Why Keiko Agena Thinks Asian Representation in Hollywood Has Reached a New Frontier (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images
Keiko Agena has been doing the Hollywood thing for a while, but this year marked the first time she was taken aback by the surge of Asian success in mainstream pop culture.
“I've always been asked the question of, 'Do you feel like it's getting better over the years for Asian representation in Hollywood?' and I have always said, 'Well, it's better than it has been, but we have a long way to go,’” Agena tells ET. “I swear to God, this month was the first time where I was so surprised.”
The 44-year-old actress, best known for playing the quirky Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls, earned her first acting credit in 1993, the year the groundbreaking The Joy Luck Club was released in theaters. Two decades later and with dozens of credits to her name, Agena is still reaching new frontiers.
“My mind was blown as far as my own personal thinking of how I had sort of put gates around how big I thought Asians could be in the media,” she says of her reaction to the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians,Searchingand To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. “I was surprised by how well Crazy Rich Asians did, and I'm still absorbing what it could mean for the future because there isn't necessarily a feeling for what roles we could play. So I'm looking forward to it as much as everyone else is, as far as what the next two years could bring.”
For now, the Hawaii-born actress is focused on her new role in Hulu’s The First, in which she stars as Aiko Hakari, an astronaut attempting a dangerous mission to be one of the first people to colonize Mars.
It’s one of Agena’s first series regular roles since Gilmore Girls ended in 2007 (though she reprised her role as Lane in the 2016 Netflix revival). The actress filled her time with numerous guest spots -- and wrote her own book, No Mistakes: A Perfect Workbook for Imperfect Artists -- but says her time away from a series regular role wasn’t necessarily intentional.
“That’s probably too much credit,” she admits with a laugh. “I did appreciate getting to do a book in the time that I wasn't a series regular on a show, but maybe I'm not adverse to trying to do everything at once.”
“I'll try to write another book during this show,” she cracked. “Nothing will stop me!”
Agena has that strong will in common with her character, which was just one of the things that attracted her to The First. "It was such a whirlwind when I first heard about it... and definitely once I got the script, and dove into the lightly sci-fi aspect to it, I was completely hooked," she recalls. "I mean, [creator] Beau Willimon, just meeting him was fantastic, and I fell in love with the project right away."
“The idea that I could get to work on another show as a series regular, and such a quality show, I felt was such a gift,” she continues. “And one of the things that's so exciting to me is how many women are leads in the show, and how much science is a part of the show. They're strong, smart, scientific women in this, and that really gets me fired up.”
Sean Penn, Natascha McElhone and LisaGay Hamilton are just a few of the actors that comprise the ensemble cast of The First, which doesn’t shy away from bold women -- or broken ones. While the show is about a space mission, the astronauts’ races, genders, sexual orientations and familial relationships are just as big a part of the series. “A lot of the things that I gravitated to were the personal aspect,” Agena reveals. “We all have challenging family relationships, and trying to balance that between our dreams and what we feel compelled to do is, I think, a challenge that's easily relatable.”
“I get goosebumps when I see it,” she says. “I do get a little disheartened when you hear about how many girls get discouraged to not pursue a career in the sciences, and I feel like seeing women that are portrayed in this way, and beyond that, just three dimensional, complicated women, those are always going to be the stories that I gravitate to most.”
According to Agena, that dynamic was developed in the show writers’ room. “I think the reason why you're going to get these great portrayals of women is because the writing staff itself is so diverse, ethnically and with gender balance,” she notes, praising Willimon for his inclusion behind the camera. “There’s a lot of women and a lot of diversity there.”
As for whether the ambitious project -- a co-production between Hulu and U.K. network Channel 4 -- could continue pushing boundaries with a second season, Agena is hopeful.
“I hope there's a season two. I really want to see where this story goes,” she says. “I think there's a lot of stories to tell… So hopefully everyone will binge-watch it like crazy and we'll definitely get to do at least one more season.”
All eight episodes of The First are now streaming on Hulu.