"Have more Asian friends": James Chen reflects on Hollywood, activism & new series "Run the World"

Salon spoke to the "FBI" actor about his new Starz series, breaking stereotypes and working for the community

Published May 30, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Actor and activist James Chen (Nick Hoge)
Actor and activist James Chen (Nick Hoge)

Actor and activist James Chen currently appears in Starz's new series "Run the World." In the Harlem-set comedy, his character Brian gets romantically involved with Ella (Andrea Bordeaux), one of four friends who are navigating relationships and work. Chen also just finished shooting the third season of Dick Wolf's CBS series "FBI" where he plays Ian Lim, an FBI agent and analyst in the Joint Operations Command. 

The actor works mainly in television — he had a recurring role in "The Walking Dead"—has also played romantic characters, in feature films, including the ensemble "Fluidity," and, most notably, as a closeted actor in the gay romantic drama, "Front Cover" with Jake Choi back in 2015.

A graduate of Yale School of Drama as well as the University of Pennsylvania, Chen is involved in Asian activism, participating in community meetings, live chats, and panels to highlight visibility and representation of Asian Americans in politics, culture, and society.

He has also recorded nearly three dozen audiobooks with Asian themes for Audible and uses his Instagram account to speak out about the recent hate crimes against his community. He recently chatted with Salon about his work, his activism, and the perils of being a sex symbol.

It's the last days of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. But we should not honor the AAPI community just in May, but all year long. How have you celebrated this year?

A lot of it was activism-related and celebration-related, acknowledging our community leaders who have stepped up in these really trying times. Daniel Dae Kim has been such a fantastic face and voice — he uses his platform so well and is so articulate — and even down to the grassroots activists that no one has ever heard of, who are doing community organizing, which is really powerful. They are amplifying that signal and spreading that message. I am trying to participate as much as I can. I was contributing to Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate. It's funny, I feel this year, it's more of a vocalization as opposed to a celebration of our heritage. I'm reflecting on what it means to be Asian American through a lens of pride and not victimhood. 

As an Asian actor in this industry, I think the system historically has not been set up for diversity until relatively recently, so now is the time to celebrate great authentic storytelling. Series like The CW's "Kung Fu" showcase more authentic family dynamics. There are strong Asian men in "Mortal Kombat," which is exciting. Every day there is a new show or series being developed by an Asian author or showrunner. And those are making positive waves, which I want to get behind.  

You are currently appearing in "Run the World" which gives you the opportunity to play up your sex appeal. It's great to see non-white and mixed-race couples coupling up on the show. What observations do you have about that in general and playing the Sexy Asian Man in particular? Do you feel objectified, tokenized, exploited, or are you just working it?

I didn't feel exploited. Depicting interracial sexual passion was something I'd never done before. It was exciting and groundbreaking, and felt more authentic to my real-life experiences. Yes, it was intimate; bedroom scenes are always awkward and uncomfortable when you are shooting with a crew around you. We worked with an intimacy coordinator, which added a layer of respect and dignity. But there was a sense of relief, because it wasn't a big political statement to make this couple interracial. In fact, it was based off the writer's experience, so it was art imitating life. We need to counteract all these years of negative stereotypes, right? 

"Run the World" is an ensemble, like much of your television work — e.g. "FBI," "The Walking Dead," etc. We went 25 years between "The Joy Luck Club" and "Crazy Rich Asians." How do you perceive the changes in opportunities for Asian actors? Have things improved?

Hopefully we are in a renaissance of Asian content and representation and getting to see more nuance. The ball is in our court to create our own things, and there's space and room for us to express ourselves authentically. The industry has shown that they are hungry for more and varied stories. There is a marked movement in diversity, inclusion, and equity in all industries but especially in the entertainment industry. So larger networks, studios, and companies are examining that in front of and behind the camera and in development. 

People are being more respectful and mindful when others try to denigrate or erase or be flat out racist. For example, there was a Texas comic [Tony Hinchcliffe] who was dropped by his representation. In an attempt to be funny, he spewed racist things to his Chinese host at a comedy festival. He was shut down. That sends a signal that this is not tolerated. It came from the offended individual as well as the community. We're speaking out against those kinds of awful behaviors and are being listened to. We have allyship as well, which means a greater sense of community is on board.  

You recently appeared on a virtual panel for STARZ about expanding the imagination of Asians on screen. I know the Latinx community tried to gain some traction with their La Letter, but little has changed. What are you noticing about Asian casting and creatives? 

There was a lot of celebration in the trades last week that a popular Filipino anime, "Trese," was voiced by Filipino actors. It really does take a village. Gold House has been very active and effective in prompting awareness but also behind-the-scenes development and pipeline things. They are doing collaborations with other companies and minority activist groups for positive advancement of Asian Americans in media. 

It shouldn't take 25 years for Hollywood to make the next all-Asian film to get released. There should be a number of films in the pipeline. There should be at least one a month! 

Amen, man! But, it's track record. There is a history of very few Asian-American stars. In the STARZ panel, people asked, "What can we do to help to open the minds, change opinions, or convince executives of the need for diversity?" And I said, "Have more Asian friends." It sounds like a joke, but if a person doesn't have Asian friends, or associations with other Asian people, then Asians will be foreign to them — as a consumer and a developer of content. I feel social media has changed things tremendously. Anyone can have a platform. Asians have been early adopters of that. There have been a lot of popular projects that have had Asian leads on streaming services that have put some more Asian on the map and in the public's consciousness. They want to make sure they populate their world with at least an Asian. But next step is a lead. 

I really object to these multiethnic casts where they have one Black, Asian, and/or Latino character which seems token-ish. We couldn't possibly have two people of the same color. 

Sometimes they prove how box-checking these supporting characters become, they will check two boxes with one character. The supporting character [of color] will be gay or trans whereas the lead is arguably more mainstream. 

It's facile! To your earlier point, in order to be more diverse, we need to meet and know more diverse groups of people.

The change comes from within. Maybe you do change the hearts and minds of people but that doesn't prove on paper that someone can carry a show or a film. It's a long-term solution. If you have more Asian friends, and vice versa — for Asians to reach out, because there can be a tendency for Asians to self-congregate. Maybe they were raised to be private people because their parents are immigrants. We can't do that anymore. We have to be very conscious about speaking up, standing out, being seen, heard, and reaching out to make connection so people feel and remember that we are here and hear our opinions. That's the work we as Asian Americans have to do, day after day and for years and years and years. 

A friend of mine, who is Black and gay, wrote that he doesn't like being described as a "minority" because that suggests he is inferior, not equal. He says people don't get how offensive and demeaning the word "minority" is.

Labeling a minority does things messaging-wise. That word can imply something minor or less than, which can have real life psychological influence for how people view themselves as well as how they may be viewed by non-ethnic people — causing a separation with labels. As Bruce Lee said, "Under the Heavens, there is but one family."

Do you want to talk about the model minority myth?

It's such an interesting topic. There's a part of me that doesn't want to — no one wants to — conform to a preconceived idea of who or what you are; everyone has a unique identity. But there's a rebelliousness against a hardworking model minority. At the same time, if you are an ambitious human being, you've got to work hard. We have to reframe it, or own or define "hardworking" in our own terms or own way, because we want to realize potential and fulfill our dreams not to please parents or to impress other people. We need to find a healthier way to do it, but at the end of the day, we still have to work our asses off. 

Do you find that you are offered roles that rely on your looks or ethnicity, or that you are pursuing only open-ethnicity parts?

I'm auditioning for a lot of different kind of roles these days, some are Asian-specific, and some are not, which is a great mix. At the end of the day every actor — and no human — wants to be defined just by their ethnicity. Of course, it's part of your identity, especially if you grew up in that culture and are proud of your identity. But actors want to be cast based on ability and the hard work they put into that ability. If you were just cast in Asian roles, where your ethnicity is always front and center, it would be extremely limiting and exhausting. To not apply your skills is a painful, frustrating limitation. But there are Asian people in the world who have lived lives and have stories that are worth telling and those should be told by Asian people — no more Emma Stone, or Scarlett Johansson s**t. So, it's beautiful if an Asian person has the opportunity to tell a story that is authentic or true. "Front Cover" was a good example of that. And recently, "The Half of It," with Leah Lewis.

It's a double-edged sword. You want to represent your community, but you don't want to only represent your community. 

Yes, I think that's what it is.  

Let's talk about visibility, and working against stereotypes, for inclusion and representation. Can you discuss how you are creating change and what folks can do to help?

It's been relatively recent. George Floyd and the last year's BLM protests, so many awoke to a greater sense of responsibility and allyship and being informed on how this system everyone is in effects everyone. These are our Black brothers and sisters just as we are their Asian American brothers and sisters. And when Trump's hate speech of calling the coronavirus the "Kung Flu" and the China virus without a doubt contributed to an increase of violence on Asian people. It was horrifying to keep up with the news. I felt like I had to do and say even more than I had. I am a pretty private person, but silence is complicity. It affects everyone.  

Let's circle back to you being a sex symbol. 

Let's do it! I need get more shirtless photos. Simu Liu is trying to corner the market and I can't have it. We have to share the limelight, and let the shirtless glisten. It's something you don't see often. Psychologically, this goes back to having more Asian friends. At Yale Drama School I had to organize a Shakespeare master class to be taught by Randall Duk Kim, primarily so a white community can see that an Asian person could do Shakespeare at that level. Dispel the myth by showing them something they haven't seen before. So, I'm more than fine with people complimenting me on my ass. [Laughs]

Is there pressure to show that Asian men can be sexy?

There's probably a layer of that. We are in a business. Every actor always wants to look their best, and it's a very competitive field, but more on a personal journey level, there's a joy in embracing a sex positivity within myself and sharing that. That's the way I view it, rather than trying to push myself to be sexy for some other purpose. At the same time, I feel like it is "the good work" too. Because the stereotypes against Asian men are pretty damaging. It is a positive contribution to the community if you can just counter or contradict those stereotypes. 

Confidence is sexy . . .

Confidence is also under-depicted in media, Asians taking confident, decisive action, or confident Asian men is not popular, or often seen. That all falls under the umbrella of "the good work." 

Are you actively looking to do more love or sex scenes to claim sex symbol status? 

I'm not actively looking. It has to do with the project. It if adds to the project, that's a good idea.

When someone is naked or doing revealing things, it can upstage everything else. And if a person does that too often — and you are completely chiseled with a sexy body — it clearly becomes a huge part of what you are trying to get people to look at. At the end of the day, acting is about what you are thinking, feeling, and saying in relation to other people, but If you are just presenting yourself as eye candy, it can become too much too quickly.

"Run the World" airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m on Starz or on the Starz app. "FBI" airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS. 

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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