Interview: Actress Arden Cho talks Teen Wolf, being Asian in Hollywood and proper representation on screen
ACTRESS, singer and former Teen Wolf star Arden Cho visited Melbourne recently and Natalie Ng caught up with the all-round talent to discuss everything from the start of Cho’s acting journey, the struggles of being an Asian face in Hollywood, stereotypes and her dream roles.
Arden Cho entered the supernatural plagued halls of Beacon Hills High School as Kira Yukimura in Season 3 of Teen Wolf, the new girl in town and on the show. As Kira Yukimura, she embarked on a coming of age journey where she discovered who she was on so many different levels: her supernatural abilities as a kitsune (Japanese fox spirit), her family’s heritage, her own courage, falling in love and finding friends. Kira was a character rarely seen on television— a fully realised Asian American teenage girl. Arden brought both strength and vulnerability to the character, making her incredibly likable.
Two years on, Arden has left Teen Wolf at the end of Season 5, but remains very much connected with the fans she’s found through Teen Wolf. She was here in Melbourne for the Creatures of the Night 3 Teen Wolf Convention and we caught up with her to discuss her acting journey, the struggles of being an Asian face in Hollywood,Asian representation in the media, dealing with stereotypes, and her dream projects.
What made you choose to go into acting and what did it mean to you?
Well, in college I had to take an elective course. I was a psychology major, and I was pre-law. I wanted to be a lawyer. I took theatre because I thought it would be an easy elective, but it probably ended up being one of the hardest classes I ever took. Acting was so much about being vulnerable, and I didn’t know how to do that.
I think growing up in the States and being from an immigrant family and being an Asian American minority, I always felt like I had to be a perfect student: study hard, get good grades, go to a good college and get a good job. So I never really stopped to think what made me happy. Theatre was the first time for me I had to experience and challenge emotions.
Through that journey, I learnt so much about myself, and it really challenged me and I fell in love with the discovery. It was the first time I felt alive and passionate about something. Everything else I wanted in life was what was expected of me and all of a sudden I found something that brought me joy.
After graduating I went to Kenya for a couple months with a medical missionary team. I assumed I was going to go to grad school after. I loved performing and acting and singing but I didn’t think I could turn that into a career, especially as an Asian person. While I was out there in Kenya I felt like what I was doing was hands on good work and I loved that, but one of the missionaries I worked with shared about finding purpose in the things we love, and encouraged me to go after something I really loved.
So I came back to Illinois, booked a one way flight to LA and started that grinding journey of being a struggling actor and being part of an industry where Asian Americans have a small presence in.
So what does acting mean to you now and has that changed over your career?
It’s always changing, even when I do an audition, those are chances for me to perform, and every time I prep material differently. Also, I feel like a lot of acting does stem from who you are as a person. You and I, if we were to read for the same part, we would read it differently because we’ve experienced life differently. And it’s hard to say who is better or worse.
It’s a struggle, being a minority and an actor. There is a lot of discussion over blacks being underrepresented but at least they have a voice; they have a campaign and people fighting for that. For Asians, we’re barely in the discussion when it comes to minorities. For me, I’m just really hoping that at least while I’m in this industry, we at least get to have a voice or platform to speak for us.
Have you had any struggles or learnt any lessons through the casting and audition process?
It’s hard because as an actor, you never have a set job and it could end at any time. And so, definitely the struggle that’s always there is uncertainty and the fear of rejection — of repeated rejection. And then there’s also the self doubt of whether you’re good or not.
When you get rejected so much, you inevitably think you’re not good enough and that you should quit. Then my agent will say, “You’re always in the mix. You’re in top three. It was you and the other girl.” And you think, “If it’s me and the other girl, why is it always the other girl?”. A lot of times it’s an ethnic or race thing. Or she was taller, or it was her hair colour. It’s often something that has nothing to do with acting and out of your control. That’s the biggest struggle — knowing you can work on your craft and do your best but it’s out of your control.
We know what it means to be female, Asian and an actor in Hollywood, but what does it mean to be an Asian American actress to you?
Growing up, I think all we had were Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Tamlyn Tomita, Ming Na Wen… There are so many Asian girls out there, but there were only four on screen. And as a young Asian girl I would ask myself who I related to, and the actresses I did relate to always happened to not be Asian.
I think we are moving forward but we are progressing very slowly. I’m a huge fan of Constance Wu, and I think she represents a really great Asian face now, and there are a lot of people that are starting to emerge and give a broader range of [Asian faces], but we’re not even close.
I know some people say, “Well Kira Yukimura was stereotypical because she was Asian and she knew how to fight.” But I’m like, “It’s different. She got to be a lead, she wasn’t over sexualised, she wasn’t a vixen, and her knowing how to fight wasn’t the basis of her character, and it was a supernatural reflex because she comes from a line of kitsunes.”
So for me when people said that the role was stereotypical, I’m like “Yeah, but aren’t those stereotypes awesome?”. I grew up doing martial arts. My dad is a grandmaster. So to be able to do a job where I get to use some of those skills, I’m so excited.
But I do understand — we don’t want to see every Asian girl being a martial arts expert, or a race car driver, or a masseuse, or something sexual. So I get it, but I think it’s going to take time and the Asian community coming together, and I do think it’s starting to happen with people like Constance Wu giving us a voice. But we have to have a community, and it would be great if the Asian community supported the Asian American community and vice versa, so it’s hard when there’s that disconnect.
Between Hong Kong stars and Chinese Americans or Korean stars and Korean Americans, the struggles are different, but also similar, and I would love if there was more of a connect between all the Asian and Asian American stars. Because it sometimes feels like we’re on different teams, and that’s hard.
So within LA, is there a community for Asian American actors?
Oh yes definitely, especially with the younger generation and the new media community, there’s a lot of support. I’m really blessed with a lot of support from the older actors who have paved the way, people who I really look up to and respect like Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho or Tamlyn Tomita who plays my mother on Teen Wolf.
Even with all the amazing Asian American actors in the US, I feel like you still can count the number of them on two hands, and we need more, so much more! I do like that now though, with people like Steven Yeun and Ki-Hong Lee, we have guys that are sexy, and Asian American men need to be represented in that way. So it is moving in the right way, and I love that we do get to see Asian American men in leading roles, romantic leads and positive characters, as opposed to being the sidekick, or the dorky friend.
I hope that for me too, I get to go on and do roles that are progressive and hopefully a positive reflection of Asian Americans.
Going back to what you said about how people felt like Kira was a stereotypical character— she does have stereotypical Asian traits, but Constance Wu also talked about in her interview with Time Magazine, that stereotypes are only harmful if that is all that the character is, and you don’t want to turn down a role just because of one stereotype because the character is also very complex in her own way.
Right, and she also said something about how she understands the pressure to represent Asian Americans but that her show shouldn’t have to represent all Asian Americans, because this was just one type of family, and there are so many different Asian American families out there.
And it is very true, because on Teen Wolf, my family had a Korean dad and a Japanese mother, and we were very rooted in their Japanese history. I loved that our family was also very progressive and different. They wanted my character to date, to have a boyfriend, and that’s not so common with Asian parents. I loved that my mother on the show was attractive and strong and the decision maker in the family, and I love that my father was goofy and comedic and lovable. It was very modern, and to me, that’s an example of another Asian American family, and we need more of those, because you can’t have one family representing every Asian American family.
I think that we need more shows where there’s more than one Asian character. I can’t wait for a show like FRIENDS where it’s six friends of different races who live in an apartment, or a Sex and the City with a few Asian girls.
When I talk to my Asian male actor friends, and we go to the same auditions we always joke, “It’s either going to be you or me”. Because they’re not going to have an Asian guy and an Asian girl on the show. It’s always one or the other. We always joke and say, “Well we hope one of us gets it”. But then we come back and realise they went with another race, or went all white, and that’s the struggle too, because we want to say one Asian made it, but you also don’t want to be the token Asian, and then you also want to embrace some of those stereotypes.
I think so many things in life are based on stereotypes, but some of our stereotypes are awesome. I wouldn’t mind being in a race car movie, and I wouldn’t mind kicking butt and being the most badass fighter. Or I wouldn’t mind being the smartest mathematician. I’m not good at math in real life, but I would love to play a genius on a show.
When you think about a franchise like The Fast & the Furious which is about racing cars yet has such a racially diverse cast and is incredibly successful or Netflix’s Marco Polo, where you have actresses like Michelle Yeoh and Joan Chen, and the actors all portray characters that have “stereotypical traits”, but are also such complex characters, you really can’t dismiss something just because of one stereotype.
Exactly. And these are such talented and amazing actresses who have a great body of work. And with The Fast & Furious, one of the things I love is that with Sung’s character, he’s portrayed as sexy and cool. And I want more of that.
Ideally I would like to see hundreds of shows starring lots of Asian Americans and Asians, to get both. I want Asian American and Asian stars all on the same page and get us all in projects together, because I think we would be stronger and better together. I would love to work with so many Asian stars, their movies and dramas are so successful and I think Asia has so much amazing content, and I would love to work on some of these projects.
But I would hear from my Asian American actor friends who tell me that a lot of the time they don’t consider us, because they don’t consider us as ‘Asian’. And that’s disappointing. I remember in college, I wanted to be part of the Korean American student association. But then one of the girls said, “But you’re not really Korean,” and I was like, “What do you mean? I think I may be part Chinese but I’m pretty sure my family is Korean.” And it was that the group was mostly comprised of first generation Korean Americans and I was second generation, and there was a disconnect there.
But I think it’s getting better, and I love coming to Asia and Australia where it’s so diverse. It’s so good to see so many young people growing up in a place where they don’t feel like they’re misfits or out of place because growing up I always felt like I didn’t belong as a minority, but I love having conversations with friends in Singapore and Hong Kong who are confident, and I feel very accepted, and maybe it’s because they’re Asian, but also they speak English, so the communication is easier there.
You have very strong views about diversity and Asian American representation, so have you turned down roles that you consider problematic and what were those circumstances?
Oh, of course. I think I turn down way too many [roles]. My agent and I are always having that conversation, when I feel like it’s something I don’t feel comfortable about sharing, or a role that I feel would be regressive for representing Asians.
When I read the part and know that I’m going to be the butt of the joke or if I’m just the sexual thing or it’s a fetish driven story, I don’t care how much money is behind the project or who’s in it, I always say no. I know some people will say I should just be thankful and take any project that comes my way but at the end of the day I want to work on projects that I feel good about sharing.
I am generally picky about the things I choose to do, but it is hard because ultimately you have to work, you have to live. We’re not always going to get ideal projects, but sometimes you have to do projects you don’t want to do to get to the projects you want to do and to get to a place where you can choose.
So I feel really thankfully that after a few years of Teen Wolf, I can have a little bit more of a choice, but I know so many young actors who don’t want to do an accent or don’t want to do a role but they have to.
There was this part on a show for a doctor who is trilingual, incredibly brilliant, supposed to be fluent in French, Chinese, Korean, English, and I did it, and they were like “Oh that’s great, we loved it, but can you do it with an accent?”. And I asked why, and they just said, “Because she’s Asian.” If she’s at least trilingual — and I’m bilingual in life and I don’t have an accent — I don’t understand why she would have one, so I said I wasn’t going to do [the accent]. They were really upset, because they felt, “you’re Asian, so your character should have an Asian accent.” I turned it down, because in my mind it just doesn’t make sense.
Now if the role was for a girl who lived for 25 years in China or Korea or Vietnam, and she moves to America and has been there for two weeks or even three years, then okay, she’s going to have an accent. Then I’ll do the accent, if it fits the context, but never if it was to be the joke, or if it was just to make it ‘Asian’. That just infuriates me.
If ideally you could play any role, what would be some of your dream roles?
There’s two categories. I think every actor wants to do that kind of romantic comedy or to fall in love, something beautiful and heartfelt. I always feel like Jennifer Lawrence got to do that with Silver Linings Playbook, something with great dialogue and romance, and then go and do something like The Hunger Games.
If I had the choice. I would love to do a romantic comedy or a beautiful romantic film, and then do an awesome action movie, like James Bond, where I’m James Bond. Not the Bond Girl, Bond.
I feel like it’s about time we had a movie like that, starring a female, where she doesn’t need a guy to fight her battles, and she’s strong and badass and cool.
So those two. They’re different, but I want to do them both and hopefully I’ll get the chance to.
What advice would you give to any young actors of colour trying to break into the industry?
My number one advice would be to work on your craft and be better every single day. You’re always going to be up against someone who might not be the best but might have a foot in because of the colour of their skin or a connection they might have. If you’re better— it is not always going to work out in your favor—but eventually for the right project it will. I feel like in any line of work, not just in entertainment, you have to focus all your energy on yourself, you cannot be worried about other people. Focus on your craft, studying, challenging yourself, growing and being passionate about it.
I feel like a lot of actors don’t realise how much work it really takes, even for something as simple as an audition. If you get 48 hours, then it should be 48 hours straight of prepping that material and doing the work. With acting I think you really have to be 100% committed to. There’s going to be so much rejection that you face, and if you’re not fully committed you’re going to end up giving up too soon.
I also encourage a lot of young Asian actors to be resilient, because for the longest time there were always a few actors that I was always behind, but eventually it gets to a point where so-and-so is on a job, and I may be a director’s second choice, but now I’m their first choice. You just have to keep going and going and eventually the right project and right timing will come along.
People always say, “you have to get lucky.” But what does it mean to get lucky if the opportunity falls in your lap but you’re not prepared, and you miss it. So if the opportunity presents itself, you better be prepared and ready for it, because if you mess that up, that’s on you.
So that’s why I always tell people, you have to work hard, and don’t focus on the stuff that doesn’t matter— fame, money, none of that is real. This industry isn’t nearly as glamorous as people think, and the money is definitely not what people. It’s not worth it if that’s what you’re going to chase.
I would only do it if performing was your life and joy. If you need that validation from hundreds and thousands of people, then I would say you’re treading a really dangerous path, and you could end up really unhappy. So yeah, that would be my advice.