‘I Don’t Take a Single Second for Granted’: Asian and Asian American Nominees on the Oscars

It was a record year for actors, but directors, musicians and other artists of Asian descent are also up for statuettes. We asked many of the contenders to reflect on their work.

Among the Oscar nominees this year are, clockwise from top left, the actress Stephanie Hsu, the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the actress Hong Chau and the director Domee Shi.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

By Robert Ito

Photographs by Justin J Wee

For the first time in Oscar history, a record-setting four Asian actors received nominations in a single year, including Michelle Yeoh, who is up for best actress for the gorgeous and wonderfully trippy “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” That film, which received 11 nods, the most in 2022, features a largely Asian and Asian American cast.

In fact, a bumper crop of filmmakers, performers and artists of Asian descent were nominated for Academy Awards this year. The honorees run the gamut: There are actors, of course, but also directors, screenwriters and musicians, as well as artists skilled in animation, costume design and makeup.

Among the contenders are the Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro and Domee Shi, the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar (2018’s “Bao,” which won an Oscar). The films themselves range from a critically acclaimed animated feature that’s metaphorically about menstruation (Shi’s “Turning Red”) to a visually haunting documentary about a bird hospital in India (“All That Breathes”) and a tune-filled anti-colonialist action extravaganza (“RRR”).

For much of the academy’s 95-year run, this sort of article would have been impossible. Only a relatively small number of Asians and Asian Americans have ever been nominated for Oscars, and rarely have there been enough in one year to justify a congratulatory roundup.

The possibility of seeing this many Asians honored on Oscar night has been a long time coming, and is a reason to rejoice for moviegoers who have clamored for greater representation in films — and in the awards shows that celebrate them. I spoke to several nominees about being an artist in an Asian family, how and where they get their creative ideas, and what Oscar means to them. Here are edited excerpts from our conversations.

On savoring awards season

Ke Huy Quan

QUAN This is such an exciting year for our community. We have four actors in major acting categories, with [“Everything Everywhere” castmates] Michelle, Stephanie [Hsu], me and Hong Chau [“The Whale”]. And it makes me so happy. It just reinforces my belief that impactful change is possible.

I remember conversations that [castmate] James Hong and I had on set about how difficult it was for him when he started in the 1950s, when there was hardly any of us in Hollywood. It was people like him who kept at it, who kept laying the groundwork for all of us to be here.

I don’t take a single second for granted. Being able to attend events [like the Oscar nominees’ luncheon last month] and meet people I’ve admired all these years and thank them for the inspiration they’ve given me. I go to sleep every night feeling very grateful and wake up the next morning wondering if all of this is a dream. I’m so blessed to be able to have this incredible second act.

The Run-Up to the 2023 Oscars

The 95th Academy Awards will be presented on March 12 in Los Angeles.

On crafting an earworm

Chandrabose and M.M. Keeravani

CHANDRABOSE [The director S.S.] Rajamouli asked me to write the lyrics for the song, and while I was driving home, the words for “Naatu Naatu” came into my mind. I wrote four lines in my car. After reaching home, I sat for one more hour, and I finished the whole song.

KEERAVANI The song talks about all the fun things one must have enjoyed in his motherland, with all the fun moments in childhood. What are all the games he played? What are the sports they attended? All these things are explained, and they’re set in the song in a very energetic way. Naatu means ethnic: something we own ourselves, something completely unique, something that belongs to one’s own identity. That is Naatu. Naatu means country. It’s a song from the countryside. It’s about everything that happened in our own country, in our own village; something you cherish for life.

On pitching executives

Domee Shi

SHI I pitched [“Turning Red” to executives] as this universal idea, like, we’ve all been there! We’ve all woken up one day as a teenager and we’ve shot up a couple feet overnight, or we’re suddenly covered in hair or hungry and horny and angry at our moms, and we don’t understand why. I knew from making “Bao” that I could lean into my weirdness, my unique upbringing being a Chinese Canadian immigrant, to show them something familiar but in a way they’d never seen before.

Very early on, I knew I wanted this story to have a more nuanced approach to the parent-child relationship than you’re used to seeing in Western media. Usually the parents are played as this one-dimensional oppressor. But for Mei [the middle-school protagonist], it’s different, because she’s an immigrant kid. She wants so badly to stay her mom’s perfect girl. But at the same time, Mei is growing up, she’s changing literally into something that her mom doesn’t recognize, but that maybe she eventually starts to like and embrace and love.

On adapting a beloved film classic

Kazuo Ishiguro

ISHIGURO I probably hadn’t seen the original [Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama, “Ikiru”] in 30 years, but it was a film I thought I knew really well. I could play it in my mind. So I thought, I’ll watch the film just once, and then I will not go back to the original. I won’t take any notes. Whatever was in my head, whatever was important to me at the end of that process, was what I’d use.

Even with that one viewing, I could see many things that would not appeal to modern audiences or to Western audiences. It was way too long, and the third act was just people talking at a funeral wake. Talk, talk, talk. I didn’t want all this gloom and doom. I wanted the sense that there were better things around the corner and a younger generation ready to do things in a different way.

This is the weird thing about adaptation. Part of you worships the original material. But there has to be another side of you that’s quite ruthless.

On acting alongside a legend

Stephanie Hsu

HSU When I told my mom that I had booked my first studio feature, she was sort of unfazed. But when I told her Michelle Yeoh was playing my mom, the bells went off. She was like, oh my God, this is so amazing!

Every single person in my family loves Michelle Yeoh, and rightfully so. She completely surrenders herself to every project and every person she’s collaborating with. There’s no ego whatsoever.

Our movie could have gone a lot of ways, and the Daniels [the film’s directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert] are brilliant, but it was also such a testament to Michelle being our matriarch. She opened her arms so wide for all of us that we were able to trust-fall into her. I think that love and feeling of family that you get from watching the film is because that truly was there when we were making it.

On filming humans in a documentary about birds

Shaunak Sen

SEN The brothers [Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, who founded a bird rescue clinic in New Delhi] are interesting, because they’re not like any of the usual suspects in a lot of environmental discourse. They’re not lecturing you, or holding you by the collar and saying, “Feel terrible about what’s happening.” They have this kind of quiet, grumpy kindness.

We shot for three years, and three years is a long time. When you start shooting with somebody, the first month is usually trash because people are too conscious of the camera. The brothers are very media-savvy; I had to break them out of this kind of formalness of being shot. The main ambition of the creative vérité documentary is a quality of behavior that is un-self-conscious. What you’re waiting for, essentially, is a kind of comfort — of being used to us — to develop, and a kind of trusting friendship.

On getting the news that you’ve been nominated

Jonathan Wang

WANG My father is from Taiwan, and I was very much raised in a Taiwanese Chinese home. We celebrate Chinese New Year, and everything about the work ethic was very Asian. So when we got the nomination, it felt like: There’s nothing more I can do. I’ve worked my absolute hardest. I’ve gotten to this place. And now it’s out of my hands.

My father passed away in 2016; he didn’t get to see this moment. But after all the calls and everything happened in the morning [the nominations were announced], I went and took a shower, and in the shower, I just cried. Because I actually felt like my dad was proud of me. I knew he’d always been proud of me. But it was the first time I could just accept it.

On setting expectations

Hong Chau

CHAU Ke started as a very young actor in huge studio movies with, like, Spielberg. There’s a certain expectation that you should have other amazing opportunities after that; then they’re just not there. And you wonder: Is it because of the way I look? Is it because of who I am?

I never really dreamed about big studio movies. I was drawn to strange, fringe movies. Those were difficult in and of themselves to get made. To find my way into those felt like a different sort of challenge.

If I looked more like a traditional babe, I would have had different expectations for myself. I don’t even mean white, because I never thought what was holding me back was being Asian. It was more like, I’m not a modelesque Asian. I felt like if I looked more like your traditional babe, whether Black or Asian or Latina, it might have been different, but I was like, well, I’m small, I have a round face, I have elf ears. I have very realistic expectations for myself.

On being an Asian American filmmaker

Daniel Kwan

KWAN As an Asian American filmmaker artist, I never thought I had much to offer. I was in middle school, and my mother could tell I was enjoying theater. She said: If you ever want to join the entertainment industry, you’re going to have to learn Mandarin and move to China or Taiwan, because you’re not going to find much success here. It sounds cynical now, but at the time, what she said totally made sense. And so I really had very low expectations for everything in my life, but especially in my filmmaking career.

All the Asians who were there [at the Oscar nominees’ luncheon last month] were just really excited because, you know, we kept bringing up the fact that this is the year. We never had more nominees. To go full circle to what my mother said, about me having to go to Asia to find success, it’s very beautiful to be here now, in a historic year. To be a part of all of that is incredible.

Source: Read Full Article