Making It in the Business as an American Actor (of Asian Descent)

“While I still use speaking Chinese and accents as part of my repertoire, I look at it now as a way to show my versatility and range.” – Actor Michael Tow

When I first started in the business, opportunities for Asian males were sparse and significantly more stereotypical. Unfortunately, even though I was a 4th generation American (my great grandfather was born in San Francisco in 1892), the roles that were primarily available to me were stereotypical characters speaking an Asian language or immigrants with heavy Asian accents.

Here are some stats for this year’s television pilot season: out of 202 roles for 23-33 year old leads and series regulars, 50% were white, 25% were African American, 10% were Hispanic, 10% were other and 5% were East Asian. (reference Backstage: Gyokoren)

That 5% equates to 10 East Asian actors and out of the 10 only 3 were males. Though this is a huge improvement to the dismal numbers of Hollywood’s past (even compared to 10 years ago when I first entered the business), it’s far from the watershed breakthrough some have made it out to be.

I still remember early in my career auditioning in front of a film director for a small non-descript role in a movie. After my first take the director said I did fine but this time he wanted me to say the lines with a Chinese accent. At that point I was naive and idealistic about the industry and I didn’t understand why an accent was needed. I wasn’t sure what to do and I froze and told the director I couldn’t do one. Needless to say I didn’t get the role.

That was the point in my career when I had to decide whether or not to play the game. I realized it didn’t matter that my family was in America for over 100 years, this was how Hollywood saw me and these were the type of opportunities that I was going to get until I was established enough to change it.

After some considerable time, I came to the realization that there is nothing wrong or shameful or “selling out” in playing a person with an accent or who speaks another language. These are real people who also need to be represented. However I knew that I had to tread carefully. Hollywood has no problem showing men with accents as cool and sexy as long as they come from places like Europe. For example look at the characters with accents in Game of Thrones or actors like Antonio Banderas in films like the Mask of Zorro. But men with accents from Asian countries are represented completely different in Hollywood. They are ridiculous, emasculated and asexual. Remember Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles, Ken Jeong in The Hangover or most recently the offensive character Han Lee from TV’s 2 Broke Girls?

I decided as an actor that I was not going to shy away from roles needing accents or speaking a foreign language but I promised myself that I would do my best to play those characters with respect. This was regardless of whether or not it was a comedy or a drama and I would not stoop to demeaning characterized stereotypes just to get cheap laughs. At the same time I started producing my own films centered around representing people that looked like me through the lens of characters that look like me.

Now having been in the business for a decade as well as the overall improving landscape, the roles I have the pleasure of playing are now finally more nuanced, balanced and less focused on being one note or even race specific at all. While I still use speaking Chinese and accents as part of my repertoire, I look at it now as a way to show my versatility and range. Hopefully the trend in Hollywood continues.

Michael Tow is a SAG-AFTRA and AEA actor, & producer and director at Tow Arboleda Films.  He most recently appeared as Del Toro on NBC’s Blindspot and is currently in a lead role opposite Hollywood legend Tsai Chin in the indie film Lucky Grandma, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in early May. He is currently producing a feature documentary on comedian Joe Wong due out in 2020.

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