There’s a scene early on in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix period drama “Hollywood,” in which an aspiring director, played by Darren Criss, meets with Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, played by Michelle Krusiec, to try to convince her to be in his movie. Midway through their conversation he casually mentions that he’s half-Filipino, which seems to catch her off guard. She stops, takes off her glasses to see him better, and then says, “You’re Asian?”
What follows is a conversation not only about what it means to be an Asian-American person in Hollywood, but the further consequences that come with looking like one.
Krusiec as Wong — a 1920s and ’30s Hollywood star whose studio career all but came to an end after she was passed over for the Oscar-winning adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” in favor of a white actress in yellowface — gives Criss’ character, the fictional Raymond Ainsley, a schooling in something he, as a white-passing man, either can’t understand or refuses to believe.
“Over-sexed, opium addled courtesans, dangerously exotic far-Eastern temptresses. That’s what they wanted to see from someone who looks like me,” she says, letting him know in no uncertain terms that a movie from a half-Asian director that stars a Chinese actress will never get made.
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“You’re dealing with two experiences that present different reactions. Not only internally, but externally,” Criss said in an interview with TheWrap. “Who are you to the world? How do they see you? How do you see yourself? What happens if you happen to look more like one half than the other, which one are you?”
Criss himself is half-Filipino and has in the past found himself in the unenviable position of contending with these questions as a public figure. “It’s a moving target that I’ve always kind of had to– well, I won’t say always had to. I think being in the public eye has made me think about it more than I ever have,” he said.
He first felt the full weight of that conversation a few years ago when some clumsy comments he made about his racial identity in a 2018 Vulture interview raised eyebrows online. Asked whether or not he identifies as Asian American, Criss suggested that doing so as a white-passing actor would be “unfair,” similar to “reaching for the minority card on a college application.” At the time, Criss was being lauded by critics for his performance as the half-Filipino serial killer Andrew Cunanan in Murphy’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” and just months away from making a historic run through awards season.
The outcry from the Filipino-American community, and the Asian-American community more broadly, was swift.
“In my mind, I was just me. My mom’s Filipino and my dad’s a white guy and that’s just kind of how it is,” Criss told TheWrap. (Indeed, in the same 2018 interview, he admitted that he had never even considered the question before he was asked.)
“You could argue, well maybe that’s because you’re white-passing and nobody ever questioned anything,” he continued. “And then I feel bad and I go, Oh god, did I somehow turn my back on my Filipino-ness? Like, at what point am I supposed to raise my hand higher for that? I don’t know the answer.”
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As Krusiec put it, “It’s not an easy conversation to have,” but it’s one Asian American communities have always had to grapple with, and will continue to grapple with as their visibility in media grows. With a rising number of Asian-American stories finally getting recognition on screen, the question is no longer if Asian Americans get to be represented, but which segments of a large and diverse population get those opportunities, and why.
“As a full-blooded Taiwanese person, there came a point in my career where I realized I was not going to be as valuable as somebody who was passing as half-Asian or half-white, because they kind of look and feel less Asian,” she said. “And that’s kind of a hard thing to accept.”
The interplay between identity and perception is complex for any person, but for people of color there’s the added layer of having to exist within the context of a society defined by whiteness. “The trend you find is that when someone looks half, they’re seen as more desirable, they’re more attractive. And that’s the conversation you have with yourself, even though it feels like this really uncomfortable, icky conversation,” she said.
“It’s this thing you pick up on when you’re fully Taiwanese or fully Chinese. I look at my friends who are half, and I see them as having this great advantage over me. And at the same time, you don’t want to be thinking about these things but it just seems to be the reality.”
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The flip side of that is the experience of someone like Criss’ character, who is met with obvious surprise and skepticism every time he tells someone he’s half-Filipino but seems most hurt by it when it comes from another Asian American. Or someone like Criss himself, who grew up feeling “incredibly supported and loved” as part of the Filipino community in California’s Bay Area, only to be confronted later in life by the possibility that his success may have been predicated on society’s willingness to set him apart from that community.
“Just to clarify,” Criss tweeted shortly after the Vulture interview began making the rounds. “[One] of my favorite things about myself is that I’m half Filipino. PERIOD. I happen to not look like it, but THAT fact is not what I like. I like the fact that most people don’t know it’s an ace up my sleeve, an ace I’m very proud of, regardless of what I look like.”
Criss says he hadn’t had asked Murphy to incorporate the thread on Asian-American identity into “Hollywood” prior to doing the show and was “very interested” to see it show up in the script. “Ryan wanted to make it more true to who I was, as he did with a lot of the actors,” he said. “So I said, just know that when you’re dealing with Asian identity, it’s a big one. And I think if we’re going to make it simple enough for people to understand, we have to root it in the fact that Raymond is scared of being other-ed. That’s really what it boils down to for everyone.”
“What Ryan did with Darren’s character, is he talked about a really complex situation and subject matter in a very concise way, just by putting these two people together,” Krusiec said. “One doesn’t believe that the other is interested in helping her. And the other is really, really trying to say, ‘No, I don’t look like I connect, but I do.’ And that’s a conversation that people within my community do have.”
“It’s not an easy conversation to have and he’s able to frame that in a way that I don’t think has been done before,” she said.
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“Hollywood” finds no easy resolution between its two characters on this point by the end of their conversation (the scene is not their final interaction but to say any more would include spoilers), but Criss himself, at least, seems to have found a path forward.
“People want different things from different people in the media in terms of representation,” he said. “And the only thing I can do is be true to myself and be happy and proud of who I am — which I am — and do my best to inspire other people to feel good about who they are.”
“Hollywood” launches Friday on Netflix.