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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Making it in Hollywood

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 actors get.

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 color.

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 Hollywood’s
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 in Hollywood.

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 Perine.
Hugo Martin '87 is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
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