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Hollywood casting directors say Asian movie stars are on their way

…but breaking the bamboo ceiling will take more than visibility on screen

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Norman Shapiro/CBS; Michael Parmelee/CBS; Jules Heath/Lucasfilm; Jack Rowand/ABC; Gene Page/AMC

With Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None on TV and the hit book Crazy Rich Asians and a live-action adaptation of Mulan heading to the big screen, is Hollywood on the verge of a breakthrough, or is this yet another blip? Entertainment Weekly looks into the state of Asian representation this week.

Whitewashing controversies are nothing new. What is, however, are fans making an impact on casting choices.

When an early draft of Disney’s upcoming live-action Mulan adaptation included a Caucasian love interest, fans gathered more than 19,000 signatures and created the Twitter hashtag #MakeMulanRight, prompting Disney to promise to cast a Chinese love interest. After news broke of Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell as the originally Japanese lead, more than 100,000 fans signed a petition calling for an end to whitewashing Asian characters. When more than 13,000 petitioners condemned the racial stereotypes that would have been portrayed on Mail Order Family, a comedy about a Filipina woman brought to the U.S. to marry a widow and help raise his family, NBC scrapped plans for the show.

Fans are channeling their anger toward Hollywood — and casting directors are listening, especially to outcry over whitewashing. “Asians are no longer being quiet about the injustices of the casting,” says Asian-American casting director Julia Kim, who last worked on indie film Spa Night, which featured a Korean-American principal cast. “Their voices are getting louder, because they know the talent is there. They’re like, ‘Okay, we may not get [the part], but you can’t give it to someone else without at least trying to explore what we have to offer.'”

Adds Avy Kaufman, who served as casting director on HBO’s The Night Of, which starred British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which starred Indian actor Suraj Sharma: “There’s pressure now, and I think everybody feels it.”

But just because there’s pressure doesn’t mean Asian actors will suddenly have it easy. Kaufman says that although her office focuses on diverse casting when possible, the process involves more than just combatting racism and opening doors for talent; she also has to look at whether potential actors are a proven draw. When Kaufman spoke with EW, she had been working on casting a Japanese female lead for an upcoming film, and says she had plenty of options, but had to narrow the field much more than she would have liked. “The upsetting part to me was I found a bunch of Japanese actors I loved, but only a few meant something with foreign sales. [That department] determines who gets into big movies, if [the talent’s] numbers mean something,” Kaufman says. “It’s not just us doing our job [as casting directors]. We have to decide who means more [on the business side]. At the same time, I have respect for them doing their job…. I see it as a puzzle.”

That puzzle, though, is getting easier to navigate thanks to the growing number of Asian actors going out for roles. Kim, who has worked in casting since the late 1990s, says she’s encouraged by how many actors of Asian descent she’s seen. “Now everything’s digital, so that allows us to scour and comb through more talent,” she says. “It gives people that are not actually in Los Angeles a chance to submit themselves, so that gives us a wider net to explore…. There are “more [actors] than you would think. I am always encouraging my directors and producers to have an open mind, and I feel like the industry is thinking along those lines as well.”

That change has been a long time coming. For actors like Masi Oka, who broke big as the time-manipulating Hiro Nakamura on Heroes, he remembers being able to land roles — but not enough for a long-term career. “I got my first role one year into the business, and it was easier [to get cast] because [projects] were always looking to fill their diversity quote-unquote ‘quotient’ by numbers,” he says. “That would be filled by doing one-liners, like, I would be the delivery guy saying, ‘Here’s your kung pao chicken!’ Look, we hired an Asian actor, so chalk one up for diversity!”

And that’s an issue that continues in Hollywood, despite the shift in attitude toward Asian representation. Even though more roles for actors of Asian descent have come about, many continue to work against breaking the so-called bamboo ceiling. For every groundbreaking part like the pizza-deliverer-turned-zombie-slaying-hero Glenn in The Walking Dead, played by Korean-American actor (and recent EW cover star) Steven Yeun, there’s a part like Han (Matthew Moy) on 2 Broke Girls who has been compared to Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), the cringe-worthy Sixteen Candles character. For every stereotype-breaking Asian romantic interest (think: John Cho in the short-lived Selfie or Vincent Rodriguez III in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), there’s a stereotype-perpetuating story like The Great Wall, that features Matt Damon in a white-hero role. In other words, starring roles matter — but they have to be varied roles. “Stereotypes are there for a reason, they aren’t all bad,” Oka says. “The problem with stereotypes is they only show one slice [of a population], so when you constantly only show one part of it, then it becomes poor representation. You want to show that there are leading males who can be very romantic, but you also want to show people who are geeky. People can be villains, people can be heroes, people can be fathers, sons… It’s all about a diverse representation of diversity, not just filling [a project] with color.”

Still, the fact that there are roles playing against type is encouraging — and luckily, there are plenty of actors, like Lucy Liu and Jamie Chung, who have paved the way for lasting careers in Hollywood. “[The actors I’ve worked with] are going in for auditions for more mainstream things than they ever have,” Kim says. “They’re getting actual, meatier opportunities.” Which is why, she adds, it is “absolutely not impossible to have Asian movie stars.”

And casting directors aren’t the only ones who should play a part moving forward. “I’ve been watching the diversity blame get passed around for years,” says Russell Boast, a casting director and head of the Casting Society of America’s diversity committee. “The mistake that a lot of us in the entertainment business make is we focus on how we only need more Asian lead roles… It’s diversifying behind the camera too that, I think, will help the sustainability of it.” Boast explains that the CSA had originally used the committee to raise awareness for diverse casting among its casting director members, but has recently shifted to a goal of raising awareness about diversity to other branches of the industry. “The creation of a movie star used to take an incredibly long time back in the day of traditional studios, when movie stars meant something, and I think today that has closed slightly,” he says. “It really is about us putting the time and energy into discovering those movie stars. I think there’s been a lot of talking, there’s been a fair amount of listening, and the doing is starting to happen.”

After all, seeing a minority cast reign at the box office and foster movie stars has been done before. “It’s funny, we just finished [casting] two or three films with just African-American actors,” Kaufman says, adding that everyone working in entertainment has to be willing to take risks. “I think the writing has a lot to do with it. It’s the writers and it’s the director and everybody going, ‘Well, what if we do this?’ And then you hope they say yes.”

This is the third in a series of stories this week on EW focused on the state of Asian representation in Hollywood. Read the first, on how the industry’s approach to Asian actors is at a crossroads, here, and the second, an interview with actress Ming-Na Wen, here.