Naomi Ko talks Screenwriting, Taking on Hollywood Racism, and Writing Terrible Fan Fiction

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Stationed on opposite ends of the continental USA, my interview with Naomi Ko starts off with a weird game of video tag before the dawning realization that my sunny afternoon is an ungodly hour in her California morning.

After finally connecting, she says “Sorry for the mess. It’s been a long week.”

Known for her role in Dear White People, among other things, Naomi is a headstrong, ambitious woman with experience as a writer, actor, and director. She takes advantage of the millennial “we can have it all” mentality and seems intent on doing just that.

But it isn’t easy. “I am kind of untraditional when it comes to being an Asian American woman.  I am aggressive, I swear a lot…I don’t really give a f*** anymore.”

To Ko, being an Asian American in the industry has come with its fair share of challenges. “Accessibility is one of the biggest hardships that I’ve encountered as an Asian American. I have definitely encountered issues about being Asian American but also about being a woman, especially when it came to pitching and talking to Hollywood studios and networks and producers and executives who have certain expectations of what they feel I should be and what my work should represent.” She quickly points out the time when she pitched a violent historical drama and how surprised people were that an AAPI woman wanted to tell such a violent story. “One person even said, ‘Wow, this is really violent,’ and I said, ‘Well, haven’t you seen Game of Thrones? That’s really violent.’ But I guess if three white, British dudes want to do it that’s cool.”

Indeed, in the western film industry, Asian Americans are underrepresented on and off the camera. Actors that do make it in a feature film or major TV production tend to be stuck playing the model minority. “I think for actors, when you go into auditions and they ask you to do an accent—that’s a more aggressive form of racism. But when you’re in a room meeting with different studio execs and producers, you’ve already proved yourself in the sense that ‘Okay, my writing is good enough to get me through this door.’ Then, there is how are they going to nitpick, and how are they going to say no to you, and how is that influenced by what they perceive of you?” She continues, barely stopping to take a breath. “But then also, that’s the most ideal situation. So, how do you even get your script through the f***ing door?”

Dear White People (Roadside Attractions )

For Ko, untraditional is both the problem and the solution. “I think those are the hardships for AAPI just generally in terms of how Asian Americans are dealt with in society, and how that really reflects in Hollywood. There is such a passive-ness when it comes to how people treat us and what people expect of us.”

I ask her to elaborate. She recounts her childhood in a primarily white suburb of Minnesota, promptly adding, “Minnesotans are kings and queens of passive aggressiveness.” She chuckles at her jab before saying, “I feel like I understand a little bit of these hardships when you come to Hollywood because I have over twenty years of experience dealing with white people who constantly underestimate me.”

She then recalls her early performing days. “I was a big performer throughout middle school and high school, and I never got parts. And for a while, I thought it was because I was not talented but then I realized—I’m pretty good at what I do.”

Pretty good is an understatement, if you ask me.

She continues. “I was really sick of having no control over the casting process… once you can specify what your characters are and what their experiences are, there’s a lot more power in that.”  I ask how she got herself into writing. “I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, and I wrote terrible fan fiction.” She laughs. “You know? I was one of those.”

Despite her growing success, she is still painfully aware of her social background and responsibilities, and uses this to shape the stories she wants to tell. “In most of my scripts, I have a strong Asian American woman and I’m not gonna change that. Not anymore.”  Hollywood, Ko says, which has been long criticized for perpetuating a white-male dominated entertainment industry, “does a great job at keeping us invisible, and silencing us in that way of artistic expression.  Because they realize that a lot of power comes through that. And if you can just settle with doing our colonoscopies, then maybe you don’t want to be visible, and maybe you don’t need to be expressive.” She laughs darkly.  I laugh as well, thinking about all the colonoscopies my pre-med friends will soon perform routinely.

Another problem she has, is the lack of diversity in AAPI roles. “The problem,” according to Ko, is “representation.” Not only a tendency for Asians to get cast in “model minority” characters, but also the demand for those characters within the AAPI Community. “I think also there’s a standard in what Asian Americans want and what they want to see. And I think they didn’t want to see this curly haired, potty mouthed girl swearing all the time.” By writing the stories, Ko finds that Asian Americans can contribute to the increasing diversity in mainstream media, but also notes that there is a “lack of diversity in Asian American voices because “you know how it is in theatre its very dominated by Asian American men.”

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But for her, that’s not good enough. “It’s just funny that you can have Amy Schumer and Rebel Wilson who really just don’t give a f*** anymore and then you’re getting resistance from everyone about having Asian American women do really raunchy things.”

Naomi’s issues with representation, however, extend far beyond the AAPI community.  Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics are included too, and not just within the entertainment industry. Ko’s work and the stories she chooses to produce, stem from both a strong sense of social justice and a deep-seeded desire to tell the stories she knows best. “I feel like I really have something strong to say and, if anything, that’s it.”

I ask about her future. “One of my future goals is to start working on projects with other people of color who are representatives of their communities and to start talking about interesting stories that connect us—connect us in different relationships.” She reveals one such story, prefacing with, “I don’t think I can write this, since I’m not an LA native, but someone really should [make] a really complex, in-depth, complicated, messy, heart-breaking story about the LA riots and what happened with a shop owner, and her ties with the black community.” She paused. “I don’t know, I just want to write and see very good stories. And I think diversity has to do with that.”

Will this be the next Hollywood blockbuster? Maybe in the near future. “I think different stories produce better content,” She says, “and that’s what I want to do.”

Naomi is currently working on a series of projects, including one that “I really want to f***ing talk about, but can’t.”  But for now, you can join her fan club by following her on twitter (, checking out her IMBD page (, or her personal website (


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New Play “Office Hour” Tackles Issues of Mass Violence, and Korean-American Identity that Hits Close to Home

Weighty topics of mass violence and bullying have unfortunately become all too prevalent in present-day American life.  Office Hour, playwright Julia Cho’s latest work which premiered earlier this month at South Coast Repertory, tackles these complicated issues.  The play opens with three English faculty members discussing a troubled college student named Dennis (Raymond Lee). Dennis, a sullen outcast, has alarmed the faculty with his violent and pornographic writing—and ultimately gives rise to a fear of him committing a campus shooting. One teacher named Gina (Sandra Oh), ultimately invites Dennis, to her office hours to see if she can get through to him.

Inspired by the tragic events of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the play dives into very serious issues of mental illness, racism, mass violence, and the immigrant experience, and more importantly, how these themes are deeply intertwined with the fact that both Gina and Dennis are Korean-American. This is clear from the opening scenes, where Genevieve (played by Sola Bamis) and David (Corey Brill) both suggest that Gina should be the one who approaches Dennis, not only because she is his current teacher, but also because of their shared cultural background. Dennis, who wears dark clothes, hoodies, and black, opaque sunglasses, is unmistakably an outsider—but the play eventually reveals that it’s not for the reasons you may think.

“I think part of the reason why Dennis is less apprehensive to open up to Gina is because of the shared background,” Lee said, “and I think the sheer fact that Gina mirrors Dennis’s appearance and culture is important to the play.  There needs to be an affinity so people are comfortable going to a place of opening up. Especially if Dennis is a person that has been victimized by people for his appearance.”

Oh echoes these sentiments, and said “There is a deeply introspective and brutally honest look at both characters [Gina’s and Dennis’s] sense of loneliness and self-loathing that comes from a cultural place.  That is definitely held by the character of Dennis, and the effect of being invisible culturally and emotionally is something that speaks to this play.”

Their shared cultural identity, which initially serves as an unspoken icebreaker, clearly develops into something more. Lee, like Dennis, has also experienced bullying because of his appearance and noted that the feelings of alienation he had “…never leave you. Those feelings of alienation, the feeling of being made fun of for having done nothing other than the way you look, the way you’re born?  Those feelings never leave you. Dennis has dealt with that form of isolation his entire life and he didn’t acclimate so well, and it ends up cementing into something very ugly. and he ended up having a lot of aggression towards these people that treated him unfairly. It became a real cyclical spiral, and he spiraled down into a place where he’s borderline suicidal. Yes, we can all relate to these things. But for Dennis, I took it in a much more personal and drastic way.”

Oh, who has experience playing strong, and emotionally complex female characters (such as her decade-long stint as Cristina Yang on Greys Anatomy) also took a very personal approach to Gina. “The style of this play and the subject matter of this play is very different [from some of her other roles]. It’s about gun violence, and mental health, and all these things.  But honestly, I approach each of these [roles] in a similar way with similar seriousness. I want to play a character that can speak to young women and tries not to spend all their lives thinking about boys too much. So that kind of intention is the same within the kind of intention with which I approach Gina in “Office Hour” and in her efforts to reach Dennis.”


Lee, who is also Korean-American, said he relates to Dennis in various ways. For him, understanding Dennis’s character was a full-time job.  Along with reading up on various manifestos and blogs from other proponents of mass shootings, “I had to dig into my own life and think about the times that I’ve been mistreated and bullied. As an actor, you start having to use your imagination and you have to imagine the way you’ve been treated and the way they’ve been treated. Then, you start to let that build inside of you, and you water it like a plant every day at rehearsal. You go home, and you feed it some more. Then it starts to grow, and the next thing you know it starts to have a life of its own. I kind of take it upon myself to have a responsibility to show the audience every night, as truthfully as I possibly can, what these guys were going through right before the incident. It’s a process that involves a lot of searching, and at the end of the day I have to love these guys. I have to love Dennis with every part of me to show the humanity and not just a killer.”

Oh goes on to say that “we [her and Raymond] are both Korean-American. It just is, and it’s shit you don’t have to talk about but I know that’s what ties Ray and I together on stage.  And it ties Gina and Dennis together very strongly too. Gina understands Dennis because she herself is a broken person, and she understands Dennis in ways that I think Genevieve and David, who Sola and Corey play, might not.”

While the relationship between Dennis and Gina is certainly helped by their shared cultural background, Dennis and Gina’s complex feelings are part of a bigger picture within the AAPI community.

Lee discusses this more in depth. “I think in Korea, and along with a lot of Asian cultures, silence is a virtue. You don’t react, you stay patient; you kind of just take it in, and it ends up coming out in really ugly ways. Along with Dennis having his issues of being made fun of and whatnot, there is also the expectation to keep it all in. So that can really hurt a person. And that is a cultural aspect and a cultural effect.”

“The great thing about this play,” Oh says, “is that you could open up fields of the immigrant experience.”  The shared bond between Gina and Ray comes from their shared, immigrant ancestry—which would still exist regardless of their particular ethnicity/race. “But in this production, Gina and Dennis (and the playwright as well) happens to be Korean-American.  It has a very specific flavor that we bring to it, as actors.”


Lee reflects on one specific moment where Dennis and Gina enact an imaginary phone call. “Gina plays Dennis’s mom in a kind of roleplay. This is the scene that cracks open Dennis the most because of the way Gina talks to him—it’s like his mom.  And that authenticity has to do with being Korean.  There is a lot of guilt there that comes from a combination that values men to be silent in the household and also values success.  I believe Julia, she’s brilliant, wrote it specifically to tell a Korean-American story. Especially…just as an Asian man, there’s all these things in the media now that de-masculinizes Asian men all the time.  Look at all these dating apps. Asian men are the least desirable, and that is a direct result of media and a direct result of what’s been said to us growing up.”

“To see a young, Asian male character, who is in university, filled with rage is super important to see.  Because it is a part of who we are, and a part that we need to deal with, and I think it is a part that cannot be ignored” Oh said.

Thoughtfully, Lee mentions something similar.  “We may be the last generation of Korean-Americans to have this specific story.  We all have stories.  I think we’re an amazing group of people and it would be great to be remembered as such: as a really resilient group of people.  So, I just really want to urge the storytellers to step up and do it. and make it a responsibility on your own to do it.”

Beyond the complicated issues that the play sheds light on, Oh finds Gina to be a role extremely fulfilling as an artist and an actor. “Being so present doing this play is constantly reminding me of why I do work, and why I choose to do the work that I do. You don’t always have a choice. and I’m extremely lucky that I do have a choice. I am very conscious of that. and I feel that if work is not as important as this play, and is not as great as a character a Gina, then this is the only kind of work I am interested in doing. There could be a million of those movies that have us in it or don’t have us in it [authors note: Ghost in the Shell, anyone?] and I just can’t follow that.  I’m going to bust my guts out for 250 people then talk to them probably after the show, and then do that hour drive home. I mean, that’s what I do. That has more meaning to me than any of the other bullshit out there.”

“It’s such an incredible experience, they’re so smart. Everyone is so smart.” Lee said. “This is what I cherish the most. being able to do something meaningful, to continue to try to make an impact, and to have Asian voices be heard, goddamnit!”

The relationship between Gina and Dennis (and Oh and Lee) extends to the cast and playwright Julia Cho as well. Both Oh and Lee had nothing but good things to say about their “incredible” cast-members.

“Office Hour” is playing at the South Coast Repertory until this Sunday, May 1st. Be sure to see Cho’s amazing new work, and be sure to stay for the incredible performances by the entire cast. Tickets can be bought here


Images via South Coast Repertory

The Many Manifestations of #OscarsSoWhite

Recently, the New York Times released a feature titled “The Faces of American Power, Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees” and revealed a startling trend.  The feature compiled a list of “503 of the most powerful people in American culture, government, education and business, and found that just 44 are minorities,” which is approximately 8% of all the people surveyed.  The categories stemmed from CEOs of powerful American companies, to leaders in government, education, and entertainment.  Organized into a neat, visual list, the message was far from subtle.

Ever heard of the Glass Ceiling? In light of the new wave of social justice movements sweeping the country (particularly the Black Lives Matter movement), more and more Americans are becoming aware of just how difficult it is for minorities to grab a foothold in American society.  According to the 2014 US Census, almost 6% of the Americans are Asian/Pacific Islander and about 23% of Americans are either a racial minority or of mixed race.  Over the last decade, there has been some “progress” in representation: Satyha Nadella was appointed CEO of Microsoft in 2014, Kevin Tsujihara was named CEO of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment in 2013, and in 2008 Barack Obama became the first Black President of the United States.  Shonda Rhimes, one of two minority heads (both of whom are black) in “People Who Decide Which Television Shows Americans See,” is responsible for hit shows such as Greys Anatomy and Scandal—both of which have cast minority actors such as Sandra Oh and Kerry Washington.  But think about it this way—there are over 318 million people in the United States today (from the 2014 census data).  That means there are 73 million Americans that are racial minorities and 19 million of those that are Asian/Pacific Islander.   How is it possible that with 73 million people who are considered racial minorities, only 44 of them hold positions of power?  And among those 44, only 10 of those are of Asian/Pacific Islander decent.  Don’t even get me started on minority women.

So what does this mean for Asian-Americans?  Despite accounting for 15-20 percent of the student population at Ivy League schools, there are currently no AAPI Presidents of Ivy League Universities (Jim Yong Kim left his position at Dartmouth in 2012), and AAPI’s lead only a fraction of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies.  Even with groundbreaking shows like Fresh Off the BoatDr. Ken, and Master of None along with other AAPI stars in actual leading roles, AAPI actors represent less than 4% of all film and television roles. In athletics, less than 5% of AAPI athletes play in the largest sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB, and NBA.  On top of this, AAPIs hold only 11 seats in Congress: 10 being in the House and 1 in the Senate.  What about the other 19 million of us that are living in the US today? The message the New York Times highlights in their feature is not only a stunning lack of representation, but is also a nod to the larger conversation of systemic racism in America.  Racism extends far beyond hate crimes or rude slurs.  Racism is also the model minority myth, the refusal to understand our culture, and the bias that exists because of the color of our skin and the shape of our eyes. Sadly, where there is systemic racism, there will be a glass ceiling regardless of conscious intention.  So what’s the solution?

It really doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take much effort to see that minorities are whole and varied people, just like everyone else. While many of us study to be doctors and lawyers, an equal amount of us strive to become artists, writers, and actors.  Some of us like science, and some of us like humanities. Some of us strive to become leaders, while some of us don’t aspire to be, but most importantly, many of us are starting to realize that the game is rigged, and figuring out how to play on our own outside of the established status quo, looking for places (or creating them from scratch) where we will be valued for what we bring to the table. In fact, studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership perform better in general. Perhaps for those in power, it is time to stop asking minorities to merely “work harder” and “play along” for that non-existent carrot, and instead take a hard look at the systemic barriers that may be keeping their minority peers from unlocking their full potential. In the end, we’ll all be better for it.

See the full New York Times interactive article here


Image via New York Times