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Close Up 12 Asian Actresses Making It Big In Hollywood And Why That Matters Today

12 Asian Actresses Making It Big In Hollywood And Why That Matters Today

Photo: Frederic J Brown, Philippe Lopez and Robyn Beck/AFP
Photo: Frederic J Brown, Philippe Lopez and Robyn Beck/AFP
By Tania Jayatilaka
By Tania Jayatilaka
February 26, 2021
Meet the Asian stars who have taken Hollywood by storm, championing diversity both on the screen and off it in their own unique ways

1/12 Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh

Photo: Richard Mille
Photo: Richard Mille

Malaysian actress Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh is set to play Jiang Nan in Marvel's first Asian superhero film, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, which will premiere in 2021. She also recently completed her Star Trek: Discovery character Emperor Philippa Georgiou's arc on the Netflix series.

The Ipoh-born 58-year-old Crazy Rich Asians star has long called for better Asian representation in Hollywood and has been an inspirational figure for many, including The Newsroom actress Olivia Munn.

Related: 5 Former Malaysian Beauty Queens Who Continue To Inspire Us

2/12 Mindy Kaling

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP
Photo: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP

Comedienne, writer, actress, producer, director and author Mindy Kaling is no newcomer to Hollywood. The Massachusetts-born star started her career as a writer and actor in the TV series The Office in her early 20s, later starring in her own show, The Mindy Project.

Despite encountering prejudice and discrimination as a South Asian woman in Hollywood, she eventually made a name for herself, starring in major films like Oceans 8 and Disney's A Wrinkle In Time. Kaling's Netflix comedy series Never Have I Ever features an Indian-American female lead whose life (and struggles) are in some ways inspired by her own.             

Related: Why Is Southeast Asian Cinema Still Lagging Behind?

3/12 Awkwafina

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP
Photo: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP

In 2020, Crazy Rich Asians actress and comedienne Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) made history as the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Lead Actress at the Golden Globes for her performance as Billi in the film The Farewell. Awkwafina, who was also part of the star-studded ensemble in Oceans 8, first rose to fame as a rapper on YouTube.  

The busy actress has already starred and produced her own successful series, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, on Comedy Central, and will appear next on the big screen as as the voice of dragon Sisu in the animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon as well as Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. 

More: Malaysian Designer Khoon Hooi Dressed These Hollywood Celebrities For The Golden Globes 2020


4/12 Jessica Henwick

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP
Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP

Born in Surrey to a Singaporean mother and Zambian father, British actress Jessica Henwick began acting at the age of 16, starring in the children’s series Spirit Warriors, one of the first Asian leads on British television at the time.

As a teen, Henwick tried to break into more film roles in the US but made little headway before finally landing prominent roles in Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix as well as in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Underwater. In interviews, Henwick has spoken about the lack of Asian representation in the film industry in the UK and aspires to take on more film roles that break the mould without enforcing stereotypes.

Up next, Henwick stars alongside Keanu-Reaves, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Jada Pinkett Smith in the highly anticipated 2021 reboot Matrix 4.  

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5/12 Fala Chen

If you’ve watched the HBO drama miniseries The Undoing, you would have seen Hong Kong actress Fala Chen's performance as Jolene McCall alongside big names like Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Chen, who spent part of her childhood in the US and later trained at the prestigious Julliard School at the height of her Hong Kong TVB career, will get her big Hollywood movie break as Jiang Lee in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings this year.

Related: Fala Chen At The Grand Opening Of Armani/KL 

6/12 Chloe Bennet

Photo: @chloebennet/Instagram
Photo: @chloebennet/Instagram

There’s more to the gal who plays Daisy Johnson in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D than just stunning looks.

Leaving behind her pop-star career in Shanghai over a decade ago, the Chicago-born actress is one of the most prominent voices calling for better Asian representation in Hollywood today.

Here’s proof that Bennet's passion goes beyond mere rhetoric: she launched the R.U.N foundation to spread awareness about issues faced by Asian Americans and pushes for greater representation for this community in the US.

7/12 Liu Yifei

Photo courtesy of Disney
Photo courtesy of Disney

To be sure, the fresh-faced star of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan made a name for herself in her homeland of China long before Disney handpicked her out of a line-up of some 1,000 candidates.

She’s starred in multi-million dollar English and Chinese films, pursued a singing career, represented luxury brands like Tissot and Dior and thrilled audiences everywhere amidst concerns that Disney would opt for a more ‘Westernised’ heroine for the movie.

Related: Say Hello To Horology’s Newest Asian Celebrity Endorsers

8/12 Katie Marie Tran

Photo courtesy of IMDB
Photo courtesy of IMDB

Here’s what’s both interesting and heart-wrenching about Tran’s story. The Vietnamese-American actress played Rose Tico in the 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi: the first “woman of colour” to snag a leading role in the Star Wars movies.

In her tear-inducing essay for The New York Times, Tran describes the darkest moments of her life brought on by the wave of racial harassment hurled at her online because of her role in the film.

The good news is, she’s not backing down anytime soon and neither are her fans, from the looks of it. Tran voiced Raya in Disney's upcoming feature Raya and the Last Dragon.

9/12 Arden Cho

Photo: @leonardandchurch/Instagram
Photo: @leonardandchurch/Instagram

Fans of MTV’s hit television show Teen Wolf would recognise Arden Cho as the feisty Kira Yukimura. Of South Korean ancestry, Cho is also known for her role as Honor in the 2018 film, The Honor List.

In an interview, Cho hinted that her character in The Honor List focussed more on her values and desires as a human and less on her ethnicity: a refreshing departure from the tendency of many filmmakers to cast Asian-Americans in roles that are solely about being Asian.

10/12 Sonoya Mizuno

Photo courtesy of Reddit
Photo courtesy of Reddit

The Japanese-born British actress may have played a ditzy-but-lovable heiress in Hollywood’s Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, but in real life, she devotes a significant portion of her time and money to support homeless children and speaks out in support of this cause on social media.

11/12 Shiva Kalaiselvan

The Manhattan-based Malaysian actress turned heads in 2018 when she was cast as Lelia in DC Entertainment’s Gotham television series.

Despite the long and arduous journey to score an audition with the agency that cast for Gotham, this industrious Columbia University grad reportedly went through a year and a half of auditioning before being selected for the role.

Homegrown Heroes: 10 Deserving Malaysians Who Have Worked Their Way To International Acclaim

While Kalaiselvan still carries the torch for the theatre, the starlet also bagged roles in CW’s television series, The Originals and Vampire Diaries. Kalaiselvan's latest role was in the 2020 film A Nice Girl Like You starring Lucy Hale.  

12/12 Michele Selene Ang

Photo: @micheleseleneang/Instagram
Photo: @micheleseleneang/Instagram

Ang may have proved her acting chops in Netflix’s drama series 13 Reasons Why, but it’s her off-screen persona that’s equally intriguing.

The Asian-American actress has been known to be outspoken towards greater diversity in Hollywood, a topic she’s particularly good at hashing out on social media.


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