From 50 First Dates to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Amy Hill is an underrated chameleon
She warned Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates, told off Jerry Stiller on Seinfeld, played Margaret Cho’s grandma on All-American Girl, and a whole lot more in her 35-year-plus career in film and television.
You’ve probably seen Amy Hill in many of your favorite shows and movies over the years, and maybe even remarked, “Hey, I know her from something!” It’s a testament to the actress’s chameleon-like versatility that some audiences can’t pinpoint her background or realize she’s of Asian descent.
As the veteran performer tells EW, even other fellow Asian Americans have thought she was Korean, like her All-American Girl character, or were so convinced by her Filipino accent on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that they assumed she had to be Pinay.
In reality, the South Dakota-born, Seattle-bred actress is half Japanese and half Finnish. Speaking by phone from Hawaii, where she’s shooting another season of Magnum, P.I., Hill says she takes assumptions as a sign she’s done her job well. Her home in the state is also where she filmed an appearance in Searching for Anna May Wong, a new documentary about the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star.
Below, the characteristically optimistic actress chats openly with EW about her longevity in Hollywood, Asian American representation, and her hopes for the future.
Most memorable projects
While Hill calls working on the rom-com 50 First Dates "a really wonderful experience," and Drew Barrymore (whose Santa Clarita Diet she later appeared on) a "lovely person," the actress says her proudest project and “one of the most joyful” experiences she had was on ABC’s All-American Girl, which ran for one season between 1994-1995.
Starring Cho and featuring Hill as her oddball grandma, it was the first primetime sitcom to focus on an Asian American family. Despite backlash for its stereotypical portrayal of the characters, the comedy was still influential and set the stage for future shows like Fresh Off The Boat.
She says many of the problems on the series stemmed from higher-ups’ interference, but she's proud of what the cast was able to accomplish in the face of those challenges.
“They were not comfortable with me because I wasn't old enough to be the grandma. I got the part because Margaret was so supportive of me,” Hill reveals. “During the pilot, the director would literally come up to me at least once a day and say, ‘You're on probation. This is not a given that you're going to be able to stay in this part if it gets picked up.’”
Rather than be scared off, Hill says the warnings only emboldened her.
“I felt like I had freedom. When somebody tells me you're going to fail, you feel like, ‘Well what the hell, I'll do what I want then,'’’ she explains. “The pilot got picked up because people liked the show. But in particular, people loved my character, which was a shock for them.”
While acknowledging the series’ divisive legacy, Hill says she was proud she got to honor her Japanese mother through her role, which in turn resonated with audiences from different backgrounds.
“I was able to embody a real, authentic person in that character and celebrate the quirkiness of my mother. And I know Margaret's mother and grandmother are both kind of quirky,” she says. “African American women would come up and say, ‘Oh that was my grandmother,’ Jewish women would say, ‘That’s my grandmother.’ It was so sweet and wonderful because when you are specific it becomes universal.”
While the subject of fake accents is touchy for some, given the tokenization of characters like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Hill believes there is a way to put on accents respectfully. If the character is interesting, like on All-American Girl, she’ll do her research, but she’s turned down roles before that were basically “an accent gag.”
“I have a personal need to be authentic with all the characters that I'm portraying,” Hill says. “If you do like a serious, serious Filipino accent, half the world won't understand anything you're saying. So you have to walk that line of enough Filipino to make it Filipino, but understandable. So that's also the thing with all the accents. You don't want the accent to be the joke. You want the person to be funny, not the accent.”
The CEG joke below, for instance, is about Filipinos' affinity for karaoke in even the most unlikely scenarios, and not Lourdes' accent:
Growing up, Hill felt that as a Hapa (mixed ethnicity or part Asian, depending on the definition), “you’re not Asian enough. You're not white enough.” She looked up to the rare Hapa stars like France Nuyen and Nancy Kwan, but catching glimpses of Asians on screen was so uncommon that “you’d call people, ‘Hey! Turn on the TV. There’s an Asian!’”
But thanks to monumental films, from The Joy Luck Club to Crazy Rich Asians, Hill says she’s seen a huge shift in representation. What strikes her too is the increased encouragement Asian American performers have for one another.
“We really support each other so much more now than before. There was a time when Asian Americans somehow wanted to blend in,” Hill recalls. “So they didn't want to go help out the other Asian Americans that were coming. They were like, ‘There's not enough room for all of us. You gotta make it on your own.’ And now, we've realized that helping other Asian American actors, giving them a hand up, only increases our power. So when somebody works, I feel like, ‘Oh, that's great!’”
Hill says her best, juiciest parts have come in the last five to 10 years. Embodying the warden of hell on AMC’s Preacher, for example, pushed Hill so far out of her comfort zone that she wasn’t sure she was up to the task.
“The character was like a Pol Pot or somebody like Hitler, all these horrible historical figures that enjoyed torturing people, killing them. And then they thought, ‘Amy, she'd be good for this,’” Hill says with a laugh. “Every time I'd do a take, I would think, ‘Was that evil enough? Is that good?’ I’d look at the director and [go] ‘Any notes?’ That was a challenge … I like the ability to be different people who don't seem at all similar to each other in any way. So it's been a fun ride.”
Hill is happy to see more diversity in the writers’ room these days, but she says some shows have a long way to go, including the Jay Hernandez-led Magnum, P.I. reboot, in which she stars as Teuila "Kumu" Tuileta. She says the drama's writers’ room, which has previously come under fire for its diversity oversight and allegations of toxic behavior from its now-ousted showrunner, needs to reflect the reality of a show set in Hawaii.
“I love this show but the writing room is really pretty white, old white guys. So it's really weird to have a show set in Hawaii, and my character is from the Hawaiian culture — it feels like we need to swap it up a little bit with more Asians,” she says. “And there's an African American character on the show, it would be nice to have maybe an African American writer.”
A representative for CBS has stated to EW that the current writers' room makeup is composed of two white men (including its executive producer), two white women, two Asian writers, one Latinx male writer, and one African American male writer.
Overall, Hill wants to see more people of color working behind the scenes as writers, producers, and directors. Like in her own career, the roadmap she sees ahead for Hollywood is one that walks a fine line of allowing artists of color to reach beyond culturally specific stories while still honoring experiences particular to them.
“In order to bring more Asian American actors in front of the camera, it’d be nice to have stories that reflected their experiences so that we would have that to do too,” she stresses. “In the old days, we would all hope that we would get hired for the parts that were written for white people. And I'm like, ‘That's not something you really want to aspire to.’ I think you want to have parts that were written for anybody, and you make it what you want it to be. But I don't want immigrants, especially like my mother, to disappear. I don't want to whitewash our world.”