Maki has also appeared in Dear White People, Wrecked, New Girl, Step Up 3D and The Big Bang Theory
Ally Maki is a fourth generation Japanese American actress. From The Big Bang Theory to ER to 2 Broke Girls to Dear White People, the chance that you’ve seen Maki on screen is highly probable.
Most recently, the 30-year-old actress landed the role of Jess in Wrecked – a TBS comedy that centres around a group of plane crash survivors who adapt to life on a remote island without modern day comforts.
Speaking to Resonate, Maki discussed growing up as a Japanese American, her passion for acting and her thoughts about Asian representation in the film industry.
CC: Tell us about your background/ethnicity.
AM: I’m 100% Japanese American and fourth generation, or Yonsei. I grew up in the small suburb of Kirkland, WA, the youngest to two older brothers. I was the only Asian American kid in my class, other than one other Hapa guy (who I thought was very cool). I read constantly and was always writing little short stories in my bedroom. I was addicted to my Walkman, where the Spice Girls and Monica were on repeat. I was a total All-American girl. The funny thing about being Japanese American, is people don’t realize how long we’ve been in this country. Our Americanization is deep.
AM: My grandmother was in the internment camps as a teenager, while my grandfather fought for the American’s in the all Japanese American 442nd unit, which was the most decorated. Since my mom went back to work very shortly after I was born, my grandparent’s took care of me during the week. Their influence on me was great as a youngster. They filled my head with their experiences in the camps and old war stories from war torn Milan and Leghorn, Italy. My dad was also a huge supporter of me. He was the guy who bought me a ticket to Florida, when I got the harebrained idea to audition for the Mickey Mouse Club. HIs ancestors came from the samurai in feudal Japan. I take great pride in my heritage and where I come from, especially since so much of it is forgotten pieces of history and not covered enough in history books.
CC: How did you get into acting?
AM: I’ve had a love for performing since before I can remember. I was the kid who put on very detailed musical puppet shows from my bedroom, but would be completely silent at school. I was insufferably shy. My mom is extremely supportive and really allowed me to try everything as a kid, even when we all knew it wasn’t going to be “my thing.” Sports was a total disaster. But I always got to try, which was important. When I started doing theater, everything started to make sense for me. It was the one place where I felt like I could be as crazy and weird as I wanted without any judgement.
AM: Living behind a character became a form of self expression for someone like me, who was too nervous to show anyone my true self or speak my own ideas or feelings. It was such an outlet. When I was 14, I got scouted by a manager and lived the majority of my teen years in an actor house for out of state kids. It was very unconventional.
CC: Who were your role models growing up?
AM: I grew up obsessively watching TGIF and Friends, so those All-American girls I saw on screen were my initial inspirations. 90’s Nickelodeon comedy kids as well. I remember being glued to the screen watching “All That” every week and thinking that’s what I’m supposed to do. My true role models were the women who raised me. I feel so incredibly lucky to have had strong women in my life. Women who made me feel like anything was possible. I had a single working mom. From the very beginning, I had these examples of inherit strength and resiliency. After the camps, my grandmother was left with $25 and a bus ticket. In spite of this, she never let anyone dictate who she was or what she could accomplish.
CC: Did you have any Asian role models?
AM: When I first moved here, no one was talking about representation or diversity. It wasn’t a topic on anyone’s radar. Even a lot of minorities. You just knew there wasn’t going to be a doll that looked like you or a well rounded Asian American character on your favorite TV show, because there “wasn’t a market for it”. And somehow we seemed to be okay with that. It’s frustrating to look back now and realize the sort of complacency there was with how it was structured. I believe that the power of social media gave this community the push it needed to finally start standing up for ourselves and gave us a voice. We are telling people that things like cultural appropriation, whitewashing or being the punchline to a joke are just not acceptable anymore.
CC: What was the process like auditioning for Wrecked?
AM: When I first read the script, I was completely sold. I wanted to be a part of the project immediately. The Shipley brothers have such a fresh take on the world that is infectious. I talk about this a lot, but I almost didn’t go to the audition because it was so engrained in my head that ethnic women couldn’t be leads. Our incredible casting director, Julie Ashton, really encouraged me to come in and assured me they were thinking completely outside of the box for every character. At that point, I felt like I had nothing to lose so I was able to just let go and really be myself. It was one of those moments where I just felt that spark in the room.
CC: What has your experience been like so far on the show?
AM: Absolutely incredible. I feel so lucky to be a part of a show that is not only challenging norms but bringing such a modern and fresh perspective to the traditional sitcom format. Since we film in tropical locations (Puerto Rico and Fiji), the cast is insanely close. We lean on each other a lot. It’s almost like a very strange adult summer camp. We know how to have a good time!
CC: Why is it important for Asian Americans to be represented on TV and movies?
AM: It’s absolutely imperative to our own existence and basic self worth to be equally represented. Not only for the sole purpose of accurately portraying how modern society looks, but also for the success and self-confidence of this next generation of Asian American creatives. I know first hand what it feels like to start thinking of yourself as merely just an accessory. That your story doesn’t matter. Being told you are limited to being a secondary stereotype or a just a “best friend,” is an idea that started to not only permeate through me, but through the whole community.
AM: It’s that question of how do you not start believing that you are solely limited to what the industry defines you as. That’s the trap of it all. It’s so extremely damaging. I imagine if I had grown up in a society where I saw Asian American girls regularly in magazines, on TV, or as well rounded role models, I may have had such different views on my own self worth and what I could accomplish. Even seeing one could’ve made all the difference. It’s important to take our own narrative back and finally be the center of our stories.
CC: What projects have you got coming up?
AM: I have a few super exciting things in the works. Right now, I’m currently filming in New Orleans and I’m having such a blast exploring the city! I’m also delving into the world of writing and developing a story based upon my family’s history. It’s an absolute passion project.
CC: What would be your advice for fellow aspiring Asian American actors?
AM: Never let your believed limitations hold you back from your creative aspirations. If you don’t see it, go be it. Colorblind casting is a relatively new thing. And still a lot of people aren’t on board. Now is the time to bond together and truly support one another. It’s the time when we need to discover what it truly means to be Asian American and break down walls to define our own legacy. Women in comedy especially, we have to stand together and really push to be unified. When I moved here, I was chasing a dream that didn’t even exist at the time. That taught me to fight. I would encourage anyone out there with “impossible dreams” to speak your mind, create your own content and get in the game and fight.