I was excited to discuss the webseries with Nguyen; in this email interview, we discussed the webseries itself as well as the state of Hollywood when it comes to the (lack of) Asian representation.
To learn more about Munkey in The City and where you can find it on social media, visit the webseries’ official site.
COLOR: How did you come up with Munkey in The City? Also, how’d you come up with the unique name for the show?
I happened to name the main character Munkey, because “Monkey” is actually a nickname I’ve acquired over the years for various reasons. And I added the fact that San Franciscans simply call San Francisco “THE City.” Thus, Munkey in The City was born. Now I’m determined to bring this story to life, not just for me, but also to share it with anyone striving for their own dreams as well.
Kenny Leu spoke in one video about the lack of Asian-American representation in American entertainment. How do you feel about the lack of proper representation in entertainment?
To be quite honest with you, it really pisses me off! Proper representation in entertainment is far from what it should be. The majority of Asian characters portrayed onscreen are a kind of gross stereotype that fails to challenge audiences, or diversify their opinions regarding Asian people. Asian women are often objectified and seen as exotic or docile sexual possessions who secretly desire to be conquered by White males. On the contrary, Asian men are often emasculated or deemed inept asexual beings that are no match for their dominant White counterparts. All in all, Asian people are continually ridiculed and marginalized in the media when they are represented. Some viewers could subconsciously internalize these one-sided, oppressive ideas and it could influence their behaviors towards Asian peoples in the real world. Thus, causing some to see Asian Americans as less than relevant human beings.
Proper and diverse representation in the images we see help to ensure a society and culture based on equal treatment for all, instead of favoring one group over another. It’s about educating the audience through the types of images we put out, and it pertains not only to Asian Americans, but all minorities as well. It’s an issue vital to our future together as a people and for America’s place in the world.
In the video featuring Leu, he also spoke about how there isn’t a “Denzel” for Asian audiences yet. Do you think Hollywood’s on the way towards getting that “Denzel”?
Not as much as I would like. I mean there are far more Asian American actors working in the industry today then when I was growing up. But as far as Hollywood accepting an Asian American male actor being given the same types of diverse leading roles as Denzel Washington, I still feel that we are far from that. I believe that there are actors out there that have enough range and talent to be able to reach that level, but to be given the opportunity by Hollywood to grow and shine as a leading man, we still have a ways to go. Hell, John Cho would be the closest thing to that, but I don’t see him getting picture deals like Michael Fassbender or Benedict Cumberbatch would. He did, however, come pretty close to “leading-man-history” when he played the role of Henry Higgs in the recent television show Selfie. This was unprecedented because it had an Asian American male playing the love interest opposite a White female on national TV. But John had to fight to win that role over because it was originally written for a White actor in the first place. Unfortunately, ABC canceled the show after only 7 episodes, just as it was gaining momentum with audiences.
Compelling movie and television characters just aren’t written for Asian American males. That, combined with the industry’s unwillingness to take chances on them, for fear that audiences won’t fork over time and money to see them, equals very few opportunities outside the martial arts genre. The industry happens to run on a very basic premise: if you can bring in money, you can be on screen. But even with John Cho’s huge success with the Harold and Kumar franchise, the industry still hesitates to put him into leading roles. So there has to be something else at work here. And I can call it bias and racism all I want, but the industry will just call it a poor business decision.
The fact is that it’s going to take a lot more work by a lot of people to fight for that opportunity from Hollywood, and to sway audiences into accepting an Asian American as a dynamic leading man. But the foundation is being laid, for sure.
One thing I found interesting while watching the trailer was seeing Munkey watch old movies with Asian actors. It seemed like he was trying to find himself from the small amount of exposure these actors were able to achieve. Can you tell me more about this scene and what it means to you?
We search for images to relate to in our surroundings. That’s what gives us a sense of identity and self-esteem. To know that we belong in our society and are appreciated as an individual in our culture is a basic need. When those images are missing, when people lack proper representation, it affects one’s psyche. When I travel through Asia, I get a different sense of myself as a human being. Just seeing various Asian faces grace magazine covers in newsstands gives me a sense that I, as an Asian person, am accepted and beautiful. Seeing Asian people act on screen, playing roles that are not typical racist caricatures, gives me a sense of freedom and self-respect in my own life. It gives me confidence which affects my behavior. I am a happier and healthier member of society. And if things like this affect me this strongly as an adult, imagine what it can do for children just discovering the world. The difference would work wonders for their growth as people.
Now, do I want every image in America to be of an Asian face? No, I don’t. I know that America is different (and I’m not trying to start the Back to Asia Movement just yet), but even if there are only a small percentage of consistently positive and diverse images with people like me in the media, it changes my entire outlook and experience as an American. That’s why it’s so important to find ourselves in the media we see, and that’s where that scene is coming from: finding a familiar identity from our surroundings, i.e. our entertainment, that inspires us to be better human beings.
And it’s also meant to give a nod to the first Asian American stars in classic Hollywood cinema: Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong. They struggled with racism and negative stereotypes in the industry in their day as well. So in reality, not much has changed for Asian Americans in Hollywood from 100 years ago until now.
Munkey is a guy who is trying to feel his way through life as a writer; he has a lot of good qualities and a lot of flaws that I’m sure are fun to explore. What’s your favorite thing about writing Munkey’s life?
My favorite thing about writing Munkey’s life is integrating and discussing things in my own life that I wouldn’t normally talk about out loud. I use Munkey as an alter ego to live out situations and actions I wish I had done or wish I could do if my cards were different. But it’s not all good, either. Some of the things Munkey goes through are parts of my life that were pretty embarrassing, but because Munkey in The City is my own fantasy world, and I’m expressing it creatively through a medium, it’s a form of therapy for me. It helps me understand my own identity, choices, and goals. And hopefully it could help others who are going through the same issues in their own lives, giving them some sort of representation and acceptance as well.
The webseries is currently in the production stages; when the show comes out, how do you hope audiences react to it?
Munkey in The City was written to be, not about an Asian American character, but about a character that just happens to be Asian American. I want audiences to see Munkey in The City as a story about a person who is just trying to find himself, but he’s having a tough time doing it. Sure he deals with certain issues because of his race, but the real issue is him being able to find his own purpose and place in this world. And that is something everyone can relate to, no matter who you are or where you come from. I just hope audiences will be open enough to discovering it because I truly believe it has something different from any other web series, television show, or Hollywood film that’s out there. So let it go and give it a shot, people! You’ll be surprised!
Kenny Leu as Munkey, still of Leu discussing representation in Hollywood. Photos courtesy of Michael Nguyen.