Veena Sud on Increasing Asian-American Representation in Hollywood: ‘This Has to Be a Movement’

Miguel Santos, Jeannie Mai, Kulap Vilaysack,
Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP/REX/S

While women’s movements including #MeToo and Time’s Up grab headlines and Color of Change works designs to empower African-Americans, the Television Academy hosted a discussion on the state of Asian-American representation in Hollywood Wednesday.

Although panelists including Jeannie Mai, Kulap Vilaysack, Veena Sud and Howard Meltzer, CSA, and moderator Miguel Santos of Myx TV, acknowledged strides toward inclusion — primarily citing ABC’s family comedy “Fresh Off The Boat” and the upcoming film “Crazy Rich Asians” — the consensus was that such projects should only be the beginning.

“Just speaking for myself, when I’m complimented for being Vietnamese-American in television — the only one — that doesn’t make me feel happy, that makes me feel really lonely, actually,” Mai said.

Mai shared that in her 15-year career she has often had to kick open doors for herself, even as recently as 2013 when she landed a spot as co-host on “The Real.” The way she does it — and advises others to do it — is to be loud and aggressive about having her voice heard and going for what she wants.

“One time I was at an event with Eva Longoria, and she has done an amazing amount of work for her community through her organizations,” Mai said, noting that although she, too, tries to bring the Asian community together, she finds that they tend to isolate and segregate themselves, “with Koreans hanging out with Koreans, Indians hanging out together, Vietnamese hanging out together.” Mai asked Longoria how she got everyone to come together to show support for each other, “and she said, ‘Girl, my people are just loud,'” Mai recalled.

“I applaud the African-Americans and the Latin Americans right now. They’re so good at being vocal and being prominent about what the problem is,” Mai continued. “As much as we can speak up here, it’s not a noise. And this helps, but it needs to be amplified.”

Meltzer was quick to note that in his long career as a casting director, mostly working in television comedies, he is just looking for “the funniest person,” regardless of ethnicity. But he has been fortunate that he has had relationships with network, primarily the Disney Channel, that champions such race-blind casting.

In speaking specifically about the Disney Channel, Meltzer said, “The mandate is that they want their shows to reflect the audience not only here in the US but in the 50 markets they have globally. So my job is to identify young talent who might not have tremendous resume and reach out and find them.”

Vilaysack has had experience both in front of and behind the camera, and she acknowledged a trend of getting a lot of auditions for “quirky” roles that were written to be Asian. “I looked around [in the waiting room] and I saw diversity, but on the casting side I knew that people just saw us all the same, and I think that’s a mistake,” she said.

“We want to be the heroes. We want to be the protagonists. We don’t want to be the quirky best friend…or the person who dies at the end of the thing. That’s old. We’ve done that,” Sud added, noting that she is often frustrated with diversity mandates because “people can feel good that the diverse quirky best friend makes a few jokes and goes home and the love story is with two white straight people.”

In at least one case for Meltzer, though, he was able to take an actress who started as a quirky best friend but ended up catching the network’s eye and going on to star in her own show. 

Sud added that the “specificity of each of our stories and where we come from — not only our ethnicity but where we grew up, our friends, how we fall in love” is so interesting, yet there are still few chances to explore it on-screen.

“I feel sometimes so frustrated because it’s like the rest of America is more advanced than what we see on our screen,” Sud added. “On our screen sometimes I feel like we live in the 1950s to some degree still — or MAGA-land — where this idea that the only thing America cares about is “Roseanne” and white people saying s— about people of color, and it’s just like, come on people, we’re way past that. And our industry needs to catch up.”

Vilaysack also acknowledged that it is a problem “our talent isn’t being given the chance to move up” in more mainstream ways. “On a network show it’s hard to take a risk on an unknown — an Asian-American or an other than white ethnicity if they haven’t been proven, but they haven’t been given a chance to be proven because they’re relegated to small roles,” she said.

For her, though, partnering with the now-defunct Seeso to write, produce, and direct her own content, gave her opportunities mainstream networks were not presenting to her.

“My hope is that some Lao girl sees me somewhere and says, ‘Oh I can do that, too,'” she said. “To see ‘Black Panther’ is revolutionary — to make that money is revolutionary, right? But to see that that’s what a superhero can look like — someone who’s been an outsider but he’s powerful and he’s smart and he works with women, that’s amazing. And so the more that we are loud, the more that we speak up, the more that we post…we see that’s a path. …The more we’re here and telling our stories, the more I think young people will be inspired.”

And Sud believes the fact that there is more real estate now, thanks to such digital platforms, is what will allow for the most change.

“Now instead of the stranglehold of yesteryear of three channels or 10 channels — such small real estate that it’s selfishly guarded and protected to just say a few stories that appeal to the broadest audience possible, now with streaming we’re seeing the possibility. We’re seeing it opening. So right now I think our responsibilities as people behind the camera, in front of the camera, as people in the Academy who have the power is to continue these conversations and really press into this issue,” Sud said.

Sud shared that when she was first pitching “The Killing,” she intended for her homicide cops to be people of color, but no one wanted to buy it. When she said, “OK I’ll make them white,” then it sold.

“This is the problem,” she said, admitting every step toward change she has been able to take has been an “exhausting, beat down, bone-tired fight.”

“The Killing” ran for four seasons on AMC. Her latest series, “Seven Seconds” on Netflix, did not get renewed for a second season, but it did sell with multiple people of color in lead roles, including the young assistant district attorney looking into the murder of the teenager that starts the action of the series.

“As a showrunner, I can pitch any story, but if it doesn’t sell it doesn’t get on the air. So I can go ahead and pitch every Filipino [or] Indian story known on the face of the Earth, but if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t matter. And so there is a radical sea-change necessary, not only in our group represented here but in the entire industry,” she said.

A step toward that change, Sud suggested, would be an Asian-American committee inside the Television Academy — an opportunity for the community to get together as a group talk about the issues they face and the change they want to see. 

“[We can’t lose] sight that this has to be a movement. We can knock on the door until our hands fall off, but if those shows are not being greenlit and those writers are not being hired [nothing will change],” she said. “The reason women’s issues have become something people are talking about is because the ACLU brought a lawsuit against the studios; the reason we’re talking about race is because Jada Pinkett [Smith] had the brilliant idea to be very, very honest about what the Oscars represented that year and #OscarsSoWhite happened; and Color of Change did this very, very clinical study of what our writers’ rooms looked like and published it in Variety…so there’s no asking for anything. There’s, I think, our community — our Asian-American community — needs to do something very similar and just be like, ‘Frankly, enough of this s—.'”