For most actors, it all begins on a high school stage. The sky’s the limit: Productions like Grease, The Sound of Music and A Streetcar Named Desire aren’t cast with the same limited palette as they are in Hollywood. Instead, it’s about acting chops. The teenager onstage playing Stella, Stanley or even Blanche may well be a person of color.
However, the range of available roles shrinks considerably after the transition to Hollywood, especially for Asian American actors. In 2008, according to the Screen Actors Guild, 72.5 percent of all theatrical and television roles were white, while Asian/Pacific Islander roles amounted to 3.8 percent.
But an exception holds certain for some Asian American actors -- those with mutable features who can “pass” for a variety of ethnic roles. Keanu Reeves, whose roots include Hawaiian and Chinese on his father’s side, has played mostly white characters outside of his surprising role as Siddhartha in Little Buddha. Alternatively, Lou Diamond Phillips, whose background includes Filipino, Scottish Irish and Native American, has played an ethnically diverse range of characters. His most famed roles have been Latino -- Ritchie Valens in La Bamba and Angel in Stand and Deliver -- but he has also played as Inuit, Thai and white. With résumés of roles that reflect a cultural hodgepodge, these actors’ careers make us wonder what it’s like to be an ethnically ambiguous performer in Hollywood.
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