Actress Ally Maki has portrayed multiple Japanese characters throughout her career, but it wasn’t until she starred in the new comedy-drama film “Shortcomings” that she felt she was able to fully tap into her heritage.
“It was the first time ever in my career that I was able to break down a character exactly from my own cultural perspective and background, which is crazy to think that that’s the first time I’ve ever been able to do that,” Maki said about her character Miko, a Japanese American woman and the girlfriend of Justin H. Min’s protagonist Ben. “I now see just what an amazing luxury that is and how it can make you feel so seen.”
In the film, Miko moves out of the Bay Area apartment she shares with Ben to pursue an Asian American film festival internship in New York. But when Ben discovers Miko actually left for ulterior reasons, their already tenuous relationship reaches a breaking point.
TheWrap caught up with Maki before the SAG-AFTRA strike to discuss how she became involved in the film — which is Randall Park’s directorial debut — and her personal connection with her character.
Were you aware of the “Shortcomings” graphic novel by Adrian Tomine before you joined the project?
Maki: I was not aware of the graphic novel beforehand, which now seems crazy to me seeing that Adrian Tomine and I share such a similar family history and background with us both being Japanese American.
A friend sent me his script, and he was like, “There’s a part in this that is exactly you. You need to read it right now.” And at first I was just floored, because I had never read a script before that had fully fleshed-out Japanese American, modern day characters that were going to Berkeley and moving to New York. There were parallels to my own journey.
After you read the script, did you read the graphic novel? Or did you want to keep your performance separate from the illustrations?
I immediately ordered the graphic novel and read it in one sitting. The most amazing thing about Adrian’s work is that he can emote so much in just a single frame. And the expressions on their faces — you can just read so much from them. I think it really helped to create such a beautiful backstory and emotionality to the character.
What was so groundbreaking was it was the first time ever in my career that I was able to break down a character exactly from my own cultural perspective and background, which is crazy to think that that’s the first time I’ve ever been able to do that. And I now see just what an amazing luxury that is and how it can just make you feel so seen.
I was able to take very specific things culturally; [for example] there’s this concept of enryo which in Japanese means extreme politeness. It’s something that is really hard to explain in American culture. But through this, I was able to analyze why Miko did [what she did] was because of her own enryo. It was very fulfilling to be able to culturally get into the nitty gritty of her decisions and why she does things.
Without spoiling too much, Miko chases an opportunity that allows her to get out of a pretty toxic relationship. But she’s not faultless, either.
From the very beginning, Randall and I had those conversations. He’s was like, “I don’t want the audience to turn on Miko, because it could be so easy.” All the characters have shortcomings; hers is kind of revealed at the very end.
Her journey was all about finding her own voice and understanding how to stand up for herself. And as a Japanese American woman, I’ve dealt with so much perfectionism my entire life and feeling like I have to be perfect at every step.
I think Miko is dealing with that sort of repression of never being able to have an opinion, but having to look perfect in everything she does, like putting together this film festival. And so there’s just so much that I can relate to her. When it all comes out in that final scene, it’s definitely messy and flawed.
Check out a preview of Ally Maki’s performance as Miko in the trailer below and see “Shortcomings” in theaters now.
This interview was been lightly edited for clarity and length.