Asian-Americans Are a Minority in Hollywood. Here's How One Woman is Changing That.

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It took nearly two decades of Tina Huang’s life before she saw someone who looked like her on TV.

It was the late 1990s. Margaret Cho was making it big on stand-up circuits. Her sets poked fun at her Korean American upbringing while challenging stereotypes of what it meant to be an Asian American woman. Lucy Liu, a Taiwanese American, was becoming a household name for her role on the hit Fox show Ally McBeal.

“Until then, my mom would just look at me and say, ‘Well, you can do the news,’ because she had seen Connie Chung on TV,” says Huang, who had dreams of being on screen or the stage. “But finally, a few — if only a few — Asian American women were making it big.”

That was a little more than 20 years ago. Today, diversity in Hollywood has improved, with cast members, writers, directors, and crews looking more and more like the nation overall. Still, there’s a long way to go. According to the most recent University of California Los Angeles Hollywood Diversity Report, the leading roles in most cable and streaming shows still go to white men even as the country’s racial makeup becomes more racially diverse. Figures for all nonwhite racial and ethnic groups lack behind their share of the nation’s population. The report found that Asian Americans were picked for leading roles under 3% of the time.

“Art has a way of influencing how we think and see the world around us and the possibilities for ourselves,” says Huang, 40, who today has dozens of credits to her name — from films and soap operas to streaming hits and voice-over work as well as appearances on the stage. Along the way, she’s made it her goal to uplift Asian Americans and other women actors of color into roles and opportunities that she didn’t always have.

“There is that question of art versus activism. For me, it’s hard to separate the two,” Huang says.

Born in Dallas and raised in New York’s Lower East Side, Huang spent her childhood watching 1980s and 1990s TV shows as her parents — Taiwanese immigrants — worked at their travel agency business and tried to make ends meet through various other jobs.

“I’d watch Star Trek and Cheers,” Huang says. “They were comforting.”

"Throughout my career, I’ve been compared to whoever the most popular Asian American woman was at the time. After Lucy Liu, it became Sandra Oh. I just wanted to be myself."

 

As a teen, she was accepted into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she first studied drawing before switching to theater. In college, Huang immersed herself in theater at New York University, where she was one of a handful of people in her cohort who had Asian heritage.

After the September 11 attacks, she moved to Northern California with her husband, who was studying at Stanford. Huang joined experimental theater troupes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later, the couple switched locations to Los Angeles, where she spent time working in a casting office, among other jobs, to get a well-rounded sense of the acting world of Los Angeles. She also studied the Meisner technique at Baron Brown Studios in Santa Monica.

All through that time, her role as an Asian American woman on stage and TV was on her mind, whether she wanted it to be or not.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been compared to whoever the most popular Asian American woman was at the time. After Lucy Liu, it became Sandra Oh. I just wanted to be myself,” says Huang, who currently appears on Days of Our Lives (as Melinda Trask) and played Susie Chang on the TNT series Rizzoli & Isles. Huang also previously was on The Bold and the Beautiful (as Dr. Campbell).

But what’s always been closest to her heart, she says, is working with actors on the stage in new local creative productions that incorporate underrepresented voices. Several years ago, Huang became a founding member of the Ammunition Theatre Company, which focuses on producing original pieces for the stage. On its website, the group says its goal is to “accelerate representation in the arts, explore the meaning of identity in an ever-changing America and shift mainstream storytelling toward diverse perspectives.”

Huang recalls the reaction to one staged Ammunition piece in 2017, The Tragedy, where two Black men and an Asian American woman (Huang) played the lead characters.

“The story was not about race or any particular struggle around race. We were humans experiencing a narrative on stage. We had feelings. We had faults,” said Huang, who is the former co-artistic director of the company. “But several young women came up to me and my co-stars after and said, ‘Wow, I could not believe there were three people of color on stage leading a story that wasn’t explicitly about race in any way.”’

It was the kind of breakthrough moment Huang wanted to support and cultivate throughout her career. 

“It’s not that I don’t think stories about race are important or that I believe in ‘color-blind casting,’’ Huang says, reflecting on the reactions to The Tragedy. “I think our identities are very relevant and important. It's a nuanced difference. What that moment showed, though, was that we can be many things, and it was a shock to some members of the audience to be reminded of that.”

"As a person with one foot in mainstream television and another in smaller, more local art-making, Huang sees herself as a bridge between the two — and someone who can look deeper into them both."

 

The theater company has, from its onset, partnered with nonprofits so members can use their skills to help and empower youth and other communities. One group it worked with early on, POPS the Club, focuses on young people who have loved ones in the prison system. Ammunition has helped the nonprofit with its annual poems and stories anthology, in which members of the theater group volunteer to record and act out to get the stories in front of wider audiences.

Another effort Huang co-founded in recent years, 1:1 Productions, is making similar efforts. The organization, which she launched with friend and actor Karla Mosley, takes its name from the equal ratio of men to women in the world.

“If there is one woman for every man in the world,” Huang says, “we believe there should be equal representations of women to men in film, TV, and digital media.”

The organization, which has produced shorts and other programming, wants to champion women of color who are in front of the camera and behind the scenes far beyond the world of major networks and media companies. 

As a person with one foot in mainstream television and another in smaller, more local art-making, Huang sees herself as a bridge between the two — and someone who can look deeper into them both.

“There are a lot of people working on small platforms and without corporate sponsorships. They are making their impacts on a community level. The same is happening in the bigger network and streaming levels of TV,” Huang says. “Art and community. It’s what drives so many of us. It’s what drives me.”

Tags: Diversity & Inclusion, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace, women in media, Empowerment, Inspiring Women

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JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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