Like many Australians who have been living overseas, Crazy Rich Asians star Chris Pang came home earlier than expected this year.
Escaping COVID-19, the 35-year-old actor left Los Angeles, his home of the last seven years.
“I’m not a huge fan of the city, and so I am always very happy to leave for any excuse — and this was a good one,” Pang told RN’s Stop Everything!
Pang had three happy months with his family in Melbourne (before returning to LA), but his relationship with his home country is complicated.
The university dropout spent years selling phones as a door-to-door salesman, before turning to acting. His breakthrough role came in 2010, when he played Lee Takkam in Tomorrow, When the War Began.
But buzz from that role failed to eventuate in further work, which is why Pang moved to LA in 2013.
“My hand was forced at that point. I actually love Australia and I would still be there if not for the lack of work,” he says.
“[But] the industry in Australia, for me to be able to survive, especially at the time, there was very little work for ethnic actors.”
Pang says that the shortage of work extended to writers and other creatives of colour, and that when there was work, there was “a lot of tokenism going on, a lot of checking boxes for diversity”.
“There was a certain amount of those decisions [about casting and creative roles] that weren’t coming from an authentic place.”
Pang’s experience isn’t isolated — many Australian actors of colour have spoken about the need to go overseas for work.
Geraldine Viswanathan — star of the films Blockers, Bad Education and TV series Miracle Workers — told the Sydney Morning Herald: “There is more money, more diversity and more projects [in the US].”
Aisha Dee, the Australian star of US series The Bold Type, also moved to LA for work. She recently told The Guardian: “In Australia, I wasn’t really getting the opportunities that my peers were getting.”
And Pang was among a group of Asian Australian actors who expressed a similar sentiment in the New York Times last year.
After Pang relocated to LA, the roles didn’t exactly pour in, but he did find work — including the 2016 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and the second season of Netflix series Marco Polo.
Fast forward to last year, when GQ Australia named Chris Pang the breakthrough actor of 2019.
It had been a huge year for Pang: fresh off playing the billionaire bridegroom Colin Khoo in Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, he turned billionaire villain in the Charlie’s Angels reboot.
He also produced and starred in the indie film Empty by Design, alongside Osric Chau and Rhian Ramos who play two young Filipinos returning home and feeling lost in the process.
“[But] the whole notion of ‘breaking out’ and ‘overnight success’ that you hear so often attached to actors or people from the entertainment industry … is just flawed, because behind every ‘overnight sensation’ was 10 years of work,” Pang says.
In his acceptance speech for the GQ award, Pang — whose mother’s family was the first Taiwanese family to migrate to Australia in the 70s — spoke about the importance of representation.
“Growing up as an Asian kid was kind of tough. I never saw myself really represented in the media, and not being validated through pop-culture and seeing your image represented, it’s tough — especially as a teenager, in your formative years, it can be very damaging.”
Pang says being recognised by GQ Australia as a breakthrough star was both “lovely” and “weird”.
“Because there was a long period, where it almost felt like I was getting recognition for my work everywhere but home,” he says.
“It was very odd. I’d see lists of the upcoming top 10 hottest Australian actors at the time, and … they just very skewed Caucasian. There was very little mention of ethnic actors,” he recalls.
Again, Pang wasn’t alone.
“It’s a conversation that I’ve had with other Australian actors who have ethnic minority backgrounds. We don’t seem to get that recognition back at home.”
Writing about this phenomenon in The Guardian in 2019, Debbie Zhou referenced Pang, Viswanathan and a number of other successful Australians in Hollywood, writing “even if these people become successful abroad, Australia doesn’t seem to claim them”.
Pang says it’s partly an industry problem and partly a problem with how the media covers actors of colour.
“It’s quite a shame, because you have all this talent in Australia and we’re all leaving — and the Australian entertainment industry is suffering,” he says.
“There are so many good stories to tell and so many talented people that are just sort of uninspired by the Australian industry.”
‘A major turning point’
“Crazy Rich Asians changed the landscape for Asians in cinema, and really elevated the diversity talk,” Pang says.
Pang had gone to Hollywood to seek opportunities and he’d found them, partly due to the scale of the American entertainment industry.
But he says he’s also seen a recent increase in projects with diverse casts.
“Films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther have proved that casting diverse and diverse films can actually bring in box office. I think that was a major turning point,” he says.
There are now two Crazy Rich Asians sequels in development.
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“I think [that success] really helped open the doors for different projects being greenlit and being considered,” Pang says.
But Pang says that as a result, projects were being greenlit — many of which failed to come to fruition — that had been developed in a time when there were conversations happening with producers about how many Asian actors could be cast in a project.
“If you had one — great, but if you had two —does it become an ‘Asian film’ then?”
“You had projects that were written with that conversation in mind and conceived in that environment. So they were completely outdated,” he says.
Pang says that’s now changing.
“We’re seeing a lot more creatives, behind the scenes, coming forward and stepping up to tell their stories — which is exactly what we need.”
Pang recently returned to the US for work.
Among his upcoming projects is a supporting role in a new Amazon Prime show from showrunner Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) titled On the Spectrum, in which actors with autism take the lead roles.
“There’s that experience that you just can’t really bring to screen unless you’ve lived it,” he says.
Pang isn’t ruling out a return to Australia at some point.
“I think that there are a lot of people [in the Australian entertainment industry] that are in positions to make decisions that have perhaps a slightly outdated way of thinking,” he says.
“So that has to change first before anything. But there’s certainly an emergence coming up and there is certainly a movement that’s happening, and that push is very inspiring.”
Pang cites The Family Law as an example of that change, while making it clear that he’s spent many years away from the Australian industry and so is judging from a distance.
“Family Law was a game-changer … [and] the landscape certainly is changing. [Though] I think Australia does have a lot of catching up to do.”
The actor predicts the Federal Government’s $400 million screen sector package will attract international projects looking to shoot in a country and film sector less-impacted by COVID-19.
“I would love to come back and film things, and I think the opportunities are presenting themselves, so it’s becoming very realistic,” he says.