NEW YORK — The casting director who brought together large Asian casts for "The Last Emperor" and "Year of the Dragon" once said to Jadin Wong, an agent in New York, "It's too bad there are not many classically trained Asian actors."
"Why should there be?" Ms. Wong responded. "Is somebody going to cast them in 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
Today, Asian-American actors are getting more exposure, but they still get called most often to audition for stereotyped parts.
"If you watch TV or film, you never see Asian-Americans that are prominent," says Welly Yang, a Taiwanese-American actor in New York. "What everyone wants to do is not be typecast as an Asian gangster or a guy who can't speak English."
Mr. Yang himself played a drug dealer on the soap opera "As the World Turns," a gangster in the independent film "Falling Nest," and the lead role of Thuy in the musical "Miss Saigon" before founding his own theater company, Second Generation, to use Asian talent.
"Miss Saigon" is an obvious audition stop for Asian-American actors, and hundreds have performed in it over the past nine years. Yet the show is controversial in the Asian acting community, and some of the show's veterans find there is nowhere to go afterward.
"Some would never do 'Miss Saigon' because they say it's a racist, imperialist piece. Others say it's a way to make a living," Yang says.
When the show first opened, it was criticized for featuring a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, in the lead role of a Vietnamese. Yang, who has played several parts in the musical, once auditioned for the lead Caucasian character. "I knew they wouldn't cast me, but I wanted them to tell me why," he says.
Cindy Cheung, a Chinese-American actress, says, "There's something about exoticizing Asians and putting them on stage for white people to see that makes me uncomfortable. When my main agent calls me, it's usually for a role specifically as an Asian-American woman," Ms. Cheung says. "I'd also like to be called for other roles."
Karen Taussig, a former agent who handled many minority actors, says she would not send her clients to auditions for minority-specific roles. "Whenever it came out that they were looking for an African-American or an Asian-American, there was always a reason, and it was never good," she says.
But the overwhelming demand for white actors drove her out of the business. "My clients would see their white counterparts getting cast, and thought I wasn't doing my job," she says.
Ms. Taussig is now the manager for Margaret Cho, a successful Korean-American comedienne. In Ms. Cho's one-woman show running in New York, she talks about her television series, "All American Girl," which ran on ABC for one season in 1994-95. Network executives initially suggested other names for the show, such as "East Meets West" and "Yok on the Wild Side."
Chinese-American actor B.D. Wong played Cho's Korean-American brother on the sitcom. He won a Tony Award for his role as the Chinese lover in "M. Butterfly" and now sticks out as one of the few who have made the transition to mainstream roles on stage and screen.
He played Linus last season in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" on Broadway and portrays the priest on the HBO series "Oz." Neither role was written for an Asian actor.
Alan Muraoka is another actor who has broken into nontraditional roles. He is a fourth-generation Japanese-American who starred in "Shogun," "The King and I," and "Miss Saigon" but now plays the proprietor of Hooper's Store on the PBS television show "Sesame Street."
"The role is perfect - I don't have an accent," he says.
Portrayals of assimilated Asians are rare though, he points out, and successful Asian actors are scarce. "The Asian-American stars who are mainstream now are immigrant guys who come from China and do kung fu and karate," Mr. Muraoka says. "That's what's marketable in Hollywood's eyes."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society