There was such outrage about the original casting. What was your reaction before you were cast?
I was disappointed. Anytime I see whitewashing, I’m disappointed. There have been so many instances of it over the past decades that it’s been disheartening. So, it made what Ed did all the more impressive. I really feel like if we are going to make movement on this issue, it takes not just Asian-Americans or African-Americans or minorities, it takes everyone collectively to move the needle, and so Ed’s action spoke louder than a thousand words and I give him a lot of credit for doing what he did.
You have been working for a long time, do you feel like a change has been happening?
I do. I feel like there’s been more progress in the last couple of years than there has been in the past couple of decades. For whatever reason, our culture is much more open to inclusion and at the same time it’s much more polarised than it’s ever been. So, it’s an interesting dichotomy of dynamics going on. But I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be an actor of colour in our industry.
Do you think Crazy Rich Asians played a big part in that, in really spotlighting the culture?
Absolutely. It’s the first studio movie in 25 years that features an all Asian-American cast. And the fact that it did well is the most important thing. Because people talk about colour in Hollywood and they talk about white and black and brown and yellow, but really the only colour that matters is green. And so, the fact that Crazy Rich Asians did so well means that there will be chances for other movies like it.
But why do you think that Asians are even less represented than others?
Because we have allowed ourselves to be. I think African-Americans in our country have a very distinct, unique place in history. Asian-Americans don’t have that same kind of integration into the fabric of the culture, and so we are fighting for that place now. And so, we have been easier to overlook and that’s for a number of reasons, but the thing is that all of us now collectively speak up for ourselves and more importantly, create projects for ourselves.; and put ourselves in positions of power so we don’t have to ask other people and we can do it ourselves.
You act in mainstream shows and movies… When you started out, there were Asian stereotypes and of course they all wanted you to be a doctor…
First of all, you are absolutely right – my parents used to say that there are only three jobs in this world, there’s doctor, lawyer and garbage man. And if you are not a doctor or a lawyer, you are going to be the third. So, there were a couple of years after I graduated from college that it was very difficult between my father and me because he wanted me to become either a doctor or a lawyer and I actually was planning on becoming a lawyer and then I changed my mind. So, there were some hard between us, but the good news is that we are very close now and he’s very proud of my career and even tries to give me career advice once in a while.
Was it hard in the beginning?
I always had hope, otherwise I wouldn’t have pursued it. But if you were rational and looked at the odds and looked at few Asian-Americans there were on TV and film, I shouldn’t have pursued it. The odds are you would not succeed at that time. The odds are still that you would not succeed, because there is so many talented actors regardless of race, but back then for an Asian-American it was a needle in a haystack to be able to make a living.
A lot of actors cite Star Trek as being the first time that they saw somebody that looked like them on the screen and thought ‘I can do it’. But what was it that you were watching as a kid that made you feel that you do it?
Star Trek. Honestly. Star Trek was the first show I saw with a multi-racial cast. And if you think about ahead of its time it was, it’s remarkable. And it took Gene Roddenberry, a white male to say this is my vision of the future. And so, as a result of that, most of my first roles were all in science fiction because people’s perception of the kind of cast you could have in a science fiction show included Asian-Americans and it was one of the only genres that allowed it.
Were you doing plays in your backyard and stuff like that?
It was just playing cops and robbers and we would play superheroes and I really wanted to play Superman. In fact, I told this story just the other day, but when I was five years old, I loved Superman so much that I got up on my windowsill in my apartment and yelled Superman and jumped off thinking I could fly. And I landed on my chin and cut my chin open. And my dad who was a doctor, thankfully had his medicine kit with him and stitched me up right in my apartment. But that’s the extent to which I identified with comic book heroes. And I wasn’t even thinking about race and I didn’t realise it at the time how few and how little I was being represented. But that was the kind of play I was doing.
You are producing The Good Doctor, and the show is doing so well…
Yes, and there is a Japanese version of The Good Doctor now. I think I am surprised any time anything succeeds in this industry because the odds are so stacked against any given project, so I was very happily surprised. But the ingredients were there, we have an excellent writer, we have a great cast and a great idea. So, there was every reason to succeed.
You are also producing a documentary about North Korea. Can you tell us something about that?
We are still developing it so there’s a long way to go. But one of the things I am trying to do with my production company is to shine a light on issues that are a little bit more meaningful than just entertainment. The situation in North Korea is one that I have been aware of for a while, and I think that story deserves to be told.
What’s next for you?
I have a small part in a romantic comedy coming up called Always Be My Maybe and that is being released in America on Netflix. And it stars Ali Wong and Randall Park. I like variety in my career, it keeps things interesting. I went from a Broadway musical a couple of years ago, Hawaii Five-O and now Hellboy and a romantic comedy. I think it’s nice to be as versatile as you can.
Hellboy is in cinemas now