Asian Actress Thriving in Atypical Roles
Challenging Stereotypes as a Korean Mexican Actress
Early in her acting career, Korean Mexican actress Jennifer Cheon Garcia constantly got feedback that she was “not Asian enough” and “not Mexican enough.” She never seemed to be quite enough of one thing.
At 5’10, the Korean-Mexican model-turned-actress was too tall. The leading actors were often shorter than her.
“The biggest challenge was for people to see me and that I can exist in their world,” she said. “They may not have thought about me initially, and that people like me exist, [but] I’m not the only one.”
Despite not fitting into conventional roles, this rising star is making her mark in the television genre of science fiction and fantasy. She has appeared on popular shows like Star Trek Beyond and SuperGirl, and most notably, Van Helsing. Most recently, Cheon Garcia joined the diverse cast of the highly-anticipated television adaptation of The Wheel of Time. The Wheel of Time is the best-selling epic fantasy book series since the Lord of the Rings and is the inspiration behind The Game of Thrones.
“I just so happen to fit into that world because I never really fit in any box,” she said. “That’s why I have fallen into sci-fi and it’s become my home.”
By stepping outside the box, Cheon Garcia challenges traditional gender and cultural stereotypes through her fearless and layered personas on-screen.
She is the role model she never had growing up, inspiring other mixed-raced individuals to embrace their multidimensional identities.
Finding Humanity in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy World
As a lover of human psychology, Cheon Garcia brings out-of-this-world characters to life by drawing on her own experiences and vivid imagination.
“It’s been a lot of fun playing these warrior women and villains – I call them ‘villains’ because it’s a matter of perspective,” she said. “I just try to make sure that whatever my character is going through that it’s coming from as honest of a place as possible within the fictional story.”
In Van Helsing, Cheon Garcia portrays Ivory, a blood-thirsty vampire pack leader who turned back into human. With newfound vigor, Ivory embarks on a path of redefining herself in a new era.
“It was her transition and finding her humanity kind of running in parallel with my journey on becoming a woman,” she said.
“There’s always these bogus ideas of what a woman is when we’re really just different things and you can’t put any of us in the box, but that always gets clouded by society’s ideas and sometimes culture’s ideas of what women are for.”
The fears and catastrophes that take place in the vampire world are just as relevant in the modern world. Another theme that hit home was how humans treated each other during a time of crisis.
“What you see in the post-apocalypse, and sometimes what you see sadly during the pandemic, is that we’re attacking each other,” she said. “Where is that humanity?”
That’s why the sci-fi and fantasy genre has a special place in our society, according to Cheon Garcia. It creates a medium for people to address topics that are sometimes too difficult to talk about.
“The world really wants to be entertained and wants to be distracted from reality,” she said.
Why Representation Matters
The fantastical universe serves as an escape from reality. But what we see on screen shapes how we view ourselves and others in the real world.
Media is a powerful influence when it comes to the formation of identity. The lack of representation can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of invisibility, especially in young people.
The otherworldliness of sci-fi and fantasy broadens the landscape for racially-diverse casting. While traditionally made up of white writers and characters, representation is steering the way for television series like The Wheel of Time.
“If I grew up and had a show like that, I can’t even imagine the comfort I would feel and seeing that,” she said, as she recounted her experience at the roundtable reading of The Wheel of Time.
“That’s what I’m most excited for people to see, and the interpretation of a book series that so many people loved and has helped so many people at different times of their lives.”
Born and raised in Langley, BC, Cheon Garcia grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community. On TV, she never saw heroes that looked like her in her favourite childhood shows. The absence of Korean-Mexicans like herself in the media skewed how she perceived success and beauty.
“I was so obsessed with looking a certain way and thinking if only I had blonde hair and blue eyes, then people would accept me and the world would open up,” she said. “That’s a hard place to grow up and develop.”
Representation has been the driving force behind her career and her selection of roles. Her ultimate goal? She wants everyone to feel seen.
“We have voices. We’re very much part of these stories. We’re very much heroes. We’re beautiful and people can fall in love with us. We can be strong, we don’t always have to be that submissive idea that was in the forefront in a lot of movies in the past.”
Reconnecting with Family and Heritage through Martial Arts
While known for her flawless fight sequence and athleticism, martial arts are more than a way for Cheon Garcia to train and exercise. Practicing martial arts is the gateway to her Asian heritage. It is also synonymous with the bond she has with her dad.
When she was young, her dad travelled a lot, so she always felt closer to her mom and Mexican side. However, her dad will always be her first martial arts teacher.
As a horseman, her dad would head out to the fields, and Cheon Garcia would accompany him. While he worked, she pretended to sword-fight and jump off structures.
“He was like ‘oh you want to fight?’ she laughed as she recalled her childhood memories, “I’m like ‘yeah,’ so he was teaching me how to kick and punch and went through some patterns with me with Taekwondo.”
Before the pandemic, she started training in Taekwondo again as a way to reconnect with her Korean side. It became her life-line. The quiet quarantine pace provided the mental space for her to reconcile the resentment she had towards her parents. It helped her nurture a closer relationship with her father.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t realize that your parents were kids too and they were just trying to figure it out,” she said. “You put a lot of weight into what they should’ve done and should’ve said and how they should’ve been there for you and I just got to this point that that’s a lot to put on my parents.”
Cheon Garcia’s mom was born and raised in Mexico, and her dad in Korea. They met in San Francisco while learning English, before making the move to Canada to raise three kids on a farm.
Through her parents’ journeys, Cheon Garcia learned the value of endurance and hard work.
“They taught me that really anything’s possible,” she said. “Nobody really has the handbook to life. We’re all just trying to make it work.”
Combatting Racism and Negativity with Creativity
Cheon Garcia has been a vocal champion in combating anti-Asian hate. She is unapologetic in calling out racism and ignorance, while urging those who want to become allies to move forward with action, not just words or hashtags.
“I feel like that’s always been my calling,” she said. “People are like ‘this is now happening, how are you feeling’. Now happening? I didn’t just wake up Asian! This is everyday!”
To counter difficult times and negativity, Cheon Garcia encourages her fellow Asian bellas and sistas to “find something that fulfills you creatively.”
“I feel like it is our human instinct to be creative,” she said. “We’re constantly with our devices and phones and getting stimulated by different screens and shows. Take that time to just figure out how you can connect to that.”
She has been channeling her creative energy too. On the morning of her interview with Cold Tea Collective, she had just finished shooting a short film, “Trumaker” – written by her husband, Jesse Warn – on her parents’ farm.
“For me, it’s always helped shed through some dark emotions, or thoughts or negativity or stress or whatever,” she said. “Find a way to take your pain and anxiety and turn it into art.”
The Wheel of Time premiers on November 19, 2021 on Amazon Prime.
Featured photo credit: Reece Voyer
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