There are many curious things in life but one thing always bugs me: the biggest continent in the world is getting the least representation in media. Strange. Consider us lucky when we see ladies like Ali Wong or Priyanka Chopra or Ally Maki get their screen time in Hollywood. But even then, they are placed in these stereotypical roles that don’t do anything to push talented Asian actresses forward.
We chatted with Ally Maki over the phone for some OG advice in making it big in Hollywood as an Asian American actress and how we can contribute to changing the narratives that are being written for them. You may know her from her roles in the Netflix’s Dear White People (as Ikumi), and the comedy Wrecked.
In the latter, she plays Jess, an all-American girl stuck with her long-time boyfriend — and a few other interesting (and diverse!) characters — on an island after a plane crash. Think Lost with lots of socially aware, laugh-out-loud moments. The most interesting thing about Ally Maki’s role in Wrecked was that she almost never got that part. “It was trained in my brain that if a certain role was written this way, they wouldn’t go (with an Asian actor) because of being trained by the industry that you’re the sidekick dork, you know? You’re not going to be the leading girl. That was on me that I didn’t believe that I could play this role,” she says. Jess wasn’t written for any particular girl. But now that we’ve seen Ally play that part, we couldn’t see it any other way.
“There were times when I was taking on roles — they were comedy — and I’ll see people laughing. I didn’t realize that at that time, I think they were actually the stereotype,” she recalls her early experience in the industry. But she soon realized that she needed to start saying no to these roles to change the industry’s landscape. It will take years, but Ally Maki and other admirable Asian actresses are at the helm of this change.
Here’s what she has to say:
An all-American girl
“I’m fourth generation Japanese American. I was born here and my grandparents and parents were born here. I’m an all-American girl and I think we can start to change what that means to us. We can make so much progress. All-American girls don’t just mean a blonde hair, blue-eyed girl. It also means Asian American girls who live in LA or an Indian American girl in the Bronx. We need to change this stigma, and I think we’re starting to do that especially with roles like this.”
“It has taken me a really long time to learn how to say no. The first time I said no was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do because I felt like I was letting go of an opportunity or letting people or myself down. But the more I did it, the more power I felt. Even in small ways or in your own personal life, small, little no’s in your career can really help you every time you do it.”
What you need to know about the industry
“Being in the industry is one of the hardest kinds of lifestyle you can have. It’s so up and down; there’s no constant. The more that you think that you’re secure, everything gets taken away and you’re right back at the bottom again.”
On being an Asian American lead actress
“It’s sad because my whole journey has been me believing that I can’t be a leading woman in this industry, and also not believing that I’m not beautiful in any way. Growing up, if you don’t see images of you or like you portrayed as beautiful, you’re never going to think that of yourself. I want them to know they’re beautiful, especially for Asian American youth. You can be the hero of your own story.”
Taking a chance
“Just believe that you can because if you don’t even believe in this opportunity, then you’ll never know. If I hadn’t gone to this audition (for Wrecked), then this wouldn’t even have happened. Especially with women, we need to believe that we can be the essential focus of the story.”
Last piece of advice
“If you don’t 100% love what you do or have passion for it, you’re not going to be happy. You will constantly have people telling you to be who they want you to be and to act this way. You have to make sure that it’s truly what you love. Don’t do it for the fame, don’t do it for the money. Do it because of the love of the art.”