Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Tom Huang is an Asian American director, writer, and actor. Why Am I Doing This? is his second independent feature film. It chronicles the lives of two performers of color as they struggle to break into the industry. Tony (Tom Huang) and Lester (Anthony Montgomery) must grapple with industry stereotypes, family drama, girlfriend issues, and the crap jobs aspiring actors have to take on the side in order to cover rent.
As an independent movie, Why Am I Doing This? offers an bitingly funny and honest look at the entertainment industry and what it’s like to live in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Why Am I Doing This? was released on DVD on July 13th, 2010.
Racebending.com co-founder Marissa Lee attended a screening of Why Am I Doing This? in Beverly Hills and followed up with director, writer, and actor Tom Huang via email.
RACEBENDING.COM: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do!
TOM HUANG: Well, I’m Tom Huang, indie filmmaker (cue: hero trumpet blare). I work on writing, producing, and editing my own indie film projects (that’s the indie filmmaker part of me) as well as doing various jobs in Hollywood as a producer, editor, director and writer to pay the bills. I wrote for network TV for a few seasons before making Why Am I Doing This?, which is my second feature.
RACEBENDING.COM:What inspired you to make Why Am I Doing This?l
TOM HUANG: After my first indie feature, freshmen, I started working in TV, and eventually was lucky enough to get a few jobs writing for network TV sitcoms. Getting a TV writing gig was great, but it’s still very much about sticking to formulaic stories and characters (most of which are, of course, Caucasian). I still very much wanted to make my own films, so in my off-time from writing for the shows I decided to start writing a feature that I could shoot as my second feature.
I always feel like the most real writing comes from personal experience, so I decided to write about something I’m very familiar with: failing in Hollywood… but from a more diverse perspective. I also wanted to do something different than what I had to do for TV, something that dealt with multi-ethnic relationships and families, and with living in a multi-cultural stew like Los Angeles. So that become the foundation for what I wanted to start with…
“I always feel like the most real writing comes from personal experience, so I decided to write about something I’m very familiar with: failing in Hollywood… but from a more diverse perspective. “
I then just let the characters guide me through their stories as I wrote the film. I wanted to write something funny, but also real, so I tried making as real characters as possible and allow the humor to just come from their struggles in life, as well as trying to say something about chasing your dream job, family, and understanding what’s important to you. After the Hollywood writer’s strike, I couldn’t find a TV writing job, so I decided it was good time to try to put the film together, and things just worked out so that I could do it.
RACEBENDING.COM: Your film is set and filmed in Los Angeles and reflects the true diversity of the city. Was this something you tried to be conscious of during the writing and casting process?
TOM HUANG: I absolutely was trying to reflect the diversity of the city and how it affects your relationships in life. There’s actually a scene that I had to cut–it’s in the DVD extras–that addresses this very thought… Tony argues that even though Los Angeles is diverse, everyone still sticks with their own kind: there’s the “Korean” part of town, the “Chinese” part of town, the “kinda weird Orthodox Jewish” part of town, etc. Lester finds this pessimistic, but I always think it’s an interesting argument.
In both of my feature films, I really made an effort to make the film as diverse as possible that still felt real to me, because that’s the kind of world I live in, and because that’s partially why I got into filmmaking in the first place.
Thus, I don’t really explain it in the film, but you see some uniquely Los Angeles ethnic hang-outs, like karaoke in Koreatown, or street racing lowered Civics on the outskirts of L.A., etc. Places like these really show how the mix of cultures have manifested itself; Koreans gathering to sing American pop songs in English, Asian-American hip-hop kids gathering to listen to rap and embrace African-American culture, but never hang out with an actual African-American. It’s a great background that you never get to see in Hollywood.
I actually started out wanting to be an actor while at UCLA, but going through the audition process in the theater department, even at UCLA, I couldn’t find any parts for me, especially parts where I can just play an interesting character who happened to be Asian. It was then I realized if I wanted to do anything interesting, I’d have to write it myself, so I turned around and became a Creative Writing major.
“I actually started out wanting to be an actor…I couldn’t find any parts for me, especially parts where I can just play an interesting character who happened to be Asian. I realized if I wanted to do anything interesting, I’d have to write it myself…”
RACEBENDING.COM: Were the character’s cultural backgrounds factored into the story, or were these elements added in after casting, or both?
TOM HUANG: With “Why Am I Doing This?” the diverse characters started straight from the beginning.I imagined these characters as Chinese-American, African-American, East Indian-American, Latino-American, etc., from the start and wrote their stories with that in mind.
RACEBENDING.COM: The two main characters in the movie, Asian American actor Tony and African American comedian Lester, both do not seem to fit Hollywood’s preconcieved notions of who they are based on their respective ethnicities. Would you say that this kind of type-casting is common in Hollywood?
TOM HUANG: I’d say, yes, type-casting like this is still pretty common; you can see it in roles on TV and in film. (Like, what is up with those metro PCS commercials with the wacky Indian guys? Holy crap.)
But it’s getting a little better as we kind of evolve as a more diverse society in America, and as we get more diverse people behind the camera as writers and executives.
Having written for network TV, I think there is definitely a conscious effort to diversify guest roles and supporting cast, but when it comes to casting main roles, it’s still very much a white world. And more specifically, it’s even tougher to find an Asian-American cast in a main role where they aren’t speaking with some sort of accent.
“I think there is definitely a conscious effort to diversify guest roles and supporting cast, but when it comes to casting main roles, it’s still very much a white world.”
I think there are actually a number of roles that producers bring in different ethnicities to audition for the main parts, but it almost always ends up just getting cast as Caucasian.
I think African-Americans have it a little better as far as number of parts as studios recognize they have to service a huge audience, but there still is an expectation that an African-American character has to talk “Black” and is some sort of wise-cracking, tell-it-as-it-is kind of person, as seen with the recurrent female “Black Best Friend” character we see so much.
RACEBENDING.COM: Are actors encouraged to act more “ethnic” to get jobs?
TOM HUANG: I don’t know if most people are encouraged to act more “ethnic” to get jobs… the amount of ethnicity is kind of written in the part from the beginning, so it’s more a problem of trying to get people to write interesting characters, who just happen to be of color, from the start.
“It’s more a problem of trying to get people to write interesting characters, who just happen to be of color, from the start..”
It does happen, though… A pretty big Asian-American actor friend of mine went to an audition for a network TV pilot and told the producers specifically, “Hey, if you want me to do the wacky accent thing, I don’t want to audition.” They told him, no no, that’s fine. So he auditioned, and got the part as one of the main roles.
During the first rehearsal, they came back to him and said, “uh… You think you can do the accent thing? We think it’d be funnier.” So he left the show. I don’t know if I’d have the balls to do that.
RACEBENDING.COM:In the first scene of the movie, a studio exec asks Tony to use an Asian accent during his audition. Is this scene based on a true incident?
TOM HUANG: The scene is actually based on a number of stories I’ve heard from my Asian-American acting friends, where they’re asked to do a part in an “Asian” or “Oriental” accent, and when the actor asks “What kind of Asian accent?” they just get blank looks.
RACEBENDING.COM:What sort of standard–in terms of acting roles–does this set for Asian American actors in Hollywood?
TOM HUANG: I don’t know if this necessarily sets a standard, but yes, I do feel that it seems like when a role is written specifically for an Asian in Hollywood, they usually have some sort of foreign slant–if you can excuse the term–to it, where the role is for an Asian foreigner or an Asian-American who is there because he/she speaks Korean or whatever.
Of course, it’s not always a bad thing… In the show “Lost” the Korean couple, Jin and Sun, are wonderfully constructed characters with depth and life. For me, it’s just that there aren’t enough interesting roles where I can see someone like me, a normal American guy, who happens to be Asian–like the role of Miles on “Lost.”
And as Clyde Kusatsu says in the film, it’s kind of just the reality of the situation right now… Studios look at the demographics, and at last count, Asian Americans only account for 6% of the population, so they’d rather play the numbers and go with the majority on the screen.
RACEBENDING.COM: The movie takes some pot shots at how the biz works and how it treats actors of color. Was it risky for you, as an independent filmmaker, to call out some of these practices?
TOM HUANG: Actually, it’s because I’m an independent filmmaker that it’s not as risky to take pot shots at the business.
For the most part, when you get lots of money to make a big film or TV show, it also comes with the restrictions of having to work with people paying for you and your production, which is often a big studio or network. Since they’re looking so desperately to get a return, they don’t like taking risks, so they go with the ‘safe’ route that’s made money before and appeals to the biggest; thus you get formulaic films, non-diverse casting and stories about the majority race in America.
The single biggest thing you get as an indie filmmaker–since you don’t get any money–is creative control, so you get a chance to make something that you want to see–in my case, a multi-cultural cast and story. Unfortunately, I think the only place at the moment to see multi-ethnic stories is in independent film, because it’s only place it can be made.
“Unfortunately, I think the only place at the moment to see multi-ethnic stories is in independent film, because it’s only place it can be made.”
I don’t think anyone in Hollywood really cares I’m taking shots at how they do business… They’ve heard all before and are still making money, not to mention my film is pretty small. I do hope that someone at a studio or network will look at the film and see how my very talented actors can play normal American roles–while bringing something new to the table in a positive way–and then consider them for roles that may have been originally written for someone white.
” I do hope that someone at a studio or network will look at the film and see how my very talented actors can play normal American roles–while bringing something new to the table in a positive way–and then consider them for roles that may have been originally written for someone white.”
RACEBENDING.COM: In the movie, Tony discovers a mentor in older Asian American actor Clyde Kusatsu (playing himself!) and performs in an all-Asian production of Death of a Salesman–a role he would likely not have access to, as an actor of color, outside of Asian American theater. In real life, what sort of resources are there for Asian Americans who aspire to get into film?
TOM HUANG: There are lots of resources for Asian-Americans to get into film, whether it be film school, or various diversity training programs put on by the studios and networks, to all-Asian theater troupes like East-West Players or OPM, to groups that put on the various Asian-American film festivals like Visual Communications in Los Angeles or the Coalition of Asian-Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), just to name a few.
RACEBENDING.COM: Is there a large support system out there?
TOM HUANG: The support is definitely there, not to mention the support of the Asian-American Hollywood community in general. For my film, I was overwhelmed and cheered by the response of the Asian-American actors who were more than happy to be in my film, no matter how big the part and how little they got paid, because they wanted to support a fellow Asian-American artist. I know many of the Asian-American actors, filmmakers, and execs around town because it is a small, tight-knit community.
Making it in Hollywood is pretty tough for anybody of any race, so it really is a matter of hanging in there long enough to get your break or your next job.
I believe that you can’t worry about the Asian-American part of being a performer or writer or director or whatever because you can’t really control that. What you can control is being the best actor, writer or director you can and let your talent and hard work eventually show people they should hire you.
It doesn’t always work out (I’m livin’ that, yo,) but in the end, I believe that’s what will get you in or give you a chance, because true talent will always get recognized. But man, it can be rough.
RACEBENDING.COM: In Why Am I Doing This, there is a commentary on popular Asian American actors. Every role for an Asian American guy in the biz, Tony laments, seems to either go to real-life Korean American actor John Cho, or to his nemesis, (the fictional) Tim Chung. Where did the idea for this joke come about?
TOM HUANG: Well, the joke actually comes a large part from the truth, in my mind. As I said, Hollywood is a business, and they want to make sure they sell tickets, so just by the numbers game, they prefer having recognizable faces on the screen. So who is the most recognizable male Asian-American actor who also happens to have talent? That’s right, that “Harold and Kumar American Pie” guy.
RACEBENDING.COM: Why does Hollywood always seem to go for the same Asian actors?
TOM HUANG: That’s just how Hollywood works, regardless of the race… For a part for any studio film, who do they want? The most recognizable guy, or the guy that’s “hot” at the moment. It just so happens that there aren’t a whole lot of big Asian-American roles –Jackie Chan and Jet Li are getting all the karate ones– so the list isn’t that big of recognizable names that’s done a lot of stuff…
Right now, it’s John Cho and maybe now funny doctor guy Ken Jeong, or Kal Penn if you want to go Indian. Now there’s plenty of other great, talented Asian-American actors, but they just haven’t been lucky enough to get that big role that somehow puts them in the minds of the middle-American audience, so until they do… John Cho will still be on top of the studio list.
RACEBENDING.COM: Dion Basco (brother of Dante Basco of Avatar: The Last Airbender) plays Tony’s brother and a Chinese American character, even though he is Filipino American. What are your thoughts on Asian Americans playing different ethnicities?
TOM HUANG: Although I kind of make light of it in the film, I think it’s fine, especially if it’s Asian-Americans playing Asian-Americans, since the American part of it is more the big part of the characters’ voice.
I generally can sort of tell different Asians apart, but there is plenty of overlap, as far as looks, with all Asians (or Indians and Pakistanis and such). I certainly have been mistaken for Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, etc., by people of those backgrounds (that made for awkward conversation let me tell you).
I think it can get a little wacky when an Asian plays an Asian-Asian of different ethnicity with a completely different accent, like in the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha, where they had Chinese nationals, who spoke poor English, playing Japanese people, speaking English in some British-Japanese accent. Holy crap that was terrible.
RACEBENDING.COM: In advertisements like the movie poster, Amber (played by Emma Caulfield), is placed in the center and appears to be the central focus of the film. Yet, the main characters in the film are Tony and Lester. Why wasn’t more focus placed on Lester and Tony in advertisements?
TOM HUANG: For my distributor, it was more of a recognizable actor thing than an ethnic thing. When selling DVDs, for distributors and retailers, what sells the DVDs is the box cover, not the actual content of the movie…
My movie could be an hour and a half of me crapping on the toilet, but if there are recognizable, sellable faces on the cover (a genre like horror), then the DVD will sell.
My distributor felt that Emma Caulfield (who was a series regular as “Anya” on the popular “Buffy the Vampire” TV series) was the most recognizable actor that had an audience they could sell to, so she went on the front of the cover.
I think if they had their druthers, they probably would have wanted to take me off the cover as well, since I don’t really have any ‘name’ value, but I think the bear suit I’m wearing saved me.
RACEBENDING.COM: Often stories told by people of color are considered ‘niche’ films that only succeed in specific cultural communities. What sorts of ways do you think the general audience might become more interested in hearing about real people’s stories, histories and Point of Views, even if they might not coincide with their own?
TOM HUANG:I think people are definitely interested in hearing about real people’s stories of any ethnicity as long as it’s interesting enough and done well… It’s just that studios aren’t willing to take the risk.
You look at Slumdog Millionaire, a movie about an Indian boy in India trying to win back his love, no studio would touch that with a 10-foot pole. So some people took a chance, made it independently, and Fox Searchlight recognized it was simply a great film and gambled it would do well because of that, and it was blockbuster. It also benefited from a planned, slow rollout where word of mouth helped get people into the theaters, and of course the Oscars helped as well.
There are plenty of other examples, such as the Joy Luck Club (a good example of actual Asian-American stories) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, etc. People are wiling to watch it, I think, it’s just a matter of more studios wiling to release films based on quality rather than formulas, and also a matter of making sure films like that are made with low-budgets so it can turn a profit to help buy other films like it.
RACEBENDING.COM: What tangible things can fans and media consumers do to help push the entertainment industry into showing us a world or worlds where people of color exist?
TOM HUANG: It’s pretty simple… People just have to show support for those kinds of films and TV shows. They have to watch them on TV and buy their DVDs, that’s what speaks the industry, because, again, they are a business.
If you see a film or TV show you like, buy the DVD, or if you see a film that comes out that looks interesting with that kind of perspective, go see it… That’s the only thing that will truly speak to “the industry.”
And there has to be more support for independent films, as well. These are usually the only places where stories about people of color can be made, because they’re not constrained by having to cater to the masses. Indie filmmakers like me cannot survive very long making small films like that unless people buy the films or they get hired by a studio, it’s simply too hard to get by. So please, if you like what a filmmaker has done and want to see more, buy their product so they can continue to do just that.
“There has to be more support for independent films…These are usually the only places where stories about people of color can be made, because they’re not constrained by having to cater to the masses.”
And, of course, support awareness movements like this site…it’s only when studios see the great number of people that want to see more diverse casts and stories of different cultures that they’re willing to give something new a try. I think the publicity and awareness generated by this site and the people who read it was pretty tremendous.
RACEBENDING.COM: In the film, the audience and Lester and Tony themselves come to learn exactly why they are “doing this”–throwing everything they have into breaking into the entertainment industry, while representing themselves in an honest way and without selling out. It’s hard, especially when there are so many barriers in Hollywood. So, Tom, why are you doing “this”?
TOM HUANG: First of all, making this film has been a complete pain-in-the-ass for everyone involved: my family and friends, the tireless cinematographer and crew, the actors, the producers, the people who let us use their bar, my next door neighbors who kind of reluctantly let me use their living room to shoot in… the list goes on. I’ve had to borrow money to make this film, I still have to work a day job to pay the bills, a lot of things I have to end up doing myself because all the skilled people who have been working for free or little money for me have to move on and actually do things that pay them. I literally am working probably 10-12 hours a day with all the stuff I have to do as well as my other projects I’m working on to pay the bills. So really, why am I doing this godforsaken movie that maybe nobody will see?
Well, quite simply, it’s because making movies is what I want to do in life, and I always feel that if you want to do something, you should do it (if you can). Yes, it’s been quite difficult getting it done, and it’s stressful to have this loan out I’m not sure how I’m going to pay back… but I’m also fortunate to know many talented people who can help me out, and I know I have the skills and resources to make a film that people can watch without thinking “am I watching a really long home movie?” So why not? I can.
“Because making movies is what I want to do in life, and I always feel that if you want to do something, you should do it.”
The other reason is that I feel I have something to say and can affect people in a positive way through my filmmaking, whether it be by laughter or tears, by creating a character people care about and learn from, or just creating a story than can inspire and make people think about their lives.
Finally, probably the main reason is that the filmmaking side of it is incredibly enjoyable and engaging for me. The other logistical stuff I’m dealing with now, i.e., doing contracts, getting rights, marketing, etc… Huge pain-in-the-ass. But it’s all for being able to do the other stuff. Working with actors and crew on a scene, sitting in a dark editing room cutting together scenes, sitting in a theater with an audience who’s never heard of the film before laugh their asses off or shed a little tear during the film, talking with someone who’s seen the film tell me it’s inspired them in some way… all that makes the pain-in-ass stuff more than worth it. That is, as long as I’m not pissing off my friends and family for too long that they don’t want to be around me anymore.
I always believe that you have to define yourself by what you do. If you claim to be a good person, you should be doing good things. If you say you want to get healthy, you should take actions to be healthy. And if you want to call yourself a filmmaker, you have to make films. And that’s why I have to do it. I just wish someone will let me make a living doing it sometime. Oh man, sometime soon, please…
Racebending.com would like to thank Mr. Tom Huang for this interview!
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