Teen shows seem to offer richer opportunities for young Asian American actors these days. But what’s it like actually being “that Asian on that show”? We find out from actresses Ashley Argota, Jolene Purdy and Nikki Soohoo.
ISSUE: Spring 2011
STORY: Janice Jann
PHOTOS: Audrey Cho
Audrey Magazine: Has race ever been an issue for you in an audition or role?
Ashley Argota: It’s been an issue. There are roles that I think I’d be really good for and I’d really want to shoot, but they’re always looking for a different ethnicity — not Asian — which is kind of a bummer.
Nikki Soohoo: And then there’s the whole controversy between like, if you’re Japanese and you’re trying to play Chinese, is that fair? But at the same time, there are only so many Asian roles — is it fair to exclude the other ethnicities? Even within our own category, it’s difficult because there’s this controversy.
Jolene Purdy: I face a different thing because I’m half- Japanese and half-white. I go out for the Asian roles and I’m standing next to “true” Asian girls and they’re like, “mmm … there’s something off about you.” (Everyone laughs.) It’s hard because I’m not white either so I can’t be cast in those roles. I really have to find something that’s right for who I am, regard- less of race. I mean, I’ve played Latina!
AM: What roles do you see Asians getting cast more and more in?
NS: We’ve become parts of ensemble casts, as the love interest — we’ve definitely been a part of that. And I think they’re starting to break the stereotypes of what an Asian is, as the braniac …
AA: … or the villain …
NS: … yea, or the temptress. Now we’re playing normal roles like the girlfriend. I like that.
AA: I think that on kids’ networks we kind of all play the same thing. We’re all smart brainiacs, people cheat on tests off us, but on True Jackson, I kind of got to break the stereotypes. To play the ditzy girl was kind of a change. I think a lot of people think it’s really funny that I play the ditzy girl and they’re like, “wow, you’re not the brainiac on the show! You’re really stupid! This is really funny!”
AM: Do you think kids today have adequate Asian American role models on TV and movies?
AA: It’s getting better for sure.
NS: I think the more faces they see of us around, the more they feel like they have a place outside of the doctor’s office, outside of the engineering firm. But we’re working on it.
AM: Why did you decide to pursue acting even though you didn’t see that many people that looked like you on TV?
AA: I was from such a small town and there were barely
any Asians in our town. I didn’t want to be a small-time Asian girl that was going to go nowhere. I wanted to dream big and go big.
NS: Our generation, they’ve become a lot more artistic, but a lot of parents are still forcing them out of that track. That’s exactly why I want to do this. Because I do have the support system and I can do it and I want other people to be allowed to do it as well.
JP: I grew up in a not very supportive peer group. Everyone around me was Asian so being half, there’s already something off about you. Everyone was really good at math and quiet. I was the only one that was like, “Yea! Let’s sing! Let’s be loud!” so they didn’t really take to me or get it. I had to really not care what other people thought when I wanted to do musical theatre and performed in the talent shows. It was tough growing up.
AM: What kept you going?
JP: My mom. My mom said if it’s not fun, then it’s time to quit. So I still think that. Every time I go in for something, I think, am I still having fun? Supportive parents — definitely need to have that.
AM: You’ve all touched upon how parents put a lot of emphasis on education and maybe not enough on the performing arts. How do you think we can encourage today’s parents to be more supportive of the arts?
NS: I still value school very much. I graduated from UCLA summa cum laude. It was important to me. I think to be a better actor, you have to be more educated. The more educated you are, the more you know about yourself and the more you know about yourself, the better you will be able to express yourself. By valuing school, doing charity events, you show kids and parents, “Hey look, I can do both and so can you.” Not like the old times where people think it’s one or the other.
AA: I’m going to [NYU] nursing school so I can learn something else because I’ve been doing acting for so long.
AM: What kind of support do you get from your fans?
AA: The number one comment I get from fans: “Are you Filipino?” Everybody’s so proud that this Filipino girl made it onto a network and I’m so proud. I love it.
NS: Filipinos have a great community and they’ll support you all the way. I think some other Asian groups could pick up on that act. The more that we can get our community, Asian Americans as a whole, together, we’d be able to support each other a lot.
AM: Do you feel like the Asian American acting community is more supportive or more competitive of each other?
JP: It’s a little competitive because there are so few Asian American roles. You see the same people at different auditions so you do get to know them. You’re nice, but at the same time, it’s your job. You want it like they do. Ultimately, there is that tension there.
AM: I’ve noticed people automatically assume that Asian Americans in the spotlight should be role models for their ethnicity. Do you ever feel that pressure?
NS: The way of breaking from being just an Asian actor is that you play roles that aren’t stereotypical. That’s when you get recognized as an actor first, and then as an Asian American. It’s when [we’re] stuck in the same roles over and over again that they’re like, “well, someone has to play the Asian.” So the more that we can break out of those roles — we can talk to our directors, our writers and influence them — the more we can change it up. I think that’s what’s going to be the best for us.
— Janice Jann
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