AMERICA, OPEN YOUR EYES:
The Lifelong Struggle of the Asian-American Actor to Be Viewed
BY KENTARO YOSHIDA
At first glance, Gerri Igarashi’s Brooklyn
apartment seems the perfect candidate for the “normal American
home” tab. There’s a pile of dishes in the sink, a
bouquet on the dining room table, a homey couch in the living
room and a mess of papers on the desk. There are also two rooms
for Igarashi’s two children, which is pretty close to the
2.5 kids-per-American-family average. But then, there are the
pictures that decorate the apartment walls.
They’re photos of the family members with a slight twist.
Framed prints of the Igarashi kids in Toys R’ Us, Pampers,
Jello and many other advertisements adorn the living room. Painting
the rest of the home are playbills, theater posters and even a
cereal box, which all feature Gerri or her husband in some way.
(Any regular 3x5 developed-at-the-drugstore family snapshots are
conspicuously missing.) Gerri Igarashi’s family is different.
They’re an acting family. “An Asian-American acting
family,” Gerri adds, with emphasis on the “American.”
With a hint of a smile, Gerri points to the Kellogg’s Corn
Flakes box and says, “I wasn’t too bad back then,
was I?” It’s hard to disagree, especially since she’s
able to make corn flakes look attractive. On the Kellogg’s
box, she’s sporting a charming smile along with an elegant
Japanese kimono, while delicately modeling a bowl of Corn Flakes.
Gerri’s eyes shine in the picture, and her sleek black hair
accents them well; together they paint a portrait of a strong
and graceful woman.
“I did the Corn Flakes box right at the beginning of my
career,” she says, nostalgia in her tone. “I had dreams
then, and many believed I had the talent to go with it,”
she continues, shaking her head. “But I was naïve,
and I didn’t anticipate the hidden forces that would severely
limit my career.” Her last sentence has been bled of its
passion long ago, and she bears a look of resignation.
She’s not the only one with this type of story – thousands
of Asian-American actors share the same sentiment. The “forces”
Gerri speaks of are the lack of roles available for Asian-American
actors in television, film, and Broadway theater. Asian/Pacific
Islanders, Native Americans and the disabled are the least represented
on screen, according to the Screen Acting Guild. Asian actors’
small 2.5% share of total roles cast (and a miniscule 0.4% share
on day-time television) has decreased from 2003, while the number
of roles for Latin and African-Americans in SAG has reached record
“Once when I expressed my desire to play Guinevere in Camelot,
I was told that perhaps I could, in ‘theatre for the blind,’”
says Christina Toy Johnson, one of the few well-established, non-traditional
Asian-American actors. (Her resume includes co-starring and featured
roles in Broadway, film, and television.) “Another time
I lost a job, after being recommended by the director to the producer,
because the producer wanted ‘a regular girl.’”
When Asian-American actors do book a role, they often could have
named the part long before their agent called. Keenan Shimizu,
an Asian-American who has made acting his career for thirty years,
says, “Foreigners, villainous martial artists, professionals
[doctors, scientists, etc.] or fatherly sages. That’s what
Asian-American men get called for, and anything outside that is
For Asian-American women, the roles are similarly restricted.
Stifling a sigh, Gerri reels off a list well known to her, “Let’s
see, there’s the “dragon lady" femme fatale roles,
the "China doll" submissive types, the dry cleaner/manicurist,
or the newscaster. It’s also amazing that there’s
still this misconception that all Asian actors can do Asian accents
and martial arts.”
Considering that Asians began to settle in America roughly a century
ago, these misconceptions are, indeed, puzzling. Equally perplexing
is that no Asian-American has won an Academy Award for acting,
and only two (Pat Morita and Ken Watanabe) have received a nomination.
What about Asian-American actors in Broadway theater? The facts
here also paint a gloomy picture, as there hasn’t been more
than one non-typecast Asian-American female portrayed on a Broadway
play since 1992. In some ways, Broadway can be more backwards
than television because they will cast non-Asian actors to play
Asian characters (i.e. The King and I and South Pacific).
On a positive note for Asian actors, this practice has decreased
since Miss Saigon cast English actor Jonathan Pryce as an Asian
character in 1990, causing a huge outcry from the Asian community.
(Pryce wore heavy prosthetic eyelids for the role, until people
complained that it was racially offensive.)
Following the Yellow Brick Road
Gerri finishes fixing her make-up and puts her blush into her
purse. She drums her fingers softly on the table, then uncrosses
and re-crosses her legs. She’s finished her paper, and now
has run out of things to do. Gerri is in the holding area on the
Interpreter, a big-budget film starring Nicole Kidman with a opening
date set in early 2005. The actors that play the “general
public” in the movie stay in the holding area.
“I do about twenty of these a year, but it’s just
to keep the food on the table,” Gerri says with a restless
look in her eyes. “This isn’t really acting.”
As the day progresses, her comments prove self-evident. The actors
are herded in and out of set, and their foremost job is to remain
“I didn’t train all those years for this. I just wanted
a real chance to show my skills, and if I had been given more
of an opportunity who knows what would’ve...” Gerri’s
voice trails off, and she takes a deep breath.
Alan Muraoka, who has been acting and directing professionally
for over two decades, seems to finish Gerri’s thought. “I
graduated from a very distinguished acting program at UCLA and
then won the Musical Theater Scholarship that Carol Burnett endows,”
says Muraoka proudly. “During that time, I scored many diverse
“But when I graduated, everything changed. Often, even though
we had the same agent and were the same age, my Caucasian acting
friends from UCLA would be called to audition for non-race specific
roles while I would not.”
When Muraoka did receive a chance at a prominent non-race specific
role, he made the most of it. In 1997, he went to an audition
for a major reoccurring character on Sesame Street. Although the
producers were not originally looking for an Asian-American actor,
Muraoka impressed them enough to be considered. After numerous
call-backs, Muraoka was informed that he had booked the role of
“Mr. Hooper,” which he still owns today.
Christina Toy Johnson also has had success when given the opportunity
to audition for non-race specific roles. When she booked the role
of Detective Lisa West in 1998, becoming a series regular on One
Life to Live, she also became the only regularly recurring Asian-American
actor on a soap opera at the time.
Unfortunately, minor breakthroughs are not enough to push the
Asian-American entertainer into the mainstream. Asian-American
actors need to achieve landmark successes, ones that will make
America take notice. And as we speak, Asian-American actors have
good reasons to believe this will materialize soon.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, released this summer with
moderate box-office success, was the first mainstream Hollywood
movie to star two Asian-American men. “While it wasn’t
a blockbuster, I wouldn’t underestimate its significance,”
says Johnson. “First of all, it wasn’t a flop –
it actually penetrated far enough into the mainstream that a person
off the street has heard of it. Secondly, when you see the movie,
you can tell the two main actors are people who are also, incidentally,
Ken Watanabe’s nomination for the 2003 Oscar’s Best
Supporting Actor for his role as Katsumoto in The Last Samurai
is another reason for Asian-American thespians to be hopeful.
“The Last Samurai definitely qualifies as a smash hit [box-office
totals came to over 100 million], and millions of people saw Watanabe
give an exceptional performance,” says Gerri. “More
importantly, while he wasn’t the lead actor, Watanabe had
a multi-dimensional role. Plus, he got the opportunity to really
And these breakthroughs don’t look like isolated events.
Rick Yune (The Fast and the Furious, Die Another Day) is booked
to play a romantic lead opposite a famous singer in the film The
Fifth Commandment. Ken Watanabe has two major films on his plate:
Memoirs of a Geisha and Batman Begins. Perhaps more momentous
is the pending launch of the sitcom Hold the Rice (holdtherice.com),
which boasts Cece Tsouas as the lead. Tsouas’ character
is about as un-stereotypically Asian as you can get – she
is a blonde car mechanic.
Still, Shimizu cautions against excessive optimism. “We
had something like this in 1994, when Double Happiness and The
Joy Luck Club became hits. Suddenly, the buzz was that everything
was going to change for us [Asian-American actors]. Then, in 1998,
Margaret Cho’s sitcom bombed and that “Asian wave”
that everyone was anticipating never materialized.”
“There have been many times where I really thought we were
progressing, and that we were so close to a tremendous breakthrough,”
Gerri also confesses. “But in the end, it’s like we’ve
been walking down this yellow brick road, and, like Dorothy and
her companions, at the end we find that we put our hopes into
Fighting Back, Sans the Karate Chop
Since Asian-American actors don’t have power over what roles
are created, there isn’t much they can do to incite diversity.
While they can decline roles that are offensively stereotypical,
there will always be some hungry actor with “yellow skin”
ready to take that paycheck. Also, rejecting a job spells death
for an actor’s career, unless the actor is a well-established
star. So, what recourse is left?
“There is no recourse for the Asian-American actor,”
responds Muraoka. “That’s why we have to get behind
the camera, where we can actually create roles and influence the
casting process. We have even less Asian-Americans there [behind
the scenes], and that’s the real source of the problem.”
Statistics from the Writers Guild strongly back Muraoka’s
claim. From 1998 to 2003, only 5% of the writers for television
and film have been Asian.
“How can we expect writers who don’t identify with
us to create meaningful roles for us?” Gerri asks. “Since
the Caucasian writer doesn’t know us, when he writes us
into a script he uses what he does know: stereotypes.”
Becoming writers isn’t the only way Asians can influence
the acting business; there’s also directing and managing.
Muraoka has directed over ten productions and plans to do many
more. “When I direct, I have a say in how we cast. I believe
I actually will make more of an impact for Asian-American actors
as a director than as an actor.”
Ken Park, who manages actors in New York City, is also pushing
hard for change from the other side. “This is why I get
up in the morning: to fight for better roles for Asian-American
actors today. My mission is to push Asian talent into the mainstream,”
he says emphatically. Park concentrates on getting his Asian-American
actors chances to audition for non-typecast roles, and he is valued
in the Asian-American acting community. “Ken Park has been
wonderful for us, and we desperately need more like him,”
* * *
After finishing a lengthy day of extra work
on the Interpreter, Gerri is at home touching up her make-up again.
There’s a shimmer in her eyes that was absent at the Interpreter,
and it’s almost as bright as the one she has on the Corn
Flakes box. Once that’s complete, she rushes to her room
to change clothes. It’s almost 6:00 p.m., and she’s
in a hurry. Where is she headed? Could it be to an audition for
a lead role or a rehearsal for a Broadway play or major film?
“Screenplay writing class,” she exclaims with a smile.