In ‘Abominable,’ Asian Actors Play Asian Characters. What a Novelty.

When I first heard about “Abominable,” the animated movie centered on a modern Chinese family, I opened on my phone to look up the cast. I grimaced at the name of the actress playing the movie’s main character: Chloe Bennet.

I showed my phone to my wife and said, “Can you believe it? Hollywood has done it again. This is a movie about some kids in China rescuing a yeti, and the actor playing the main character isn’t even Asian.”

My wife, also Asian-American, was quick to set the record straight.

“Actually, that’s Chloe Wang,” she said. “She’s pretty cool.” She went on to explain that Wang was the half-Chinese, half-white actress known for being outspoken about Hollywood’s racism toward Asian-Americans. Casting directors had rarely considered her for roles until she started using Bennet (her father’s first name).

My rage immediately melted into embarrassment, then appreciation. In an industry in which we‘re scarcely represented — 3.4 percent of film roles went to Asian-Americans in 2017, according to a Hollywood diversity report by University of California, Los Angeles — here was a big-studio movie with Chinese characters voiced mainly by Asian-Americans, an occurrence as rare as a solar eclipse. The last time I could remember this happening was more than 20 years ago with Disney’s “Mulan.”

Add to this casting the recent Hollywood productions of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell,” which featured actors of Asian heritage from around the world, along with the Pixar short “Bao,” which centered on a Chinese family in Toronto — with a voice cast composed largely of Canadians of Asian descent. Is this the turning point that Asian-Americans have been waiting for?

In interviews, the makers of “Abominable” said their mission was to achieve authenticity. The director, Jill Culton, who had worked on “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.,” described how her team went to great lengths to accurately portray Chinese culture, weaving in details like the Shanghai-inspired city’s use of rubber trash cans (instead of metal), and the children’s favorite snack, steamed pork buns.

So there was no question that the Chinese characters should be voiced by people of Asian heritage, Culton added.

“I would never want a Caucasian actor representing a Chinese character,” she said. “You’re trying to represent a different culture, and when you do that, especially as a director, you have to tread carefully.”

Yet in the past that wasn’t the road taken by some directors. The last big-budget Hollywood animation featuring an Asian family was “Kubo and the Two Strings” in 2016, which featured the voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey. (At the time, the director Travis Knight said that while he believed inclusion and representation mattered, voice acting involved different considerations.)

More controversial was the 2017 live-action adaptation of the Japanese anime “Ghost in the Shell,” with Scarlett Johansson as Major Killian, better known as Major Kusanagi in the original. A year before that, the Marvel blockbuster “Doctor Strange” featured Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who was an Asian man in the source material.

Asian-Americans make up the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. So why is the group barely visible on the big screen?

Donatella Galella, a professor of theater history and theory at the University of California, Riverside, said that the issue has its roots in American theater. The lack of Asians — and their marginalized roles — onstage may have been a symptom of the Western world’s xenophobia in the late 1800s and onward. Galella pointed to the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, in which the Japanese defeated the Russians, as a key historical event that stoked fear about East Asians posing a threat to the West.

During that era, when more Chinese were immigrating to the United States, some plays portrayed Asian characters in minor roles — often as villains, Galella said. Other plays characterized Asian men as effeminate and desexualized, stemming from the societal fear that they would reproduce with white women and pose an existential threat to the race. (Around this time, the United States enacted laws that could strip a white woman of her citizenship if she married an Asian man.)

On American stages today, important feeders for Hollywood, Asians are still underrepresented. Only 7.3 percent of acting roles on Broadway and at New York’s largest nonprofit theaters went to people of Asian heritage in the 2016-17 season, according to the Asian-American Performers Coalition, a grass-roots organization seeking to expand representation onstage. (Asian-Americans make up 12.7 percent of New York’s population.)

Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at U.C.L.A. who leads the university’s Hollywood diversity report, said the lack of Asian-American representation on the big screen is also a reflection of the lack of minorities in Hollywood’s executive roles. At major studios, the key decision makers who greenlight projects are mostly white men. If more people of color were in those positions, they would probably have different perceptions about what viewers want, like minority actors in major roles, he said.

Case in point: Kevin Tsujihara, the former head of Warner Bros., was the first executive of Asian descent to run a big Hollywood studio, and he played an important role in fast-tracking the production of “Crazy Rich Asians.” (He resigned this year amid accusations that he promised an actress auditions in exchange for sex.)

Hunt added that it was too soon to predict whether movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Abominable” would affect representation in the long term. He noted that he had not seen an increase in the number of Asian-Americans in Hollywood’s executive suites.

“Asian-Americans have not been at the table,” he said.

Bennet said that she was hopeful that “Abominable” would help accelerate her career. But she was uncertain about whether this movie, along with the string of recent hits with Asian-American casts, was a watershed moment.

I’m not sure if this is going to be the thing that changes everything,” she said. “It’s going to be a slow burn, and it’s one I’m willing to fight for.”

“Abominable” underlines what can result from a diverse set of people behind the scenes. The movie was a co-production between the American studio DreamWorks Animation and China’s Pearl Studio. One of the producers, Peilin Chou, said she and the rest of the team worked diligently to cast actors of Asian descent. In addition to Bennet as Yi, the heroine, the chief supporting characters, Peng and Jin, were voiced by Asian-American actors, Albert Tsai and Tenzing Trainor.

“From moment one it was something that was born of two cultures, and I think that right there was a foundation of how we wanted to approach this film,” Chou said.

What “Abominable” lacks, however, is a big celebrity name to help sell tickets. Bennet is not well-known outside of her role in the TV show “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Even lesser known are Tsai and Trainor, who have TV roles in “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Clueless."

It’s unclear whether the lack of a star in “Abominable” will affect its financial success. But Chou, the producer, said there was a chicken-and-egg problem: If the major studios only want to cast celebrities to attract audiences, how will Asian-Americans ever gain fame if they don’t get a chance to be onscreen?

That, perhaps, is what is most remarkable about “Abominable”: not the story or the visuals, but the chance it is taking on Bennet and her peers.

Brian X. Chen is the lead consumer technology writer. He reviews products and writes Tech Fix, a column about solving tech-related problems. Before joining The Times in 2011 he reported on Apple and the wireless industry for Wired. @bxchen

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