Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
On July 12th, 2015, Racebending.com hosted our 5th annual panel at San Diego Comic-Con. This year’s panel was a huge hit, featuring some of today’s most talented creators and performers in popular culture! Check out our sizzle reel, full panel video, transcript, and highlights below!
SUPER ASIAN AMERICA!
Whether on screen, on the page, behind the scenes, or on the web, this panel moderated by Racebending.com will explore iconic Asian American superheroes, from Kato to Kamala Khan. Panelists discuss diversity and representation, the making of some of your favorite superheroes, and fan advocacy efforts for an Asian American Iron Fist. Prepare to geek out with actors Chloe Bennet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), Dante Basco (Avatar: The Last Airbender) and Sumalee Montano (Beware the Batman), stunt double Ilram Choi (The Amazing Spider-Man) and graphic novelists Amy Chu (Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman), Greg Pak (co-creator of Amadeus Cho), and Keith Chow (Secret Identities).
Sunday July 12, 2015 3:00pm – 4:00pm Room 29AB
Watch the full video of the panel below!
Transcript typed by Michael Le. Photos by Sunpech Photography.
DARIANE NABOR [MODERATOR FOR RACEBENDING.COM]: All right. Welcome again I’m Dariane and I’m going to introduce our panelists today. This is Super Asian America and it’s Racebending.com’s [fifth] panel here [at San Diego Comic-Con.]
How many of you guys know or have heard of Racebending.com? Thanks. For those of you who don’t know, we’re all about advocating for more diverse representation in media. So be sure to check that out. So let’s get started introducing our panelists.
Our first panelist has written for DC’s Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman, co-founded Alpha Girl Comics, and penned stories for Valiant, Image, and Vertigo. She’s contributed educational comics for institutions such as the New York Historical Society and the Museum of Chinese in Americas. She’ll be writing the first-ever solo series for supervillain Poison Ivy. Say hello to Amy Chu!
Our next panelist is an award-winning film producer, comic book writer, and Rhodes Scholar. He’s written for some of the biggest superheroes in the industry, including Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men – and co-creating Korean American supergenius Amadeus Cho along the way. Please welcome Greg Pak!
He’s the head editor of the pop culture analysis blog The Nerds of Color and host of the podcast Hard NOC Life. He’s been interviewed on outlets such as Comics Alliance and MSNBC, discussing Iron Fist and the Aloha casting controversy. Please welcome the co-editor of the Asian American superhero anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered, Keith Chow!
Our next panelist is an actor, poet, dancer, and film producer. He’s battled the mutant monsters of Doctor Stankfoot, fought Spider-Man as the sinister Scorpion, and defended New York City as the American Dragon. You know him as Rufio, leader of the Lost Boys, and as Prince Zuko, banished prince of the Fire Nation. We have Dante Basco!
She’s a Fulbright scholar and Harvard grad who stunned her parents by changing course and becoming an actress. Since then she’s guest starred on NCIS: LA, Bones, and ER. She’s voiced Arcee in Transformers: Prime, Katana in Beware the Batman, the Queen of Atlantis, and a Mandalorian bounty hunter. Give it up for Sumalee Montano!
A martial artist who’s been training since childhood, he first entered the industry as a visual effects artist. But soon enough, he found his true calling as a Hollywood stuntman. He’s taken the bumps, bruises, and broken bones for zombie survivors, Asgardian warriors, and CIA assassins. You’ve seen him handling the action for Hikaru Sulu and the Amazing Spider-Man, now welcome the man behind the mask, Ilram Choi!
She spent her early years with the Second City Youth ensemble in Chicago, honing her acting and improv skills. She’s been a pop star in China, a fashion model featured in Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and a TV host on TeenNick’s The Nightlife. She currently stars as Agent Daisy “Skye” Johnson on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Please welcome Chloe Bennet!
So for our first question I wanted to address Amy, Greg, and Keith. What inspires you to make the kind of characters and stories you create?
GREG PAK: Well, I grew up in Dallas, Texas. A Korean American kid, biracial Korean American kid growing up in Dallas, Texas. And I remember watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and thinking, “Why the hell do people like this stupid movie?” Because, you know, when I grew up, I very strongly identified with Asian.
I’ve grown a beard since then and confuse people sometimes, like at a Jewish wedding people assume I’m Jewish. But I always identified as Asian American and had a lot of anger about representation of Asian people in American media. You know, it’s the Margaret Cho thing, “That guy’s not Chinese.”
And I also grew up, my mom was the kind of mom who gave us crayons instead of coloring books, you know what I mean? She gave us blank paper. So I kind of grew up committed to storytelling. I drew and I wrote stories, that kind of thing, and I think part of the reason I was a storyteller was as a survival technique I had to learn people’s stories and learn how to tell my story.
When you’re the only person like you in your neighborhood, you learn to communicate – or that’s one way you can survive, I guess. So storytelling to me is about identity, in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s integral to who I am. And also the stories I tell tend to reflect the world in which I live.
So I’ve always tried to tell stories with diverse casts, I made a movie called Robot Stories, which is about love, death, family and robots. But the cast is largely Asian American, just because. And I strongly feel that just because is a totally viable reason for writing the stories you want to tell, you know what I’m saying? So: do it.
Also because the stories… how many people here want to be writers? Specifically want to be writers? So, you guys, stick with it, and write, you know what I mean? And write the stories with the faces and the characters and the people with the backgrounds that you feel in your heart belong in those stories. Because the world, fifteen years ago, I was writing… I’d made all these films, wrote all these comics, created Amadeus Cho 11 years ago for Marvel, and…
The day’s going to come, there are times in life when people tell you, “There’s no market for that.” There IS a market for it. There are millions of people who are hungry for these kinds of stories. And you’ve just gotta do it. And if we don’t write them, they’re not gonna get written, or they’re gonna get written badly. So it’s up to us to tell those stories, and to build that over the years. So stick with it, keep doing it!
AMY CHU: I’m gonna talk about Greg here, because he’s been writing a lot longer than me. Greg’s stories, his real life inspires me. And honestly my own personal background, I guess, would sort of fuel my characters. If you read any of my stories, I will – like Greg said – I feel responsible, I will stack the entire issue full of people of color. I go for 70%, because I’m reactionary. Okay, this is the world we live in, this is realism to me.
My very first pro story was for Vertigo. And it was a story set in Detroit. And so the protagonist is a middle-aged African American woman, and you don’t see that in comics very often. And, what, is an editor going to tell me “no, change her ethnicity, change her gender”? It’s a very real character for me, so this is very important in the kind of stuff I write.
So even though I’m writing Poison Ivy, which is a fictional character, this character represents a lot of people I know, facets of women that I know, people that I know, scientists. She’s a plant scientist, she’s not just some femme fatale who kisses people and kills them, right? I’m really not supposed to talk too much about Poison Ivy right now. Shoot, anyway.
So scratch that… but the other characters, they really actually come out of my real life. For example, there’s a very popular story that I wrote in a series called Girls Night Out. And don’t get too excited, Girls Night Out is a nursing home and it’s one of the patients, and she has Alzheimer’s. And she’s actually based on a visit to a nursing home, one of my relatives, she has Alzheimer’s. So yeah that’s kind of where I get a lot of ideas, they just kind of come from everywhere.
DARIANE: Keith, can you kind of talk about what inspired Secret Identities and Shattered?
KEITH CHOW: Sure, I love superheroes. And so when we first started on the journey toward Secret Identities… like, ten years ago? [turns to look at Greg]
GREG PAK: Yeah, that was it, yeah. Geez.
KEITH CHOW: The landscape for mainstream superhero comics was a lot different, actually. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last decade. Because when I used to do talks like this I would ask the crowd, “Name your favorite Asian American superhero.” Ten years ago… because now you can name Ms. Marvel, you can name Silk, you can name Big Hero 6, and you can name all these characters now.
But ten years ago, there was like… Iron Fist? And they’re like, “Uh, sorry, he’s white.” So, my partners and I – Jeff Yang (better known as the dad of Hudson Yang from Fresh Off the Boat), Parry Shen (better known as Brad Cooper from General Hospital, and a little movie called Better Luck Tomorrow), and Jerry Ma (who is an artist and art director), we came together and said, “Let’s make 100% of our characters Asian American. And let’s make them all superheroes and let’s make them all have authentic Asian American stories.”
So that… and I’m not saying it’s a direct correlation between Secret Identities and the fact that there are more Asian American superheroes now. But we wanted to have something out there for future generations to look back and say, so when I say what’s my favorite superhero, that character can actually be Asian American, and not “pretend” Asian American.
Because my favorite superhero growing up – I mean, other than Batman, of course, everybody loves Batman – but my favorite superhero was Snake Eyes. And for the longest time, Snake Eyes was Asian… right? And why couldn’t he be, right? Never saw his face. What’s his real name? Classified. Where’s he from? Classified. He doesn’t talk, he has no voice, so anyone can be under that mask. And I was still traumatized, to this day, when the comic panel – you still don’t see his face, but you see him from behind, and he’s got blond hair, and I was like…
GREG PAK: Bleached! It’s bleached!
KEITH CHOW: So that’s what inspires me, to make sure there were rosters and a universe full of Asian American superheroes that other people could go to and say, and hopefully that inspires them. And nowadays, we actually have in the mainstream comics, real characters who really reflect that Asian American spirit. I take credit for that is what I’m saying.
DARIANE: This next question is for Dante, Sumalee, Ilram, and Chloe. So everyone has different experiences with their Asian American identity, both in how you portray that identity and in how others perceive it. And how they treat you. So how does your experience as an Asian American inform the way that you approach your characters?
DANTE BASCO: Ladies first.
SUMALEE MONTANO: Well, I think, bouncing off of what Amy said, as an actor, you’re really drawing from your own experiences, and I think as an Asian American, I feel really lucky. I’m half-Thai-Chinese and I’m half-Filipino. So you create these characters based on things that are in you, whether they’re experiences or characteristics. And I feel lucky, I get to draw from a whole range of cultural experiences.
And something that Greg reminded me of, I didn’t realize this, but sometimes when I’m in a session, for some reason, my go-to emotion is anger. And when I play angry, it’s like, “Ooh, wow, she can really get angry.” And I didn’t realize, I think this is the first time I realized, I think a lot of it comes from being “the Other” growing up, growing up in Ohio. And there was literally a high school of 700 kids and less than 10 minorities. And I didn’t realize that, but I think there is a little bit of that comes from, “No, my voice wants to be heard.” And it comes from like, “No, listen to me.”
So I think there is a lot bringing your own experience, and I feel lucky that I get to draw from a really rich experience.
CHLOE BENNET: Well to be honest, I play Skye, and she was an orphan, and she… she basically had, well.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Daisy, now. It’s Daisy now.
CHLOE BENNET: What? Yes, thank you…
GREG PAK: Nerds.
CHLOE BENNET: But I did refer to her as Skye for a reason. And Skye didn’t know her ethnicity. Daisy now knows her ethnicity. But I’m actually excited to move forward in season 3 playing someone who knows who she is and where she comes from. And knowing that she is Asian American. And she had no idea, I’m sure she’s like, “I’m Mexican.” So I’m really excited to explore that now, moving forward, being the first, I don’t know, the first on-screen Marvel Asian superhero?
KEITH CHOW: Melinda May, would have…
CHLOE BENNET: Right! And on that note, I’m so lucky that our showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen is Thai, and my co-star Ming-Na Wen is Chinese, and we three women are leading our show that are Asian American, and that’s never happened.
So I’m looking forward to get to kind of explore Daisy being Chinese. That’s really exciting to me.
ILRAM CHOI: I didn’t know you were mixed.
CHLOE BENNET: Oh yeah, I’m just here, I just love Asians, but I’m Italian.
ILRAM CHOI: So for me, I do stunts, so I just play to the stereotype. So.
DANTE BASCO: You get killed a lot. You kill people and get killed a lot.
ILRAM CHOI: Yeah, pretty much. And I know kung fu.
SUMALEE MONTANO: You’re Asian, you have to know kung fu.
DANTE BASCO: Asian. Can you show us some kung fu?
You know I’ve been around a long time, in Hollywood, and to be honest, growing up I didn’t really think much about being Asian American. I actually grew up in a black and Mexican neighborhoods. And I was just, whatever, like any actor, just pushing your rock up the hill in Hollywood. When I was a kid, I had been fortunate to work a lot, what happens is how the reaction comes back and how you really start understanding what it is to be Asian. Because things will start happening, like people will come up and be like, “You’re the first cool Asian guy I’ve ever seen in a movie trailer.” Which is crazy, right?
Or kids that come up to me, Asian dudes, like “Oh, everyone calls me Rufio.” Which is great, because you’re one of the first characters, the impact that’s having, or now… adult guys will come to me, like in mixed race relationships, and they’ll be like, “You know, growing up, my wife had such the biggest crush on you. So I know you’re one of the reasons why she married me.” And I’m like, “You’re welcome.”
But the thing about it is, it’s one of these things where we don’t have, we hadn’t had a lot of “us” in Hollywood, in a way. And the more and more, things are changing, and how it’s impacting, and how the arts impact culture at large, these are the little things that, for me personally, let alone all the others, just how all of these ripples… [turns to Keith] you are responsible for all that stuff. I’m gonna give it to you.
KEITH CHOW:Rufio validated me. So I’m gonna take that.
DARIANE: Ilram, tell us a little more about how you were talking earlier about growing up in Kentucky. Tell us a little more about how that ended up here, er, in Hollywood.
ILRAM CHOI: Actually, my parents were what I had to get past, to try to do what I wanted to do. Growing up, they wanted me to be an engineer…
SUMALEE MONTANO: Doctor.
ILRAM CHOI: Doctor. All the things that Asian people should be doing. And when I said, oh I want to do stunts or be an artist. I was actually a visual effects artist before I got into stunt work. And it’s funny, yeah, my parents actually didn’t want me to go that route. I had to actually fight against them, not my friends or society, it was actually my parents that were saying, “No, you shouldn’t do that. That’s not the right thing to do. How are you gonna make money?” It’s all about money, by the way.
Yeah, I grew up in rural Kentucky. There was probably three Asians in my high school and elementary. I wanted to be white. I would be hanging out all day and come home, try to scrub off my tan. It was crazy. Because you’re hanging out, all my friends were white, and you go home, you play all day with your friends and you see yourself in the mirror and you’re just, “Wow. I’m so different looking.”
And it’s amazing that, I’m surprised, I don’t know why… I still don’t know exactly why my parents moved to Kentucky. I think it was because my dad’s friend had some job, but they wanted to move out to LA, it’s a little more perse. But they ended up in Kentucky because I had two younger sisters, and financially they were stuck. But yeah, I just did martial arts since I was a kid, wanted to do stunts when I got older, got into artwork, went to art school. And eventually just came out to LA to pursue it, on my own.
CHLOE BENNET: Well to piggyback on that, when I was a kid, I felt the same way. I mean, I didn’t know a lot… I mean, I was in Chicago, so I can’t even imagine Kentucky.
ILRAM CHOI: Yeah.
CHLOE BENNET: But I thought that to be pretty I had to be blonde. I genuinely thought that, for almost my entire life, and it really wasn’t until I really, I got onto Agents of SHIELD and kind of had this self-empowerment through Skye and now Daisy, where I find strength in myself. I found myself pretty in my own skin and not as this blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl named Jessica. You know? And I really truly have my show to thank for that.
DARIANE: Let’s extend that question a little bit more. So talking about Asian American identities and portrayals, this is to everyone, how does your experience as an Asian American inform your work behind the scenes?
DANTE BASCO: Totally. I mean, in the last, I’d say… ten years, it’s totally informed my work. Because what you realize, the longer you’re around in the industry, the longer you see that it’s not… equal. It’s not an equal playing ground. And it’s not to blame, I’m not the kind of person that’s complaining how the industry is.
It’s just that we gotta keep on creating work that’s gonna be different. The great thing now is that you’re seeing a big Asian American boom happening. We’ve seen it happen before with Latino Americans in the 90s, African Americans in the 70s, and what I’ve urged people to do is to create our own genre for ourselves, for us telling our stories, and not… the crazy thing is, you come to Comic-Con and it’s like, how do you perceive things?
So Comic-Con is the biggest con in the world celebrating the modern arts, the popular arts. And what you realize is that every artist here, every single artist is inspired so much by Asian artists. Whether it be Japan, anime, all this kind of stuff. This is the only place that I’ve been to in America, as Asians we’ve always wanted to be more white or more black, right?
The Con world is the only place you’ll see where black, white, Latino, other people are… wanna be Asian. And it’s the… craziest… when you really see it like that, as Asian Americans, you’re like, “Oh shit.” Oops, don’t say that. You’re like, “oh my god.” So we’ve gotta kind of start seeing where we do have leverage, where we are kind of leading the pack, and Comic-Con is one of the places where I would say, you could ask every artist on the floor, and you could say who their inspirations are, half of them are gonna be Asians. Which is amazing.
GREG PAK: How many of you have seen that movie, The Debut?
[points at Dante] This guy starred in this movie, it’s a Filipino American coming-of-age… what? [pointing at audience member] There you go, the “de-butt,” all right.
DANTE BASCO: Filipinos in the house, Filipinos in the house! [audience cheers]
GREG: So it’s this amazing, low-budget, independent movie that I saw, my friend Gene Cajayon made it, you know? And we’re coming up through the film festival circuit together, fresh out of film school, making these little scrappy movies. And Gene took that movie around the country, theater by theater, by himself with his team, and they found that they… they proved that there was an audience.
And [pointing at Dante] this guy is one of the reasons we’re all here. Again. Which is a roundabout way to answer the question, which is that being Asian American, one of the things, on a practical level, wanting to tell stories with perse casts has made me embrace being an independent media maker. And not just make the stuff, but do everything you can to get it out in the world.
Spike Lee has always been one of my heroes. When I was coming up, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend in 1986 – 1985, 86 – both came out with these independent movies. Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. And again, these were scrappy movies, and nobody at the time was funding black movies that were not blaxploitation movies. And these guys came out with these great, smart comedies. And they proved there was an audience.
And Spike Lee has done that again and again and again over the years, he’s changed the culture. And, well, I’ll stop, because there’s a huge conversation there, but just by refusing to accept that there’s not an audience – there is an audience, it’s just a question of reaching that audience. And in this day and age, when you’ve got social media, when you’ve got Kickstarter, there’s so many different ways to get stuff out there, you’ve got Comic-Con and film festivals and everything else. That constant hustle.
And I write for Marvel, I write for DC, and I love those gigs. But even there I’m hustling, know what I’m saying? I hustle every day to get that stuff out there. Because… [points at the audience] I hustle because I made all you guys pass my posters back for Kingsway Law, I mean Kingsway West.
AMY CHU: Now I’m feeling inadequate for not hustling enough.
GREG PAK: But that’s part of the job. You do the very best you can do and then you do as much as possible to get it out in the world. And never take “no” for an answer. Don’t try to join somebody else’s club, make your own club. If they don’t want you in the club, make your own club. And that’s part of the Asian American experience to me.
On a creative level, the experience of being Asian American, honestly, it’s like – look at every massive franchise, Harry Potter, the X-Men, all these things, they’re all about people who feel different. The central character always feels different. That’s a universal feeling. That’s not just Asian Americans, that’s everybody. That’s just a human experience, we all live in our own bodies, we’re separate from each other, our struggle as human beings is to find out where we belong. But exploring that to the very specificity of whatever character you’re dealing with, those become universal stories.
Everybody can fall in love with any character, if you write that character well. As an Asian, taking my own personal experiences and trying to understand them, and looking at those different characters I’m writing…
Clark Kent, to me, fits right into the Asian American experience. This is a dude who… I mean, I grew up in Dallas, I moved to New York. He grew up in Smallville, he moved to Metropolis. I was a half-Korean kid, he finds out he’s Kryptonian at a certain point in his life.
DANTE BASCO: Dean Cain is Asian.
GREG PAK: And Dean Cain is Superman, so there you go.
I remember that, I saw that bus go by with Dean Cain on the side, I was like, “He’s Asian. Superman is Asian.” I was standing next to a friend, he was like, “What? What’re you talking about?” I was like, “That dude’s Asian.”
KEITH CHOW: Black hair, glasses, mild-mannered when he’s at work.
GREG PAK: But those kinds of experiences can apply to whatever you’re writing. And as an Asian American, I’ve written everybody. But whatever you’re writing, your personal life becomes part of it.
KEITH CHOW: Just jumping off that, if that’s okay. Dante can’t criticize the system, but because I blog, I can criticize the system. So that’s my job.
So to jump off from what Greg was saying, that idea, that fallacy of “There isn’t an audience, for people of color”… well, it’s code for “white people aren’t going to accept people of color as the lead characters.” That’s the truth, right? Well, there is an audience here for Asian American characters, right?
But beyond that, the idea that white people can’t identify with people of color speaks ill of white people, right? Why can’t they identify with people of color? Everybody here talked about how growing up, how pop culture influenced their lives. And I’m betting that for most of us, our favorite character/superhero growing up was not Asian. They didn’t exist. It was probably a white person.
We talked about Harry Potter, we talked about the X-Men. They’re all white people and I identify with them very, very much, right? So it’s not that hard to identify with someone that’s not of your ethnicity, right? Because we’ve been doing it our whole lives.
What we need to do is have more characters of color out there, so that, to speak to that universal experience, to speak to that kid who picks up Ms. Marvel who may not be Muslim, but feels the same way being a teenage girl, and identifies with that character, right?
That’s what we’re trying to do as creators, actors, filmmakers. Put that content out there to show that there are so many different stories out there that everyone can identify with, and it isn’t one narrow slice of the audience that we’re trying to appeal to.
AMY CHU: And the great thing about comics, as opposed to TV, is that we can do this, I can do this. Now we’re talking about market and finding a market. Let’s do an experiment. I’m gonna put a Filipina character in Poison Ivy and we’ll see what happens, right? [audience cheers] Okay, then you’ve gotta buy it.
GREG PAK: That’s totally, really worth noting. When I introduced Amadeus Cho, we just did it. I was given the mandate to take an old Marvel name, a name that Marvel owned, the one I picked was Mastermind Excello, just because it sounded hilarious. And I had to make up a new character based on, using that old name. And I was like, okay, Mastermind Excello, let’s make this a Korean American kid, Amadeus Cho, make him a super genius but he also has zero impulse control. So he breaks the model minority myth in certain ways. Buys into it, but breaks it at the same time. Let’s just make it fun and have him talk too much.
And literally no one ever said, “Can we not make this guy Asian?” And I’ve had that experience time and time again, at Marvel and at DC. I’ve constantly introduced new characters who are of different backgrounds, different ethnicities. Never has anyone said, “Please don’t do that.” I mean, there is sometimes.. we have more power than we think.
DARIANE: I’m curious if any of you guys over there have any experiences where it’s been almost a barrier. Like earlier we were talking about, people asking if you knew kung fu when auditioning for a role or how you would change your name. Can you guys speak to those experiences?
SUMALEE MONTANO: I would love to share. When I was in college, I was the kid. And at Harvard, it was kind of different, because all I did was act in plays. And my academics were secondary, not to the happiness of my parents. But all I did was plays. And I think it was my sophomore year, I went out for Romeo and Juliet. And I got cast as Lady Capulet. And I was happy. Until two other students of color, who came up to me, just separately… I didn’t say anything. They were like, “Oh my god, I am so sorry, you didn’t get the role of Juliet.” And I was like, “Oh really, why?” “Well, they would never cast a non-white face against a white Romeo.” And I was like, “Really? Oh… OH.” And I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. And it really impacted me.
Because we were supposed to be a school of race-blind casting. And it never really dawned on me, but that experience is the reason that I got into voiceover. I thought to myself, okay, all I did throughout elementary school, middle school, high school was plays, acting on stage. And all of a sudden I made a switch because I thought, “Huh, well, maybe my ethnicity won’t be as much of a barrier in voiceover.” And, true enough, I mean I’m really lucky, I get to play Katana, who is basically under Glen Murakami, who created so many Batman shows and Teen Titans and Ben 10, he wrote Robin/Nightwing as an Asian woman. So I get to play that, but I also still get to play Mera, who’s a redheaded, fair-skinned woman, kind of like Emma Stone.
But yeah, you know, it really has affected me, my acting, my choice of kind of where to be, as an actor. And I love my on-camera work, but I found in voiceover I get to play so much more depth and persity. So going back to kind of like what a lot of people have said, it goes back to the writing, the creating of characters of color. Because if we don’t – I can’t, as an actor, I get the audition, I get to put my piece on it, but getting to play the Asian character comes from the writers and the creators, to have more in there. That’s my thing.
CHLOE BENNET: Yeah, I mean, when I first got to LA, I think some of you know that my name was Chloe Wang. Spelled “wang,” which is great. And I had a lot of trouble getting cast, because they’re like, “Um… this is not you, is it? Are you Chloe? Because an Asian girl was supposed to come.” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s me.” And they just… “But this is for, I thought the Asian girl was tomorrow’s audition.”
And you know, if I wasn’t the best friend, they would see my name and bring me in for the best friend role, and then I didn’t fit that for some reason. But I couldn’t be the lead, because Chloe Wang.
And so we made a big decision with my team and – not in any way to try to disassociate myself with being Chinese, because I am still 50% Chinese and no one can take that away from me, I’ve lived there – and we made the decision to change my name. Because I didn’t want to be known for being Asian, I wanted to be known for being Chloe, who is funny and cool. For myself and not for being Asian.
I’m really, really happy that they took Skye and… Daisy Johnson in the comic books is not Asian. And they made the conscious choice to make her an Asian American superhero. Which is amazing. I’m so proud, obviously that is Maurissa [Tancharoen]’s doing, which is amazing, and Megan. Is Megan here anywhere? Where is Megan? And so, it was really hard, I mean it was really hard, in Hollywood in the beginning.
Not looking particularly Chinese, it was definitely difficult. But my dad’s first name is Bennet, by the way, and I know how important in the Chinese culture to keep your father’s name. So I still kept some tradition there. So it’s not just random.
SUMALEE MONTANO: That’s the thing about Hollywood, we really have, especially as actors, we really have to adapt in a way that honors who we are, but in a way that’s acceptable. I…
DANTE BASCO: Word. So the 80s, I got to Hollywood, and I started working immediately. A lot. And this was even pre-Hook days. And then the conversation came about with my management and my agent at the time of me getting a nose job.
GREG PAK: Oh, geez.
DANTE: Crazy. So it sounds crazy now. But think about the 80s. Like Michael Jackson, a lot of people were getting nosejobs,. And then of course, people are like, “Oh, you’d be working more. Elvis had a nose job.” They’d just drop names. Like, Elvis had a nose job. Elvis?
And literally there was an appointment for me to meet the plastic surgeon. And he was like – I blocked it, by the way, it’s like this weird thing – and then I realized last minute… you know, this is the deal. I’m not a light-skinned black dude that can maybe pass for white. Or a Latino dude, if I just change my nose – which is all crazy, that you’re basically saying, “How can I look more white?” And that’s where… management and agents are telling you.
And I’m like, “There’s nothing that I can do that’s going to change me.” There’s nothing I can do that’s gonna make me white. That’s basically what it came down to. Like, oh, I’m not getting a nose job, because there’s absolutely nothing that I can do to look more white.
GREG PAK: What kind of breaks my heart about that – that reminds me of Fred Korematsu. He was one of the guys who challenged the internment camps back in the 40s. When the government was interning Japanese Americans, this guy was like, “This is WRONG!” And he actually, he was on the run, and he got an eye job. But you know what? They still got him. So… yeah.
SUMALEE MONTANO: One of the first comments that I got when I started working was, “You have to not spend too much time out in the sun.”
DANTE BASCO: Oh yeah, that’s always a conversation. To this day, they’re like, “You’re too dark… right now.”
SUMALEE MONTANO: When we go out, I was like Sumalee Montano when I go out for everything. But when I go out for commercials, so I still audition, I got a national commercial that’s about to start to air. I go out as “Suma Lee.” Because they don’t know what to do with me as “Sumalee Montano,” they think…
DANTE BASCO: We turn Mexican real fast.
SUMALEE MONTANO: I know, they’re like a Hispanic last name, with this first…?
DANTE BASCO: Filipinos turn Mexican real quick. “What kind of Asian are you? You’re like a Mexican Asian? What’s going on here?”
SUMALEE MONTANO: But it goes to what you were saying, Chloe, they don’t know what to do with you.
CHLOE BENNET: They just don’t know what to do.
SUMALEE MONTANO: Especially any kind of… mix. And so I’ve found I have to think about it when I go into audition, “Who am I, who am I? Oh, I’m Suma Lee in this role.” And it’s so weird to be on set, and everybody is calling you a different name. But… that’s what it takes. And at least our face, now you’ve got a Filipino family in the commercial, but maybe it’s because I just kind of switched my name a little bit.
CHLOE BENNET: You gotta kinda do that, I mean that’s what happened…
SUMALEE MONTANO: But at least we’re represented.
CHLOE BENNET: The first audition I had after I changed my name, 3 days later, was Nashville and I booked it. The first audition I had. So… but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not, like…
DANTE BASCO: You’re a secret, you’re a double agent. You’re a double agent. Chloe is our secret agent, you guys.
CHLOE BENNET: You know the song, “Secret Agent Man”?
DANTE BASCO: Yes.
CHLOE BENNET: My whole life, I thought it was “Secret Asian Man.”
DANTE BASCO: Me too!
CHLOE BENNET: Literally until like last year. I was singing it and my boyfriend was like, “What did you just say?” I was like, “Secret Asian Man” and he’s like, “That’s not what it is.” And I’m like, “My dad is such a liar.” Because my dad is the Chinese one, obviously, he just lied to me.
KEITH CHOW: So does your dad think you’re on a show called Asians of SHIELD?
CHLOE BENNET: Yeah, yeah.
DARIANE: You guys bring up an interesting thing, how do you guys deal with stereotypes in your work, through characters, portrayals, creating them? Ilram, how’s it been in your experience?
ILRAM CHOI: It’s funny because you guys are talking about the race kind of hinders you guys in your jobs. It’s helped me. I work the stereotype and, even in the stunt community, Asians are–
DANTE BASCO: Are badasses.
ILRAM CHOI: Are badasses. I go on and they see Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And I go on and they expect – all white guys, black guys – they look at me like, “Well, you’re gonna be the best one here.” Like–
DANTE BASCO: “Yes, I am.”
ILRAM CHOI: It’s helped me. And, look, I’m Spider-Man and I’m Asian.
DANTE BASCO: I love it.
ILRAM CHOI: Me too.
KEITH CHOW: And Spider-Man should be Asian. If Superman is Asian, Spider-Man is definitely Asian. Anyone here from Queens, NY? Anybody? 45% Asian. If you’re a nerd that’s into photography and science, taking care of your Aunt May – you’re gonna be Korean.
GREG PAK: Peter Park.
KEITH CHOW:[pointing at Ilram] Right there. Right there.
But to answer Dariane’s question, here’s the thing about stereotypes. In and of themselves, I don’t think they’re a bad thing. The whole idea, what makes a stereotype bad is when the audience or the other person that sees the stereotype doesn’t allow the person that’s being stereotyped to do something else. Right? That’s the danger of stereotypes. If someone looks at Dante and they’re like, “I bet he does martial arts.” And then when you show that you can’t — sorry, Dante. But then they go, “Well damn, you ain’t what I thought you was!” That’s the problem.
DANTE: We can create new stereotypes. Now they’re like, “you can breakdance.”
KEITH: You can breakdance, exactly. Asians can dance. I didn’t grow up knowing that. Asians couldn’t dance when I was a kid.
But so the idea about martial arts, a lot of people complained — so just background real quick, I wrote a blog saying Iron Fist should be Asian in the new Netflix show. Marvel TV, just saying. But I got a lot of pushback, “why you want the only martial arts superhero to be Asian?” And I’m like, “Well, because he’s cool.” Iron Fist is cool. And so I feel like the people who kind of dismissed the idea of an Asian American martial artist character is as guilty as perpetuating the stereotype as someone who wants to be a martial artist, because Ilram can maybe speak to this, martial arts is part of our culture. We can’t say… I grew up with martial arts, everybody on the panel probably at some point probably watched a kung fu movie. You know about Jackie Chan–
ILRAM: Bruce Lee.
KEITH: Bruce Lee is the first Asian American superhero. That is a very ingrained part of our culture. We should embrace that. The problem with martial arts and how they’ve been depicted in American media is that they’ve been one-dimensional. And I think that one of the takeaways for this whole panel is that we want to see Asian American characters with depth. Whether they’re a martial artist or a doctor or a lawyer or a stand-up comedian. We want to see characters who are Asian American who have multiple dimensions to their character. So that in the future, when other actors, the next generation of actors go out for roles, they don’t have to worry about being pigeon-holed Asian, or geek, that they can be Asian and be deep as a character.
DANTE: That’s probably partially why I think Asian Americans have been so amazing on YouTube. Right? Yes? Because there hasn’t been enough faces in mainstream media, now kids like KevJumba comes up, or Ryan Higa, and they’re just being people. They’re just being regular kids talking about regular things and laughing and joking.
GREG: He’s just a dude.
DANTE: He’s just a dude. But we haven’t seen, just the number of Asians on-stage right now, you’ve never seen this many Asians talking to each other ever, right? It’s so funny, like–
GREG: Except in Robot Stories.
DANTE: Right. It’s just the humanization of it. If you ask an Asian guy or an Asian friend, “Well, who is your friend that’s most like Brad Pitt?” “Well, this guy.” “Or who’s more like Tom Cruise out of your friends?” We’re gonna associate that, but you can’t… you could put like five Asian guys of different ethnicities and ask that of somebody, an average American. And they’d be like, “They’re all the same.” But that dude’s Cambodian, dude! So it’s just, more of… we just need more. That’s all it is.
GREG PAK: Exactly, exactly. It’s about variety. It’s about having more. Amadeus Cho is, yeah, a super genius. But just because there’s a stereotype about Asian Americans being smart, does that mean I should never write smart Asian Americans? No. I’m trying to– at the same time I created Amadeus Cho, I also created a character called Jake Oh. Who’s just a big, hot lunk. Who’s a SHIELD Agent. And I’d use him from time to time in different stories. But having that variety is, that’s the key. Also because any one of these actors could play a million different roles. And it just drives me crazy because— I worked with an actress named Wai Ching Ho who is amazing. She was in Robot Stories. Right now she’s actually Madame Gao in the Daredevil series.
KEITH CHOW: And she’s dope.
GREG PAK: She’s incredible! And I see her pop up in TV from time to time. And she’s behind the counter in a Korean deli, again and again. There’s this– it just drives me crazy, it’s just this insane waste of talent. But that wide variety, just having more, it’s exactly what you said, I’m just rambling. More! More, please. Keep writing.
DARIANE: So let’s look at the big picture here. What does the outlook look like for Asian Americans in your respective fields? And, going back to superheroes, with great power comes great responsibility. So do you, being an Asian American in your field, do you feel a sense of responsibility? Is there something there? What is it, and who are your responsible to? So let’s start with you, Amy.
AMY CHU: So now it’s like a shared responsibility. It’s so strange, I was setting up for an earlier panel, and a Chinese guys walks in with glasses. Like, “hey I left my power cord in here, did you see it?” It’s Gene Luen Yang. Hey, you know, I’ve never seen this, heard of this before, there’s like 7 Asian Americans creating comics for DC Comics all of a sudden. And I don’t think they did it on purpose, I think it just kind of happened, because if they did it on purpose, they would just have one or two.
Oh my god, I am going to get in so much trouble.
But you know what I mean? But they do recognize that things need to change, right? And I don’t put it on anybody else, you write what you wanna write. But I do personally feel, and I’m coming out of an Asian American nonprofit – they don’t know that either, by the way. I used to run an Asian American arts nonprofit in New York for Asian Americans. I met Greg before I even knew all the comics stuff. Don’t even ask me, that whole story, how I got into comics is another story. I knew Larry Hama, I didn’t even know Larry Hama was–
GREG PAK:Larry Hama, legendary Asian American comics creator.
KEITH CHOW: Creator of GI Joe.
AMY CHU: I knew him as an activist. This whole comics thing is totally by accident. So that is my background. And I do feel it is very important to do representation and to write characters that are beyond stereotypes, that are real people, and… yeah. That’s me.
GREG PAK: I think my responsibility is to tell good stories. First and foremost. It’s to be as good as I can possibly be. And telling stories that are honest and true. Because all this– I mean, I talk a lot and I apologize, and when I get excited, I get all “Head up!” and everything. But all of that political energy means nothing if the stories aren’t great. If you don’t care about those characters, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the most perse cast ever. And role models mean nothing, it’s all about just characters that are compelling.
AMY CHU: But if it’s a crappy story, at least it should be a perse story.
GREG PAK: That’s true enough, that’s true enough. Yes. But my number one job, and it’s a hard one, and I’m always trying to get better, is to always tell good stories, and to try to create characters that are compelling. That are struggling with things that we all struggle with. And that I care about and that hopefully everybody else can care about. So that’s my number one job.
In the wider world, I feel a responsibility towards all the characters that I write. I’ve been lucky enough to write characters like Storm and War Machine and Magneto. And I wrote Magneto’s origin story, Magneto Testament, which is a Jewish kid trying to save his family from the Holocaust. And in every one– Clark Kent and Batman, those guys come from specific places and I feel a responsibility to understand and get as deep… writing is a lot like acting. I did improv comedy and I did small acting over the years. But the same preparation goes into it. You have to put yourself into the shoes of that character and live and breathe it. So that’s also my responsibility, to live and breath all of these perse characters, and bring them to life.
DARIANE: Yeah. Keith?
KEITH CHOW: Well, I don’t have anything else to add on to that. But I will say, I do think– I’ll come at this as a consumer of the books that Amy and Greg write and the movies and TV shows that Dante, Sumalee, Ilram, and Chloe are part of. And it’s our job as consumers of these products to support it. To buy Greg’s books, to watch Agents of SHIELD, to watch all of the shows and movies and content that Asian American creators are putting out there is all for naught if no one out there is buying it. We’re proving that falsity right by not supporting it.
So go out there, one of the heartwarming things about this past television season– especially the network of ABC with shows like Agents of SHIELD and How to Get Away with Murder, Fresh Off the Boat, to have these perse casts and then to be clearly successful, so that all the other networks are like, “Oh, we’re going to fill our shows with perse casts, too.” We’re making the point with our wallets, right? That’s what we have to do. Support artists’ alley, find the Asian American artists, support them, support all the people up here. Buy Secret Identities. That’s what we should do.
DARIANE: We’re just about out of time.
SUMALEE MONTANO: I’d love to add one thing here.
DARIANE: Go ahead, yes.
SUMALEE MONTANO: Someone talked about earlier, I think Ilram just mentioned that one of his biggest obstacles was his own parents. Because all our parents believe in us and gave us tons of support. But as a parent, now, I have a 3-year-old. My job is to choose what I love — I’m working in an area that I love and that I’m passionate about. And it’s to show him that he can choose whatever he wants and we need more parents to encourage Asians to do what they love in the arts.
DARIANE: Thank you everyone for coming today. I wish we could keep going because this conversation is so good. But join us again next year at Comic-Con. Hopefully Comic-Con allows us back. We’re going to take a quick picture here with the panelists and then we’re gonna head out. So thank you all again for coming.