by Daniel York 

I turned down a casting yesterday. It was for a job that possibly a lot of actors might consider a good one. The script they sent me called for me to be an East Asian nationality of a country no one in my family has any links with whatsoever. So it was to portray a “foreigner”.

I’ve got nothing against playing East Asian characters. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in my “career” have been playing East Asians. I’m very proud of my heritage and certainly have no wish to “whitewash” myself but the fact of the matter is that, as a mixed-race East Asian, I rarely, if ever, land those (usually not terribly well written) roles on TV.

Sometimes I get recalled for these parts. Sometimes they even call the next day to check I’m still available.

But as predictably as the sun coming up every day they will ultimately pick people who look more generically “oriental” than me. Once upon a time, before they cottoned on that this actually sounds a bit dubious, they used to actually tell my agent they didn’t think I “looked Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Indonesian enough”. One casting director once told my then agent “they specifically do not want any Eurasians”.

I worked out recently that I’m probably fourth or fifth choice middle-aged Chinese actor. Of course it’s absolutely possible that those four or five ahead of me are far better, more gifted and more naturally charismatic performers than I am, but after 20-odd years and the amount of theatre I’ve done it’s a surreal state of affairs to be in an ethnic-specific (but paradoxically not terribly specific) pecking order and it quite literally fucks with my mental health.

So I’m not going any more. No more Mr. Chows or Chongs. No more ludicrous questions at castings about my “background”. No more picking about my “accent” (one BBC producer literally complained to my agent once about my lack of Chinese accent or “larger than life” orientalist qualities). No more worried looks when I sit in front of the camera.

Of course, this probably means I’ll go from 2 or 3 TV castings a year to none and, realistically, in today’s theatre “economy” that’ll mean I can’t do theatre either (because you have to be on TV to do theatre these days) but WTF, I’ll just have to get on with my own stuff. It’s a minor miracle I’ve ever done any acting at all, frankly.

I must just stress what a big decision this is. It’s in an actor’s genes to hope. It’s certainly in my make-up to try and be positive and break the mould. But sometimes I do think you have to know when the game’s up and this one’s been up since the day it started.

Whatever it all means in the long run, I can absolutely promise that at 12:15 today I at least won’t be sat waiting to go in and read a part I’ve spent time preparing that I have absolutely no chance of landing.

And what a blessed relief that will be.


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Daniel York has worked as an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, Edinburgh Traverse and The Gate. He has also appeared in the feature films Rogue Trader, The Beach and Act Of Grace. His full-length stage-play The Fu Manchu Complex was directed by Justin Audibert at Ovalhouse. His short film Mercutio’s Dreaming: The Killing Of A Chinese Actor was commissioned by BBC Writersroom. He is currently Chair of the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee. Find him on Twitter @danielfyork


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