his role in Crazy Rich Asians, he pro­duced a drama called Empty By De­sign and wrapped up film­ing for an up­com­ing Char­lie’s An­gels re­boot.

But suc­cess, he said, was hard­fought and hap­pened only when he was will­ing to leave Aus­tralia.

Pang, who is of Tai­wanese and Chi­nese de­scent, started act­ing more than 10 years ago after a job as a tele­phone sales­man landed him at the door of a cast­ing agency.

Agency staff mem­bers bought three phones and asked if he could do a Chi­nese ac­cent. Sud­denly, he was be­ing paid for a voice-over in the Jackie Chan film New Po­lice Story (2004).

Soon after, he trav­elled around China and Hong Kong look­ing for roles. Even­tu­ally, he landed what looked like a break­through turn in To­mor­row, When The War Be­gan, a dystopian ac­tion film that be­came Aus­tralia’s high­est-gross­ing movie in 2010.

But Pang strug­gled to find work after that. In 2013, a cast-mate per­suaded him to move to Los An­ge­les.

“I def­i­nitely wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t make that move,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to some in­dus­try in­sid­ers, it is not that Hol­ly­wood is nec­es­sar­ily more open-minded; it is just big­ger.

“If we get any­one of even (the small­est tal­ent), they jump ship”, said Mr Adam Ross, chair­man of the Aus­tralian Film Crit­ics As­so­ci­a­tion.

One rea­son work is hard to find in Aus­tralia, he said, is sim­ply due to a smaller, younger and less lu­cra­tive film in­dus­try.

The US film in­dus­try and mar­ket is “an in­fin­itely big­ger ma­chine”, he said. “There’s prob­a­bly only half a dozen stu­dio films, com­pared with half a hun­dred in Amer­ica.”

Some in­dus­try gate­keep­ers are be­gin­ning to take note.

Gov­ern­ment agen­cies like Screen Aus­tralia are mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to fund di­verse pro­gram­ming. Broad­cast­ers like SBS are air­ing shows like The Fam­ily Law, which fol­lows the tra­vails of a Chi­nese-Aus­tralian fam­ily.

But still, ac­cord­ing to Screen Aus­tralia’s 2016 re­port, non-white ac­tors ap­pear on TV and in movies at about half the rate they are present in the pop­u­la­tion.

In­creas­ingly, those who want to see their sto­ries told are tak­ing film-mak­ing into their own hands.

“Some­times, you have to just do it your­self,” said Matthew Vic­tor Pas­tor, a Filipino-Aus­tralian di­rec­tor.

In­spired by a trip to Los An­ge­les in 2017, he has writ­ten and di­rected six largely in­de­pen­dent fea­ture films in the past 18 months.

“It’s about see­ing those faces,” he said. “It’s about see­ing those sto­ries. It has a lot of weight.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF BAIHAKKI KHAIZAN

PHOTO: NY­TIMES

Chris Pang(far left), who ap­peared in box-of­fice hit Crazy Rich Asians, with John Har­lan Kim (left), who had a four-sea­son stint on The Li­brar­i­ans.

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