PASADENA, Calif. — Fresh off of winning a Golden Globe for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and now starring in another project with a predominantly Asian cast and crew, Michelle Yeoh is hopeful the recent wave of progress for Asian representation in Hollywood is here to stay.
“I think we’ve broken that glass ceiling. I hope we’ve ninja-kicked it to hell, and it will never come back, like Humpty Dumpty together again,” she told reporters Friday at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour during a panel previewing the upcoming Disney+ series “American Born Chinese.” “But the only way we can keep this going is by getting the right storytellers, having the studio executives understand and keep putting it forward, which will create more jobs, which will create more opportunities.”
She warned of the tendency to treat representation as “just tick a box off. ‘Oh, I have a Chinese actor there.’ Tick the box. ‘Oh, OK. That means I’m being diverse. I’ve diversified, and I’m embracing everybody.’ But that’s not the truth,” Yeoh said.
Long a legend in Asia, having started her career as a martial artist and star of Hong Kong cinema, Yeoh has become even more of a legend in recent years, particularly after starring in 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” The film’s success as the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years with a majority Asian cast accelerated a wave of Asian-led major movies and TV that continues with “American Born Chinese.” In the TV adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s bestselling graphic novel, which premieres this spring, she plays Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy from “Journey to the West,” the classic Chinese mythical novel.
But here, as Yeoh explained, the goddess is reimagined as an “auntie” figure, wearing sweats and a baseball cap and casually dropping into everyday life. It illustrates the distinctive tone of the graphic novel and the show, which cleverly combines “Journey to the West” with the present-day narrative of a Chinese American teen, Jin Wang (played by newcomer Ben Wang).
Casting the legendary Yeoh to play a goddess was an obvious decision, according to showrunner Kelvin Yu. “It’s sort of like casting the Queen of England or the Great Gatsby,” he said. “You need somebody that has that kind of weight. And I don’t know that there’s anybody more than Michelle Yeoh who can enter a room, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s a goddess!’”
Yeoh was asked what it was like to have become “an icon” due to her roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” But as co-star Daniel Wu, who plays the Monkey King in “American Born Chinese,” reminded everyone: “She’s always been an icon in Asia.”
Wu, who grew up in the U.S., but found more success working in Asia, said he’s always felt a little out of place on either side of the world.
Working on Hong Kong and Chinese movies as an Asian American, “there was always a sense that I was slightly foreign to them. And then doing the Western productions here, being the only Asian person on set is also, you feel like an outsider,” he said. “When I came to do ‘American Born Chinese,’ I thought, ‘Oh, this is my family. This is my tribe.’ You felt a belonging. You felt like you were home, and I never felt that before in the 20-something years of working in the business.”
One noteworthy feature of the show is how it minimizes the tendency to explain the cultural specificities inherent to the story and avoids catering to a white gaze.
“I do feel like audiences are getting smarter in how much they are watching, and part of that is that it doesn’t feel like audiences want the generic version of culture or a surface representation of a culture. So the specificities that you put into the details don’t need to be explained,” the series’ director Destin Daniel Cretton told HuffPost about not explaining too much. “Whenever you start getting into explaining something for an audience that doesn’t know it, it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like it flows. And so we want to treat our audiences like they are smart because when we do our test screenings, we realize that they actually are. They don’t want to be talked down to.”
Yu likened their approach to the culturally specific details in the show to “‘Shrekifying’ Chinese culture.”
“When you watch ‘Shrek,’ it’s a hodgepodge of basically European myths. It’s every ‘Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, it’s ‘Cinderella,’ and they are all hanging out together, and nobody is there to explain to you who Snow White is,” he said. “You don’t have to explain it. There’s no opening scroll at the top of ‘Loki’ that tells you who Loki is. You just enjoy ‘Loki.’ And if you want to look up Loki, you can look up Loki, but it’s not a barrier of entry to enjoying the television show. And so that’s kind of how we approached our engagement with Chinese culture.”
Yang explained that when speaking to readers about the novel, one of the themes that regularly comes up is the adage: The more specific a story is, the more universal it can become.
“Since the book came out over 15 years ago, I’ve gotten to visit these libraries and schools and universities to talk about the themes,” Yang said. “So, after these talks, I’ll have students who are from different immigrant families where the parents come from all over the world. Their parents might come from Nigeria or Poland or the Philippines, and they will come up, and they’ll talk to me about how the story spoke to them.”
The series is an “Everything Everywhere All At Once” reunion. It also features Ke Huy Quan, fresh off his own Golden Globe win this week and continuing his remarkable comeback after quitting acting in the early 1990s due to a lack of roles for Asian actors. Fittingly, his character in “American Born Chinese” is a bit of a nod to his past: Quan plays Freddy Wong, a racist caricature on a fictionalized hacky 1990s sitcom whose catchphrase is “What could go wong?”
Quan recalled that the role initially “scared the heck out of me,” given its problematic nature. But in the show, which takes place in the present day, the character becomes an Instagram and TikTok meme that gets re-evaluated due to its racist tropes. And he came to appreciate how it mirrored his career.
“I realized that it was important to show the audiences today what it was like to be an Asian actor back in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” he said. “It’s practically a mirror up to yourself.”
Quan, who took the role before “Everything Everywhere All At Once” came out and launched his career renaissance, remembers feeling so much trepidation that he needed the show’s producers to really have his back. “When they offered me the role, I was so scared, and I said, ‘You got to promise me one thing. If, when this show comes out, and people hate my character, and nobody wants to hire me again, you have to promise to give me a job,’” he quipped.
Though given all the awards Quan has been receiving for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and his highly anticipated role in the new season of the Marvel series “Loki,” getting a job likely won’t be a problem anymore.
“American Born Chinese” premieres this spring on Disney+.