No shortage of Asian talent in Hollywood

Director Justin Lin (above) on the set of Star Trek Beyond.
Director Justin Lin (above) on the set of Star Trek Beyond.PHOTO: UNITED INTERNATIONAL PICTURES

With its gay Sulu character, Star Trek Beyond has renewed discussions about the shortage of nonheterosexual characters on screen.

But the movie's director Justin Lin and actor John Cho are also grappling with another kind of diversity deficit: the under-representation of Asian performers in Hollywood, especially in lead roles.

Earlier this year, Cho - the 44-year-old Korean-American star of the Harold & Kumar comedy films (2004 to 2011) - unwittingly became the face of a social media campaign to highlight this issue.

His face was Photoshopped onto several movie posters along with the hashtag #StarringJohnCho, which imagined him as the lead in action blockbusters such as Spectre (2015) and The Martian (2015), along with romantic films Me Before You (2016) and Mother's Day (2016), whose male stars were all Caucasian.

Cho confesses he does not know what it would take for more Asians to be given starring roles in mainstream projects.

"I'll let you know when I figure it out," he tells The Straits Times. "I think the audiences are there - it's the decision-makers who aren't."

Although Cho's shortlived 2014 sitcom Selfie, which saw him become the first Asian-American man to play a romantic-comedy lead on television, was reportedly cancelled because of low viewership, Lin also believes there is an underserved appetite for cultural diversity on screen.

Tapping into it was one way the film-maker resuscitated the Fast & Furious franchise (2001 to 2015) in 2005, when he was asked to helm the third movie, The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).

With the budget slashed and none of the original stars on board, Lin convinced the studio to change the script - which initially featured geishas and other Western cliches about Japan - to focus instead on a multi-cultural ensemble cast and cosmopolitan vibe.

This would become a hallmark of the later films and Lin hopes their international success is helping convince directors and studios to put more non-white faces on screen.

Attitudes are slowly changing, he believes. "I'm glad there's a discourse about diversity. When I started 14 years ago, it was very different. And I don't know how much it's shifted, but at least it's being talked about.

"But sometimes it also annoys me because in casting, they'll be like, 'Oh, we'd better cast someone of colour to make it feel more diverse.' Well, that's not the conversation - the conversation is about who's best for the role."

When it comes to looking for the best person, there is no shortage of Asian talent in Hollywood, Lin insists, pointing out that some of today's biggest Asian-American stars have been knocking at the door for well over a decade.

Cho, for instance, has been working his way up since appearing in Lin's early indie movies such as Shopping For Fangs (1997) and Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), his Sundance breakout hit.

"When I was at UCLA, I worked with Fresh Off The Boat star Randall Park. And as I made bigger movies, I would go into these casting calls and I knew they were talented enough, even back then.

"But there were no opportunities (for Asian actors). I remember fighting with a studio and saying, 'Why do you just call in Caucasian actors for the leads?' It took me a couple of movies, but I think I annoyed them so much that they actually said, 'Just do it.' I don't think there was any ill will, it was just the way they did business.

"And now Randall is the lead of his own TV show and you've seen how much John has grown.

"They were there the whole time, they just didn't have the opportunities," says Lin, who has a six-year-old son with his partner Alice.

Despite the progress, Cho says there is a long way to go before it is no longer considered a potentially career-fatal move to put an Asian actor in a lead part.

"The day it happens is the day when it doesn't matter whether a movie headlined by Asians fails. The fear now is if we headline a movie with a whole bunch of people of colour and it fails, nobody wants to greenlight that project because then that person will be fired," says Cho, who has a son, aged eight, and daughter, three, with actress Kerri Higuchi.

"Right now, if you greenlight a project with a bunch of white actors and it fails, you won't be fired. It would just be like, 'Maybe it wasn't a good movie.'"

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'No shortage of Asian talent in Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe