Lights! Camera! Ethnics!by
I was at my desk typing away on a BUSINESS WEEK article when a call came in asking me to report on the hijacking of the President on Air Force One. It's a story any reporter would jump at, and as it turns out, this was an even bigger assignment than I thought.
Central Casting (officially Central Productions & Casting Inc.) was on the other end of the line. It was casting director Carlyn Davis, explaining that the agency had gotten my name from the Asian American Journalists Assn. They were looking for foreign-language speakers to play international TV reporters in Harrison Ford's new, still-untitled political thriller.
What a break! I had done a few TV news appearances for BUSINESS WEEK before, but here was a shot at Hollywood. The first whiff of heady possibilities came when Davis told me over the phone of a growing demand for actors who speak foreign languages. "It's a tough search," she said. "We have a limited number of people to choose from." Luckily, as a first-generation American, I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese and later studied it in China.
SWEATY VIGIL. I quickly stored the BUSINESS WEEK story and began writing an audition script in Mandarin--with a bit of help from a Chinese broadcaster friend I called at the Voice of America. The next morning, I tried out at Central Casting's Washington office. Two weeks later, I got a call: Out of 100 hopefuls, I had been chosen to play one of a dozen foreign TV reporters. My lucky break, of course, had a lot to do with ethnicity and maybe even something to do with acting talent, but I was up for the adventure.
So, at 7 p.m. on a muggy late summer evening, I found myself on the Ellipse across from the White House South Lawn with 150 other extras. We were the only people in Washington dressed in fall woolens for a film that takes place in mid-September. The scene is a somber candlelight vigil as America first learns of the President's hijacking en route home from Moscow. No one knows yet if he is dead or alive. TV reporters are broadcasting the urgent news. Unfortunately, since Harrison Ford, as the President, is off being hijacked, he was not on the set with us.
The extras looked like America--or at least the America seen by director Wolfgang Petersen, a German who made In the Line of Fire and Outbreak. Among the candle-holders were two African American boys (in T-shirts that read "My Lethal Weapon is My Mind"), an elderly Caucasian couple, assorted young-to-middle-aged Am-ericans in business dress, and two Indian women in saris. One held a small shrine, the other a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.
"SAME CROWD." As the vigil extras milled about, the actors playing journalists jockeyed for position. The stars on the set were Michael Hambrick, a local TV newsman playing a CNN reporter, and Werner Sonne, a friend of the director and German TV broadcaster, playing himself.
The rest of us were extras, playing on-air talent and crews from every corner of the world. There was Allan Davydov, a native of Uzbekistan temporarily in the U.S., as a Voice of America intern, and VOA broadcaster Richard Jaafar, a Moroccan, who portrayed an Arabic-speaking reporter. Sara Branscome, a Hebrew teacher who played the Israeli correspondent, had been recruited by a Central Casting employee who attends her synagogue.
With fake microphones in hand and pretend camera crews rolling, we repeated our 60-second segments almost continuously over the next nine hours, with a short break at midnight for "lunch." By 4 a.m., I had a sore throat, but I had also been upgraded from an extra to a small speaking role. In my last scene, I stood near the two male principals, Hambrick and Sonne, by the CNN truck, listening intently to the radio, which had just intercepted Air Force One signals.
That last shot of me in close proximity to the two white male principals seemed to me a fitting metaphor for what it's like for minority actors these days--almost, but not quite center stage. Still, these are, relatively speaking, boom times for ethnic actors in D.C. There is greater demand for diversity on the screen and stage, and jobs are easier to come by. Here I was, my first time out--on a lark--and I landed one.
Indeed, in chatting with my fellow actors between takes, I learn that the same handful of ethnic actors in D.C. are constantly recycled. "You go to auditions where you see the same crowd," says Stan Kang, who plays a Korean TV reporter in this movie. Kang just auditioned against two friends for a movie based on Carl Sagan's novel Contact, in which Jodie Foster plays a scientist who establishes communication with aliens. He hopes to get the part of the Asian chairman of a congressional science committee.
OPEN DOORS. The boom in multiculturalism means that more ethnic actors in D.C. are making a steady living. Producers of government educational videos and corporate training films now go out of their way to portray a racial balance, and many local players feed their families on that kind of work. "It has opened doors," says Al Twanmo, a Chinese American who played a cameraman at the vigil. And with the advent of nontraditional casting, some actors are making a name in theater. Michael S. Johnson, an African American cast as my cameraman, for example, played the title role of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice last year at D.C.'s renowned Folger Shakespeare Library.
The increasing popularity of political thrillers and other Washington-based films has also helped the ethnic market. The Pelican Brief, The American President, Nixon, and Demi Moore's upcoming Navy Cross are just a few of Hollywood's latest flicks featuring the nation's capital. And on TV, Homicide, the NBC crime series shot in Baltimore, has been a ready source of work for actors who can help give the show an ethnic, urban feel.
Soaring demand sometimes leads to strange casting. Bulgarian Lilia Slavova, who played a foreign reporter in the Ford film, has an Eastern European accent that often lands her parts as a Hispanic. Richard Dorton, a Vietnamese who played my sound man, has been everything from Chinese to Samoan to Puerto Rican--and has lost jobs for not looking Asian enough. He's now up against Kang for the role of a Japanese sniper in Bruce Willis' remake of The Day of the Jackal. Dorton lost to Kang before for the role of a grocery clerk in a lottery commercial after the client said he wasn't the Asian type.
Many actors bristle at the impulse by filmmakers to cram them into ethnic stereotypes. Gerard Ender, a Panamanian American who played a Spanish-speaking reporter, was told to get a Spanish accent for videos he has made for unions. He learned the accent from local restaurant workers. The makers of Clint Eastwood's upcoming Absolute Power, for example, recently held a casting call for a bumbling, subservient, thickly accented Chinese waiter. "I'd like to think that we have progressed beyond Asian Stepin Fetchits," one Asian American actor says.
The surest way to end such negative typecasting, say minority performers, is to get behind the cameras. "Minorities need to get in positions of power working for studios," says Jeanine T. Abraham, an African American actress who will play Harriet Tubman at the Underground Railway Theater in Arlington, Mass., early next year. "We need to work on it ourselves to get our movies made."
Indeed, as I contemplate my budding film career, I wonder if my next move should be writing a screenplay featuring yours truly. That way, at least, I could control the fate of my character. For now, I'm just hoping Petersen doesn't leave me on the cutting room floor.