The first question I’m always asked is, “What have you been working on lately?” I’ve been so busy and many people have been hearing rumblings of what’s been going on but here it is, I can finally talk about it all. My latest project is not just producing or acting in an upcoming film, this project is bigger then that – much bigger. This project is the creation of a film company, Kinetic Films, with James Sereno and Samira Amiransari, and this company is dedicated to making films for the Asian American audience with our faces being the leads and stars of the films. We are telling our stories through pop culture cinema. We want to flood mainstream media with fresh films in a market where we haven’t always been properly represented. We’re excited for our debut film, “Hang Loose,” will be released online next month.
I’ve been fortunate to have a career in this industry that spans over the last few decades and I’m blessed to have played iconic characters such as Rufio, the leader of the Lost Boys, in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” and Zuko, the misunderstood prince of the Fire Nation, in Nickelodeon’s phenomenal hit, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Yet often I meet and talk to young newcomers to the industry who ask for advice and guidance as they embark on their journey through Hollywood. I always try to prepare them for the amazing adventure ahead by first telling them to get good at their craft, great even… Also, I let them know how hard this business is no matter who you are but the reality is it is even harder for Asian Americans due to the quantity and quality of roles available for us (or should I say lack of). See the industry in Hollywood is probably the only workplace in the nation where you legally can hire someone on the basis of how one looks and their ethnic background. The breakdowns (job listings for roles) that go out everyday consist of three categories: 1) Those that specifically state seeking “African-American” or “Native” or “Latino” American actors to fulfill a role in a movie or television show, and yes every now and then seeking “Asian.” 2) Sometimes the role will be to “Open Ethnicity,” and all of us ethnic actors will get to audition against the Caucasian actors. I’ve been fortunate to book many of those roles and many producers and directors took a chance on me as I was the “other” choice, and for all those opportunities, I’m thankful. 3) But when it doesn’t explicitly state which ethnicity they are looking for, it’s assumed Caucasian. And yes, these are the majority of the roles that go out.
Now, I’m not telling you all of this to talk bad or reprimand the industry I was raised in or to complain about it all… Make no mistake, the industry is hard for everyone weather you’re a person of color or not. I have just as many “white” friends unemployed in this town as I do friends of color, maybe even more. I’m only telling you this to give you a reality check on how the town works. If you don’t know how something works you will never be able to change it. See, the fact is, it’s not an even playing ground, it’s just not, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t win… or at least put ourselves in the best position to win. An article came out a few years ago breaking down the statistics of ethnic roles for that year’s pilot season. Asians came in dead last, behind African American, Latino and Native American. And the reality is if there are no roles to play, it is hard to book jobs, as the handful of working Asian American actors can attest to. And many will also tell you that when they do book a coveted job, more often than not, it’s a character that reinforces some old Asian stereotypes, whether it be the nerd, or broken-English speaking foreigner or evil Kung Fu master, ninja, assassin, villain! Look, those jobs are out there and I don’t look down on any of my peers for playing them, hell, I would play one to be opposite the latest Hollywood star, and I definitely would give him a run for his money! But there is so much more to who we are as Asian Americans.
And yes, I stress, Asian “American.” As much as I love Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat and all the wonderful cinema coming out of Hong Kong or Tokyo or Korea. It doesn’t speak to me in the same way or capture of the spirit of Asians in America. I know “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is great, and some will say it’s so acclaimed in Hollywood and even won an Oscar, but it won an Oscar as best “Foreign” film… Hey, we’re not “foreigners!” We’re American and it’s time for us to have a voice.
See, in the last few years I have received a handful of achievement and “Role Model” awards from the Asian American community and I’ve graciously accepted them. I’ve always understood that in the United States, the average American who didn’t necessarily know Asians, would be exposed to the handful of characters they would come across in film or television and like it or not, they we would make assumptions and form their ideas about Asians based in large part by those roles. I have been able to play roles that were non-stereotypical over my career and helped broaden what it means to be Asian. I understood that, but I always felt I’m just an actor with a certain degree of fame and I’ve done my work and hopefully I’ve helped to open some doors for our community, but what else can I do… And that’s when this company started taking place.
I guess I always just imagined that after the work I did and others including John Cho, Justin Lin, Margaret Cho and many others, Hollywood would just catch on to how cool Asians are and somehow just co-op the whole community and start making Asian American movies and television shows. It just hasn’t happened and I am no longer waiting for that dream to come true. I’ve realized that it is on us, Asian America, as a community to carve out our own voice and be responsible to tell our own stories. Now some people may jump to conclusion that Hollywood is racist. I wouldn’t advise you to go there. Not only does it not help anything, I’m not sure if it’s actually true. Hollywood is actually just a big business and as it comes down to the dollar and what money can be made of it. As of yet, we as a community haven’t proven to be a bankable commodity for them to cater to and part of that is probably on us. I once was in a meeting with a public relations company for an Asian American film and was discussing how to promote to the Asian American market. Their answer was, they don’t promote to the Asian American market. The reasoning went further to explain that as a whole, the Asian American community is primarily affluent, live in the neighborhoods they want, drive the cars they want and their children go to the schools they desire and consequently whatever they promote to mainstream America or “white” America, Asians will buy, so why spend an extra dollar to a community that they already promote to? Again, as far as business goes, I get their point of view and once again it comes back to us – if we want our voice to count and our dollars to matter in this country we have support the people that we believe in, whether it’s downloading tracks, going to see their movies or watching their YouTube videos. Look how we rallied around Jeremy Lin this year.
All that leads me to creating Kinetic Films. Our company is making movies and helping to create stars, Asian American stars. My first motive is to help create and add to the Asian American genre by consistently putting out quality films. And what I mean by this is, we are currently fulfilling our first year’s slate of four films consisting of two comedies, a drama and a musical. We have shot our first two films and won awards in festivals in Hawaii and Los Angeles and we are currently shooting our third film in Honolulu, Hawaii. Also, I’m in the middle of writing the script for the musical, which is scheduled to be shot before the end of the year. The second aim of the company is to seek out the talent of the next generation and help cultivate them – teaching them the craft of acting by giving them richer roles to play, teaching them how to make movies and equip them to succeed in the entertainment industry and simply employ them. My hope is, if we can make four films a year, we’ll look back a few years from now and see a library of films we’ve made for the community we’re proud of and hopefully one or two films, as well as one or two of our actors, will have crossed over to mainstream success… And we would have a place to call our own in the Hollywood landscape that was created on our own terms, self-sustainable by our own community – not unlike what Tyler Perry was able to accomplish for the African American community.
And now, the new talent I speak of starts of with our collaborations with Kevin Wu of KevJumba Productions. He’s already a star in his own right in the YouTube world and is a major voice of his generation and is starring and co-producing our debut film, “Hang Loose,” with myself. Meeting him and AJ Rafael (who is the star of our upcoming musical, “Red Roses”) influenced and inspired me immensely. They looked up to me as a veteran Asian American actor they grew up watching, and they’ve taught me so much about the new generation and how much YouTube has and social media has changed the world, especially in the realm of the Asian American movement. The predominance of YouTube has created stars like Kev and AJ, who have subscriber and view counts to rival the television audience or Nielsen rating of primetime shows on any given night, along with Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions, Tim De la Ghetto, Freddie Wong, Victor Kim, as well as many others, proving that we’re a large audience with immense talent and we enjoy seeing artist that look like us.
This company is very experimental and all of us involved have jumped in with that in mind and with a hope of something bigger in our hearts. We ultimately hope to impact the world and the industry, letting everyone know we exist and to add our stories to American pop culture. I want to spread the word of our company, Kinetic Films, and I want to community at large to support what we’re doing, to understand the importance of what we’re setting out to do, we’re making movies and we want everyone to buy the films, download them and enjoy them with hopes of succeeding enough to be able to continue to make films to put out more and more stories into the world. I am not naïve to believe we will rival the box office numbers of mainstream movies, but we don’t have to. We are creating micro-budgeted films that can realistically make their money back and more to be invested in future films, I believe we have come up with a self sustainable model and we can possibly make movies forever. That’s success.
So our first film, “Hang Loose,” is coming out this August, with Kevin Wu, Justin Chon and myself. You can download when it’s released at kineticfilms.com and I would love and appreciate anyone who can spread the word. I don’t think that this all will happen overnight… But I think we can make it happen.