Falling for Hollywood’s Asian heartthrobs: Male actors to watch for

Vivian Dang provides roundup of Hollywood’s Asian male lead hearththrobs, the state of Asian representation in Hollywood, and where we can go from here.
Darren Barnet and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan sitting in front of a bed.
Darren Barnet and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Never Have I Ever. Photo Credit: Isabella B. Vosmikova/Netflix

Falling for Asian male heartthrobs

I don’t remember who my first on-screen crush was, but I do remember fawning over a slew of tall, white heartthrobs. Ryan Atwood from The O.C., Nate Archibald from Gossip Girl… the list goes on. I never thought twice about the lack of diversity and representation on screen.

As I started to notice the same mainstream Asian actors in every film, I began questioning why there wasn’t more diversity beyond the usual rotation of Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Lucy Liu, Zhang Ziyi, or Michelle Yeoh.

It makes me wonder: would our society’s perception of Asians be different if there were richer and more diverse portrayals of Asians in television shows and films, beyond the racist tropes that Hollywood typically churns out? 

However, there’s been some progression in the diversity of Asian male romantic leads following the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Newcomers include Randall Park from Always Be My Maybe, Mason Temple from Ginny and Georgia, Kumail Nanjiani from The Lovebirds, and Himesh Patel from Yesterday.

Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians, A Simple Favour, Last Christmas) is often lauded as a prime example of progress in diversity. His on-screen power in a leading role — thanks to Crazy Rich Asians — certified him as a “bonafide sex symbol”.

The cast of Crazy Rich Asians in a photoshoot
Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Chris Pang, and Sonoya Mizuno. Photo Credit: Miles Aldridge/Vanity Fair

But Hollywood’s casting of East Asian male actors like Henry Golding (who is half Malaysian, half English) also brings forward a larger, nuanced conversation about what being Asian means in society. Some don’t seem to consider bi-racial individuals as being “Asian” enough because of their mixed ethnicity.

It raises an important question: what does being Asian mean (in Hollywood)? Can we simply appreciate this moment in time where Asians are finally being represented?

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Asian male romantic leads 

Recently, Netflix released Love Hard, a holiday rom-com starring Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang. Seeing an Asian male lead is refreshing, but my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I saw that they had cast an Asian male as the (ugly) catfish. How is this progression, I asked myself, when an Asian man is once again viewed as undesirable?

Annoyed, I vowed not to watch it — until I heard about the endless Internet praise. While I was initially hesitant about Jimmy O. Yang’s character being portrayed as the stereotypical, emasculated geeky-looking Asian guy, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s depiction of him as a strong, romantic lead.

The trailer for Love Hard. Credit: Netflix

Upon accepting the lead role, Jimmy O. Yang acknowledged Hollywood’s problematic tendency to desexualize Asian men. However, he believed the role would be a “positive step for representation, to see an unlikely hero who could have been any ethnicity.”

He further adds, “…at the end of the day, if you don’t think I’m hot, you might think Darren’s hot. You might think my dad is hot. You might think Harry is hot. We give you a whole spectrum of cute Asian guys.”

And he’s right. 

Before Crazy Rich Asians, it was rare to see Asian male actors cast as the “hot jock” or the hunky romantic lead, rather than the stereotypical “nerdy Asian” or “foreigner” who is often always portrayed as “socially awkward and unable to have relationships… and never seen as a real romantic threat”. 

Credit: The Take on Youtube.

The recent — albeit slow — progression in casting Asian men as romantic leads is a welcome change. We finally see well-rounded, normal depictions of Asian men, who have the same opportunities as their white counterparts. 

Is Hollywood finally shattering the racist trope that Asian men are undesirable? Are they redefining masculinity by casting more Asian male actors as romantic leads? 

What does being Asian mean in Hollywood?

While there’s been progression over the last few years with the growing increase of Asian actors cast in Hollywood films, there is growing backlash and criticism around the casting of bi-racial Asian men as romantic leads. 

It makes me think about the common practice of white-washing — casting white actors in visible minority roles — all too common in Hollywood. A few examples include Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang in Cloud Atlas or Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. These casting choices raise the question of whether change and diversity is ever genuine in Hollywood.

The choice to cast bi-racial actors, specifically Asian male leads, adds to this contention for some Asians. Some see it as a lack of “true diversity and representation” in Hollywood films. 

“If you look at the East, you’ve got lots of very famous, good-looking [Asian] leading men in romantic roles and playing heroes,” says actor David Tse, who has starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Spy Game. “There’s nothing unusual about it.

Read more: Yakuza Princess star Masumi breaks cultural barriers in her debut film

“But in the West, there is this bamboo ceiling. There’s been this endemically racist trope that East Asian actors feel incredibly angry and resentful about.”

When Henry Golding was cast as Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians, there was controversy over his mixed heritage. Some people didn’t consider him “Asian” enough to play the role. 

Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, an Asian male actor, shares a romantic moment with Constance Wu's Rachel.
Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, shares a romantic moment with Constance Wu’s Rachel. Photo Credit: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC

In response to the outrage, Golding challenged these claims. “I was born in Asia, I’ve lived cultures that are synonymous with Asian culture, but it’s still not Asian enough for some people,” he said. “Where are the boundaries? Where are the lines drawn for saying that you cannot play this character because you’re not fully Asian?”

“Asian is Asian”

Casting director Julia Kim noted that Asian Americans should be happy when someone of Asian descent is cast as a lead.

“It’s an occasion to celebrate and not nitpick the amount of Asian-ness,” she says. “Inclusion means everyone who’s appropriate should be considered for the role.”

Darren Barnet, a leading Asian male actor, with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Never Have I Ever.
Darren Barnet and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Never Have I Ever. Photo Credit: Isabella B. Vosmikova/Netflix

Recent television shows have taken this step by casting Asian male leads like Darren Barnet (Never Have I Ever, Love Hard), Charles Melton (Riverdale, The Sun is Also a Star), and Nico Hiraga (Moxie). Their race of “Asianness” doesn’t define their roles; they’re simply viewed as desirable men (who happen to be Asian). 

Jimmy O. Yang’s character in Love Hard also fits this bill. While the film depicts Josh Lin as the (physically) undesirable romantic interest compared to his schoolmate, Tag, his attractive qualities are highlighted throughout the film.

Jimmy O. Yang and Nina Dobrev in Love Hard. Credit: Netflix

His romantic and sensitive nature shines during intimate moments with Natalie. In a particularly sweet rock climbing scene, he is able to calm Natalie over her fear of heights by encouraging her to listen to her favourite song. Another is when he changes the lyrics of a holiday song to help her feel comfortable when they’re singing a duet.

In all of these moments, he taps into what he knows best — her

(*Spoiler alert!) Catfishing aside, Natalie begins falling for Josh through his genuine attempts to regain her trust. Love Hard portrays Josh like any male romantic lead and for once, it’s refreshing to see more Asian male actors in mainstream films.

Celebrating diversity in Hollywood films 

Not so long ago, diversity in Hollywood meant casting visible minorities in secondary roles or serving as racist tropes. The blockbuster success of Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi and John Cho’s recent leading role in the Netflix series Cowboy Bebop demonstrates that Asians rightfully deserve a spotlight in Hollywood.

It’s great to see the diversity that is taking place on screen. I can appreciate the opportunities that Asian actors now have. As writer Fendi Wang notes, “honest attempts to diversify stories and reattach personhood to minority roles should be praised.”

There’s still a lot of work to do in terms of diversity and representation, but having more Asian male romantic leads like Jimmy O. Yang is a start.

Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang's characters in Love Hard decorating a Christmas Tree.
Nina Dobrev and Jimmy O. Yang in Love Hard. Photo Credit: Netflix

In the meantime, I’m still going to celebrate this by rewatching Love Hard for the third time — Josh Lin totally stole my heart.

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