I am an actor because I love acting, and I am an actor because I am an activist.
In drama school, we have a compulsory module to prepare us for the life of being a professional actor. Apart from the dreadful exercise in which someone stands in the middle of the room while the rest of the class discusses what character stereotypes that person fits into, the module also emphasizes a set of rules, including: never be a snitch, don’t be political, and stay out of controversies.
On 29 August 2017, Ed Skrein made history by being the first actor to turn down a role amidst a whitewashing controversy. The role was Major Ben Daimio in the upcoming Hellboy reboot and was originally a Japanese-American character. Skrein, who has English and Austrian-Jewish descent, received praise and gratitude around the world for making such a tough decision on the cusp of a career breakthrough. The East Asian community was thrilled to have an ally that courageously and selflessly took action instead of hiding behind weak excuses or mentioning reverse racism.
As an East Asian actor just stepping into the big, scary world of casting, I was delighted by this news. Having spent the greater half of my drama school years reading countless articles on Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson’s defenses over taking on roles that were meant for, or could have gone to actors of East Asian descent, I felt so proud to see that our protests had finally resulted in progress. But, with this feeling of pride came discomfort.
It did not comfort me to know that we had to be relentlessly vocal just for something to change, even after campaigning against similar controversies in the past. It did not comfort me to know that somewhere in Hollywood, yet another person had not considered the implications of casting a white actor in a rare role originally created as a character of colour. It certainly did not comfort me to see the entire East Asian community praise and thank Skrein profusely for setting a fine, much needed example to all other white actors, even those with higher statuses and larger paychecks.
Why should we celebrate? Why should we feel gratitude in the first place? I can’t help but wonder how similar or different the reaction would have been if Major Ben Daimio had been written as a black character. Would we still have praised Skrein for his courage and selflessness, or would we have shaken our heads in disappointment, wondering whose audacious decision it had been to cast a white man in a black role, or would this situation had even happened at all, in the middle of 2017?
“Don’t be political.” Perhaps this would apply to a large majority of actors, but it is a huge ask of anyone whose existence in the industry is political in itself. I can’t just be an actor; I have to be an ‘East Asian’ actor, and suddenly the roles I play take on new significance. If I play Juliet, my forbidden romance with Romeo becomes about racial tension. If I play Ophelia, I am the Oriental lotus flower with unrequited love. If I play Lady Macbeth, I am a dragon lady.
I wish I didn’t have to be political. Like many others, I started acting and joining theatre groups because it was a place where I could ‘be myself’, or where I could be whomever I wanted because I was so uncomfortable in my own shoes. But when you grow up seeing yourself only in brothels, takeaways, gambling dens, temples, the mafia, the background, the basic plot device to advance the white character’s narrative, you start to question where you belong, not just on stage and screen, but in the real world. And when you are standing in the middle of a room with your classmates telling you that you are most likely to play the demon, the mistress, the criminal, the nerd, best friend, you start to wonder who you truly are. Worse still, others will think they know who you are and where you belong, and continue to place you in those boxes, and make those decisions for you, in reel and real life. Or perhaps even go as far as to insinuate that they can do a better job than you, as with the case of Music Theatre Wales’ The Golden Dragon. The production, which was clearly set in a Chinese takeaway with characters blatantly described as “Chinese” and “Asian” in publicity material, featured an all-white cast. Music Theatre Wales attempted to defend the casting choice by emphasising the production’s universal themes and surrealist qualities.
That being said, change is coming, as demonstrated with Ed Skrein and the Hackney Empire, who eventually cancelled The Golden Dragon from their programming after a strong outcry from the BEA community. People with systematic privilege are starting to ally with the East Asian community. Narratives are becoming more diverse and casting is becoming more colour-conscious. More actors of colour are emerging, and many are using their visibility to challenge the status quo and subvert limited stereotypes. They are political and proud, and so am I.
I am an actor because I love acting, and I am an actor because I am an activist. I can’t be one and not the other, because I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of visibility and representation, and because right now, I am not allowed to just be.