George Takei, Danny Pudi, more reflect on Hollywood's portrayal of Asian men, and what needs to change
"When I started, I played characters that weren’t fully developed, and I found myself hoping that I would I get a chance to be a lead."
They've come a long way since Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong. From Marvel Studios' first Asian superhero to the first baesian loves in swoony films and primetime series, Asian stars are boldly going where too few Asian actors have gone before. Still, a recent USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study found that more than half of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) male characters in the top 100 films of 2019 had no romantic relationships. Have people not seen Daniel Dae Kim's glass-cutting cheekbones?
In EW's August issue, cover star Simu Liu made it a point to say that he wants to "shatter barriers and expectations of what Asian men are." EW spoke with more Asian actors whose careers have been testaments to tearing down Hollywood's walls and hurdling its limitations. Below, Nico Hiraga (Moxie), Riverdale's Charles Melton, Mythic Quest's Danny Pudi, Vincent Rodriguez III (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Star Trek's George Takei open up about persevering in an industry that has long relegated API men to nerdy sidekicks and board breakers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Asian women are often fetishized, while Asian men are seldom portrayed as being desirable. How did you feel about this growing up?
CHARLES MELTON: So many of my favorite actors growing up…Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Reynolds, Ashton Kutcher, these guys who are phenomenal at being the center of these love stories, but I never saw anyone like myself on these screens.
NICO HIRAGA: I never really saw a heartthrob or anything outside of being smart as f---. I went to this bougie ass school growing up. I was the one Asian kid out of all the white dudes. I used to get the Asian stereotypes, like "Aren't you supposed to be hella smart?" That kind of f---ed me up. That's why I started skating, it was the rebellious thing to do. I was like, Well, if I can't f---ing please these kids around me, then screw them, right? I also worried about what's going to happen at the dances. Would they dance with me, or am I going to be the last one to slow dance with someone?
VINCENT RODRIGUEZ III: I grew up watching Ninja Turtles and 3 Ninjas and Surf Ninjas with Ernie Reyes Jr. I wanted to be an action star. I thought that could be a path for me, but I didn't see young leading men until I saw Paolo Montalban [in 1997's Cinderella].
GEORGE TAKEI Well, I had the Bruce Lees and Toshiro Mifune, all the Kurosawa movies, and I had my father. He's my role model. So, I had that heroic vision.
DANNY PUDI: My father is from India, but he wasn't around for most of my life. I remember when my mom described him: He loved to sing; she described him as a flirt; he was a chain smoker. He wasn't perfect, but his journey to this country as an immigrant was heroic in many ways. I've often thought about how rarely I've seen an image like that on screen, and that's something I definitely have struggled with.
How have these stereotypes and the lack of representation played out in your career?
PUDI: I have felt pressure to be everything to everyone or to capture the Asian American experience. When I started out, I played characters that weren't fully developed, supporting characters who didn't have the chance to feel sexy or have a romantic life onscreen, and I found myself filling in the blanks for myself and hoping that I would get a chance to be a lead.
MELTON: There was a time really early on in my career where I went to an audition and was told that it'd probably be best if I changed my last name because when they heard "Charles Melton," they weren't expecting an Asian American man to walk through the door.
RODRIGUEZ: I auditioned for the lead [in a] musical. I ran into the director in the hallway and he said, "Oh, yeah, when I saw you in the room dancing, I thought you looked just like…" and he said the name of my friend who happens to be Filipino. I thought, I'm invisible to you. Who I am and what I have to offer doesn't matter. But [when I was cast as Josh Chan in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend], I freaked out and started to ugly cry in the bathroom, clutching my pearls, like, Oh, my god. You like me? You really like me? So those moments, I had to bookmark them for myself because I keep remembering those times I had been slighted or the world wasn't as accepting of me. I just remember progress is progress, even if you move forward a centimeter.
Nico, you've said in the past that you thought a white guy would play Seth, the perfect boyfriend in Moxie.
HIRAGA: Yeah, reading the character description, it was the "heartthrob," and I was like, This is for sure built out for some Caucasian dude. There's no shot they're going to give it to a Hapa kid.
Hollywood's tie between Asian male physicality and martial arts is inextricable. Why do you think this is?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, part of that is because of the legend himself, Bruce Lee, who was one of our pioneers, just like Jackie Chan is. One of the reasons why a lot of people can't think outside of Asians and martial arts is because that's what they were fed, that's what was selling tickets, that's what the producers thought people wanted to see.
MELTON: A lot of people saw [Bruce Lee] this first global movie star, an Asian leading man, and he's doing martial arts so I think people just assume, "Oh, you're Asian, you can do martial arts." That's a part of being in this industry and telling different stories that are fixated outside of what we can do as Asian men when it comes to masculinity. We don't need to be kicking somebody in the face or punching someone in the face. We do have a vulnerable side to express, and a story to tell.
And yet, George, you were able to surpass those limitations in the '60s.
TAKEI: Occasionally, you'll have a person like Gene Roddenberry, who already has that vision, the strength in diversity coming together. On Star Trek, we had this acronym, IDIC, for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. I told one of the staff writers my hero was Errol Flynn. I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood and I loved fencing. [The writer] worked that into one of our episodes and I got to take my shirt off and pick up my fencing foil and terrorize the Starship Enterprise. I mean, Asians didn't get to take our shirt off and flex our muscles, because Bruce Lee wasn't doing that then.
I feel like an easy out for Hollywood would be to say, "Hey, we have hyper masculine Asian representation outside of martial arts — just look at Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa." But, interestingly, the Inclusion Initiative study co-authored by Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen (Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism) found that one third of API lead and co-lead roles in the top 1,300 films in a 12-year span went to Dwayne Johnson. Why do you think that is?
HIRAGA: The Rock doesn't look like your typical 100 percent Asian dude, neither does Jason Momoa. The Rock has a different look to him, so does Jason.
MELTON: One thing I love about the Rock is him coming from nothing and making a name for himself and continuing to push the narrative. That's an inspiration to all people of all races, but there should be a lot more films and stories being told, not just being represented by one or two other actors.
PUDI: I've had very few opportunities to be in those types of positions or those roles. In terms of the numbers here and the idea of masculinity in that capacity, I don't know. It's something I've never really related to personally. I've always felt like an outsider, but at the same time I'm a father, I'm a husband, I've run marathons. I've felt strong. I'm hoping there's room for that. Seeing movies like Minari, for instance, is this expansion of the idea of masculinity, that it can mean many things.
Why do you think it's taken Hollywood so long to portray Asian men as more than geeky nonentities or martial artists?
HIRAGA: I think it's just because they're lazy.
TAKEI: Asians are seen as polite and bowing and deferring. It's that stereotype Asian thing to not seize an opportunity. I had a pledge with my father I won't play a servant, because we've had waiters that went out to audition and the director said, "Do a little kowtow and giggle, and then shuffle over there." We're always coming in when they're ready to start casting. We also need writers, directors, people behind the camera, and producers.
PUDI: Sometimes I feel like maybe it's a formula, and that people tend to follow formulas that they believe works, but I do know that Asian American leading men right now — Randall Park in his romantic comedy, Naveen Andrews in Lost, seeing Kal Penn in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle — there's all these different ranges of what Asian American leading men can be.
So things are finally shifting, but how much further do you feel we have to go?
HIRAGA: I think it'll be a little while. It's the same thing for when all cars are electric. It's just going to be further down the line, it moves real slow because you're going to have your non-believers in Asian dudes being cast as more than just the nerd, or the book-smart guy, or the Kung Fu dude. So, yeah, it'll take some time, but I got faith.
MELTON: I was flying and there was a 50-year-old guy who looked like my father, just a white American male. And, he was like, "I'm a huge fan, can I get a photo?" After I got through security, he introduced me to his wife, and his wife was Chinese. They introduced me to their son, who is 9. And his wife looked to her son and said, "See, he looks like you. He's a movie star." That for me was a very special moment because I didn't grow up having that role model that I saw on the screen that looked like me. So, I think we're in a new territory as far as telling stories where the Asian male masculinity is whole and expressed in storytelling.
PUDI: I had an episode in Mythic Quest where my brother was played by my best friend Parvesh Cheena. Our director, Angela Barnes, was having this conversation where we were trying to build in what our story would be, and we talked about our lives at home and culturally trying to see what that might be like in terms of our backstory. I thought that was really lovely, just the conversation before we even filmed. So that felt like a great step. I think it's going to require more people being involved behind the scenes — writing, editing, directing, producing, more diverse perspectives in the room. We can continue to grow where people are involved in storytelling from the beginning, but also along the way.
TAKEI: My father's philosophy was even under the harshest circumstances, resilience is not just bullet-biting, muscle flexing. It's the strength to find beauty and to create your own happiness. We have to go in there and make our opportunities. We're not going to stand around and wait and have somebody get that film and go to a studio and get it produced. We are doing it.
RODRIGUEZ: It's not necessarily about having the Asian storyline, right? Sometimes it's you just need to be included. We're at this boiling point of acceptance, voices are being raised. It's going to take time to continue listening, learning, and then arriving. Then taking action. This is just another brick that we get to lay on that wall. I think we're building something beautiful.
Interviews were conducted separately and have been combined and edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands July 16 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.