In 2016, I interviewed William Yu, the man behind the infamous hashtag #StarrinJohnCho. Since then, Hollywood’s biggest stars have caught wind of the hashtag, including John Cho himself. Hollywood as an industry has also begun opening itself up to the idea of Asian leading men and women, leading to a new, and hopefully permanent, interest in Asian people and cultures on screen. Whereas TV had already experienced its own watershed moment years earlier with ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the watershed moment for film happened when Crazy Rich Asians debuted in 2018. This has led to interest in other Asian-led TV and film projects such as Wu Assassins, The Farewell and others. Other projects that were announced before Crazy Rich Asians, such as Mulan, now have a new spotlight shown on them.
Now, the biggest news yet as far as Asian representation has come from Marvel. A film about Chinese superhero Shang-Chi had been announced as one of Marvel’s upcoming films in months previous, with Destin Daniel Cretton announced as the director. But at Comic-Con this July, the film’s full name, Shang-Chi and the Seven Rings of Power, was released, as well as the leading cast, which includes Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu in the title role and Tony Leung as the real Mandarin, a role Ben Kingsley catfished as in Iron Man 3. Awkwafina also stars in an undisclosed role. The film will be released in 2021. Not only that, but Kumail Nanjiani joins the Marvel family in The Eternals, directed by Chloe Zhao and coming to theaters in 2020.
So now that we’re years after the debut of #StarringJohnCho, what does Yu think about how things have developed in Hollywood, especially after Marvel throwing down the gauntlet with their announcements? Well, I asked him.
Below is my interview with Yu, conducted via email. In the interview, we discuss those awesome Marvel announcements as well as what Yu is going to do next, as both a mover of the culture and as a creative in his own right. You can learn more about Yu from his website as well as his Twitter account.
How has the hashtag developed over the years?
#StarringJohnCho started as a side project to keep myself busy on the weekends. It was born out of my frustration with how Asian Americans were seen in pop culture and a drive to take action. I’m so grateful that more than three years later, we can look back on the project as a cultural moment that captured the world’s attention and sparked a conversation that has nudged our culture a little bit forward. It was something that others made their own. I love that the project has contributed to on-going discussions about what it means to be Asian or Asian American, how we define the term “movie star,” and why lifting the stories of marginalized communities matters.
How do you think the hashtag has changed the Hollywood landscape?
The best story about #StarringJohnCho’s impact comes from Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, who said, “One of the first things that made want to make a movie like this was the #StarringJohnCho movement.” Those words really shocked me. From the outset, my goal for #StarringJohnCho was to spark a conversation and challenge our preconceived notions about how we view people of Asian descent. I wanted young Asian kids who saw the posters to see themselves and think that they could embody these characters, from Captain America to James Bond. I can confidently say that #StarringJohnCho has contributed to a time when the level of conversation surrounding Asian narratives, ideas, and audiences is unprecedented. Not only has #StarringJohnCho allowed people – Asian or not – to imagine people with faces like mine in lead roles, but its also demonstrated that there is a voracious and hungry audience ready to pay and spread the word for content from this community.
We’ve had stellar announcements regarding Asian actors in Marvel, including Simu Liu as Shang Chi and Kumail Nanjiani in The Eternals (among many other announcements, such as Tony Leung and Awkwafina). How did those Comic-Con announcements make you feel? Do you think the presence of #StarringJohnCho has helped audiences become more receptive to Asian actors in prominent roles, such as Marvel roles?
I’m incredibly thrilled! What excites me the most is different kinds of Asians take on roles in the MCU. I can only hope that more films and franchises choose not to take an “Asian = East Asian/Chinese” mindset and ensure that their Asian castings consider the many facets of this community.
Shang Chi is the type of film that ten year old me could never have dreamed being a reality Tony Leung is such a storied and celebrated actor, so to see his inclusion is a big statement. Awkwafina continues to cement her place as a movie star. And Simu Liu is not only a charismatic presence but is also someone who understands the weight and responsibility that such a role presents. At the same time, I feel like I have to be optimistic, even if there is still deep cynicism that understands the shortcomings about how Marvel has treated characters with clear Asian influences (see Iron Fist, Doctor Strange’s The Ancient One) in the past. I’m also just such a fan of director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, so I apologize if my expectations are already way too high.
I hope that #StarringJohnCho may have nudged a door ever so slightly open. It may have piqued the curiosities of executives who may not have considered Asian leads before. But it gave people the opportunity to say, “I want this!” and quantifiable validation for the advocates who have been trying to push the culture toward this state. This type of mass exclamation was new. But at the end of the day, it’s a credit to those in front and behind the camera who have been putting in the work every day to tell their stories.
For me, the Marvel announcements signified a demarcation line between the Hollywood of old and the new Hollywood that wasn’t afraid to showcase people from all backgrounds. How do you think these announcements have changed the game? What do you think of the future of Hollywood post-Marvel’s mic drop?
The idea that diversity increases to innovation, creativity, and business should, by now, be a given. Yet there is still resistance. It’s clear that Marvel is doubling down on this strategy. I could never have predicted that since #AsianAugust we would have several major box office successes that span the range from indie film to blockbuster tentpole. I have long held the belief that niche genre films is how the Asian/Asian American community will hack the mainstream entertainment world. Superhero films are the the biggest genre films. We’ve seen it with rom-coms. I’ve believed for a while that thrillers and horrors is an up and coming frontier ripe for experimentation. I hope that Hollywood will start to invest in more mid-tier Asian American films that will offer creators more chances to experiment and tell creatively riskier stories.
What can we expect from #StarringJohnCho in the future? Also, what other projects can we expect to see from you as William Yu, screenwriter?
#SeeAsAmStar was the sequel project: It was the first time Deepfake and artificial intelligence has been used to make the argument for representation. I recently wrapped up the first ever #StarringJohnCho exhibit at Pearl River Mart in New York. I’m currently looking for a Los Angeles partner to bring it out here. I will also be speaking about the project and my work making the case for representation at the Asian American Journalist Association conference in Atlanta on Saturday, August 3. Screenwriting has also been my way to make #StarringJohnCho a reality and tell the stories that I want to fight for.
I recently wrote and co-produced a short film called Disappear that will make its festival debut at the 42nd Asian American International Film Festival. I am continuing to develop Love You Charlie, a high school teen thriller feature script that won the screenplay competition at the same festival last year. And I am currently working on a new horror screenplay with Asian American leads.