Jamie Chung on Asian Representation in Hollywood and How She's Helping AAPI Creators Get Their Films Seen
The Lovecraft Country star details her one-of-a-kind experience on set and talks about how Hollywood can make more space for Asian American storytellers
Jamie Chung understands the importance of Asian representation in Hollywood all too well. The actress has been steadily acting for over a decade and is only now able to expand her potential as the industry starts to open up more opportunities for diverse storytelling.
"In the beginning, writers never asked for our perspective," Chung, 37, tells PEOPLE of her early years in the business. "What was always pushed upon us was, quite frankly, a cisgender male who was not a minority, writing stories of what he thought the Asian American experience was versus asking someone who is Asian American to write the part."
In recent years, the actress says she's seen more studios and writers' rooms doing the right thing by asking for guidance and hiring more Asian Americans to share their own stories.
"It's a huge difference," she says. "It's night and day."
Chung has gained exciting momentum with her recent projects, including her role as Ji-Ah in Misha Green's horror sci-fi series, Lovecraft Country. Ji-Ah is a nurse from Korea who is thrust into the atrocities of the Korean War, all while keeping a secret. The only daughter of a single mother, Ji-Ah was repeatedly sexually violated by her step-father, who is eventually killed by a kumiho, a mythological fox that evolves into a nine-tailed monster. The nightmarish creature possesses Ji-Ah's body and she must kill 99 men to free herself from its clutches.
The phenomenal cast of the HBO show, which also stars Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett, has been nominated for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series at the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards. The recognition adds to the special experience Chung had being a part of a show that focuses on the overlooked adversities minorities have faced throughout history.
"What was so magical was that everyone on the show cared to get the details right," says the star. "They asked questions. They asked for my input. We really built something together."
Below, Chung reveals more on Lovecraft Country, the importance of Asian representation in Hollywood and how Asian creators can get their next short films released on HBO.
PEOPLE: Tell us about your experience playing Ji-Ah and being able to showcase the Korean perspective of the Korean War. I think Lovecraft was the first time I've ever seen it portrayed that way on TV.
Chung: Right, especially not in American cinema or American TV. The Korean War is usually told from the perspective of a white soldier who goes to fight, so people don't realize that Korea not only went through a civil war, but it was also torn apart further by foreign powers that staked their claim for their own purposes.
What I love about the episode (No. 6, "Meet Me in Daegu") is that the story is told from the perspective of two minorities who have been constantly overlooked. You get to see how brutal it was for Koreans, who were treated like second-class citizens in their own country. It was wonderful that Misha wanted to tell this specific story.
Everyone from set designers, to department heads, to makeup and hair did their research to try to make it as authentic as possible. I would have to say, by far, it was the most beautiful storytelling I've ever experienced. And yes, we're talking about monsters, but there's still so much humanity and heart in the story behind all of that.
PEOPLE: Is this the first time you've been offered such a complex role?
Chung: Hell yes! I've never been given a role where they're like, 'Okay, the opening sequences is: you're watching Judy Garland in a movie and you're going to sing and dance. You're also really a kumiho.' I can't think of any other projects that showcase the kumiho with so much depth, and yet, there's a blossoming love story. Ji-Ah finds love and then it's tragically taken away. There's also her complex relationship with her mother and all the shame their family bears. Then on top of everything, 80 percent of the episode is spoken in Korean. So, to answer your question simply — yes, this was my first time.
PEOPLE: How were the writers were able to distill so many elements of Korean culture into your part? And why it has taken so long for viewers to see this unique perspective?
Chung: First of all, we have an amazing showrunner and fantastic writers in the writers' room that really fought for their vision. This is a television show and yet, we spent an insane number of days on one episode. I think it was around 23 days in total, which is really like a movie.
As for why it's taken this long, I mean, things happen in stages. Right now, we have more people of color as showrunners, and that alone took forever. Now they're really fighting for their vision and their storytelling, and yes, it's all long overdue. It's 2021 and we're still seeing so many firsts.
Ashley Park made history at this year's Critics Choice Awards as the first Asian American to be nominated for best supporting actress in a comedy series for her work in Emily in Paris. Nora Lum, a.k.a. Awkwafina, was the first Asian American to win best actress at the 2020 Golden Globes. With this type of recognition comes more shows and more opportunities. I would like to say that these things don't matter, but they do. The fact that we're still not at a place where award shows are being truly inclusive is unfair and truly upsetting.
PEOPLE: What type of response have you received from playing Ji-Ah?
Chung: It's been so beautiful to see other minorities come forward to talk about what happened during the Korean War and what they learned from the show. The thing I love about storytelling is that is helps educate people. I just wish more eyes were on shows like this.
PEOPLE: As we're seeing more representation slowly emerge in Hollywood, we've seen an onslaught of violence toward Asians throughout the pandemic. You've been vocal about the situation and have shared many resources on how to stop Asian hate. Do you think there's been enough coverage and conversations around the anti-Asian attacks?
Chung: No, and it's infuriating because discrimination is nothing new for Asian Americans. I think only now people are becoming aware of how bad it's gotten and it's disappointing that more media outlets aren't sharing these stories.
Our community has become more of a target and people are dying. It's terribly frightening, but there are many Asian activists, allies and organizations that are doing great work to help combat anti-Asian hate. We can all do our part to help educate and advocate for each other. We can't let up until we see real systemic change for all communities of color.
PEOPLE: What are some ways you want to see Hollywood make more space for Asian American creators and storytellers?
Chung: As this year's ambassador of HBO's APA Visionaries short film competition, I know that HBO is giving a huge platform to AAPIs to share their stories and hopefully have their short film on HBO and HBO Max, which is a huge platform for them to possibly kick start their careers.
It's a life-changing opportunity, and it's one of the things I love about HBO. They're really championing Asian American voices, and I hope that other major establishments follow suit. I hope more studios will provide avenues for more people of color to have a seat at the table. I do think that there is a shift happening right now, although it feels like it's happening at a snail's pace. Progress is progress, but it's still not enough.
PEOPLE: What's your best advice for Asian American creators who want to pursue a career in storytelling?
Chung: Start writing and have the courage to tell your story. Keep creating and be specific because your experience is specific. Don't tell a story of what you think the audience wants to hear, tell your story because it's uniquely yours and I bet you a million dollars that it will move other people who can empathize or relate. It all starts with the writer, so I encourage more people to write.
The 2021 HBO APA Visionaries short film competition is now open. Submit your short film by April 1 to be considered. Check hbovisionaries.com for official rules and guidelines.
If you've been attacked or have witnessed an attack, please contact your local authorities. You can also report your incident here.
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