By: Lauren Lola (CAAM)
“Soft Power” is the latest work and first collaboration between Tony Award winners David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori. When an American playwright struggles to create a “Sex and the City” TV show with a Chinese executive, a near-fatal stabbing sends the former into a dream musical. The Chinese executive arrives in America in 2016, where he falls in love with a strong-willed leader. In the aftermath of the presidential election, they find hope in each other as the power dynamics between their two countries drastically shifts.
“Soft Power” is made up of a predominantly Asian American cast, with Conrad Ricamora as one of the leads. His past acting credits include the 2015 Broadway revival of “The King and I,” and the 2017 film “The Light of the Moon.” He is, however, mostly known nowadays for his portrayal of Oliver Hampton in the TV series, “How to Get Away with Murder.“ In a phone interview, he talks about his experience as an Asian American actor.
How has it been working with David Henry Hwang?
Conrad Ricamora: He’s been really collaborative. There have been times when I’ve spoken up in rehearsal. As an actor, you start living in the character’s skin and start feeling impulses that aren’t on the page. He was just so great and open to hearing those ideas, and then sometimes implementing them as changes in the script.
The other really challenging thing is that he works really fast and so we were given new pages throughout the process. That was a really great challenge to come to rehearsal every day and get pages and then be like, “Alright, I’m going to keep up with this. I got to not get discouraged with any of the choices that I was making.” Learn how to go with the flow and discard some of the things that I was investing in, in order to work on the piece of the whole.
What can you say about your experience as an Asian American actor of both stage and screen?
CR: I didn’t do any acting growing up. Right after undergrad, I got into acting, and I got into it by taking classes in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then I started doing community theatre. My first paid job was in a production of “Anything Goes,“ and I was playing one of the Chinese characters that were written so racist. The choreographer, at one point during rehearsal, came up to me said: “Can you be more Chinese?”
That was the first and last time I ever did something like that, and it’s so funny because I then did, a few months later for the same company, “West Side Story” as one of the Sharks, but they didn’t ask me to be as Latino or Puerto Rican as possible. I played Chino in that production and I was allowed to develop a full, three-dimensional character.
I feel lucky to be on a Shonda Rhimes show, where the landscape really fully represents what America looks like, and that I get to play a character that just happens to be Asian on the show, but is not commented about it. It’s not about his Asianness.
I’m developing a pilot with two of my Asian friends called No Rice, and it’s about our experiences as gay Asian men dating in New York City. We’ve written and blocked out the whole first season, but we’re all really busy doing shows, so we don’t know when we’re actually going to have time to do it, but that’s what I’m looking forward to.
What did your family make of your pursuits in the arts?
CR: I went through a period of time where I was just trying to find my way. I didn’t keep in touch with my family in my early 20’s through to my mid 20’s. When I first started out, they just thought I was figuring out who I was and what I wanted to do, and that was true. So every now and then, my dad would be like, “Ever think about using your psychology degree?” And I was like, “No, I never think about it because I don’t want to do that.”
Two years into pursuing acting as a profession, I got a tiny, tiny role in “Talladega Nights“ with Will Ferrell, and it was just me and him in a car. I was on screen for only 15 seconds. They went and saw it in the theater and they were like, “Oh, okay. You’re really doing this.” They could see my name in the credits in the end and they were like, “Okay, this looks like something real.”
Based on the representation of Asian Americans in the arts currently, how do you think it’s going to change in the future?
CR: It feels like we have a leap forward and then two steps back. We’ll get something like “Fresh Off The Boat“ being produced and then we’ll still hear two or three articles about Scarlett Johansson playing an Asian character or Emma Stone playing an Asian character. I’m then like, “Are you kidding me? I thought we were moving forward!”
I feel like that’s just going to continue. We’re going to have more breakthroughs and then another step back where people are going to be like, “Wait! Do we really have to tell you that this isn’t okay again?” That’s the way it feels for me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This Q&A is a crosspost from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.
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