Putting Asian actors in US TV shows

Growing up in the United States, Keli Lee remembers that her television diet included comedies such as Love Boat (1977-1986), Three's Company (1977-1984) and action series Charlie's Angels (1976-1981).

She tells Life! over a chat at The Fullerton Hotel recently: "These were my favourite shows but if you think about those shows, there weren't diverse faces."

Back then though, it did not cross her mind that it was odd to have no Asian faces on the small screen.

As executive vice-president of casting at ABC Entertainment Group, she has been playing her part to overhaul the TV landscape. She was in Singapore to speak at industry event ContentAsia Summit.

She has been casting shows at ABC for more than 20 years, which means the following decisions were all made during her watch: Sandra Oh as the driven Cristina Yang on the medical drama Grey's Anatomy (2005-present), Kim Yun Jin as plane crash survivor Sun on the sci-fi fantasy series Lost (2004-2010) and Eva Longoria as one of the titular Desperate Housewives (2004-2012).

And she says that casting ethnic faces has gotten easier.

She notes: "It's changed gradually and it will continue to change. It's hard when it's a family and we've already cast one of the family members, but it is easier for dramas. We can cast any character with any ethnicity if that person is the right person for the character.

"There are still so many opportunities."

Even when the job was a challenge, she kept at it. South Korean-born Lee says: "Coming from an Asian family, we're instilled with: Work really hard. Just keep working hard and you'll be able to achieve success."

One of those successes would be Kim in Lost. Lee, 42, recalls watching her demo reel in 2004 and the scenes were in Korean. She says: "I understand Korean but my Korean is not great. So it's an emotional reaction I'm having based on what she can actually communicate with her eyes."

It turned out that they had gone to the same high school in New York and Lee had actually caught her graduating performance from Boston University's drama school.

She went on to introduce Kim to Lost creator J.J. Abrams. And he created a character for her.

The casting situation was unusual for the show because it was done without a script.

Lee recalls: "Most of the women read one character and most of the men read the same male character. And it was one of the most fulfilling creative experiences."

The show was notable for its international cast from South Korean-born Kim and Daniel Dae Kim to British-Indian actor Naveen Andrews and Jorge Garcia, who is Latino.

As Lee notes: "Because of the fact they were survivors of a plane crash and on that plane, which was international, it could be anybody."

While it is now hard to think of anyone else but Sandra Oh as the driven Dr Cristina Yang on Grey's Anatomy, she was not always such an obvious choice.

She was seen as a comedic actress then, but show creator Shonda Rhimes "saw her and really believed in her ability to play this character who was dramatic but had to have a sense of humour", says Lee.

In fact, the entire cast of Grey's Anatomy was written colour-blind, without specific ethnicities in mind.

She adds: "With the success of incredibly diverse shows such as Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, from that point forward, we encouraged all of our producers to try to have open casting for every role."

So what does she look for in an actor?

She says: "Here's the question I get from most actors: What are you looking for? I tell talent I don't ever want you to ask that. "You are not going to be like anyone else and so what your special quality is, you have to bring to the material, because that's what's going to make a difference."

And sometimes, who they are looking for is not actually who they cast. And the best example of this is Eva Longoria in Desperate Housewives.

Lee, who is divorced, says: "We were saying we wanted a model, someone who was five foot ten, and we had Eva Longoria, who was fantastic in her audition and she's five two. She embodied the spirit of the character and that's what I'm looking for."

And she is constantly on the lookout for talent.

She says: "Because I happen to be in Singapore, what are the most popular local shows? Who are the stars here? Who would actually create value if we added them to one of our shows in the States or if we even added them as an arc of a few episodes."

Singaporean actor Chin Han appeared in the military drama series Last Resort (2012-2013) for the final four episodes but still, the thought of a another home-grown actress or actor appearing on American TV is a tantalising one.

While she says she has not been here long enough yet, she adds: "Probably at the end of my stay, I'll start to get some names and fortunately, my work is such that I'm doing research in advance before we actually have our shows. Even when I'm not here, it's not too late.

"I want to be able to access talent anywhere around the world."

bchan@sph.com.sg


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