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What it’s like to be an Asian-American actor: I’m the background of other people’s stories

The author on an episode of The Good Wife
Courtesy of Mariana Leung

On an early morning in May, my fellow Chinatown residents and I were trudging through our day when a horse cart full of food broke through a gated barrier on the edge of the neighborhood. The sky was gray. All of us, hungry and abandoned, rushed toward the cart. I watched as faster people leaped on top of the cart and threw food to those of us on the ground. We fought each other in the crowd to grasp at the produce.

The mad ambush of the cart stopped, reset, and repeated.

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I was part of a group of background actors hired to play pedestrians and shopkeepers for an episode of Cinemax’s The Knick, a gritty and graphic drama about a hospital at the turn of the 20th century. This scene took place in a quarantined area of San Francisco’s Chinatown during a bubonic plague outbreak. The set was located in Yonkers, New York, 2,900 miles from San Francisco’s actual Chinatown. Designers covered several streets in gravel and dirt. Tenement buildings were dressed with painted 1901-era facades. Faded storefronts had cheongsams draped on mannequins; medicinal herbs were displayed inside.

As an Asian-American actor in New York City, 95 percent of my gigs place me in Chinatown

The scene that day called for a crusading Lady Cornelia Showalter on a mission to save starving residents of Chinatown. Our crowd of extras was directed to look sickly and desperate. When Cornelia managed to get a horse cart through the gates, we would stampede toward the cart because it represented the first bit of food we had seen in weeks.

After a few hours, the hungry, frantic energy and dirt flying in the air began to feel real. I thought of my great-grandfather. He immigrated to the San Francisco area around this period and worked in the apparel industry. I wondered if he lived through the real epidemic depicted that day. It was safe to assume he suffered through prejudice and hunger, but without a Hollywood Samaritan to save the community. He sacrificed and worked to raise my grandmother, who would raise my mother, who raised me.

As an Asian-American actor in New York City, 95 percent of my gigs place me in Chinatown. I’m the "set dressing" that helps create an exotic backdrop for lead performers. In the past five years, the majority of my trips to Chinatown have been specific to a scene, even as my real life rarely puts me there.

I worry that I enable the bigger casting issue in Hollywood that holds my friends and colleagues back

These gigs have allowed me to explore my heritage with opportunities that I never had before. I grew up in Toronto, where I had Chinese-Canadian friends and family, but when I moved to Manhattan for college, then my career, the majority of my social circle was not Chinese. My Caucasian husband and friends were only familiar with Americanized takeout places that were far from the authentic foods I knew. They didn’t understand why I had no interest in them.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in the city meant that some friends and I might have an "Asian" meal at a restaurant. The deeper traditions of paying respects to different members of your family, lion dances, and other symbols were never a part of it.

Thanks to another gig, I was able to explore New York’s oldest dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah Tea Parlor. I was happy to experience both New York and Chinese-American history in its decor and food. The people I met on set offered me a chance to talk to folks with shared experiences.

Asian-American characters are background for someone else’s story

I submitted myself for a gig to do tai chi in the background of the television show Limitless. I have watched my grandparents and other senior citizens practice this slow routine throughout my life, and I arrogantly assumed it couldn’t be that hard. I followed a crash course online and stalked senior groups at parks around the city; I quickly gained respect for the graceful elders I observed. Chinese grandparents of the world must have muscles of steel from decades of practice.

When it came time to film the scene, I found myself at a playground near Baxter Street at 6:30 am. The first person I met was a lithe martial artist who executed a perfect kick spin in midair. Intimidated, I almost turned around and went home. It turns out he was a member of a Shaolin temple, and his "warmup" had nothing to do with tai chi.

Through sheer determination not to embarrass myself, I memorized enough moves from online videos to keep up with the group. The older Chinese woman who led our practice reminded me of numerous aunts in my life. It was invigorating to be stretching and holding long, strengthening poses as the morning got lighter over the park. There is a bonding feeling when strangers get together to breathe and move in unison.

The author in the background of a Daredevil scene.
Courtesy of Mariana Leung

Our leader was generous enough not to point out my inexperience. It was a workout of a morning that gave me a connection to my grandparents. The timeline of Limitless and The Knick were more than a century apart. We may have only been a part of the background for someone else’s story, but I saw our characters as the group that found peace after years of struggle.

I was excited for my gig on The Knick. I had always wanted to see a period set in person. As a costume design fan, I wanted to drool over the corsets and lace of historical fashion. But compared with the elegant outfits of the leads, my fellow actors and I were outfitted in weathered looks in every shade of gray. My costume included a wrinkled wool top in a bruised purple hue with faded drawstring pants large enough to encircle my entire family. Ladies were under strict orders not to pluck eyebrows or wear makeup. My final on-camera look could be stylishly described as a hirsute sack.

Many of us chuckled at the hats. We wondered where the rice paddies could be found in downtown San Francisco, even in 1901. The women were styled with elaborate braids. Our clothing may have looked like we hadn’t changed in months, but our hair would look great at any music festival.

On TV sets, the crew is diverse — but the lead actors aren’t

There is a wary acceptance that onscreen, studios cast for safe, recognizable tropes. It is understood that Hollywood is not reflective of real life. Meeting full-time professional actors, I saw the challenge of being a performer who is not considered mainstream. Asian actors are rarely in lead roles. Awareness of the #WhitewashedOut movement gained the most visibility this year with the casting of Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, both playing Asian characters. It was difficult enough to find roles for Asians, and then we weren’t even cast to play ourselves.

Every set I’ve been on has had an ethnically diverse crew. I see how directors might not clue in to the lack of diversity of their work because they look out onto an inclusive set. The principal actors onscreen are only a small percentage of the entire body of employees. What they forget is that the rest of the world only sees who is put in front of the camera, and they are hoping to look into a mirror.

The author in the background in Person of Interest.
Courtesy of Mariana Leung

In my many roles billed as "Asian Pedestrian," I have run from shooters, played a murdered engineer, and watched Spider-Man ride past while strapped to a truck. I was shoved aside when the future Catwoman stole milk next to me and danced at a party attended by Daredevil and Elektra. I have enjoyed myself on many productions playing part of the scenery.

But I also worry that I enable the bigger casting issue in Hollywood that holds my friends and colleagues back. I wonder if the background was where people like myself were kept because I wasn’t doing enough to make our stories heard. I made a plan internally to write more, create more as myself, and work to support the work of others who do.

Marvel is planning a movie starring an Asian superhero, but it is waiting for the "right time." According to a fan at GameSpot’s Comic Vine boards, the studio has at least 42 existing heroes from which to choose. Producers can also look beyond old characters and take inspiration from writers who create original characters that reflect themselves. When that plan is greenlit, there is a large pool of talented directors, screenwriters, and performers available for hire.

When these productions finally start, I will be here, eagerly ready to support from my spot on the sidewalk.

Mariana Leung writes and shoots her way around the fashion industry. She started from behind the runway as a designer. She now consults in media, photography, and stories about her favorite brands.

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