The burden of representation: Dodging stereotypes, pushing down walls and what's really at stake when there's "just one" like you on TV

Alexandra Billings, Teyonah Parris and Constance Wu open up about their experiences on-screen

Published September 14, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (Netflix/Roadside Attractions/ABC)
(Netflix/Roadside Attractions/ABC)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

This is the second of a three-part series on actors, writers and directors in today’s Hollywood, reported at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, California, in July and August of this year.

Of all of the brilliant line readings that Constance Wu has delivered on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” it’s a behind-the-scenes, out-of-character line that stays with me most: “It’s not a party trick.” Here, Wu is referring to the accent she uses when playing Jessica Huang, the real-life woman that “Fresh Off the Boat” dramatizes (along with the rest of the Huang family). "It's not a party trick" is Wu’s polite refusal to a request to say a few lines in Jessica’s voice—and in a small and very dignified way, it’s an extraordinary moment for ethnic representation.

“One of the most sensitive issues that our Asian-American audience had with the pilot was that our characters did have accents,” Wu explained to me, when I caught up with her in Beverly Hills this summer. “It’s not because accents don’t exist. They exist across all cultures. It’s a linguistic thing. It has nothing to do with fodder or humor. But I think in the past, because Asians haven’t been allowed to be leads, and they’re just like the supporting character who’s sort of used as a comedic reprieve, I think people were anxious because they thought that’s how the accent was going to be utilized.”

(Wu’s right to be anxious: Though it would be nice to think that mean-spirited caricatures of Asian-Americans are a product of the past, one has to look no further than CBS’s “2 Broke Girls” for an example of one that is still on the air.)

“I wanted to make it very clear,” Wu said, “that my character has an accent based on her life story, which is that she’s an immigrant. It’s not a party trick. It’s not something that I intentionally use for humor. If there’s somebody who laughs at it, they’re laughing for very coarse reasons.”

Wu, in “Fresh Off the Boat,” is a comedic powerhouse—the show’s humor and heart, even when Jessica is being humorless and heartless. Wu focused on classical theater and then drama after graduating from conservatory, and off-screen, she’s incredibly thoughtful. As she joked in our interview, her friends have never found her particularly funny. And what she said to me—and has said in other interviews—reveals a unique tension to the creative process of an actor thrust into a role of representation.

Perhaps we now understand better the disenfranchisement of blackface, the humiliation of straight-washing. But representation is still a maze with many pitfalls. On one hand is the struggle to be seen or heard at all (Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word, on the topic of minorities in film, is devastating in its simplicity). On the other hand is the vast minefield of stereotype, marginalization, exploitation and misrepresentation—terms that very few people see entirely eye-to-eye on.

Underlying all of this is an industry that trades ruthlessly and at times exclusively on appearances, as I discussed in my last installment. Subjective, image-based discrimination is the literal business of Hollywood. If it is problematic, at best, for the industry at large, it is purely discrimination for its most marginalized groups.

Wu is one of the actors who has dealt with what I called, earlier this year, the “just one guy” problem: A situation where an actor or a show becomes a lone representative of an underrepresented group, and as such, have had to navigate a morass of identity politics. Teyonah Parris, who played Dawn Chambers—the first black character on “Mad Men” with any interiority—is another.

"I knew that ["Mad Men"] didn’t really have a lot of African-American representation," when she auditioned, she told me. But, she added, "I did not know the degree to which that character would affect that show when I first auditioned for it. That was one of those beautiful moments where the universe aligns with what my goals are."

Parris, when I spoke to her, had her hair styled in an afro that added a considerable few inches to her diminutive stature. It was not just an aesthetic choice. In her current role on Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse,” her character Missy decides to shift to natural hair after a lifetime of weaves and chemical straightening. The emotional fallout is by turns both comedic and tragic. Parris herself pitched the idea to creator Mike O’Malley.

“I did not know if they would go for it,” she said. “Not only has this journey never been depicted on television, but how many women of color can you think of on television with natural hair?”

I had to think about it, and eventually ventured Tracie Ellis Ross, of ABC’s “black-ish,” who (like her character, Bow) is mixed-race. Parris confirmed my answer, but added, “My hair does not look like Tracee Ellis Ross’ beautiful hair. Her hair is gorgeous. I love her. I think she is doing amazing things with helping other women embrace who they are. But again, I’m chocolate—with very, very small, fine, nappy, coarse hair. It’s different. While some might embrace her curl and natural hair a little easier, you don’t often see someone of my complexion and with my short, very tight curl hair on television — especially not depicted as intellectual and smart and beautiful and desired.”

“Being a woman of color, particularly a dark-skinned woman with thick lips, a broad nose, hips — it’s not your typical Euro-centric idea of beauty,” she said. “So, yeah, I come up against a lot of, Mmm, I don’t know. Yes, she’s dark. She’s not the smart one. She’s not the beautiful one. You know what I mean? That’s very common.”

Parris contended with the character and expression of dark-skinned black women in her role as Coco in 2014’s critical hit “Dear White People,” which also made hair a significant thematic motif. In the film, Coco is the character most invested in erasing her blackness; tellingly, she’s also the darkest-skinned. “When I first looked at it, I said, I want to do this role because she is so different from me. What is wrong with this girl?” Parris said. “But as I dug deeper into who she was, I said, Oh man, we have a lot in common. I did not want to admit that. I wore color contacts. I wore weave. [...] I would not leave my house without having my straight weave put in my hair. I would not leave with any part of my natural hair curling up.”

She added, “I had never seen my natural hair after the age of 10.” Just as Parris’ characters had to come to terms with their unconventional beauty, so too did the actress herself. “It was difficult,” she said, “breaking those codes in my head and freeing myself to be myself.”

Alexandra Billings, the only trans actor on “Transparent,” expressed a similar personal journey.

"I was always asked my whole theatrical career, 'How do you play cisgender roles?' I would always tell them, 'I don’t!' When I played in 'Doll’s House,' when I was in 'Gypsy'—all of these women were transgender, because I am transgender," said Billings. "It never occurred to me that I had to play a cisgender. How could I do that? It’s impossible!

"It’s not about putting something on," she added. "It’s all internal. You bring yourself to this thing. There’s no way [Jeffrey Tambor] or I could play something we’re not. That’s telling a lie."

“Transparent” itself is at the nexus of representational politics—it’s simultaneously the only show with a trans protagonist and a show that receives a lot of criticism for how it has portrayed the trans experience—specifically by casting Jeffrey Tambor as Maura instead of a trans actress. Billings expressed sympathy with some of the critique, and slight impatience with the rest of it.

“We don’t have a wide array of trans characters at all,” she said. “We’re either completely desexualized in these sort of Glinda-like characters, or we’re hookers. What they’re doing is writing [Davina] as this person who has problems, who has a love interest, who is helping Maura. We get into arguments. She’s humanized, which is refreshing.”

But, she added, “Here’s the thing: Any visibility is good visibility. The fact of it is extraordinary! We’re sitting here talking about a show that has a transgender character in the lead. That’s insane! So the fact of it is we have to be grateful for the gift of it.” (The show has hired another trans performer and a trans writer for season two, to bolster its genderqueer credibility.)

There might be a movement of trans stories, led by Caitlyn Jenner, that is changing the conversation in the media, but, Billings said, “We’re still being systematically murdered, we’re still being hunted. It’s still legal to discriminate. If I lived in Iowa, I could lose my job. They could fire me.”

“Here’s the thing about Caitlyn,” she said, launching into an argument on the woman with great intimacy (and indeed, Jenner did visit with the cast and crew of “Transparent”). "Here’s this human who arguably was the archetype, if you will, of how to be a man in the United States. And now, she comes out and she goes, Kidding! In some weird way, all of us, in a certain generation, feel tricked or duped or lied to. So there’s an interesting conversation about truth. There’s an interesting conversation about stereotypical gender-assigned roles that the entire country is having. This is extraordinary. Who cares if Jeffrey [Tambor] is cisgender or not? Who gives a shit?"

Billings’ questions reminded me of a recent kerfuffle in another artistic medium. Last week, the American poetry world experienced a small but profound scandal. A white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem under the name of a Chinese woman—a real woman, as it turns out, though not a poet. By his account, the poem that was rejected 40 times with his white male name was accepted after just nine applications with the name of an Asian-American woman. And it not only was accepted for publication at the University of Nebraska's Prairie Schooner; it traveled its way all the way to the “yes” pile of “Best American Poetry 2015” guest editor Sherman Alexie, himself a well-regarded poet of color. Alexie acknowledged that he paid closer attention to the poem because of the name of the poet—and further determined that despite the embarrassment to himself, it hewed closest to the principles of the anthology to keep the poem in the collection.

The conclusion of this episode—that “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” is one of 75 poems deemed to be the best in America, this year—is one that does not, I think, truly suit anyone. It is not pleasant, to be reminded that the attempts well-meaning people make to right the structural inequity of the world can be so callously gamed; it is not pleasant, either, to be reminded of that self-same structural inequity, especially if you are a white person who believes himself to have no culpability in the way the world was made. Even Hudson can’t be entirely happy with it—that ridiculous martyrdom complex he’s carrying around would have been more satisfied if his duplicity had disqualified him.

Nothing about this situation sits well because no one really wins in the morass of identity politics. In the New Yorker, Hua Hsu called the incident an example of “culture turn[ing] into an extended game of ‘gotcha,’” which sums up the seeming futility of such a conversation. There is a way in which the markers of identity serve to broaden our collective understanding of the multiplicity of experience that makes up the world. There is also a way in which the impulse to draw lines and establish categories can be used against our best intentions. Representation isn’t an end in and of itself; it’s a mile marker on the journey to a more just world. Because just as identity categories can be exploited, they can be stereotyped, misrepresented or marginalized. As the poet and short-story writer Jenny Zhang drily put it in BuzzFeed, also on the topic of Michael Derrick Hudson: “I don’t think Hudson wants to be a ch*nk.”

In Beverly Hills, Wu kept saying that she would bore me if she divulged her process for becoming Jessica Huang. I think, truly, she was a little embarrassed; it’s a personal process, getting into character. But she did share a few details. The real Jessica Huang sent her a tape of all of the first episode’s dialogue, and Wu used that to perfect Jessica’s accent—Taiwan with a bit of middle America thrown in. And there’s a journal:

"I have a character journal where every action Jessica takes, I sort of write a backstory of why this is important to her. To give an example, the real Jessica Huang does like Stephen King novels. She really does. But if you think about it, what is it about Stephen King novels or horror novels that is exciting to her? Maybe they give her a sense of feeling alive. Maybe a sense of safety because her life isn’t as bad as Dolores Claiborne. You just sort of tease out all these different reasons why this would matter, and then you go on set, and you throw it away, and you trust that it’s in the DNA of your character. I think that gives the character emotional resonance where it’s not just the line. But it has a life behind it…

I really liked the whole story about the Sparkle Time Beauty Horse. To me, and I talked about my character backstory, it really did represent a lot of things for me in my own childhood. We all had that one thing we wanted, whether it was My Little Pony or Barbie. It’s something we couldn’t get, and we sort of resigned ourselves to [it], and then creating a great life with the thread of what we have. But then to get it as an adult—in many different takes of that scene, I was actually crying. But I was like, 'This is a network comedy! I can’t actually cry!' But it was very moving to me. I liked that storyline a lot."

Parris’ uncertainty about her pitch making it into the story line of “Survivor’s Remorse” leads to another hiccup of the acting life. While writers, directors and Hollywood executives have their own storytelling tools—words, cinematography, budgets—actors almost always perform at the whims of others.

“I love that Mike O’Malley and Starz are really standing behind a show like this, that really says, yeah, there are many shades to the black experience. Not one role or one person can personify every black person or person of color’s experience in this world. Here’s six people,” Parris said.

“It’s crazy to have to say this,” she continued, “but I think it’s very brave of the network, unfortunately, to take that chance. Unfortunate, in that I have to say that.”

If acting and poetry have one thing in common, it is that they are professions that both manufacture empathy. They are both mediums that depend heavily on an indefinable human element for success, and a crucial element of their success depends on being able to make the audience, either reader or watcher, feel something for the art. Performance is particularly loaded—an actor cannot just imagine a role—they definitively must inhabit it, in some form or another, in order to tell the story.

Both art forms are as old as humanity. What does change, from time to time and place to place, is who we have determined is worth empathy. Diversity in casting is a minefield, but one worth navigating; each step expands our capacity for humanity.

In the course of interviewing Billings, the “Transparent” actress, I told her a story about a conversation I’d had, where a man simultaneously wanted to express his admiration of Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPYs speech and that he wasn’t so sure about “that transgender thing.” Billings’ response was warm and amused. “Isn’t that funny?”

Actually, I said to her, in some confusion, I thought it was kind of hurtful.

“It’s horrible, but it’s the only way they know how to get into the conversation. The fact that he said transgender ‘thing’ makes me really happy,” she said. “Because it’s a thing! It’s a conversation. It opens a door for you and for me to walk through. Anybody who opens the door—as long as the door is being opened, I couldn’t care less what your history is. Just at least open the door, so we can come through it.”

By Sonia Saraiya

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