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Making it in
Tinseltown stardom has never been an easy goal to
reach, but for people of color, it's not just a matter of getting good
roles. It's a matter of creating them.
By Hugo Martin '87
Kelly Perine ’91 is a gregarious actor who has a supporting role in a
network television series. He boasts an acting résumé that includes
appearances on some of the most popular sitcoms of the past decade. He
could be content in his success, enjoying the limelight few Hollywood
Instead, Perine spends his free time writing a new sitcom. He envisions
it as a comedy with a multi-ethnic cast, starring himself—an energetic
black actor with a drive to make people laugh.
After 10 years in the entertainment industry, Perine knows quality lead
roles do not come easy, particularly for minority actors.
“I don’t think it’s about complaining to the industry,” he said from his
Los Feliz home in Los Angeles during a break from filming his UPN
sitcom, One on One. “It’s about creating these roles.”
The entertainment industry is a cutthroat business where issues of
social justice take a back seat to high television ratings and big box
office receipts. Snaring that elusive role can be even more daunting for
minority actors because film and television are still dominated by white
males who create roles based on their own life experiences. Those
experiences, media critics complain, do not often include people of
Surveys by the Screen Actors Guild, the Director’s Guild of America and
other groups confirm the number of minorities in film and television
still do not reflect America’s demographic portrait.
That may be changing. This year, five of the 20 acting nominees in the
Academy Awards were African-Americans, a record number. Two went home
with Oscars. Some media experts point to that achievement as a sign that
Hollywood has finally turned a corner when it comes to representing
America’s multi-ethnic population.
But Rosalind Chao, an actress and fellow Pomona alumna, can attest to
capricious nature. She remembers a time not too long ago when Asians
were only offered the roles of demure victims or action heroes in
martial arts movies.
Change came in the early 1990s, when films featuring Asian actors in
serious, complex roles became the rage. Chao played Rose Hsu Jordan in
the critically-acclaimed 1993 film The Joy Luck Club. That same year
theatre-goers flocked to see Asians star in Dragon: The Bruce Lee
Story, The Wedding Banquet and Farewell My Concubine.
Just as quickly the trend shifted and martial arts superstars like
Jackie Chan and Jet Li took over as Hollywood’s top Asian actors. “It’s
slow, steady progress,” Chao said while relaxing at a West Los Angeles
coffee shop during a break from filming a movie starring Reese
Witherspoon. “We take one step forward and a few steps backward.”
To continue making progress, Chao and Perine both agree that minorities
must begin to take on more of the directing, writing and casting jobs in
Hollywood—the positions that create the characters seen on television
and in feature films. “We shouldn’t wait for the industry,” Perine said.
Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern
California’s School of Cinema-Television, agrees with Perine. “You have
to have people of color represented in the entire process, not just on
one side of the camera,” he said.
Addicted to Acting
Chao is a bubbly actress with a quick smile and an infectious laugh. She
enjoys playing offbeat characters, like the part of Lily the hooker in
the 2001 film I Am Sam, starring Sean Penn. But Chao’s acting
résumé also includes serious roles such as Leona in the 1989 drama,
What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams. Sci-fi fans best know
Chao for her reoccurring role as Keiko O’Brien in TV’s Star Trek: The
Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Chao began acting as a child. Her parents were avid fans of the Peking
Opera in China. When they immigrated to California in the 1950s, they
organized Chinese opera clubs. When Chao was young, her parents put her
in their productions.
“I hated the Peking Opera as a kid,” she says. “I think because my
parents loved it, I hated it.”
A talent agent, who discovered Chao playing at her parents’ restaurant
in Orange County, helped her land roles in commercials for toys, dolls
and toothpaste. Eventually, Chao fell in love with acting. “I was
totally addicted,” she said with a broad smile.
While attending Pomona College, she landed several TV roles, though she
attributed part of her success to the dearth of Asian-American actresses
After only two years at Pomona College, Chao transferred to USC where
she studied journalism and got an internship at a local radio station.
When she was forced to make a choice between pursuing a journalism
career or acting, she picked her first love.
Chao’s first big break came when she landed the role of Soon-Lee, the
Korean wife of Cpl. Maxwell Klinger in the final episode of the
long-running television series M*A*S*H. She revived that role in
a short-lived spin-off called After M*A*S*H.
Despite her own success, Chao sees Asians lagging behind
African-Americans and Latinos in the entertainment industry. A recent
report card by the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition, a group pushing for
greater diversity in television, confirms Chao’s assessment.
Chao suspects the reason for the slow progress is that the
Asian-American community does not put great value in achieving a bigger
role in Hollywood.“We are not as outspoken,” she says. “We have a lot to
learn from the African-American and Latino population.”
Chao does her part to change the dynamics by making an extra effort to
work on projects that are written, produced or directed by
Asian-Americans. When Asian-Americans take on some of these
decision-making roles, Chao says, change will come faster. “I think that
is where the power lies, behind the camera,” she says.
Comedy at his Core
Like Chao, Perine’s acting career was jump-started by his parents. He
grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, where his father, a
psychologist, was involved in the local community theatre. As a result,
Perine was on the stage at the age of 4.
When he arrived at Pomona College, he and a Pitzer College friend formed
an improv troupe called “Without a Box.”
“I was at Pomona when I said, ‘This is what I want to be: an actor,’”
Perine remembers.After graduating, he studied acting at the University of California,
Irvine. His first big break was a beer commercial, which led to more
commercials and later TV roles.
So far, Perine has developed a niche as a comic actor who loves to play
the quirky best friend and the wacky neighbor.
His credits include roles in The Bernie Mac Show, Seinfeld,
Mad About You and Living Single. He has also been a
regular on Between Brothers, The Parent ’Hood and The
Drew Carey Show.
The secret to success in Hollywood, says Perine, is having a thick skin
and a wealth of confidence because rejection comes with the territory.
“If you come out with any doubts, you are going to get killed,” he says.
But Perine can’t talk about his success without giving credit to those
actors—Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Lawrence Fishburn and Denzel
Washington—who he believes paved the road for him.
It is an exciting time in the industry, Perine says. He believes
Hollywood is realizing that African-American actors—Denzel Washington
and Will Smith, for example—can draw huge audiences, of every color.
That, he hopes will open up more opportunities for actors like him.
“It’s a business, and Hollywood is about selling product,” he says.
“They have now seen that there are dollars to be made.”
Perine wants to be part of making those dollars. If the sitcom he is
writing gets off the ground, he expects to put one more African-American
actor in a starring role—himself.
“I just want to make sure we do not take any steps backward,” says
Hugo Martin '87 is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.