Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I had to Google the spelling for Philippines

I'm trying to get my head around all these ideas about racial identity in the theatrical world. Stereotypes, accents, casting, etc. Historically I haven't been very comfortable with race and even less so when it comes to thinking of myself as having a racial identity, and especially when it comes to finding a way to sell myself as an actor.

It goes back to my earliest days in memory, growing up in East Los Angeles, as perhaps the only non-Mexican kid around. It's not like I was entirely friendless in elementary school days, however I recall the roots of my feelings of alienation being planted in that period. The taunting with rhymes like "Chino, Chino, Japones, Como Caca No Me Des"  By the time I was in High School things were a bit more diverse, especially since I was in a magnet program that drew students in from around the city.

I went to Garfield High School, which was famous for calculus teacher Jaime Escalante. The film Stand and Deliver had a few scenes shot there, though mostly at rival High School Roosevelt. If I had to look back and realize, my first days doing extra work (as the biz would call it - background artist) were on this shoot. I didn't realize at the time that Lou Diamond Phillips was of Philippine descent like me. I think La Bamba had been released and at the time he was getting work playing Mexican. And good for him!

There weren't really any Filipino characters in the media either, at least not that I remember. I was lumped in with the Asians in general. So people assumed I knew Kung Fu. To a certain extent that misconception kept me safe from harm, as long as I didn't start a fight myself. There's a certain Alien-ness of all the Asian characters I'd see on the screen too, from Long Duk Dong to Short Round to Data (from Goonies, not Star Trek: TNG). I think the only times I've seen an actor portraying a Pinoy character (I'm still not used to that phrase, but I'll use it) it was playing a houseboy during the 1940s and 50s or this scene from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I love the hell outta that movie too, even that scene though I'm as uncomfortable with it as one might expect.

Speaking of discomfort, I remember a featured extra job during which I was offered a line. It was during a pilot set at a hospital. I was supposed to have been a husband for a wife going into labor, who knew very little English. The line was simply calling out to the lead - "Doctor! Doctor!" and yet I couldn't swallow the whole outsider vibe, like playing a character who had the accent that was present in my life growing up. I talked my way out of that, and thus also a significant pay bump. That day kind of caused some big questions for me, with which I'm apparently still dealing. How committed am I to being a professional actor? What do I think about how my racial identity has been perceived?

Even earlier at UCSB, I remember taking the stage dialects class. I loved learning stereotypical accents. But I got very uncomfortable with doing the one Asian accent in the book. It brought up those old feelings of alienation that I and the Chinese girl student had to do a scene from Rashomon in Japanese. I blew it off without explanation, but again there are questions I'm still dealing with twenty years later.

Last Friday I volunteered for an arts expo at the Chicago Cultural Center. Mostly sitting and chatting up folks and promoting the Second City, but I had fun and saw some resources I wasn't aware of before. I met a lady from the local SAG chapter and discovered that I was still eligible to join, which surprised the hell out of me. She also seemed to see my "racial ambiguity" as an advantage in terms of work. That thinking is very uncomfortable for me, seems inauthentic. On the other side there's work to be had, right? Is there such a thing as Yellowface?

This sketch from Mr. Show captures the way I think folks think of Asian characters. Look for the section about Chinatown.

Russell Peters has a handle on his racial identity and it allows him to discuss race elegantly.

I've written before that the one movie I can remember during which Asian characters were presented as normal dudes and not entirely outsiders was Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I didn't see the sequel, but I have to imagine that it's possible to see more people who look like me in the media. It's weird because when I Google "Philipino Actors" the links are nearly full of people who have partial descent, people who play other races. I don't begrudge those people their work, but it makes me question what a young Pinoy kid sees as their options in the media? I personally never related to the stereotypes that were seen about faces like mine.

There was an indie movie out recently called Graceland, set in the Philippines. It was tense, extremely dark and had a pretty wide range of characters, though none of them pretty. Does it speak to stereotypes? Maybe. Is it a very interesting film which leaves me with questions? That's much more important to me.

I still have a lot to chew on. What are your thoughts?

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