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Standing Out: Celebrating AAPI Actors for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Seven artists who are changing the face of contemporary film

Focus Features 05.06.2021

While Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month started 30 years ago, the recent rise in violent incidents against AAPI people has made the commemoration all the more poignant and important. In addition to acknowledging the rich history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it is imperative to acknowledge the need for a more diverse representation of the community in all fields, including film. To honor AAPI Heritage Month, we’re spotlighting seven actors from Focus films whose performances and activism have enhanced AAPI representation and indeed changed the face of contemporary film.

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Boogie (Taylor Takahashi) and Uncle Jacky (Eddie Huang) in Boogie

Taylor Takahashi | Boogie

In Eddie Huang’s coming-of-age tale Boogie, Taylor Takahashi plays the title character, a Queens teenager with a dream of playing in the NBA. As a fourth-generation Japanese American, Takahashi may not have had the same experiences as his character, but he understood Boogie's internal cultural struggle between wanting to follow his dreams and honoring the wishes of his Taiwanese-born parents. Although Takahashi had never acted before, Huang saw in him the spirit of Boogie, a guy who “doesn’t follow the Asian American path, but in every way, he feels so authentically Asian.” For Takahashi, the film and the role provided him an opportunity to give back to a community that supported him. “I never saw Asian people playing basketball on screen when I was growing up ,” Takahashi explains. “I thought about what seeing Boogie might do for other kids.”

Watch Boogie now.

Gemma Ghan as Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots.

Gemma Chan | Mary Queen of Scots

In Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, Gemma Chan plays Bess of Hardwick, a confidant of Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) who the queen assigns as the guardian of Mary (Saoirse Ronan). Inspired by the non-traditional casting championed in theater, Rourke welcomed talented actors of all races and ethnicities to play the film's historical roles. It was a directorial call applauded by most, including Bust Magazine, which singled out Chan for being “wonderful as Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting.” Born in England of Hong Kong-born parents, Chan made a name for herself in a range of productions, from classical theater to big-budget films like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In 2018, she became an international star with her winning performance in Crazy Rich Asians. When a few people questioned the historical authenticity of her role in Mary Queen of Scots, Chan stood up for more Asian representation and casting by famously pointing out, “If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

Watch Mary Queen of Scots on iTunes or Amazon.

Kang-ho Song in Thirst.

Song Kang-ho | Thirst

In Park Chan-wook’s award-winning vampire movie Thirst, Korean actor Song Kang-ho plays a Catholic priest who turns into a vampire after an experimental vaccine goes terribly wrong. In a tour-de-force performance, Song transforms a horror film cliché into a moving portrayal of a man whose soul is torn in half. While overwhelmed by an insatiable thirst for blood, Song’s character, nevertheless, clings to his priestly vocation,  feeling inside himself a moral imperative to do good. Recently picked by The New York Times as one of “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century,” Song was lauded by the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, who directed him in the Academy Award®-winning Parasite. “He starts from the ordinary and elevates it into a singular and inimitable voice,” explains Bong. “I believe that’s what makes Song Kang-ho and the characters he inhabits genuinely special.”

Watch Thirst on iTunes or Amazon.

Katie (Zoë Chao) and Maggie (Dakota Johnson) in The High Note

Zoë Chao | The High Note

In Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note, Zoë Chao plays Katie, the friend to whom Maggie (Dakota Johnson) turns to relate her latest misadventures with her boss, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). Finding immediate rapport with Johnson made working on the film a joy for Chao. “From the first second we met, it felt like we were old friends and our friendship has extended beyond the project,” recalls Chao. Also important for Chao was working with other women of color like Gantra and Ross. Chao notes, “I think that there is a common feeling of sisterhood and brotherhood among people who have experienced marginalization.” As the daughter of a Chinese American father, Chao finds a strong bond in her heritage and how it connects her to Asian Americans who have faced violence in the last year. “I feel very proud to be Asian American, and it is not the first or last time that we will experience prejudice,” Chao exclaims

Watch The High Note now.

Riz Ahmed as Nazrul Sharma in Closed Circuit

Riz Ahmed | Closed Circuit

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Riz Ahmed was raised in Wembley, a suburb of London with a strong Asian community. To get away from the violence in his neighborhood, Ahmed followed the advice of a theater teacher who told him, "if you can muck about on stage, you get a clap for it, not a suspension.” Studying drama at Oxford — which for him was “all very classical and white” — pushed him to seek out artists and stories he could connect with. In films, such as The Road to Guantanamo, Four Lions, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ahmed explored both his Muslim heritage and the media's misrepresentation of that culture. In Closed Circuit, Ahmed underscores the government's questionable motivations in their war on terror by bringing, according to The Hollywood Reporter, "a note of silky menace to his role as a mysterious MI5 operative." Inspired by the Bechdel Test for women in film, Ahmed presented to the House of Commons in 2017 The Riz Test, a five-question examination that probes the way Muslims are represented in film and TV.

Watch Closed Circuit on iTunes or Amazon.

Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi in Lust, Caution.

Tang Wei | Lust, Caution

At the heart of Ang Lee’s epic spy drama, Lust, Caution, is an impossible love story between a Chinese official, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is collaborating with the Japanese occupation, and a young woman, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), who is committed to fighting for her nation’s liberation. Wei, who was chosen by Lee out of 10,000 candidates for the role, proved a revelation. “Tang Wei, making her film debut, gives a superb and unsettling performance as a woman whose only source of power is her ability to transform herself into someone else,” exclaims Slate. While Lust, Caution brought Wei international acclaim — and censure by the Chinese government — the young actress focused on creating outstanding films, wherever that took her. “I simply want to do good work and I don’t mind where it is,” explains Wei, who continues to win acclaim and awards for her performances in Hong Kong, Korean, and American cinema. 

Watch Lust, Caution on iTunes or Amazon.

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) in Victoria & Abdul

Ali Fazal | Victoria & Abdul

Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul resurrects a remarkable true story of an enduring friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a lowly prison clerk from Agra, India, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). In the part, according to Empire Magazine, Fazal “channels a buoyant charisma that makes it easy to believe that dispirited Victoria could fall for him so hard, platonically speaking.” Having made a name for himself in Bollywood, Fazal embraced the chance to work with one of Britain’s finest actresses. In addition, Fazal hopes this story of friendship from a century ago might connect to the conflicts we face today, especially in the way it "resonates with everything that's happening, with Islamophobia and so many other races and castes and people of different colors.”

Watch Victoria & Abdul on iTunes or Amazon

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