Steven Yeun Should Not Be Auditioning For 5 Line Roles

Last month on Tigerbelly, a podcast featuring comedian Bobby Lee and his best friend Khalyla, Lee spoke about a recent audition he went to read for. The project was a “stoner movie” and the role was a small one with 5 lines. To Lee’s dismay, he ran into actor Steven Yeun there, auditioning for the same part. Lee was pissed Yeun even had to audition – so pissed he wanted to take him outside to yell at him afterwards. Let me tell y’all, I never felt more like Bobby Lee in my life. We are all Bobby Lee in this moment.

Steven Yeun is most known for playing Glenn Rhee, arguably one of the most beloved characters in AMC’s The Walking Dead. After Glenn met his gruesome fate, social media was trending with sad sentiments but also optimism for a bright future in Yeun’s career. Although there is no confirmed truth to the rumors, Yeun as Nightwing in the DCEU franchise is one of the most popular fancasts out there. Why, then, is he standing in line to read for a minor movie role of a mere 5 lines? When asked this by Lee, Yeun’s answer was this: “Dude, I gotta read.” The cold, hard truth. Let’s not beat around the bush – the reason he has to read for these minor roles is not through any fault of his own. It is because Hollywood doesn’t want to give him bigger opportunities.

Underrepresentation of Asian actors is nothing new. In response to criticism, the same tired canned responses are dropped on us:

“There are no A-list Asian celebrities fit for the role.”

“Asians don’t have the star power to bring box office success.”

“Casting is entirely based on merit.”

Don’t even get me started on responses to whitewashing. All these excuses are cute and all, but there is no basis for these statements. How can you claim these absolutes when Asian actors are rarely given leading film roles in the first place? Hollywood should look no further than the word of their own audience as proof that we want Asian representation and that Asians can be candidates for success. I can’t even believe I have to provide these points as arguments, but here we go.

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Fresh Off the Boat

ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat has found immense success on the small screen. The show follows a Taiwanese family that has moved from their comfortable life in Washington DC’s Chinatown to the wild unknown territory of Orlando, Florida. With great ratings, it is expected to be renewed for a fourth season. (Can I also mention how badass Constance Wu is? Constance Wu is extremely badass.)

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The Asian characters of Rogue One

Alright, we already know Rogue One was going to do well at the box office. It’s freakin’ Star Wars. The point I want to make is that the characters of Bodhi Rook, Chirrut Îmwe, and Baze Malbus, all of whom are played by Asian actors, have become iconic and loved characters in the heartbreakingly short time they were introduced to us.

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#StarringJohnCho

#StarringJohnCho, a social project in which John Cho is photoshopped as the leading role in blockbuster movie posters, has gone viral. The reception to this phenomenon has been largely positive, and honestly, John Cho would look mad good as the lead in any movie.

ghost-in-the-shell-2

Internet response to whitewashing

Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi. Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Nat Wolff as Light Yagami. The social media response to these whitewashed castings has been loud and powerful. Even before these castings were announced, fans pleaded with the production companies to cast Asian actors. Why aren’t they listening?

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The reason for this article in the first place – Glenn Rhee of The Walking Dead

Glenn is a prime example of a well-written and well-loved Asian character played by a talented Asian actor. What makes Glenn so great is that while yes, he’s Asian, this is not what defines him. He is a character that happens to be Asian. He is, above all, a multidimensional person. No one can say it better than Steven Yeun said it in his post-Walking Dead interview with GQ:

Honestly, the privilege that I had to play an Asian-American character that didn’t have to apologize at all for being Asian, or even acknowledge that he was Asian. Obviously, you’re going to address it. It’s real. It’s a thing. I am Asian, and Glenn is Asian. But I was very honored to be able to play somebody that showed multiple sides, and showed depth, and showed a way to relate to everyone. It was quite an honor, in that regard.

So what’s it going to be, Hollywood? When are you going to acknowledge that Asians are real people with real talent?  Steven Yeun deserves better. We – the underrated and underrepresented – all deserve better.

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8 comments

  1. There are enough Asians in the world, especially in the Chinese market, to support an Asian male as lead. Let’s say that Hollywood is thinking about numbers (which is there excuse for pretty much all their casting choices)…they MUST consider the Chinese market. Films with people of color don’t generally do well in the Asian market, but slap a white dude on celluloid and they can rake in millions. Could it be that Asians themselves don’t want to see an Asian male in a leading role? Is it just Asian-Americans who care?
    I spent a lot of time caping for Asians to be better represented and against whitewashing projects that were created with Asian characters, but I’ve noticed that Japanese and Chinese creators are fine and dandy with Scarlett Johannson and Matt Damon being the lead. Representation matters. So does power. The Asian power brokers are the audiences themselves.

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    1. as an asian person who grew up in asia and has spent the last 10 years or so in the US, i didn’t truly understand what it was like to be marginalized until i had lived some time as an ethnic minority. people like myself are not marginalized and othered in my own country, and about ten years ago it’s possible i wouldn’t really have understood whitewashing concerns. people in japan and china have plenty of movies featuring japanese and chinese people and made by japanese and chinese people.

      with regards to the box office results in asian countries, i’m curious to know your sources on that? it’s also assuming that leads of colour are absolutely the defining factor in these results, when i’m a little skeptical that that is the case, especially considering that A) there’s a lot of other things that go into marketing a movie and B) White Lead vs. Not White Lead (lumping anyone not of obvious euro descent into one category??) is too huge of a simplification for me. i’m also not sure that it takes into account other asian-made movies featuring asian leads. Ip Man 3 outsold The Force Awakens in my country.

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  2. I’ve thought about the trajectory of Steven Yeun’s career ever since Glen’s devastating demise on TWD. There’s this hope I have that he will be given an opportunity to capitalise on his popularity and success from TWD and Hollywood would take a chance to cast him in a big film, pulling in his fans from Walking dead hungry to see him again thus giving him potentially big office appeal.

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