Anna Akana and Lynn Chen have a new film called Go Back to Chinawhich centers on a wealthy Asian-American girl from L.A. named Sasha Li who is forced to go to China to work for her family’s toy business after her father chastises her for blowing through her trust fund.

The film follows last year’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, a box office success that marked the first major English-language film with an all-Asian cast in several years. Akana and Chen sat down with uInterview exclusively at last month’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, to discuss the re-emergence of Asian and Asian-American actors in major studio Hollywood films.

“I’ve been in this industry for over three decades and I’ve always been asked, ‘Is it getting better?’ And I feel like many times I’ve been like, ‘Yeah!’ but in my head I’m [thinking] ‘Really, is it really getting better?'” said 42-year-old Chen. “I’m going to say yes, because it’s depressing to say anything else.”

She continued: “I actually narrated the Crazy Rich Asians audiobook, so I knew about the book. I knew about the story years before the movie actually came out and even then, people were like: ‘You narrated a book called Crazy Rich Asians?!’ And I was like ‘It’s a great book!'”

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Chen added that most Asians’ response to her narrating the Crazy Rich Asians audiobook years prior was that she was “setting [Asians] back.” She also revealed the “shift” in attitude toward portraying Asians positively on screen in Hollywood has led to her receiving more offers for lead roles.

“I definitely feel like things are getting better,” 29-year-old Akana said. “Even in that just all of my favorite Asian-American stories have now been optioned, like all the books that I love that I’m trying to get made have now been picked up by really big studios or agencies.”

Akana also made her partner chuckle slightly when she said she appreciated the fact that she felt like she no longer had to choose roles that reinforced Asian stereotypes like getting “upset over a B-minus.” Instead, Akana said, her more recent roles have been less exclusively defined by her character’s racial background.

“Now it’s like, ‘no, you’re just a girl and you just happen to be your skin color,’ and that’s awesome,” Akana added.

Full interview transcript below:

Q: Is Hollywood improving in casting Asian Americans

A: I’ve been in this industry for over three decades and I have always been asked, ‘Is it getting better,’ and I feel like there’s been many times and I’m like yeah, but in my head I’m like really is it really getting – I’m gonna say yes cause it’s depressing to say anything else. And I actually narrated the Crazy Rich Asians audiobook so I knew about the book, I knew about the story years before the movie actually came out and even then people were like ‘you narrated a book called Crazy Rich Asians?,’ and I’m like ‘It’s a great book!’ and they’re like, ‘I don’t know Lynn… you’re kind of setting us back here,’ but I will say I feel the shift I actually for the first time can sit here and answer that
question and say yes things are changing are they gonna stay I sure hope so but I feel the shift and it’s really exciting.

Q: Have you seen a difference in your career?

A: You know what’s funny is that I definitely am getting more opportunities to play lead roles and usually I’ll just say this for like commercials even when I go in for commercials usually I’m always best friend I’m never there for what they call hero girl or hero, which is like the main person who everyone else centers around and I’ve gone in for so many hero roles lately it’s sort of nice, I’m like “yeah that’s right you cast a family around me, you cast friends around me.” I definitely feel like things are getting better even in just all of my favorite Asian-American stories have now been optioned, like all the books that I love that I’m trying to get made have now been picked up by really big studios or agencies. And yes I do feel like we have had the privilege now of going out for more complex roles that actually have an arc that you know don’t require you to be upset over a B minus anymore, and so it’s wonderful to go in and be like, “Oh my god like my race is just a part, like it has nothing to do with the story it’s just I happen to be Asian no.” Before I felt like I was always going out for very Asian specific things and now it’s just like, “No you’re just a girl and you just happen to be your skin color,” and that’s awesome.