Earlier this year, Hank Chen’s audition caught the eye of the one and only Tyra Banks.
The openly gay Asian actor was cast in one of the lead roles of Life-Size 2, the sequel to the beloved 2000 television movie starring Banks and a fresh-from-Parent-Trap Lindsay Lohan. Banks reprises her role as Eve, the in-universe Barbie who comes to life once again, this time to help a grown-up. Her new “special friend” Grace struggles with both family drama and a tumultuous new role as the CEO of the toy company that manufactures the Eve doll. Chen plays Brendan Butler, Grace’s assistant and lifelong BFF who encourages Grace to confront her demons and, as Eve’s theme song commands, shine bright and shine far.
The night Chen first arrived in Atlanta for production, he stopped at the grocery store and got a call from an unknown number.
“I was exhausted and just wanted to buy, like, sponges and chips. So I get this call and I answer it. When you’re in the middle of production, you don’t know who’s calling you about what. And this woman was like, ‘Hi! Is this Hank?’” he recalls. “And I was kinda like, ‘Yeah…who’s this…?’ and she goes, ‘It’s Tyra!’ and I was literally like” — he pauses here to gasp dramatically and clutch imaginary pearls — “‘HI TYRA!’”
“I wanted to call you and tell you your audition tape was so funny and incredible,” she told him. “I can’t wait to work with you. So excited to meet you tomorrow!” (Side-note: Chen does a very convincing Tyra impression.) She let him know that she was sick and wasn’t going to make the initial table read, but would be at the second table read for the Freeform executives later that day. The next morning, he found out that the entire cast got a personalized welcome call from Tyra the night before. “I have her real number now,” he assures me, “so there will never be that confusion again!”
“So later that day when she comes in, I mean, talk about Big Tyra Energy,” he says, using a phrase I coined earlier in the night to describe her on-screen presence. “She comes in and she was in this beautiful yellow dress, big hair…I’m not sure what shoes but she was tall. I sat down right next to her for the table read and she just killed it, in between, like, fits of heavy coughing and sneezing. I’ve never seen a trooper like her. I’ve seen stars with way less influence whine and complain.”
He says that off camera, Banks is very approachable and loved to talk about her son, York. When they went out to eat in Atlanta, he says she just wore “comfortable clothes, like what you or I would wear. She wore, like, breezy skirts and flip-flops.”
Life-Size 2 boasts not just one but four queer (or at least implied to potentially be queer) characters, and there is a featured romance between Chen’s character and Carter, a member of Grace’s board of directors. He says he’s seen a huge response from viewers.
Specifically, it’s the queer Asian community who has reached out to me the most. “It’s because they never see themselves on screen,” Chen says.
Chen says that Banks was fully invested in making sure Life-Size 2 was inclusive.
“We didn’t have a full-on discussion about it or anything. But it’s pretty obvious in the script, which she had her fingerprints all over, and my hiring, and just what the world knows about her. It’s pretty clear that she loves her gay fans,” Chen says. “We celebrate her and she celebrates us. I mean, she’s always been a huge proponent of diversity.”
“In Life-Size, for this white girl to have a black doll and for no one to address that or to make it an issue. That was big for the time. And so, for 2018, we just happen to have gay characters and storylines that exist without justification,” he continues. “No one’s coming out, no one’s suffering. I mean, like you and I, are we in constant turmoil!?”
With this joke, Chen points out an essential Hollywood truth: When a character isn’t straight, there is always a justification. It’s a coming out story, it’s an HIV story, it’s a hate-crime story. As many strides have been made, there’s still a lot of progress to go before queer people see fully realized versions of themselves on screen. Even now, the few LGBTQ roles that do exist, especially in higher-profile projects, often go to straight actors.
Chen grew up in a religious household in Maryland where being gay was very much taboo.
“When you’re a gay kid, you have to put up with a lot of discomfort,” he says. “You have to stay in a relationship with people who don’t fully accept you and aren’t nice to you.”
Growing up feeling like an outcast, destructive patterns can replicate themselves, he points out. Chen admitted to finding himself in several friendships and romantic relationships that weren’t healthy for him as he grew into adulthood. Just last year he extricated himself from a toxic relationship that had become abusive.
“Life is always gonna give you the same lesson over and over again until you learn it, it’s just gonna be wrapped up differently,” he says. “If you told me then where my life would be a year from now, I wouldn’t believe you. When you’re in that, you just feel so alone. It’s hard to break out and see the light. If you had said, hey Hank, hang in there cause you’re gonna be part of an iconic IP that’s also a Disney movie. I just would’ve been like, ‘Get out of here, what?’”
Chen credits therapy for helping him to find self-acceptance that has guided him in his career.
“It wasn’t until I came out fully to everybody that I finally started to book work,” he says. “I was hiding levels of myself. They couldn’t put their finger on it but in my auditions, I just wasn’t being authentic.”
“Now I go in, I’m as gay as a fruit fly and I have fun,” he continues. “I’m very specific and they either want me or they don’t. But I walk away with my dignity and self-esteem intact because I was as authentic as I can be. No audition is precious to me anymore. It’s really only situations where I get to break free and have fun that I get booked. It’s ironic: I got into entertainment to play other characters, but to be successful, I had to be myself.”
Being an Asian actor isn’t easy, either. Recent years have seen Asian roles in major studios’ productions somehow get cast or rewritten for white actors, such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell or Emma Stone in Aloha.
“The fun thing about Hollywood is they like to separate us,” he says of Asian actors. “Sometimes one is just enough. I’ve done episodes of television where I see multiple Asians on the call sheet, they’re there the same day as me but we have no scenes together. Or like, one of us has to wear glasses. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, cause if one of us doesn’t wear glasses, the audience will think that this other Asian who’s you know, six inches taller and 50 more pounds, will be confused for me.’ Surely.”
He gives another example. “For instance, it would be really hard for me to get on Fresh Off The Boat. The core cast is Asian, the diversity on that show is everyone else who’s not Asian. Unless I’m like a family member, it’s just not going to happen. That’s just how it is. For other shows, I’ll see who the leads and regulars are who I’m reading opposite against, and I see there’s another Asian in it, then you say, well I’ll just do my best! But, yeah, they usually only like to have one.”
It would be very understandable for Chen to feel daunted by his chances of success, given the fact that he is a minority in both race and sexual orientation. He says having that mindset early on kept him unemployed. “I started working when I took full ownership of who I was,” he says. “I had to accept that when writers are creating characters, they usually don’t have someone like me in mind. I’m not a trope. A trope is a football jock, a girl next door, a sassy black girl. Or even sassy gay guy is now a trope. But they rarely get as specific as like, AND he’s Asian. When I audition, I have to show them a different perspective because they never have a gay Asian man in mind.”
Casting directors are too often looking through a narrow window, most often casting for the inevitable sexless nerdy Asian trope.
“I have auditioned for those,” he admits, “but I try not to anymore. Unless there’s a closeted or sexuality exploration. When I was on NCIS Los Angeles, that character wasn’t specifically gay but the way I played him kind of put him on the spectrum.”
In other words, Chen is not even going after straight roles anymore.
“I’m not pursuing them. There are straight actors who are way better at doing them,” he says. “When you enter the business, and I still tell people this, know where you fit in. It’s branding. I know that’s corny. But it’s how people see you.” It’s no coincidence, then, that he’s been booked mostly in projects that celebrate diversity, such as Transparent.
The conversation inevitably turns to Crazy Rich Asians. The critical and box office smash was first major Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, and its success has stirred much conversation about a brighter future for Asians in Hollywood, much like Black Panther did for black actors, directors, and creators earlier this year.
“The tangible takeaway is that now I’m going in for roles of a larger size, although I think that’s a culmination of several storms. My resume is at a place where I’m ready for those roles, Life-Size 2 just came out,” Chen says. “But also, culturally, those roles now exist. As Viola Davis says, you cannot win awards for roles that don’t exist. Like, of course Sandra Oh is the first Asian woman nominated for Best Actress. How many roles like that have there even been?”
As for more all-Asian casts, he hasn’t seen them yet but they could be on the horizon. “In the fall, a lot of Asian writers are getting development deals,” he says. “There’s gonna be a couple of those coming. I mean, Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off The Boat, they were in development for years.”
Despite the progress, roles for Asian actors are still limited, and so the race for them is still very competitive. Chen has stood out simply by being as true to his own personality as he can. “Someone told me, be the most Danny DeVito you can be. Be the most Judy Greer you can be. Those two actors are so specific but when you say those names, you know exactly what you’re gonna get. And so, Danny DeVito is either right for the roles or he’s not. When you get to a certain level, people love you so much, people are like ‘Well, Danny DeVito isn’t someone we imagine would play a doctor but why not?’ Don’t try to be anyone else but yourself. And then be that times ten. Taking it back to Tyra, like, that’s her.”
This isn’t the first time Chen has talked about his experience being a gay Asian actor in Hollywood — not even the first time that day. Being gay and Asian in America, though, that’s just as hard. ”It’s not easy for anyone,” he says. “ I don’t think any combination like that is easy. Even if you’re a beautiful straight-acting white guy who’s gay. You’re dealing with shit too! I don’t want to jump into the minds of any of those guys, I’m not one. But as much as we would like to envy them, I would reckon that they probably have a lot of struggles too about whatever stereotype they feel like they need to live up to.”
“I know what I’m fighting,” he continues. “The small penis myth, the passive myth, whatever people want to use against me to call me undesirable. But I got to a place in my life where — and I’m still working on this — I’m trying not to go to the hardware store for milk. I like people who like me.”
Images by Yves Bright