A decade ago, Hong Kong native Wesley Wong set his sights on an acting career while he was a student at USC.
But in 2008, film roles for Asian actors were virtually non-existent. Even in 2016, less than 6 percent of speaking roles were Asian in the top 100 films that year, according to a recent comprehensive USC study. Moreover, according to the report, just two Asian men had lead roles in 2016.
“I did some research and thought because of my ethnicity, I should go to Beijing (to pursue acting),” Wong tells Variety. “That was 10 years ago – it wasn’t that established for minorities here. We didn’t have that much opportunity. Back then I thought my best choice was to start off in China or the Asian market.”
Wong, who grew up speaking Cantonese, had to learn Mandarin and he also attended the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. After a number of acting credits in Chinese films, including a starring role in a romance last year, he earned enough recognition to audition for – and land – his first role in a major Hollywood blockbuster, “Pacific Rim Uprising,” bowing this weekend.
The science-fiction action flick features Wong in a supporting role as Cadet Jinhai, one of the Jaeger pilots who do battle with the Kaiju monsters out to destroy Earth. Starring John Boyega and Scott Eastwood, the Steven S. DeKnight-directed sequel comes five years after “Pacific Rim” first debuted. Though the original picture grossed just $102 million domestically, it found commercial success internationally, grossing $411 million worldwide. Its sequel is on track to top the box office this weekend and gross up to $29 million.
Wong’s journey to landing a role in a major Hollywood blockbuster underscores the struggles of Asian actors, many of whom decry the lack of meaningful roles available to them in film and television. Also problematic are stereotypical depictions of Asians: either sexualized Asian women or nerdy and brainy Asian men.
In recent years, however, Hollywood has begun focusing on making films with global appeal, particularly focused on China. The “Pacific Rim” films have both been co-ventures with Wanda-owned Legendary Pictures. The first was distributed by Warner Bros. and Universal will distribute the sequel.
That has been a boon to Scott Eriksson, Wong’s manager, who said his company, Asian Cinema Entertainment, stands to take advantage of the need for more Asian actors as Hollywood looks to the international box office to shore up the film business.
Eriksson’s roster of clients are almost exclusively Asian, including several Asian-Americans who grew up in the U.S. but decided to go to markets where they can more easily get work. Eriksson actually has two clients with roles in “Pacific Rim Uprising.” The other is Mackenyu, who plays Cadet Ryoichi.
“What we always tell people here is that we have created a bridge and that bridge is building really fast and really strong,” Eriksson said. “We’re focused definitely on Asian-Americans in Hollywood and raising their visibility and we’re looking at Asian talent around the world that speaks English.”
Emmy-winning producer Janet Yang said Wong’s path to landing a film role in a Hollywood production is not atypical, pointing to other Asian actors like Daniel Wu (“Into the Badlands”) and singer-actor Wang Leehom.
“It’s a crying shame that Wesley had to go to China and Hong Kong to establish himself,” Yang said. “If only people knew that there was so much talent here.”
Since then, Yang said she has labored to improve Asian representation in American films and said she has been heartened by the progress made in recent years. Still, Asian men, Yang said, have a particularly hard time getting cast in lead roles in the U.S.
“They decided at a certain point they’re not going to get real traction here,” Yang said. “There’s such a strong bias, but again that’s changing a little bit. Social media has a lot to do with it,” pointing to the social-media driven campaign, #StarringJohnCho.
The campaign sought to draw attention to the dearth of films featuring Asian leads by photoshopping images of actor John Cho in movie posters for Hollywood films like “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “500 Days of Summer.”
Organizing in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and the jokes told at the expense of Asians at the 2016 Academy Awards galvanized Asians in Hollywood in a way that has begun stirring broader changes, Yang said.
“Every day I feel very encouraged but change does not happen overnight,” she said. “But I know we are on a trajectory.”