Jodi Long – Actor (2006-2007)

Fresh out of Purchase College with a BFA in Theater Arts, I lined up at Equity open calls for any part I thought I was right for.  As an Asian American embarking on an acting career, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, for even though my classical training had me playing all kinds of roles in school, it was another thing to be cast, race non-specific, in a professional production.

Yet I was determined. Once, prepared with Emily’s last speech from Our Town, I waited at an open call for hours to be seen for a new regional production of that play.  When finally my name was called, I walked into the audition room to be greeted by three very surprised faces.

“What part are you here for?” someone asked.

“Emily”, I said with my most winning disposition.

There was a pause, and then one of the producer/directors said, “Oh, well, we’re not doing this… like that.”

“Like what?”

“Well you couldn’t possibly play Emily. ”

And believe it or not, they wouldn’t even let me read … and after I waited all those hours!

What I fail to mention is, it was the late 1970’s, and even though we think of the ‘70’s as a time of great social awakening, Asian Americans embarking upon acting careers were up against a wall of racial stereotypes and small mindedness.  It seemed the deck was stacked against us.  Thankfully things have changed.  Today it would be very un-PC to react the way they did at that audition.  Now, I am allowed to compete whether or not they are casting “colorblind” or “Non-traditionally”.  Although I have always disliked the negative connotation of those two descriptions; maybe it is time to consider a more positive image. What about All Ethnicities Casting, or All One Casting?

When I did my first TV series in 1992, Café Americain with Valerie Bertinelli, I was the only Asian American face on Network TV.  The next year, I was cast in All American Girl as Margaret Cho’s mother, and my Asian face was one of six!  It was a small victory: the only Asian American sitcom in over 20 years!  The last time there had been Asian faces on the small screen was in the ‘70’s: Mr. T and Tina with Pat Morita and Pat Suzuki.

In 2007, I am encouraged to see shows like Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes with major story lines written for Asian American actors and interracial relationships.  I applaud those writer/creator/producers who represent the world as it really is – multi-cultural, multi-racial – with interracial romantic relationships. I think it makes these shows more interesting than the usual primetime fare.  I’d go so far as to say it is one of the reasons they are successful.

But it is not enough.  As Asian Americans, we are still up against hackneyed stereotypes; whether it is the dragon lady, the studious nerd, the Korean grocer. As much as I enjoy Lost, the two Asian Actors (Daniel Dae Kim & Yunjin Kim) for the first season only spoke Korean! And the Heroes Asian characters speak Japanese!  I am happy for the exposure of Asian faces on national television and the work and opportunity this affords these talented actors, but if you really look at it, we are still thought of and portrayed as “foreigners”. Thankfully, Sandra Oh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy is a red blooded American girl who just happens to be of Asian descent.

Here in Los Angeles for the 2007 pilot season, I have been seen for all kinds of roles, racially specific and non-specific. I get seen for a lot of African American/Latino parts.  I also get seen for parts written originally for men.  So the good news is, things have gotten better, but there’s still a ways to go.

From where I stand, there is a vast improvement in how the net is cast wide for a variety of parts. Definitely progress. But one of the problems with being seen for parts “across the board” is that the writer/creators have usually written a part with something very specific in mind – like their cousin Sally with the red hair.  Or the friend they grew up with.  So not only do you have to be extraordinary in the audition, you also have to divest them of or put to rest their “idea” of the role.  The writer of course wants to realize their vision. And that’s an important part of the process. But while recognizing that, I have to say that it can be frustrating when they love your work but they cast the actor that reminds them of cousin Sally.

Television has gotten better.  Regional theater has gotten better – especially when doing the classics.  But “non traditional” casting in commercial theater in NY especially on Broadway and in feature films has not changed much unless, that is, you’re a highly-visible star like Denzel Washinton (Julius Caesar) or Gong Li (Miami Vice).

An insidious upshot of the globalization of the entertainment industry is a sort of reverse racism: Hollywood ignores the community of Asian American actors at home and goes overseas to cast foreign Asian actors – looking for “real Asians”. In Memoirs of a Geisha there were only a handful of Asian American actors cast and fewer in Iwo Jima.   Snow Falling on Cedars, another film where Asian American actors were neglected, featured the lovely Youki Kouda who had to learn to speak English in an Asian American part!  Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang had speech coaches so their English could be understood in Geisha!  This is outsourcing our jobs!  If Meryl Streep can do a Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice why can’t an Asian American actor portray an Asian in a Hollywood movie?

And that leads to the question: Why aren’t there more Asian Amercian “stars”? Not only are the opportunities where one can work on one’s craft far and few between, but so too are the parts that make stars. Jason Scott Lee, a terrific actor who starred in the Bruce Lee biopic a while back, should be working all the time.  So should Lucy Lui.  But were they in Geisha?

Bill Cosby once told me that if I wanted to break out, I would have to write my own vehicle.  That was the only way I could truly effect a change: a change in the opportunities that were open to me and a change in the way a woman like me would be perceived.  The Cosby Show of the 1980’s was a perfect example of what he was talking about.  It not only changed television, but it changed people’s perception of how African Americans lived. They weren’t all drug dealers and pimps.  The Huxtables were just a middle class family with all the problems that came with that – who just happened to be black.

So in the end, it all starts with the writing, the creation. As you go forward as actors, artists, create your own opportunities. Whether it is writing or producing that Off Broadway play, short film, or teleplay. Do it. Risk it. What do you want to say about the world around you, and how do you effect change if you don’t like what you see?  If writing is not your talent, work as much as you can on your actor’s craft.  Challenge yourself, and if you’re not getting work, go take an acting class and challenge yourself there. When you’re involved in the work and not paying much attention, the call will come and you’ll be relaxed in your own skin and ready.

I am proud to have been an actor who was part of the first Non-Traditional Casting Project symposium with James Earl Jones on Broadway in 1986. In the end it is not one person who breaks through.  It is the diligence and hard work of many raising the consciousness to accept the non-traditional casting process. I have always felt that yes, when I walk out on stage, or am seen in a film, the audience will at first see only an Asian woman.  But if I am truly doing my job, in the end I will be seen simply as a woman who experiences the same things as any other human being regardless of race, gender or creed.

Finally, what has sustained me throughout my 30-odd-year career has been my core belief that what I have to say is unique and only I can say it. It is the sum of my life, the story of my experience. There are other actors that are good, but none can say it quite the way I can, be it in a play, a film, or a teleplay.
So yes, even though things have changed for the better, being an actor of color still comes with a specific set of challenges. My only advice is find your voice and express it and let it sustain you through the ups and downs of this business.  Whether you are Latino, African American, Asian American, American Indian, or Caucasian YOUR VOICE is unique and as actors, artists, let that be what launches your boat and keeps it asail.

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