Asian-Australian actors like Crazy Rich Asians' Chris Pang flourish in Hollywood

Chris Pang (far left), who appeared in box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians, with John Harlan Kim (left), who had a four-season stint on The Librarians.
Chris Pang (left), who appeared in box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians, with John Harlan Kim (right), who had a four-season stint on The Librarians.PHOTO: NYTIMES

After struggling to find work beyond stereotypes, they are becoming more visible in the US, where the market is bigger

MELBOURNE • They have found a home in Hollywood, appearing in some of the biggest films and television shows of the year.

But on a balmy evening last month, several young Asian-Australian actors were relaxing together in a place where they are rarely recognised - the country where they grew up.

Over beers at a rooftop bar in Melbourne, they were reflecting on their year's work.

"It's the most I have ever auditioned," said John Harlan Kim, 25, a Korean-Australian actor who moved to the United States five years ago and recently wrapped a four-season stint on The Librarians.

Chris Pang, 34, who appeared in last year's box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians, agreed. "Right now, diverse content is selling and it's hot," he said. "It's now or never. We've got to keep the momentum going."

For many of Australia's most lauded white actors, making a name for themselves at home was a critical milestone on the way to success in Hollywood.

But Asian-Australian actors say there are few roles available for them in Australia and those parts are often ancillary or based on outdated stereotypes.

So many Asian-Australian actors are heading straight to Los Angeles - and succeeding.

There is still much to overcome. Many actors of Asian descent say they continue to be overlooked, especially for major roles. And yet for some, this feels like a moment of promise.

The worldwide success of Crazy Rich Asians and critically acclaimed performances by Asian-American actors, including Sandra Oh (Killing Eve, 2018 to present) and Lana Condor (To All The Boys I've Loved Before, 2018), has created an incentive for more diverse casts as Hollywood (parts of it, at least) seems to be learning that multicultural entertainment is good for business.

According to a study last year by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the top-grossing global films increasingly have casts that are increasingly diverse, even though the majority is white.

"Films with casts that were from 21 to 30 per cent minority enjoyed the highest median global box-office receipts and the highest median return on investment," the study said.

According to UCLA, the percentage of films with predominantly white casts fell to 37 per cent in 2016, from 51 per cent in 2011.

Also in 2016, the most recent year for which there is comprehensive data, Asian actors appeared in 3.1 per cent of Hollywood film roles, compared with 12 per cent for black actors and 78 per cent for whites.

Asian-Australian actors, in particular, are becoming more visible.

Malaysian-Australian actor Jordan Rodrigues appeared in the 2017 hit Lady Bird.

Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who grew up in Sydney, appeared in The Greatest Showman (2017) and Hotel Mumbai (2018).

Remy Hii, who was in Crazy Rich Asians, will star in the next Spider-Man film; and Desmond Chiam is set to star in Reef Break, a crime thriller to air in the United States this year on ABC.

Their success overseas in such a wide range of roles has amplified a conversation in Australia about whether the country's entertainment industry needs to be more inclusive.

It has been a particularly busy year for Pang. Besides his role in Crazy Rich Asians, he produced a drama called Empty By Design and wrapped up filming for an upcoming Charlie's Angels reboot.

But success, he said, was hard-fought and happened only when he was willing to leave Australia.

Pang, who is of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, started acting more than 10 years ago after a job as a telephone salesman landed him at the door of a casting agency.

Agency staff members bought three phones and asked if he could do a Chinese accent. Suddenly, he was being paid for a voice-over in the Jackie Chan film New Police Story (2004).

Soon after, he travelled around China and Hong Kong looking for roles. Eventually, he landed what looked like a breakthrough turn in Tomorrow, When The War Began, a dystopian action film that became Australia's highest-grossing movie in 2010.

But Pang struggled to find work after that. In 2013, a cast-mate persuaded him to move to Los Angeles.

"I definitely wouldn't be here now if I didn't make that move," he said.

According to some industry insiders, it is not that Hollywood is necessarily more open-minded; it is just bigger.

"If we get anyone of even (the smallest talent), they jump ship", said Mr Adam Ross, chairman of the Australian Film Critics Association.

One reason work is hard to find in Australia, he said, is simply due to a smaller, younger and less lucrative film industry.

The US film industry and market is "an infinitely bigger machine", he said. "There's probably only half a dozen studio films, compared with half a hundred in America."

Some industry gatekeepers are beginning to take note.

Government agencies like Screen Australia are making a concerted effort to fund diverse programming. Broadcasters like SBS are airing shows like The Family Law, which follows the travails of a Chinese-Australian family.

But still, according to Screen Australia's 2016 report, non-white actors appear on TV and in movies at about half the rate they are present in the population.

Increasingly, those who want to see their stories told are taking film-making into their own hands.

"Sometimes, you have to just do it yourself," said Matthew Victor Pastor, a Filipino-Australian director.

Inspired by a trip to Los Angeles in 2017, he has written and directed six largely independent feature films in the past 18 months.

"It's about seeing those faces," he said. "It's about seeing those stories. It has a lot of weight."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2019, with the headline 'Asian-Australian actors flourish in Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe