Think carefully: When's the last time you saw a Hollywood flick with an Asian actor in the lede role? Tough one. As Hollywood is struggling with diversity, women and black people are making a few strides, but, as actor Masi Oka — known for Heroes and Hawaii 5-0 — tells The Hollywood Reporter, Asians are getting left behind:
"It's changed in Hollywood, but only so much. You can't get Asians cast in leads yet. Maybe as a second lead, but the lead is still going to be Caucasian or African-American," Oka told The Hollywood Reporter. "But Hollywood is fickle, it follows trends. If a show or a film did well with an Asian lead, then it would take off."
In the past few years, movies like The Last Airbender and Cloud Atlas courted controversy for either casting white actors to play Asian parts or altering the eyes of white actors to make them look Asian.
There are definitely Asian actors making a living in Hollywood, especially on TV. While Mindy Kaling and Maggie Q star in their respective shows, most of the Asian actors are costars, sidekicks or part of ensembles… especially the men. There are some very experienced, truly talented Asian guys with matinee idol good looks (Fast and Furious's Sung Kang comes to mind) who never get the chances offered to the likes of Josh Lucas and Bradley Cooper. Even a shitty romcom can boost an actor's profile, but seldom are Asian actors cast as the dreamy object of affection and desire. There are plenty of movies (and TV shows) where the leading man role is not about the character's ethnicity, it's just that a white actor is cast by default. It's been fifteen years since Jackie Chan took the country by storm in Rush Hour; Harold & Kumar hit theaters almost ten years ago. Hyperviolent Korean hit film Old Boy is being remade with Josh Brolin. The classic-kung-fu-inspired flick The Man with the Iron Fists had Russell Crowe as the hero. Two live-action movies based on Japanese manga — Speedracer and Dragonball — had white guys (Emile Hirsch and Justin Chatwin) as the stars. Multi-ethnic actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson — somewhat of a race-shifter onscreen, is in the top ten on the Forbes list of highest-earning actors, as is Will Smith. They're the only two non-white actors. Some of the guys on the list are known heartthrobs — Robert Pattinson, Leonardo DiCaprio — while others usually rake it in doing action (Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg). It just so happens that two of the most pervasive Asian male stereotypes are that they're sexless and weak (unless they know martial arts).
Many of us grew up on flicks like Sixteen Candles and Revenge Of The Nerds, in which Asian men are a joke or a punchline, brainy but awkward, and never ever part of any love story. I'd love to see Ken Leung or Sung Kang pop up as romantic interests. Anyway, keep your eyes peeled: There's a film in post-production right now called A Leading Man that tackles this very subject.
Related: Hollywood Discomfort With Asian Lead Characters [Sociological Images]