Midori Francis and Troy Iwata Talk Importance of LGBTQ and Asian Representation in Netflix's Dash & Lily
Not only does Dash & Lily bring Christmas joy and pandemic escapism, but the Netflix series also serves as a model of more representation.
The YA rom-com series, based on the best-selling Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, follows Dash (Austin Abrams), a melancholy dude in no mood to celebrate the holidays until a quirky optimist named Lily (Midori Francis) lifts his spirits with a red notebook full of dares and messages. Along with watching Lily's blossoming romance with Dash throughout the eight episodes, viewers get to know her family's Japanese-American traditions and her strong bond with brother Langston (Troy Iwata), who is openly gay and looking for love himself.
As the show continues to reach audiences around the world, especially during the current holiday season, Francis and Iwata tell PEOPLE about the importance of portraying biracial characters who they personally identified with and related to.
"It was incredible because this was the first time that I've really even been on a set or in any kind of production where they took the time and care to make sure that every single Asian actor on set was of Japanese descent," says Francis, 26. "And in a time when you're just lucky if they get the general vibe right of the race, it meant so much that they really took that time. It was awesome."
In the series, created by Joe Tracz and produced by Nick Jonas and Shawn Levy, Francis and Iwata's onscreen family includes James Saito, who plays their grandfather, Jodi Long, who plays their great-aunt Mrs. Basil E, and Jennifer Ikeda, who plays their mother.
"I have my grandpa James and my aunts Jodi and Michele, and it was so nice. We became our own little family off-screen as well. And I might do Japanese New Year next year with the actress who played my mom, Jennifer," shares Francis, who starred in Good Boys.
Iwata, 29, echoes similar sentiments. "For me personally, this is the first time that I've played a role that really embraces my background. I feel like when you're a mixed-race actor, also specifically an ethnically ambiguous actor and people don't really know what you are, you tend to either try to get shoved into these boxes that you don't completely fit, or you'll play characters where their ethnicity doesn't matter," he says. "It was very refreshing and felt very special that the creative team of our show really decided to embrace all of our backgrounds and really celebrate those. That's super important because, even growing up, I never saw myself on TV."
Iwata continues, "One thing that our show does such a wonderful job of doing is portraying this mixed family, but not making it so heavy-handedly about the fact that they're mixed race. It's two backgrounds coming together, this is just a family. It's very matter of fact that half of them are Japanese and half of them are white."
Both Francis and Iwata also found similarities with their characters beyond being biracial.
"I definitely think Lily is close to the person that I was when I was in high school. I would say our main similarity is that we both do, in fact, like Christmas. I think it would be very hard to play this character if I hated the holidays," Francis explains. "When I actually got the audition, the second character description was that she loves holidays. I spoke to my family and friends, and I was like, 'Well this is a match made in heaven.' "
Though Iwata points out that he and Langston are "pretty much the exact same person," the actor says that the "biggest difference is that Langston is a balls-to-the-wall, hopeless romantic. I am a lot more reserved than that."
And for Iwata, portraying an openly gay character was especially meaningful.
"One thing that I was really drawn towards to Langston was the fact that here we have this queer character and specifically a younger queer character. This is less common than normal, especially when it comes to TV shows and movies. A lot of times when I see younger queer characters, it's always about their trauma or they're always somehow made out to be a victim of bullying. They're trying to accept themselves or identify themselves or get acceptance from their friends and family," he explains. "It's also important to show that we are more than our struggle. Langston is this snarky, hopelessly romantic big brother, who happens to be gay and that's never questioned. It's just presented very unapologetically."
For Iwata, one particular scene involving Langston stood out most. "There's a really wonderful scene where our grandpa comes home and he finds a naked boy in my room. A lot of people reached out to me after that episode. They were like, 'I thought that there was going to be some homophobic scene that's going to happen. And it didn't happen.' It's very sad that everyone was scared it was going to go there because that's how normal that is," he says. "But then it was so exciting and refreshing that it was, no, he was just upset that I have someone over. It's so important to show queer characters that are just humans and their main thing isn't their struggle or their trauma. That's a really helpful message, especially to send to the younger queer community."
Dash & Lily is full of heartwarming family moments that evoke memories of gatherings and celebrating the holidays together with loved ones.
"My family and I sing Christmas carols every year," says Francis, who shares her most memorable seasonal tradition. "I have a few aunts that are in the music industry, a pianist and a singer. We start with my aunt doing like an opera version of 'Silent Night,' but then the night quickly divulges into everyone's drinking red wine and singing Bruce Springsteen or Elton John."
For Iwata, he remembers his childhood upbringing. "I grew up with two Christmases because my parents split when I was 3 years old. My mom's Christmas was very, very small, quiet and quaint. Then I had my dad's Christmas, which was my Japanese family, which I have 11 cousins, so it was like I had a loud one and a quiet one," he recalls. "All of my aunts and uncles on my Japanese side, every Christmas would write a Christmas play and then make the cousins do it for just them. All of us kids would be performing a piece for the people that wrote it and they would just write it up and be like, 'And here are your lines, perform for us.' "
Dash & Lily is now streaming on Netflix.
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