18 Rising Asian American Stars Expanding Representation in Hollywood (and Beyond)
By Joyce Chen
It’s been more than 25 years since Asian Americans have taken center stage in a Hollywood film that was written by, directed by and cast entirely with an eclectic mix of Asian stars, both newcomers and movie legends alike. To put that into perspective, many of the younger Asian American audience members who will excitedly descend upon theaters to watch the Warner Bros. romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians when it opens Aug. 15 weren’t even born when Disney’s The Joy Luck Club, helmed by director Wayne Wang, debuted in 1993. (The film was based on Amy Tan’s novel of the same name, and raked in a respectable $32.9 million at the box office.)
In short, Asian American representation onscreen, onstage and even behind the scenes, in writers’ rooms and in directors’ chairs, has been more than lacking since Hollywood’s inception in 1911. During the 2015 awards season, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign brought much-needed attention to Hollywood’s largely lopsided, white-dominated playing field, but the echoes of that call for diversity have seemingly faded since then. Earlier this year, April Reign, the woman behind the viral hashtag, penned an editorial for Vanity Fair pointing out that “#OscarsSoWhite refers to all marginalized communities and is not about quotas but about asking inclusive questions when staffing films.… It is about operating outside of the same networks that have been used for years and instead providing opportunities to talented craftspeople from groups not usually included.”
Instead, over the past few years, many films based on stories that are largely centered around Asian characters have been whitewashed in casting, much to the chagrin of hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans who rarely ever see a face like theirs onscreen.
However, there have been some positive changes, especially on TV, with the success of Netflix’s Master of None, co-created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang; ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, starring Constance Wu; NBC’s Superstore, featuring a diverse cast of characters including three recurring performers of Asian descent; author Min Jin Lee's Pachinko being developed into a new Apple series; and Sandra Oh’s historic Emmy nomination for her lead role on BBC America’s Killing Eve. Following the news of becoming the first Asian actress nominated in a leading acting category, Oh said, “I share this moment with my community.”
'Crazy Rich Asians' Trailer: It's the Most Epic Meet-the-Family Weekend of All Time!
The release of Crazy Rich Asians is, perhaps, a historic sign of progress for the “movement,” as director Jon M. Chu calls it, toward more inclusive casting and storytelling, fewer stereotypes and tokenism. The film is based on Kevin Kwan's best-selling 2013 novel and follows the story of Rachel Chu (Wu), an economics professor who agrees to accompany her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. When she learns that he’s the heir apparent to one of the biggest fortunes in the world, however, she’s forced to come to terms with her own identity as an Asian American woman, removed from the fanfare of tradition and crazy rich wealth.
Ahead of the film’s release, Wu shared a heartfelt note with her fans via Twitter about the significance of Crazy Rich Asians, and how its manifestation is just the beginning. “My friend Ava DuVernay says, 'I work in an industry that really has no regard for my voice and the voice of people like me and so, what do I do? Keep knocking on that door or build your own house?’" she wrote. “My dear Asian American friends, we are building our own damn houses. We got the tools, the ability and we definitely got the style. Just because others don't see it, doesn't mean we don't have it. We do. I've seen it.”
Here, we’ve rounded up Asian American stars who are doing just that -- building their own damn houses -- for their current community and for generations yet to come.
1. Alan Yang, Writer/Creator
Yang’s burgeoning writing career began way back in college, when he was juggling biology courses at Harvard with writing for the university’s humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. Since then, he's co-created a hit Netflix series, the Emmy Award-winning Master of None, and is poised for more indie acclaim as co-creator of the dark comedy series Forever, starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, premiering on Amazon Sept. 14. Oh, and he made JAY-Z cry after directing the Friends parody music video for the rapper’s song “Moonlight.”
2. Ali Wong, Writer/Comedian
Wong’s first and second times were both a charm. Her Netflix stand-up specials Baby Cobra (2016) and Hard Knock Wife (2018) catapulted her into an echelon of success most comedians only dream of: New York Times profiles, chats with Ellen and writing and starring in the Netflix original film Always Be My Maybe. (Also starring Randall Park, the film is slated to premiere in 2019.) And somehow amid all that, she also wrote episodes for Fresh Off the Boat.
Awkwafina (nee Nora Lum) has been having quite the summer. The Queens-born rapper (Google her “My Vag” music video at your own risk) kicked off the hot heat season with the likes of Sandra Bullock, Mindy Kaling and Rihanna in Ocean’s 8 and is the ultimate scene-stealer in Crazy Rich Asians. In it, she plays Peik Lin, Rachel’s fast-talking, loyal best friend, with one-liners sure to make the rounds in schoolyards and break rooms alike.
4. Constance Wu, Actress/Activist
There’s no doubt that Wu’s role as Crazy Rich Asians protagonist Rachel will win over many, many hearts this summer, giving the Fresh Off the Boat actress a much-deserved boost into the leading lady stratosphere. She has been and continues to be an adamant activist for Asian American representation and telling stories that help to bring different experiences to light. “When you grow up without your face being a part of dominant culture, it changes things,” she said in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview.
5. Eddie Huang, Chef/Producer/TV Personality
Lawyer-turned-chef-turned-author-turned TV host Huang has always been known for doing things his way, and unapologetically so. His 2013 memoir Fresh Off the Boat was turned into the hit ABC sitcom starring Wu and Park; in 2016, he launched his own Viceland show, Huang’s World, which has the Anthony Bourdain prodigy traveling the world to learn about local history, culture and food; and next, the TV personality will partner with Propagate for a new series, Cash Only, which will explore and celebrate immigrant food culture.
6. Hiro Murai, Director
For a man who spends most of his time behind the camera, Murai’s work is best known for what he captures in front of it. The Emmy and MTV VMA-nominated director first made his mark executive producing and directing FX’s Atlanta and has since dabbled in directing episodes for a number of series, including the FX series, Snowfall and Legion, and HBO's Barry. He also famously directed the aesthetic masterpiece of a music video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Most recently, Murai signed a first look producing deal with FX Productions.
7. Ins Choi, Playwright/Actor
In 2011, Choi penned a play called Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean-owned convenience store in Toronto. After winning numerous accolades and touring Canada between 2013 and 2016, the play was adapted into a popular TV series for CBC Television that debuted in fall 2016. (It’s now streaming on Netflix in the U.S.) A second season of the show began airing in Canada in fall 2017, and the play debuted for a limited run in the States that same summer.
Han’s 2014 middle-school novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before chronicles a familiar, lovelorn coming-of-age story with one main difference: the protagonist is Lara Jean Song Covey, an Asian American girl trying to figure out the complexities of young love. The book was adapted into a Netflix movie starring Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor as Lara Jean set to debut Aug. 17, just two days after Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters, and is notable as one of the few rom-coms with an Asian American lead.
Gao’s wit and humor are seldom seen, but they’re often heard. The writer’s resume includes impressive gigs as a writer for Adult Swim’s animated hit Rick and Morty and as a co-host of “Whiting Wongs,” a podcast about race and writing that she helms with Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon. On the podcast, Gao offers insight into what it means to be a person of color in the TV and film industry, and Harmon largely listens. She is also set to write for Star Wars: Detours, a comedic animated TV series set to debut in 2019.
10. Jon M. Chu, Director
When Crazy Rich Asians debuts in theaters, it’ll be Chu’s biggest project to date. Prior to CRA, the director’s claims to fame included Step Up 2: The Streets, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Chu (and CRA author Kwan) famously turned down a seven-figure payday from Netflix to ensure the film got the full Hollywood treatment via Warner Bros., and it looks to be paying off: Chu earned the clout to move forward with a film about the recent Thai cave rescue to ensure that story won’t be whitewashed.
Tran garnered plenty of fans -- and haters -- when she tackled the role of feisty Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Backlash against her casting was swift and severe, with critics using racist and misogynistic language to bash the actress, so much so that she opted to delete all her social media accounts and posts. Star Wars veteran Mark Hamill and co-star John Boyega stood up for Tran and other co-stars forced off social media by trolls. However, she proved herself in the film and is slated to return for the current film series’ third installment.
12. Kevin Kwan, Writer
Kwan’s trilogy of novels -- Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, published between 2013 and 2017 -- launched a new realm of possibility for inclusive, nuanced depictions of Asian Americans in books and on the big screen. He’ll next be penning the script for a yet-to-be-titled series for Amazon Studios, a globe-trotting drama revolving around Hong Kong’s most influential and powerful family and their business empire. Sounds crazy rich.
13. Ki Hong Lee, Actor
After memorable but not-quite-leading roles on both the big screen and the small via the Maze Runner franchise and the Netflix hit Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Lee may be getting his leading man break with production company American High’s third feature, Looks That Kill. Lee will star alongside Brandon Flynn (13 Reasons Why) and Julia Goldani Telles (The Affair) in the film that tells the odd tale of 16-year-old Max Richards (Flynn), who is forced to live with a lethally attractive face.
14. Kumail Nanjiani, Writer/Actor
Nanjiani has gone from playing into stereotypes for HBO sitcom Silicon Valley to defying them on the big screen with 2017’s The Big Sick, which he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. The film, which also starred Zoe Kazan as Gordon, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2018. In hot demand, the actor is filming the untitled Men in Black spin-off, attached to a buddy cop film with John Cena, set to star and write the film My Beautiful Laundrette, and is developing the Apple anthology series Little America with Gordon.
15. Nico Santos, Actor
Santos previously told ET that it “baffles” his brain that he’s allowed to play “this gay, femme-y Filipino guy” for his role as Mateo Liwanag on NBC’s quirky sitcom Superstore, but with Crazy Rich Asians, Santos will show that he’s not only perfect for the part, he truly owns it. In the film, the Manila-born actor plays Oliver T’sien, the highly fashionable and highly opinionated “rainbow sheep” of the Young family. “It’s really mind-boggling to me when I think about where I started and where I am now,” Santos said. “It’s kind of insane.”
16. Ross Butler, Actor
Before Butler was making fans swoon as conflicted jock Zach Dempsey on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, he was a Disney Channel and CW actor, with roles on K.C. Undercover and Riverdale. Though he hasn’t graduated from high school just yet -- onscreen, anyway -- Butler is aware of the importance of being a role model for the younger generation of Asian Americans. “I want to teach them that they can be whoever they want to be,” he said in an interview with Rogue Magazine.
17. Vincent Rodriguez III, Actor
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rodriguez is changing up TV representation in more ways than one. The actor, who plays protagonist Rebecca Bunch’s (Rachel Bloom) ex-boyfriend Josh Chan, happens to be one of the rare love interests on network television who also happens to be Asian American. Rodriguez is also a rarity in that he’s an out gay actor playing a straight lead, a role that he doesn’t take lightly, and one that helps cement him as a change maker for Asian American representation in the media.
18. Young Jean Lee, Playwright
Lee is charting new territory with her recently debuted play Straight White Men as not only the first female Asian American playwright on Broadway, but also one with incredibly incisive, notably “uncomfortable” content and delivery. Though she’s written many plays before about the lives of Asian Americans, African Americans, feminists and evangelicals, this play marks the first time she’s tackling what she calls the “new ethnic group on the scene”: straight white men.