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On Gilmore Girls, Keiko Agena's Lane Kim wasn't exactly one-dimensional. She had a complicated family life, several love interests and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, from ABBA to Zappa.
But in certain ways -- some that have come into sharper focus in recent years, as the film and television industry holds a larger lens up to representation and diversity -- Lane, best friend to Alexis Bledel's Rory Gilmore, was pigeonholed, characterized by certain racial and religious cues that limited her from ever being a fully realized character.
"She did everything for everybody else," Agena reflected during ET's recent panel discussion, "A Conversation of Culture: AAPI." "She was very subservient to her mom, and she became a wife and a mother very early, and she was the best friend. She was the selfless-- someone else's best friend. I don't know. That's how I feel about her now. It's not how I felt about her then."
The actress sat down with Margaret Cho, Jeannie Mai and Asif Ali for the virtual panel, hosted by ET's Denny Directo earlier this month, where the group shared a candid and emotional chat about what being Asian means to them, how their distinct upbringings informed their career paths, the state of representation of Asian culture in mainstream media (and beyond) and how allies can join the fight against anti-Asian racism.
With nearly 15 years of separation from her time playing Lane -- save for her appearances in the Netflix miniseries Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life -- Agena admitted she's come to feel differently about the character, who was, at the time, one of the few recurring Asian characters on TV.
"I'm much more protective of her now," she shared. "At the time, I was just in survival mode. I wasn't thinking about anything, but now, when I think about her, I sort of wish something better for her."
In addition to Lane's accommodating "best friend" characterization, Agena says she's also struggled with the fact that both she and Emily Kuroda, who played Lane's mother, Mrs. Kim, were representing an AAPI experience that wasn't their own. Both actresses are Japanese American, while their characters were Korean American. (Specifically, the character of Lane, her Adventist upbringing and family dynamic were based on Gilmore Girls producer Helen Pai, a friend of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who is Korean American.)
"I think one of two things would happen [if the show were being made now]," Agena offered. "If they wanted to keep it Korean American, I think in today's world, they would have cast Korean American. If they liked Emily and I, my guess is that they would have changed it to Japanese American. That's my guess about that. That would be the biggest difference."
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The actress was clear, however, that she still appreciates many things about playing Lane -- even the "tiger mom" dynamic between mother and daughter that she got to play with Kuroda.
"I kind of think that extreme is funny," she noted of the character of Mrs. Kim, who has occasionally been criticized as an unflattering stereotype of Asian mothers. "Maybe I'm in the minority in this, but I hope we don't only get Asian characters that are well-balanced. I want to see the fricking nutty person that believes so strongly in something that it's detrimental to their lives. That's fun to play, and it's fun to watch."
The problem comes, Agena said, when the "tiger mom" is the only kind of Asian mother audiences get to see. "It would be better if we had others... If this wheel was 360, so we saw a lot of different relationships," she added.
That push to show many different types of Asian characters, and the renewed energy to bring AAPI voices to the forefront, has reinvigorated the actress' outlook on the types of projects and roles she pursues now.
"The need is happening right now. I used to think, 'It would be nice when we can have leads and three-dimensional characters and whole families of Asian descent for the general public. It's not a 'nice to have.' It's a 'must to have,'" she said. "It feels very present right now. There's a rawness. All of that energy is pushing me to feel more and demand more and expect more for myself from what we write, how we support each other, what we demand from the people that we work with and what we want to see."