Story by Carol Park.
Not only is Brenda Song not your stereotypical Asian American who grew up to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, she’s a former teen star who’s managed to make the jump to adult roles while avoiding the pitfalls of a child actor.
“Transitioning from child to teenager to adult is a difficult process for anyone,” says Song, who began acting and modeling at the age of 7. “But doing it in front of the camera, you can grow with your character, and I’ve been fortunate to grow in the right direction.”
Song made a name for herself playing the ditzy heiress London Tipton on the Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and The Suite Life on Deck from 2005 to 2011. Since her Disney days, she’s played various grown-up roles on ABC’s Scandal, FOX’s New Girl and most notably the Academy Award-winning The Social Network. Currently, the 25-year-old plays Veronica on the FOX sitcom Dads, executive produced by Family Guy creator Seth Mac-Farlane. Veronica is the vice president at a successful video game company owned by childhood best friends, Eli and Warner, played by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi, respectively, whose lives are turned upside down when their fathers move in with them. Fellow Asian American Vanessa Lachey stars as Warner’s wife.
Though Veronica is described as the “voice of reason, who is never afraid to stand her ground with her bosses,” according to FOX’s website, the role was criticized by various groups, including the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as racist and offensive. The controversy centered on Song’s character forced to dress up in an anime outfit and jokes aimed at Asians.
“With the controversy, I found it interesting,” says Song. “People took a 30-second bit and, in my eyes, blew it out of proportion. Our show isn’t for everyone; that’s why I was so attracted to the character of Veronica. On a show like that, we’re able to poke fun at stereotypes. It’s empowering to get ahead of the joke.
“Something I might find funny, my dad may not find funny,” she adds. “But we’re not out to please everyone.”
Working with MacFarlane, Green and Ribisi has been humbling and a blessing, says Song. The show has helped her grow and learn from an amazing cast and crew, and she believes the show is innovative and creative while racy and edgy at the same time. And now that FOX has ordered another nine episodes from the show, it’s likely Song will have more opportunities to learn from her colleagues.
Her appreciation for the experience is likely due in no small part to her recognition that it’s difficult being an ethnic minority in Hollywood. Of Hmong Chinese and Thai descent, Song says sometimes castings can be difficult because people don’t listen to her. But she stays one step ahead, sticking to her guns, and the knowledge that the right roles will come along sooner or later has gotten her through the challenge, she says. “At the end of the day, as long as you’re passionate, if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, [ethnicity] shouldn’t matter.”
Indeed, for Song, any difficulties in her career are eclipsed by a challenge closer to home: her mother’s fight with breast cancer. A two-time breast cancer survivor, Song’s mother is currently undergoing treatment for her third bout with the disease. The experience changed her, says Song, who supports various breast cancer organizations. All she’ll say is, “Mom’s an amazing woman.”
Though Song hopes for better, fuller, older roles in the future, for now, she’s focused on taking it one day at a time. “Regardless of what you do, you have to look at things and the lessons to be learned, because the moment you stop learning, you need to stop doing what you’re doing,” she says. “You never know what the universe is going to bring you.”
Dads airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on FOX
This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-2014 issue. Purchase yours here.