'You Either Have an Accent or You’re This Over-Sexualized Ninja Chick': Asian American Stars on Hollywood Success

Ally Maki at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
Ally Maki at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
Image: via Getty

A handful of prominent Asian American actors, writers, and directors (virtually) sat down with Variety this week for a roundtable on achieving success in Hollywood. The industry has historically reduced Asian American actors, stories, and characters to stereotypes, and the roundtable participants all pointed out that subverting those stereotypes was not easy.

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“I moved [to Hollywood] when I was 14, so my whole life was basically, you either have an accent or you’re this over-sexualized ninja chick, [there] wasn’t really an in-between,” Toy Story 4's Ally Maki said. Maki eventually nabbed a starring role on the TBS show Wrecked, which helped convince her she could escape the stereotypes. “[I thought] If I could play this role, what other kinds of roles could I play?”

Kumail Nanjiani had a similar experience, noting that he started feeling like he was making it in Hollywood when he stopped auditioning for “brown guy roles.” And both Lulu Wang, the writer/director of the incredible 2019 film The Farewell, and Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, said they wanted to see a more diverse collection of Asian American-led projects all together:

“In the past, it can often be that someone, like Ang Lee, does their ‘small personal project’ that is ethnic, or represents their family or where they come from.” Wang explains. “But then the sign of success is that they’re able to assimilate. They’re able to then go on to do studio movies that may, or may not, have anything to do with that personal story that they broke out with. What’s exciting now is that there’s so much more crossover, there is ways to go bigger and still integrate these elements, these nuances, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

“To me, the more diverse, not in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of diverse types of stories about Asian people, in different genres, and auteurs creating their masterpiece that doesn’t necessarily have to do with being Asian, but has Asian people in it,” says Chu. “I look at these young, YouTubers who make feature stuff on their own now, it’s so exciting. They have even less baggage than my s—, that confidence is going to not just change what we see but actual cinema itself. Which we need.” 

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You can read more from the roundtable, which included Hasan Minhaj, here.

Night blogger, author of GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE YOU HATE.

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If you’re interested in Asian American experiences, the L.A. Times has a podcast called Asian Enough, hosted by Jen Yamato and Frank Shyong. Their guests have included John Cho, Rabia Chaudry, Niki Nakayama, Dumbfounded, Dante Basco, John M. Chu and many more.