Is That Racist? – Interview with Peter Shinkoda
Being an Asian Actor in America and stigma that comes with it
Peter Shinkoda is an Asian-Canadian actor, originally from Montreal, most recently recognizable to us nerds for portraying Nobu in Marvel’s Daredevil. Peter has been gracing film and television screens since the early 90’s, starring in such hits as Falling Skies and Mortal Kombat: Legacy. [You can check out his entire resume on his IMDB Page.]
As a veteran of screen and stage, Peter has quite a bit of experience as an actor and as an Asian actor has some deep insight into the racial profiling and biases Hollywood tends to practice. I was fortunate enough to get an interview and got to learn more about how he started, who his inspirations are, and also his views and experience with race in Hollywood.
Kevin Fenix (KF): How did you get into acting/entertainment industry?
Peter Shinkoda (PS): Pure hard work. I was an English speaking visual minority living in frozen French-Canadian Montreal; there was no easy way into the film industry. I did it without any kind of parental guidance or support, that’s for sure. Physically I had to follow the trail all the way to Hollywood. I drove from Montreal, Canada (several times solo) to Los Angeles four summers in a row, to do “recon” on the entertainment industry. Eventually, I made the plunge and moved to Los Angeles when I was 22 to pursue it [acting] full time in the United States. Thankfully things have worked out.
(KF): What made you want to become an actor?
(PS): Lack of Asians represented in Hollywood movies and films, and probably more so the fact that I was really discouraged by how I saw Asians portrayed in them when I actually saw some. I thought I could definitely act if I studied hard.
(KF): Were there any positive Asian presences in the media that you respected or admired?
(PS): Iconic Asians in popular culture are pretty rare. Among those iconic Asians are some actors from the 80’s and certainly Bruce Lee in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I very much looked up to Pat Morita; he shot a movie in Montreal in ’87 and I got a chance to meet him; of course I loved The Karate Kid movies. He had some inspiring things to say to me then as well as years later when I worked a day with him on one of his last films “Spymate”. More encouragement came from some of my older actor peers I grew to know in those first summers here in Los Angeles. I got to study acting alongside Yuji Okumoto from Karate Kid Part II and pal around with Jason Scott Lee, both of whom I still look up to. I consider them like older brothers to me. Once I had met them I could see that Hollywood success was tangible. I moved to LA in hopes of emulating their careers, and hopefully take it a step further.
(KF): What kind of parts and roles do you usually see Asians being represented in?
(PS): It’s typical to see Asian actors in secondary or tertiary roles such as doctors, technicians, and what not; a lot of roles that don’t move the plot forward. All minorities, as well as women, more often than not fill in those kinds of roles. There’s been a slight shift, things are changing, but nothing that is truly representative of how diversified the world actually is especially out there on American streets!
(KF): How do you feel about characters like Long Duk Dong?
(PS): I loved the movie “Sixteen Candles”. I thought it was clever except for every time Long Duk Dong came on, as much as I had an urge to laugh, I was metaphorically spitting on the ground. I hated it. It is things like that, the consistent bombardment of that kind of Asian male narrative… – I cringe at that stuff to this day. As much progress as we’re making, there’s a lot of high profile roles out that there that set us back 30 years. i.e. The Hangover movies.
(KF): He was actually going to be my next question. How do you feel about his role as Mr. Chao in The Hangover and Senior Chang in Community?
(PS): In Ken Jeong’s defense, he’s been backtracking the last year about his reasoning in taking that role and I sympathize with him. He wanted to make his wife laugh etc. but it was at the expense of the collective Asian male population of the world. Watching one-half of that trilogy was enough for me before I ended up turning it off forever. Not only was that character not funny, I think the movies in their entirety weren’t funny. They were bad reboots or throwbacks to some very good 80’s movies. Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chao role was the icing on the cake. It was just outright offensive. It was so offensive I don’t want to talk about the specifics of it. There’s no room in the world for that kind of role.
(KF): How about shows presently on the air, like Fresh Off the Boat and Ken Jeong’s new show Dr. Ken?
(PS): I love what’s happening. Especially the influx of all the ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat, Ken Jeong’s show, the one with that guy from Maze Runner [Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt]. Let’s just say the last couple of years have been exciting. I love it, I love it, I love it. In television especially there has been a few improvements; Asian Americans are being portrayed in a better light, definitely. Some new shows like Into the Badlands, which is very good, still perpetuates the Asian male martial arts stereotype, but that’s fine! These are “genre” shows, “superhero” shows, they’re “super” natural so I understand the need. I myself, being in Daredevil, am aware of my role in the big picture – yes, I do play an evil ninja. Perhaps Daredevil writers will give my ninja organization a very human backstory or maybe they won’t but the key is to stay optimistic and be a team player before anything else. I do know there’s a lot more improvement needed in the casting of feature films and big studio pictures, but certainly in television, there are big strides being made.
(KF): How do you feel about movies like Aloha and Dragon Ball Evolution, where they completely race swap an Asian character?
(PS): In terms of features, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. There’s been Aloha and the whole Emma Stone issue. There was Edge of Tomorrow, with Tom Cruise, which was a book written over 10 years ago about an international squad of soldiers in the future – Tom Cruise’s lead part was actually a Japanese character. 47 Ronin was about 47 Ronin, but in the movie, it was 47 Ronin plus one demi-god white dude that has to inspire the fearful 47 Ronin to go on their legendary quest. There’s a lot more: Cloud Atlas where they have the Asians being portrayed by not only white cast members but there are some black actors too, playing futuristic Koreans. The Asian-American professor of Team MIT in the feature 21 based on the real BlackJack counting American students, was given to Kevin Spacey. Scarlett Johanssen is the lead in Ghost In A Shell etc. The list is endless. It’s personally insulting. I guess some studios just don’t find Asians aesthetically appealing enough to grace the screen. I’m uncertain if it’s studios that are feeding the public what the public wants or are they perpetuating the public’s opinions that are based on 100 years of white entitlement in motion pictures. I would just like everybody in the world to be treated equally on screen and especially off screen. As far as I’ve seen, movies and television are the biggest influence in the world in terms of shaping the way people think and how they perceive other people – people they’ve never met. There’s a big responsibility in that and I think studios, especially with their now global reach, need to be a little bit more thoughtful about their casting.
(KF): I completely agree. Especially with studios’ pushing so hard to be in Asian markets, you’d think they would just cast Asian actors, especially for Asian roles.
(PS): Yeah, there’s a tendency in studio casting of Asians, that is solely based on financial reasoning. So many times studios refuse to hire an Asian-American actor in favor of just plucking out some “pre-fab” celebrity from Taiwan, China, or Korea and plop them into a $200 million American production. No one knows them around these parts but studios want to get those extra ticket sales in Asia. This results in too many Asian-American actors left to wallow in their weird career crisis’. Often casting or production will claim they don’t have a pool of enough actors to choose from – it’s because here, domestically, studios just don’t develop any Asian-American actors to be anything larger than a supporting performer. Even Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans were all unknowns at one point. But look at them now, they’re gods themselves, Hollywood Gods, but they were made. I know so many talented minority actors, and actresses, that are just not getting the opportunities that they should be.
(KF): That’s a good point, the way they were publicized and built up-
(PS): Yeah, I didn’t know who they were. I was asking
‘Who the hell are these guys?’
‘Who’s this guy?’
‘Who’s that guy?’
Give them a gym, some good lines, a good part, and build sequels in, you’re going to be a star. I don’t see anybody ever developing any Asian talent. I’m not sure what comes first the egg or the chicken, but it’s got to start somewhere.
(KF): What would be your ideal role, in terms of the type of movie you would like to be in or character you would like to portray?
(PS): You know if you asked this question of me before, it would be different, I’d probably suggest something with all the bells and whistles. But now, I’d jump at any role that was “stripped down”. I’d love to play the most normal and simple guy; I would just love to have that role. Something that didn’t address my physical appearance, specifically my race – I would just love to play a guy that talks with no accent – you know, something like the real me. I don’t even know what that feels like. I don’t even know what it feels like to not be killed while performing.
(PS): I don’t. Incarcerated, persecuted, or killed, I don’t know what it’s like – professionally- to portray the role of a guy that doesn’t have a death or defeat attached to his “arc”. Being who I am, in the category that I am as an Asian male actor, I’ve come to terms with it. But as long as we’re talking in “fantasy” terms, I would love to just play a normal Caucasian actor’s role.
Preferably a hero too who gets the girl. That would be hugely…”progressive”.
(KF): What do you think has to happen to, or what approach has to be taken, for change to happen?
(PS): I don’t know how fast things can change, but even at the pace things are going, it feels like an hour glass – grain by grain, but improvements are being made. I know it’s hard to win over the hearts and minds of people, but I think it really comes down to exposure – any amount of exposure proving to the viewing public that Asians aren’t some weird sub-human that can’t be entertaining or watched. The more Asians are portrayed under normal terms, and not Ken Jeong [The Hangover] terms, the less invasive we will seem as a race, and hence more assimilated into white mainstream acceptance and castings. The right roles must be won and they have to be prolific ones in studio films to make any impact.
That’s where I think Asian activism comes in. If we are pro- active and we somehow infiltrate the scene behind the scenes; i.e. becoming a producer, casting director, writer, part of the Hollywood creative the process, then, at least, we stand a very good chance of having some kind of identity here in the Hollywood community. Since the media seems to dictate all, let’s just say Asians have no real identity. We Asians must be reflected in a positive and respectful way in order to really be a part of the modern American fabric and that responsibility is in our hands.
To find out more about Peter Shinkoda: