Actress Chloe Bennet Wants To Change The Narrative For Asian-Americans In Hollywood

Sep 3, 2017
Originally published on September 3, 2017 3:09 pm

Last week British actor Ed Skrein, who is white, made news for quitting a project where he was cast as an Asian-American character in the reboot of the comic film Hellboy. Skrein's decision is the latest addition to an ongoing conversation about "whitewashing." Audiences as well as performers have started to challenge the casting of white performers as non-white ethnic characters.

Skrein's decision to step back from the role in Hellboy prompted Chinese-American actress Chloe Bennet, who stars in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series to speak out. That's because Chloe Bennet was born Chloe Wang. She says she changed her name because it was the only way she could improve her job prospects in Hollywood. But when Bennet praised Ed Skrein on social media for his decision to step away from his role in Hellboy, somebody on Instagram challenged her on the decision to change her name. As part of her response Bennet wrote:

"Changing my name doesn't change the fact that my blood is half Chinese, that I lived in China, speak Mandarin or that I was culturally raised both American and Chinese. It means I had to pay my rent, and Hollywood is racist and wouldn't cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable. I'm doing everything I can with the platform I have to make sure no one has to change their name again just to get work."

Bennet spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about her decision to change her name, her experience as an Asian American actress in Hollywood and her organization Represent. Us. Now., created for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders that aims to boost and organize the Asian-American community in politics and in the media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On what prompted changing her last name

[Y]ou know it was really just a really organic thing. An uncomfortable amount of my feedback had to do with the fact that I didn't look like what they expected me to look like. I had a casting director tell me 'You're not quite white enough for the role, but you're not quite Asian enough for the best friend role.' And I remember genuinely thinking 'Oh yeah, yeah she's right.' Like, I'm not fully white so I couldn't possibly be the lead even though there was no limitation on the breakdown of the character saying that this character needed to be any ethnicity. Also, when they see Chloe Wang, when you're new as an actor and your agents are trying to put you out for different roles, the casting directors go, 'No, that's OK. We won't take her. We don't know who that is. We're not looking for like that for this role.'

That kind of continually happened and my dad's first name is actually Bennet. So in Chinese culture, your father's name is a really big honor and so it only felt natural to take his first name, so I still honor him in that way.

On if changing names mean assimilating and accommodating to stereotypes as opposed to fighting it

Part of it probably is, and as I said, part of me does feel guilt about that at certain times, but it's my journey, it's what I did and there's a certain point where you have to play the game, and I'm doing everything I can with the platform I have now to make sure that no girl that comes to Hollywood now who's name is Lee or Wong or Chung or Wang has to do this again. It's really about changing the narrative and changing the content for Asian-American actors.

On the argument that people should be able to cast any ethnicity in fantasy roles

I think there are certain things that lend to authenticity and there are certain stories and projects that do make sense for all white people to be in, if that's the story and if they want to make the film with true historical accuracy. And then there's 90 percent of projects where that's not necessary. I think what's really dangerous with what, continuously, is happening with Asian-Americans in Hollywood is there's a narrative that white Hollywood, or just any other ethnicity really in Hollywood gives to Asian-Americans that, 'You're the butt of the joke.' They're determining that we're the nerds, that we're the shy girls or that the guy that can't be sexy because he's an Asian man.

When you're continuously giving a different ethnicity their own narrative without giving them a chance to actually represent themselves or write something that's true to them, then that's really dangerous. It really seeps into the psyche of young Asian-American kids. I know it did for me. I didn't see anybody that looked like me growing up on TV. I genuinely thought to my core that I would have no chance of being an actor because my dad wasn't white. The more I became aware of my thinking, the more I thought, 'Oh, this is because I look this way or because I feel this way.' Part of the reason why I started RUN is because I really want to encourage Asian-American teens and kids and anyone really, to start telling their stories because there's so many unique and interesting and dark and sad and funny stories that haven't been told because we haven't gotten the chance.

NPR's Gemma Watters produced the audio for this story. NPR's Wynne Davis adapted it for web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we're going to spend a few minutes having a conversation about race and Hollywood. We've been having these conversations more and more these days. And one reason for that is that audiences, as well as performers, are starting to challenge the casting of white performers as non-white ethnic characters. People call this whitewashing. Last week, British actor Ed Skrein, who's white, made news for quitting a project in which he'd been cast to play an Asian-American character in the reboot of the comic film "Hellboy."

Skrein's decision prompted Chinese-American actress Chloe Bennet, a star of the TV series "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D." to speak out. That's because Chloe Bennet was actually born Chloe Wang. She says she changed her name because that was the only way she could improve her job prospects in Hollywood. She's with us now to tell us more. Chloe Bennet, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHLOE BENNET: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, when you praised Ed Skrein on social media about his decision to step away from his role in "Hellboy," somebody on Instagram challenged you on your decision to change your name. I want to read some of your response to that person. Here's what you said. You said, "changing my last name doesn't change the fact that my blood is half Chinese, that I lived in China, speak Mandarin, or that I was culturally raised both American and Chinese. It means I had to pay my rent. And Hollywood is racist and wouldn't cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable. I'm doing everything I can with the platform I have to make sure no one has to change their name again just so they can get work," unquote.

So let me ask, how did you hone in on the name change? Was it something somebody said?

BENNET: No. You know what? It was really just a really organic thing. I - an uncomfortable amount of my feedback had to do with the fact that I didn't look like what they expected me to look like. A lot of it was - God, I had a casting director tell me, you're not quite white enough for the role, but you're not quite Asian enough for that best friend role. And I remember genuinely thinking, oh, oh, yeah, she's right. She's right.

Like, I'm not fully white so I couldn't possibly be the lead, even though there was no limitations on the breakdown of the character saying that this character needed to be any ethnicity. And also, when they see Chloe Wong (ph) spelled Wang, they, you know, when you're new as an actor and your agents are trying to put you out for different roles, they go, well, no, that's OK. We won't take her. We don't know who that is. We're not looking for someone like that for this role.

MARTIN: Wow.

BENNET: And that kind of continually happened. And my dad's first name is actually Bennet. And so in Chinese culture, your father's name is a really big honor. And my dad has been a huge supporter of my career. And so it only felt natural to take his first name, so I still honored him in that way.

MARTIN: I was going to - I was wondering how you came up with Bennet. So I take it that some people criticized you, saying that they thought you were trying to walk away from your Chinese identity. Is that true?

BENNET: Yeah. It's not true at all. It was genuinely me just trying to pay my rent, as I said in that comment, and get work. And I would be lying if I said that I didn't feel guilty about it at certain points in my career. And I have the same feelings that I think people bring up to me in comments.

And I try to compensate for that with the fact that I started, you know, this organization called RUN for Asian-American Pacific Islanders. And that's essentially, you know, meant to boost and organize the Asian-American community in politics and in the media. And, you know, it's very personal to me.

MARTIN: On this whole question of how do you change it, I mean, a lot of people from different ethnic backgrounds have wrestled with this. And, you know, some groups, like, for example, African-American and Latino actors have struggled with the whole thing, OK, you can be a drug addict. You can be a prostitute. You can be a gangbanger.

So there are those who would argue that that is the - I'm not - trust and believe I'm not judging you, but I just want to ask the question for those who think well, gee, by changing your name, are you assimilating to it? Are you accommodating yourself to it, as opposed to fighting it?

BENNET: Part of it probably is. And as I said, you know, part of me does feel guilt about that at certain times. But it's my journey. It's what I did. And there's a certain point where you have to play the game. And I'm doing everything I can with the platform that I have now to make sure that no girl that comes to Hollywood now whose name is Lee or Wong or Chung or Wang has to do this again. It's really about changing the narrative and changing the content for Asian-American actors, you know.

MARTIN: Can I ask it this way? Can we look at it from a different direction though? When Ed Skrein pulled out of "Hellboy," he wrote a lengthy social media post about it. And I just want to read up a couple of lines from that. He said, it's clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts.

But I wanted to ask it from a different direction, though. There are those who find this worrisome as a trend because as artists, they say, you know, minority performers have had to fight to be in "Swan Lake," for example, or in, you know, so-called, you know, classical roles. And then people say, well, gee, there were no black people in 19th century Russia, so why are they in those roles? The argument is that this is fantasy, that people should be able to cast whomever they want because this is fantasy. And what would you say to that?

BENNET: I think there are certain things that lend to authenticity. And there are certain stories and projects that do make sense for all white people to be in, if that's the story, and if they want to make the film with true historical accuracy. And then there's 90 percent of projects where that's not necessary. And I think what's really dangerous about what continuously is happening to Asian-Americans specifically in Hollywood is there is a narrative that white Hollywood, or just any other ethnicity really in Hollywood, gives to Asian-Americans which is that you're kind of the butt of the joke. They're determining that we're the nerds, that we're the shy girls or the guy that can't be sexy because he's an Asian man.

And when you're continuously giving a different ethnicity their own narrative without giving them the chance to actually represent themselves or write something that's true to them, then that's really dangerous. It really seeps into the psyche of, like, young Asian-American kids. And I know it did for me. You know, I didn't see anybody that looked like me growing up on TV. I genuinely, genuinely to my core thought that I didn't - I would have no chance of being an actor because my dad wasn't white. And the more I became aware of, like, my thinking, the more I thought, oh, this is because I look this way or I feel this way.

You know, part of the reason why I started RUN is because I really want to encourage Asian-American, you know, teens and kids and anyone, really, to start telling their stories because we do have such a unique - and there's so - there's such a diverse community within the Asian-American community in itself as well. And there's so many unique and interesting dark and sad and funny stories that haven't been told because we haven't gotten the chance.

MARTIN: We're not putting you on the spot, but would you ever consider changing your last name back to Wang?

BENNET: The funny thing is I'm still Chloe Wang. Everyone's like, you're not Chloe Wang. You're not Chloe Wang. I definitely - I didn't legally change my name, so I still am Chloe Wang for 80 percent of my life. It might be confusing for some people. Like I still don't know, like, what Diddy wants to be called right now. Is it Puff Daddy? Is it Diddy?

(Laughter) So I think I might just stick with Chloe Bennet and then do as much as I can on this because again, you know, it doesn't change the fact that I am who I am. It was just a decision made by 18-year-old me, not really thinking much of it but just thinking, oh, I'd like to just be me. And I think once Asian-American actors are just cast for being themselves, rather than being a we-need-an-ethnic hire, we-need-a-diversity hire, then I think things will be really changing.

MARTIN: That was Chloe Bennet. You can see her in "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D." Chloe, thanks so much.

BENNET: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.