Overcoming diversity barriers in the industry

My name is Xiao Sun. I was born and raised in China before coming to Canada nine years ago. The performing arts has always been my passion and I have been getting up on a stage to express myself since I was only five years old. I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of Hollywood’s elite, like Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Charlize Theron, and most recently Seth Rogan, to name a few.

Like many in this industry, my path towards becoming an actress has been unique. I originally started off as a dancer, training for ten years in Chinese traditional dance. I travelled around China with my team, competing and learning along the way. My dance background taught me how to express myself through performing arts from a young age, and I was later hired as a dancer in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Amalunain Montreal, Canada.

After moving to Montreal with my parents in 2009, I also began modeling. I joined Miss Universe Canada and was one of the top 10 national finalists and was awarded the Best Runway Model award. At the time, I was the first Asian contestant to ever receive this prestigious award. That was when I realized, maybe for the first time in a professional sense, that I had the power to overcome diversity barriers and become a role model for other Asians looking to make their way in North America’s fashion and entertainment industries.

It was after this experience when I began pursuing my truest passion: acting. Not too long afterwards, I booked my first ever film, Fatal (Universal Pictures), and my career kicked off. However, as the years went by, the only roles that I was getting were those that were specifically looking for Chinese actresses to play “hot girl” or “girlfriend” or “receptionist” or “best friend”. I was and still am very grateful for these roles and how they helped develop my career, but I was beginning to want more. Very few casting calls were looking for Chinese or Asian actors for leading roles, and none of the roles had any real substance.

Recently, the trends in the industry are changing. The success of Black Panther was just one of many awakenings for Hollywood, showing production companies that films not only starring minorities, but also celebrating them, can become massive successes both critically and at the box office.

Television is undergoing a similar paradigm shift. Just last month, Glamour published an article titled “Now Trending on TV: The Sexy Asian Hunk” highlighting the many hit shows that feature Asian actors in the starring roles, playing roles that go beyond the typical stereotype often associated with Asian characters. This is exactly what I, like many Asians in the industry, love to see. However, even with all the progress that has been made in the last two years, dynamic female Asian leads are still very underrepresented.

For the first few years of my acting career, I was building quite the resume, but was still finding myself playing secondary characters that showcased Asian women in a way I found stereotypical; I was either hot, or nerdy, or a funny best friend, or a combination of the three. I wanted to be able to develop a role, get into the substance of the character, and really show a wide range of emotions while reminding myself why I got into acting.

I decided to slightly change the roles I was going for. I started going to less auditions, as I started picking roles that I felt were more suited to what I felt I wanted, and what I thought would be more interesting roles for an Asian woman. This included my 2016 appearance on Syfy’s Incorporated. The story took place in a future where the United States was no more, and China had taken over as the global superpower. I played a public influencer that encouraged and inspired people to save the kids suffering in areas affected by natural disasters caused by climate change. In Mother,opposite Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, my character was a huge fan of poetry. I travelled days to see a famous poet (played by Bardem) to tell him how much I liked his work, and my character was just a normal human being on this planet. These roles did not require a specific ethnicity. These types of roles are the type we should all strive for.

My most recent role, in Seth Rogan and Charlize Theron’s film Flarsky, I once again had the opportunity to play a character that was proudly Chinese. Initially, the role did not specifically call for an Asian actress, as the film was still being written. After getting the role, the finer details were ironed out, and I was written as a powerful Chinese executive passionate about rescuing animals. This character is passionate and complicated, and the kind of character I always dreamed of playing when I first set out to become an actress.

For too long, Asians have lived on the edge of screens. Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu were pioneers in overcoming such barriers, and in recent years, minorities are having more and more opportunities to take on roles that highlight their culture but are not limited to that audience. Asian actors still have a long way to go, but I would encourage all looking to break out in the industry to keep trying. Go for roles that you are passionate about, write the character you want to play in the story you think is important to be told, be proud of your accent, and sooner or later, audiences will have their own Asian “Black Panther” to look up to.

 

Written by Xiao Sun

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