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Alumni Webinar Panel: Diversity and Representation in Hollywood

On a brisk evening at the end of November, Head-Royce produced its own starry night: a special webinar with three notable alumni, Dan Wu '92, Cameron Johnson ‘03 and Krista Marie Yu '06. Last at HRS earning graduation credits, these distinguished guests rejoined us, this time bearing new credits to their names including film and television acting, writing, producing and directing.  

The gathering, to foment a discussion about the representation of diversity and intersectionality in Hollywood, brought these three industry insiders together with parents, students and other distinguished guests. Moderated by esteemed alumna, entertainment writer, editor and culture critic, Olivia Truffaut-Wong '09, and beloved Upper School Drama and English teacher, Andy Spear, the lively—and at times very personal—conversation offered an intimate look behind the silver screen, at an industry driven by consumer culture and a nascent appetite for multidimensional characterization. 

“When was the first time you saw yourself represented on screen?” Truffaut-Wong asked the panel. Research suggests that seeing yourself by identifying with a person or character—whether by looks, background or belief—is important, and shows that role models can be influential and aspirational. They help us strive to become who we want to be and to overcome obstacles. 

Dan Wu recalled films from his youth like the 1984 John Hughes movie, “Sixteen Candles,” in which actor Gedde Watanabe played the grossly exaggerated stereotype of an Asian American man—a weak, heavily-accented Asian foreign exchange student—in the role, Long Duk Dong. These characters, Wu reflected, were not how he saw himself. Wu instead looked to films from Hong Kong and China with strong leading men like Bruce Lee, Jet Lee and Jackie Chan for his heroes. 

Cameron Johnson quipped “I would say, Dion in ‘Clueless’,” drawing appreciative chuckles from fellow panelists, and added, “I don’t think until I was actually creating a show that I ever saw people like me on TV.” Then he wryly said that perhaps the “Sex in the City” characters—a “circle of gay men who happened to be women”—might have been close to how he sees himself personality-wise.

For Krista Marie Yu, the first time she pictured herself on screen was watching Trini on the “Power Rangers,” (who, she said, was “so so cool”) and the former figure skater, Kristy Yamaguchi. 

While each panelist acknowledged the lack of diverse representation in the entertainment industry, each agreed that their unique voices and perspectives have advanced their careers.

Wu’s career launched in Hong Kong in 1997.  While there for a college graduation trip, he was scouted on the street. He’d never considered acting and anticipated a career in architecture in the United States (US). Recruited into the filmmaking industry in China, he learned to speak Chinese and ultimately worked on over 65 pictures, portraying strong leading men for a Chinese audience. “It’s a big struggle to try to change perceptions,” he reflected about the American filmmaking industry. “I was an action hero in Asia on screen and here I’m doing more character and supporting roles.”

Yu interjected admiringly, “I still see you as an action hero,” drawing laughs.

Wu observed that he probably would not have made it in the industry if he had started his career in the US, where he would have been competing for the same limited roles available for Asian American men at that time. “I was empowered very early on [in China] and given lead roles very early on and told I could be a star very early on,” he said.

Yu’s career in filmmaking began about 10 years ago and she feels very grateful for the journey that led her to it. “I fell in love with what I felt I was good at, which was acting,” she explained. Following the advice she was given, “If you want to act, you have to love it. You can’t have another Plan B,” she moved to Los Angeles, California after college to be near her grandmother. While holding down babysitting and hostessing jobs, she auditioned for every role available, noting that all the audition rooms were full of extremely talented Asian actresses. “Luck,” she said, “only gets you so far. Working really hard is what gets me the furthest…and gratitude,” Yu said. After a few guest spots, commercials and one-liners, her break came with a call back for “Dr. Ken,” a multi-camera sitcom on ABC from 2015-17. At 27, she landed the role of Molly, Dr. Ken’s typically-American teenage daughter. 

About stereotypes, Yu reflected, “People write in a specific way, and we have, as actors, the choice in how we want to take that writing and make it into something.” Although her character in “Last Man Standing” had an Asian accent—which she had to learn—she feels “a stereotype is only if the joke is on the accent or the joke is on the person; you [actors] have the power and the opportunity and the creative expansion to develop the backstory and to develop an actual person with all these different layers that might not be shown on screen but [that] will fuel your work.” To develop an accent, she hired tutors who helped her learn both Cantonese and Mandarin for her roles. The script writers for “Last Man Standing,” she confessed, sometimes wrote her character as speaking Cantonese and sometimes as speaking Mandarin. To accommodate for the inconsistency, she developed the backstory for her character that she felt brought a new depth to the role which was appreciated by the writers and her fellow actors.

Speaking of writers, Andy pivoted to Cameron Johnson and asked, “Where along the way did you feel like you could start contributing your most authentic voice?”

“Thanks to Head-Royce…I got a really good education and USC was easy,” Johnson said. He took a lot of courses at USC, one of which was a screenwriting class in 2004-05. While it solidified his desire to write, he felt he came out of school wanting to be someone he was not. 

“I wanted to be Ryan Murphy…I wanted to be Alan Ball..I wanted to write ‘Nip/Tuck‘ and those sorts of soaps,” he said. He felt afraid to write about Black people then because there were no premium Black TV shows—only comedies. And, he noted, although it is not widely shared, that even those comedies were written by white people. At that time, he said of the industry, “it was very rare for a Black person to be in a position of power.” He began writing scripts that had nothing to do with his life or life experiences. He would submit these to reps who would ask, “So, tall funny gay Black guy, why did you write this?” 

“I realized it wasn't working,” Johnson said. Taking stock of the people who were being sought, he observed that they were all writing about themselves which motivated him to write something about his own life. After conducting a social experiment on a dating website, he wrote a blog that went viral. He said, “I realized, okay cool, so what I’ve been trying to write like is other people, and what I need to be doing is write like me…” He wrote his first pilot, “Me in High School,” which landed him his first job and his first manager. His second pilot got him an acting role on a show called “Zoe Ever After.” He sold his third, “White People Problems,” to Bravo which has landed him every job ever since. “I realized that my voice was the thing that gave me power early,” he observed. He’s been writing in his own voice and about his own material ever since.

Wu chimed in, “Early on I think we all thought that coming into the business in Hollywood meant that we had to look at it through the white lens, and we’re seeing now that it’s no longer the case, we no longer have to do that…that your unique voice is what is special to you and that’s what we have to cherish and keep doing.”