Educating Hollywood

Just how do Asians beat the stereotypes and make it big in Tinseltown?

After my most recent article, a reader sent me an email asking for tips and guidance on how to break into the acting industry. Much to his disappointment, I could not give him any pointers as acting is not my area of expertise. But this made me wonder — how do minorities break into the Hollywood scene and make a name for themselves?

Popular culture has always told us that it is all about having the right blue-eyed and blonde or brunette looks.

No chance for the Asian guy or girl? If that were the case, then the late Bruce Lee would have been very disappointed.

Recently, I was one of the lucky media professionals who had a chance to interview Datuk Michelle Yeoh, who was in Kuala Lumpur to promote her new movie The Lady, hosted by Swiss watch extraordinaire, Richard Mille.

The event was also part of Yeoh’s effort to promote the Voice of The Children, a non-profit organisation for the welfare and protection of children in Malaysia, which she personally champions.

Our meeting was not really an interview, but more of a discussion on what the Hollywood hierarchy looks for in Asian talents.

My questions were directed more at how she and her Asian colleagues beat the stereotypes and made it big.

Yeoh summed it up quite nicely. She said there are two aspects involved. The first is the commercial value.

“Sometimes a movie director’s goal is to make large profits in Asia. A strong unique selling point would be an Asian actor playing the lead role,” said Yeoh. Sounds like Marketing 101, but then again the movie world is a business.

The other aspect is the LNL factor — Language and Looks.

Even though a director or producer may be looking for an actor with a certain look and charisma, first and foremost, he must be able to speak proper English.

Yeoh said that if you came to the audition and spoke with a Bollywood accent or in a strong Manglish dialect, then it might be a very short-lived trial. But she stressed this is an area where Hollywood needs to be educated and made less ignorant.

When I probed further, she said many times when she attends castings, the person in charge would compliment her on her strong command of English and ask where she learnt to speak it so well.

Yeoh would often reply, “Oh, I learnt it on the plane from Asia to America. It’s a long flight.”

I am sure many of you are thinking, “Is that all? Those are only two components.” Hold your horses, as Yeoh did mention that the X-factor in this line of work is the chemistry between the lead actors. If the actors can’t get along and don’t have the right screen chemistry, then the producer will just yell out, “NEXT!” ending these actors’ Hollywood dreams.

For the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, many Bond girl aspirants had to go through rigorous screen tests with Pierce Brosnan to identify whom he could best gel with.

We all know who won this audition, and it was a step towards bigger and better things for Yeoh.

My last question was about advice that she could share with aspiring Asian actors who want to break into the Hollywood scene.

Yeoh said, “We need to educate Hollywood about our stories. A good story is not just about what happens in the West, but what happens in our part of the world. It’s not an easy sell but we have some great stories to tell, so let’s convince them to tell it.”

I kind of agree with her. After all, LA and UK do not just stand for Los Angeles and the United Kingdom; they can also stand for Lebuh Ampang and Ulu Klang, and there are some funny stories that happen there.

n Ben Ibrahim is a TV host/producer/emcee. He can’t act, dance or sing to save himself, but he can be contacted on his email, twitter@benibrahim or Facebook.