When it’s all said and done, 2016 may go down as the year Hollywood finally recognized Asian Americans. At least that’s what actor Osric Chau hopes. The Canadian-born actor – best known to fans as Kevin Tran on The CW’s Supernatural and now as one of the stars of BBC America’s newest hit, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – recently returned from Lisbon, Portugal where he was speaking on diversity in media as a part of Web Summit, one of the largest tech-focused conferences in the world.
In an environment dominated by innovation and technology, Chau realized society at large had to take on similar thinking. “We’re surrounded by thousands of companies that are really pushing our society forward and we have to do the same thing with tolerance,” Chau said. “It’s not just about ‘tolerating’ one another anymore; it’s about accepting people, making diversity a normal thing.”
Being outspoken about diversity is something Osric Chau has been passionate about since coming in to the industry as a stunt performer. He is now part of the current generation of television and movie stars that isn’t afraid to use his celebrity to be outspoken about an industry that has dismissed Asian Americans’ concerns for too long. “We’re finally hungry and thirsty for representation and seeing ourselves out there,” he said. “There are a lot of us!” According to Chau, a number of factors have led to Asian Americans finding their voice to speak out after years of misrepresentation in Hollywood. He points to two in particular: the growing amount of capable and prominent Asian American actors and a slate of projects with nominally Asian characters that could have easily been played by those actors.
“In the past there were so many excuses for studios: ‘we need a bankable star’ or ‘there aren’t any Asian actors,’” Chau added. Numerous articles have been written about how Hollywood’s lack of Asian American movie stars perpetuates the myth of their perceived inability to anchor a major movie franchise. “Now, they don’t have a lot of the excuses they used to have. There’s too much talent out there. There are too many good Asian American actors who are still struggling to find work. Then we have Asian roles that barely exist get changed to any other race? Sometimes it makes sense, but every time it hurts.”’
The most recent example of a prominent Asian character being whitewashed is, of course, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Marvel’s latest blockbuster juggernaut, Doctor Strange. The film’s director, Scott Derrickson, has said casting a white actress was the only way to avoid playing into harmful Asian stereotypes. Unfortunately, erasure of race can be just as harmful as the stereotype you’re attempting to ameliorate. “It comes down to education, right? They want to do better but they don’t know how,” offers Chau. “At some point, we’ll be able to represent all of us together. It’s not all on one person’s shoulders. It has to be a community.”
Ironically, Chau’s big break came on Supernatural where he played a role that, on the surface, would seem to be yet another Asian American trope. Making his debut during the tail end of the long running series’ seventh season, Chau played Kevin Tran, an overachieving high school student – with an overbearing tiger mother – and the ability to read and interpret the Word of God. “Kevin Tran was the most stereotypical Asian character I’d ever auditioned for,” he admits. “And when I played it, I was rolling my eyes at all the things that made him ‘Asian.’ But my biggest lesson was that stereotypes come from a place of truth. I am a martial artist; I was good at math; I do have a tiger mom.”
For the next three-plus seasons, Osric would go on to be a significant, and fan-favorite, addition to the Supernatural cast. While Kevin Tran may have started off as a stereotype, ultimately, Chau was able to portray the character as a fully formed human being, albeit one who is also a prophet who can channel the powers of God. “What I loved about what Supernatural did was they didn’t kill my character right away,” said Chau. “They let him grow and we got time to say, yes he is all those things, but these are the other things he is, too. We had time to really explore the depths of the character beyond the stereotypes, to see the nuance.”
He is now attempting to bring some of that nuance to his latest role: as a member of an anarchic, energy-sucking vampire gang on Dirk Gently. “As a Rowdy 3, I get to smash things on a daily basis,” said Chau. “It’s so much fun!” Though he wasn’t as well versed in the original Douglas Adams novels on which the BBC America series is based, Osric quickly acquainted himself with the complexities of the world he now inhabits. “When I read the script, I loved it so much,” he said. “It’s so fresh and weird. It really reminds me of Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock – which are all fandoms that I’m a part of – so I got really excited right away.”
On Dirk Gently, Osric is part of a sprawling, eclectic, and diverse cast that gets to play in a rich and unique environment. Like any other actor, Asian Americans just want the opportunity to play real characters with depth and complexity. This is what the fight for visibility in Hollywood is all about. “We can’t always be there just to be the story device for the white male protagonist,” said Chau. “We are people. We have stories, too.”
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Keith Chow is the founder and editor of The Nerds of Color (thenerdsofcolor.org), a site that covers pop culture with a different perspective. He is also an editor of the Asian American comics anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered. Follow him on Twitter @the_real_chow
This article is made possible by Comcast.