Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Playing the Japanese

For those who don't really know, I work in theater. I have turned into producer/director in the past several years but once upon a time, I actually made my living acting. After getting out of college with the degree in performing arts, I quickly learned that opportunities are different for those who are labeled as "actors of color" (I would be the yellow one, I suppose). Not exactly less, but just different. This was in the 90's and mixed race cast on traditional shows were still new. So I worked a lot with a couple of theater companies that liked doing that sort of thing.

Aside from theater, there are variety of film work for actors that general public would never see. You got your traditional Hollywood films, TV shows, TV commercials--local and national. But then you got what we call in the business, "industrials," which is training films to be used within companies. They are not at all artful and often full of technical terms that are difficult to memorize, but they pay really well. I know actors who do mostly these gigs. And here is what I discovered in doing these. Generally speaking, theater world is less racist than on-camera world. For example, I have played a number of roles on stage that is not traditionally Asian. However, for these on-camera gigs, I got called in if they needed someone to play the Japanese. And often a Japanese who didn't speak English well, or spoke English with a thick accent, or a tourist. Some gigs didn't care if you were actually Japanese (given by the fact that there were other Asians called who were Chinese, Korean, and even Filipinos--I say "even" because in my Asian opinion, Filipinos and other South Asian people don't look Japanese), and some did. I did them all.

I once did a local PBS spot about learning English as a second language and played a Japanese woman who spoke very little English. They wanted an accent. As I have moved here at 15, I have an accent but it's slight--or so I have been told. I actually worked my butt off to not have an accent so that I can be taken seriously. Ironically though, for my profession, people wanted a thick accent for comedic affect. So now I can do a various degrees of Japanese accent. ANYWAY, for this gig, I was going in with this big fat accent and they had a dialect expert on the set. An older white gentleman who was on headset to make sure all of the "ethnic"actors brought in had authentic accents. I'm not sure why, but I got nervous. What if my accent isn't good enough? Will they fire me??? But thankfully, when I got done saying my lines, the lad just looked at the director and said, "yeah, that's pretty much spot on."

My most surreal moment of playing the Japanese, I must say, was in The Spanish Prisoner. This film was directed by David Mamet and was shooting in Boston where I lived. There was a call for a Japanese actress to play a US Marshall who could also look like a high school girl (if you watch the movie, you know why). My agent called me in and I read for the part and apparently it was down to me and this other woman who ended up getting the part. I was too tall--that's another thing. I've been told I'm too tall for an Asian. Like I'm faking it. But Mr. Mamet wanted to throw me a bone and had me play a Japanese tour guide. A step up from playing a tourist, I suppose. My agent kept saying, "he has written this part in specially for YOU" and yet, in the script that was given to me, there were no lines written. He just wanted me to speak Japanese in the background of the scene. So I played the tour guide behind Campbell Scott and Rebecca Pidgion for two days (of which I was mostly shot from behind after I spent 2 hours in make up) and at the end of the second day, Mr. Mamet walked over to me, introduced himself, and asked if he could record me speaking Japanese for the scene. What am I going to say, I'm too busy? So I stood in the corner of Logan Airport waiting room (where the scene was being filmed) with David Mamet and the sound guy with the big microphone and translated what he wanted me to say on the fly. He thanked me for being in his movie and commented on what a beautiful language Japanese was. As strange as that experience was, I have to hand it to Mr. Mamet for his commitment to hire actual Japanese people to play his Japanese extras. He sent his people searching for authentic Japanese through the consulate and faculty of language schools. I met some interesting, non-actors on that set as well as getting to sit very near Steve Martin--I like to say I had lunch with him. Had I gotten that US Marshall part, I would have shot him in the scene but alas, that was not to be. But I still get a check in the mail now and then. I think my last one was all of 87 cents. No joke. I want to tell SAG to please stop it.

It's odd playing a stereotype. You are doing what you fight against every day in your personal life and making money off of it. When I went to a cattle call for Miss Saigon on Broadway before it opened, there were protesters. People were saying that Asian women were so often portrayed as hookers and this show was not helping. I was interviewed by NPR while I was in line. I said, "while that is very true, this show is also giving opportunities to so many Asian actors who would otherwise never have a chance to be on Broadway."

These days as I sit in my house watching TV, I naturally pay attention if a Japanese character is actually being played by a Japanese actor. It has gotten a lot better in the last 10 years, but still, there are so many times when they are played by an Asian actors who obviously doesn't speak the language and are just killing it. I just look at my husband and say, "why didn't they just call me? I'm right here."

1 comment:

  1. I feel like a bobble-head, nodding my head so much. In response more specifically to the last paragraph, I agree. It reminds me of a scene from a TV show called "Chuck." One of the main characters, Chuck, ends up yelling at what is supposed to be an upset older Thai lady. I could tell the woman was clearly not Thai because she had an accent speaking it and her pronunciation was acceptable.
    I'm an white lady married to a Thai gentleman. I've been learning the language, so I know what it's supposed to sound like. Oh Hollywood and their shortcuts.


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