“We’re here, and we can play all sorts of roles”: Julia Cho on Acting and Asian American Representation -The Toast

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How important is it to see people like you in the media you consume? For your children to see themselves? Thanks to Claudia Kim’s brief but welcome appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the bewildering decision to cast white actress Emma Stone as “1/4 Hawaiian, 1/4 Chinese” Allison Ng in Aloha, the issue of Asian/Pacific Islander visibility in pop culture has been on my mind more than usual. I wanted to know what this lack of representation — and the slow but (one hopes) steady ascent to better representation — looks like to someone inside the industry. My friend Julia Cho kindly agreed to chat with me about her experiences as an up-and-coming actor in theatre and television, why she believes representation is important, and where she hopes we’ll continue to see progress. Like many of Julia’s fans, I first became familiar with her in her role as Charlotte Lu in the popular webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. She has appeared on a number of shows from Scandal to Silicon Valley, and is a co-founder of Artists at Play, an LA-based theatre collective dedicated to presenting works by APIA playwrights.

JuliaCho_photo13 Julia Cho

Nicole: Thank you so much for talking with me, Julia! First things first: how and why did you decide to become an actor?

Julia Cho: I wasn’t one of those kids who came out of the womb performing. I was so shy and withdrawn, I think people assumed I was going to do something where I could work on my own. But I always loved the arts, and there was something in me that needed an outlet. Theatre, acting, gave me that outlet.

My family moved before I started high school, and we moved to the suburbs where everyone had grown up together and knew each other. So I’m in a new environment, I don’t know anyone, and it’s high school…just a lot of unfortunate elements compounding. Somehow I ended up becoming friends with kids who were involved with the drama department, and then auditions for the fall play happened — it was just the right moment. I was in Arsenic and Old Lace, and after that I was in every fall play and spring musical for the rest of high school. I ended up at Berkeley and I thought acting was a fun hobby. I was trying to figure out my major — I liked language, but nothing really stuck until I found Rhetoric. I was taking tons of drama classes and was so close to getting the Theatre double-major, too. My mom and I were on the phone, and she said, “You have to do what you love.” That was what allowed me to officially confirm Theatre as one of my majors.

After college I ended up doing a show in San Francisco, a production of an Amy Tan short story, Immortal Heart. They needed Asian American talent, and I lucked out — I got recommended for a read-through and then eventually got the part. At the end of the show, I decided to come back home to LA. I had no idea how to break through in the LA acting scene. I knew no one. It was just a lot of trial and error…I had a day job; I started to do LA theatre, which was fine — but after a while I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t in LA just to do theatre anymore, I could have done that in the Bay Area or moved to the east coast. I did my research, got headshots, looked at audition notices. It’s different for everyone. For me it took a while because I just had to figure it out and make mistakes along the way. It’s only been in the last few years that I have started to gain more traction in terms of TV.

Even on TV, where Asian actors are making some gains, it’s still pretty rare to see an Asian American onscreen. As a viewer, I sometimes feel as though TV depictions of Asian characters are two steps forward, one step back. What do you find encouraging, as an actor, and what do you still hope to see going forward?

If you look at the response to Fresh off the Boat, I think it signals that the community wants this; we’ve been waiting for something like this. It’s a family story, and so many of us can relate to that, Asian or not. It’s a landmark event for TV, 20 years after All-American Girl.

As for what I hope for, I think it comes down to leveling the playing field. I find myself in audition rooms and callbacks for small roles — and I’m in the room, and there’s four or five other white girls and me. On one hand, I’m happy I made it to callbacks. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder, why am I the only nonwhite person in this room? I’m playing a secretary, or a nurse, or what have you. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be other actors of color here, too.

Right now these moments are still so rare — it’s rare to see an actor of color in a major film or major TV show. I still find myself noticing, clocking that person. And as an Asian actor, if you see an Asian actor onscreen, you figure someone you know knows them. It would be great if it wasn’t so big to see us in those roles; if it was more the norm. More Asian faces playing regular and real people! People of color exist. We’re here, and we can play all sorts of roles.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 2.26.39 PM John Cho and Karen Gillan in ABC’s short-lived “Selfie”

That reminds me of something John Cho said about Selfie. His role wasn’t necessarily written with him — or an actor of color — in mind, and so they never made a big deal about his background or the interracial relationship on the show. He said he thought that was a “new and mature” way of dealing with it on TV.

Seeing an actor of color in a role that wasn’t necessarily written with their racial background in mind is great. But I also love when there are nods to it, when they find ways to reference their heritage, because you’re not just pretending they have no background whatsoever.

I hope we’re getting farther away from the stereotypes — even when I played Charlotte Lu in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, some people said she was just the “Asian best friend.” But the more of these images we put out there, the more we’re challenging the stereotypes people have. We can give you more than the math nerd, we can show you a whole spectrum of Asian American roles and personalities.

Most of what I book on TV is a character with no race or ethnicity specified, and I just happen to get the part. I love what Shonda Rimes has said about the diversification of television — how it’s really the normalization of television. She’s actually doing the work, leading everyone else when it comes to featuring diverse casts and actors of color.

helencho2 Claudia Kim in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Seeing Claudia Kim in Age of Ultron made me think about how unusual it is to see an Asian actor, an Asian woman in particular, in a major movie – and as a character that isn’t enforcing some sort of cultural stereotype.

I had the same feeling you did, seeing this gorgeous Korean actress who speaks perfect English playing a pretty important character in the film. There’s something to be said for seeing a good Asian actor up there. But I think we need more roles for Asian Americans, too.

Movies do seem to lag way behind television when it comes to Asian American actors, and I’m not really sure why that is.

It might come down to money; films mean that there’s even more money at stake. They’re looking at a specific tier of actors, too, and that tier is currently very white. That’s reflective of the industry, and this idea of a movie star mold. For the big roles, they want recognizable faces, and it happens most of those recognizable faces are white. That’s where you get whitewashing, and if they do want an Asian American actor specifically, they might want to go with someone people already know – like a Lucy Liu or a John Cho.

Also, Hollywood is always thinking about the international game, what will draw in international box office. For Asian American actors who are from here, it can be hard to move forward in the game — we often don’t get those roles that go to big Asian stars.

I like to think that maybe the powers that be in Hollywood are finally taking notice. If they see that more diverse casting is doing well, I hope things will move in a progressive direction.

Do you think a lot about the types of jobs you’re offered, and worry about representing Asian Americans? And if you do, does it bother you that you have to think about this in a way white artists don’t?

It’s unfair for sure that it is a more loaded situation for us as actors of color. But being an actor is such a weird job already. I’m not at a level where I can always be selective, though I don’t say yes to everything. I can’t read for a role if I know I’m going to hate myself if I get it, and I don’t want to say no after something is offered.

I’m sure there are plenty of great Asian American actors whose careers could be thriving, but the opportunities weren’t there ten or twenty years ago. Maybe they stuck to their guns and never took on roles that felt like stereotypes, and that’s all they were really offered. It’s an unfortunate environment, I think. But then, the world of acting is a bizarre world to begin with.

Let’s talk about your work with Artists at Play. You, Peter Kuo, Marie-Reine Velez, and Stefanie Wong Lau founded the company in 2011 to produce and feature works by APIA playwrights and tell the stories of communities currently underrepresented in American theatre. Last year we talked about your production of Julia Cho’s 99 Histories for Hyphen. What have you all been up to since then?

We’ve been doing a lot of readings, and this fall we’re staging the LA premiere of In Love and Warcraft, by Madhuri Shekar. We really love the play — it’s very different from 99 Histories, which was a family drama. This play revolves around dating, World of Warcraft, college-aged characters. It’s going to be a lot of fun. The main character struggles with intimacy in real life, whereas in this online world of gaming she’s much more comfortable. The play touches on the awkwardness and excitement of falling in love for the first time when you’re young.

It’s our first show that isn’t Asian American-specific, necessarily, though of course we’ll have a large and diverse cast and crew. As Asian Americans, we have a lot of immigrant stories, stories of assimilating or trying to adjust or make amends with American culture or dual culture — we read a lot of those plays when we’re deciding what to produce with Artists at Play, and these stories are definitely an important part of our overall narrative as Asian Americans. But we also need to push the realm of what people think “Asian American culture and plays” might be. There’s so much great work out there by APIA playwrights, sharing stories of what it’s like to be young and of color — and dealing with universal human themes as well.

Julia Cho in Artists at Play's 2014 production of 99 Histories Julia Cho as “Eunice Kim” in Artists at Play’s 2014 production of 99 Histories

Offstage, as part of our advocacy, we’re hosting an open forum on June 8th to discuss the “51% Preparedness Plan,” based on a larger “See Change” effort led by East West Players (vision statement authored by Tim Dang). By 2042, minorities will be in the majority in the U.S. We need to go beyond just the Asian American theatre community, or even diverse theatre groups at large, and encourage artistic staff at theatres across the country to diversify. It’s so necessary if theatre is going to survive. We’ll see who shows up to the forum…it’s possible we’ll just end up preaching to the choir, but I’m okay with it if that happens, because I think some of us in the choir need to know more about this and what we can do to challenge the status quo.

Diversity and inclusion are major talking points right now in theatre. I love that we’re having these discussions, though they definitely should have happened much earlier and led to progress much sooner. People are finally taking notice of the fact that diversity is not a deterrant, it’s a lightning rod for audiences, and good for the theatre overall. But theatre is so backwards when it comes to diverse representation, worse than TV and film.

Why do you think that is?

I think it might have to do with who’s in power — theatre is still so much in the hands of the white and wealthy — and who goes. It doesn’t always seem as accessible for young people and people of color. Think about ticket prices; sure, movie prices have gone up, but we can still go see a movie for relatively little money, or pay for cable and watch shows at home. In theatre, the audiences are often older, very white, and more privileged. Many theatres are trying to reach out to a younger audience, which would also be a more diverse audience. They’ll have one show or one night where they try to entice younger theatregoers with lower-priced tickets. But it’s not enough to do these one-time events. It comes back to inclusion — if I know you only have this one night for people like me, and the rest of your programming is all plays by old white people that I can’t afford to see, I’m probably not going to come back; I’ll know that you’re just pandering to me.

There needs to be a sign that there will be more changes; that there will be younger and more diverse shows and casts and artists featured. It can’t just be quick fixes and theme nights — theatre companies really need to embrace change. But I think it’s going to be slow-going. I don’t know if enough people realize how backwards American theatre as a whole still is, and one challenge for us is providing that necessary context for them, holding up that mirror.

What do you tell people who ask you why visibility is so important to Artists at Play and your mission to help create a space for artists from underrepresented groups? The people who say, “Why can’t it just be good art?” or “Why can’t it just be entertaining?”

Cho with Ashley Clements, Mary Kate Wiles, and Laura Spencer in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

You know, my love for the arts came from being at home, watching old black and white movies; I was just so enamored with them. When I was older I realized that all of those people were white. But I grew up in LA and I knew that was not reflective of the wider world we live in. When we only see images of white people, people like us feel excluded. Think about it from a child’s perspective. What kind of representation do they see? What do they deserve?

The show might be good, the acting might be great, but at some point, even if I’m enjoying it, I will wonder — why are all these characters white? Is there any reason? You feel there’s some power being taken away from you. As an audience member, you also want to feel like you’re part of the story, part of the world where it’s set. And as an artist, you want to express common truths; explore and examine and present a version of humanity. How can you do that when there’s still distance and displacement for people of color? When you’re not even trying to meet their basic human need for connection?

People need to be able to recognize us as regular people, and see that we can be part of the worlds being created. Seeing Asian faces onscreen, onstage, is so necessary; there are still not enough instances of that. But it doesn’t need to be an Asian face – I enjoy seeing actors in plays and movies of all races and backgrounds.

Do you have any advice for aspiring actors?

Doing good work will get you past the people wanting to pigeonhole or stereotype you. The strength of the work itself can help transcend those obstacles, if you have a chance to show what you can do. I think training is so important, and staying involved through classes or readings, making sure you’re constantly working and never resting on your laurels.

It’s okay to feel discouraged. You’ll feel that throughout your career. I still go through that, it’s a cyclical thing. You’ll get your fair share of rejections and disappointments — even A-list actors go through that, competing against their peers. There’s always a possibility of not getting a role or getting replaced, and you shouldn’t view it as giving up or failure if you decide this world isn’t for you. You have to look out for your health and wellbeing; it’s a tough game. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others, because everyone has a different path. I think embracing your own strengths as an actor and continually building on that is the best thing you can do.

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