KILLING Eve and Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh broke a significant boundary in Hollywood today.
She became the first female actor of Asian descent to be nominated for an Emmy in a lead acting category. Her performance as Eve Polastri in the BBC America series, airing locally on ABC, has won wide acclaim from critics and audiences.
But if you’re thinking that surely it can’t be right that she’s the first, that it didn’t happen until 2018, be assured that she is. And that is in large part due to the scarcity of roles for actors of Asian descent on American TV — especially lead roles.
It’s something Oh is all too aware of.
Asked by news.com.au during the promotional trail for Killing Eve, before her historic Emmy nomination today, whether she had seen much change or momentum in terms of Asian representation on American TV, she said: “The change is slow, and I mean it in the most profound way in how profoundly frustrating it is and has been.
“I’ve been in this industry for a long time and what I’ve seen and experienced is how long it takes to make actual real change — and it’s not the real change our community is needing and seeking.
“Where is our Black Panther? I know our community wants that and our community is impatient for it.”
Oh said that Asian-Americans — Oh is actually Canadian but has lived in the US for many years — don’t carry the same “burden in terms of the safety for our bodies” as African-Americans and Americans of Latino descent do, but at the heart of Asian representation, it’s about visibility.
“There’s something in the invisible feeling of many Asian-American cultures. Invisibleness is extremely, profoundly internalised. Our burden and our change are much more interior and mental.
“It’s much deeper in ways because of our love and loyalty to our families and culture. I don’t know how conscious we are, even within ourselves, how much that might be contributing to our sense of freedom and how we see ourselves.
“The change is not only reflected in Hollywood but it’s ourselves, how we see ourselves individually and as a community as a whole. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.”
While change has been slow, at least there has been some momentum. In the years since 2000, there are at least some actors of Asian descent in lead roles on American TV, even if you can count them with your fingers. And that may even be more about the sheer volume of TV, rather than replacing caucasian actors.
There’s Lucy Liu on Elementary, there was Daniel Dae Kim on Hawaii Five-O, who quit after producers refused to pay him the same as his white co-star, Priyanka Chopra on the cancelled Quantico, Maggie Q on the cancelled Designated Survivor, Ken Jeong on the cancelled Dr Ken, Mindy Kaling on now-ended The Mindy Project, Darren Criss (whose mother is Filipino) on Assassination Of Gianni Versace and there is the cast of Fresh Off The Boat, led by the phenomenally funny Constance Wu and Randall Park.
Check out shows with an ensemble cast and you might find more — Chloe Bennet (whose father is Chinese) and Ming-Na Wen on Agents of SHIELD, Danny Pudi on Community, Steven Yeun on The Walking Dead, and Lyrica Okano, Brittany Ishibashi and James Yaegashi in Marvel’s Runaways.
But where Oh is not seeing change is on children’s TV, where the next generation are subconsciously taking in ideas about visibility/invisibility.
“I have nieces and friends of mine have children,” Oh said. “I spent the past 10 years watching a lot of kids’ TV and I had not seen a change in kid’s shows for the representation of Asian-Americans.
“And that’s when I start thinking, this isn’t changing. My nieces are mixed-race and when I’m watching TV with them, I feel the history of my own heat because my nieces can’t see themselves reflected. All I see are all this TV that is still made for my friends’ kids who are blond and blue-eyed.”
Killing Eve is currently airing on ABC and on ABC iView.
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