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TCA press tour: Age ain't nothin' but a number (if you're a Chinese actor)

January 8, 2009 | 11:38 am

All you 35-and-up actors, listen up!

Day 2 of the TCA press tour at the Universal Hilton offered a panel on PBS' upcoming American Masters film, "Hollywood Chinese," which will examine how Chinese people have contributed to and been portrayed in the entertainment industry, through conversations with actors, writers and directors.

The film, directed by Arthur Dong, will premiere May 27 and includes discussions with well-known Chinese actors  James Hong ("Blade Runner"), Nancy Kwan ("Flower Drum Song") and B.D. Wong ("Law & Order: SVU"). 

The three actors appeared at a panel to promote the film with Dong, who has directed other documentaries, including "License to Kill."  Most of the panel discussion revolved around the lack of roles for Chinese actors in film and television and the stereotypes that actor must still fight to land roles.

Hong, who turns 80 next month, said he is "very disturbed and worried" that Hollywood has still not embraced Asian actors, relegating them to "head waiter" roles, such as the one he played on "Seinfeld."

"My daughter is sititng out there, April," he said. "She's a young actress and well trained. I fear that she will face the same situation. I don’t see what she and the other young people can do. They train well, but there just are no roles for them to portray. Therefore, a lot of them drop out."

Of the 500 or so roles that he has played throughout his career, Hong said that only about 10% involved characters whose ethnicity did not matter.

"But I find that it doesn’t really leverage me into better roles or stronger roles in other areas, Hong said. "I've talked to Danny Glover about this ... how [black actors] have been able to leverage their roles, where the Asians don't seem to be able to do that. I don’t have my hands on how to solve the problem. It’s just the industry. I’m just part of the industry, just a small pin in this whole industry. I’ve waited a long time for things to change.

"The only roles I see for me that are in the style of kung fu masters or waiters. Other than that, I don’t see much of a future for James Hong," he added.

Wong shared the challenges he faced deciding to become an actor as a Chinese American and a gay man, and said the industry puts limitations on all actors by typecasting them according to ethnicity. Kwan said that sustaining a career is challenging because of the lack of roles.

"There are no Chinese American superstars because you don’t have the roles to sustain that," Kwan said. "You might do one film and it will be a wonderful film and your career takes off. But I think there’s a lack of it in the Asian community. Hopefully more Asians will go behind the camera and produce more films and, hopefully it will come up that way."

All of these were poignant and important points, but we couldn't help but notice something else as the actors spoke. A quick IMDB check revealed that Wong, who looks like he's in his early 30s, is 48! Kwan is remarkably youthful-looking for a 69-year-old woman. And Hong is almost 80!

It's not about plastic surgery, Hollywood! Listen to what Hong said:

"Next month, I’ll be 80. I’m still waiting for some meaty parts to get into. However, if I eat my herbs, I might make it."

Herbs, people. Herbs.

— Maria Elena Fernandez