At Character’s offices in Gardena, California, Miya Cech and Ella Jay Basco sit in front of a vanity mirror, giggling and perusing makeup choices like they’re getting ready for a middle school dance. Nearby, Emerson Min and Ian Chen dive onto oversized, Skittles-colored beanbags, sliding across the floor while Hudson Yang records them on his phone, his boisterous laugh booming through the studio.
In their film and television roles, these same youngsters have brought audiences to laughter and tears while capturing hearts with their portrayals of childhood and adolescence. When watching your favorite TV show, it can be easy to forget that the actors behind onscreen characters like Eddie Huang have yet to graduate high school (or in some cases elementary school). And a five-hour photo shoot might sound daunting to an average seventh-grader, but for these guys, it’s nothing new.
“I started doing commercials at 6-months old, and my family is in the entertainment business,” says Basco, flipping her hair out of her expertly made-up face. The 12-year-old actress made headlines recently when Warner Bros. announced she’d be joining the cast of the Cathy Yan-directed “Birds of Prey” to play Cassandra Cain. “What’s really cool about acting is getting all of these experiences so young. Like the people you look up to, you’re doing the same thing.”
Yang, who has transformed from a baby-faced tween to a towering teenager over “Fresh Off the Boat”’s five seasons, didn’t kick off his career quite as young as Basco. He says he became interested in acting after seeing Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” (2013), and booked his starring role on “Fresh Off the Boat” just a year later, at the tender age of 10. “Especially for young Asian American actors, the future is improving,” Yang says. “We have more opportunities and more people who understand what we’re going through, and also more watchful eyes, people who see that Asian Americans can be successful in these roles.”
Of course, Asian American kids didn’t always steal the spotlight. In the past, stars like Yang and Basco might have been relegated to unnamed guest roles on television—might. Throughout the 20th century, young Asian Pacific Islander actors were lucky to get the occasional, demeaning role. Layne Tom Jr. had the unenviable honor of portraying three different Charlie Chan sons in various TV specials. And Jonathan Ke Quan, known for saving Professor Henry Jones Jr. on several occasions in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), faced typecasting after portraying the nerdy, gadget-wielding Data in “The Goonies” (1985). But representation began to pick up in the 1990s and 2000s, with an influx of Disney stars like Brenda Song and Vanessa Hudgens (who’s half-Filipina).
It was in the mid-2000s when actor Justin Lee landed a part on “Arrested Development” as Annyong Bluth, the adopted Korean son of corrupt real estate moguls George and Lucille Bluth. In recent years, the role has stirred heated controversy about the show’s portrayal of Koreans, but now in his late 20s, Lee smiles as he recalls his days on the show. “To be able to find what you love to do at a really young age, and to do that at all, I feel really thankful and fortunate about that,” Lee says. “To this day, when I go on set, I still have the same love for acting that I did 14 years ago. And it all started with ‘Arrested Development.’”
After his time on the sitcom, though, roles began to dry up. Despite his dedication and love for his craft, Lee struggled to find work as an actor. During the early 2010s, API individuals constituted a tiny portion of the characters seen on film and television, a disparity that was felt hard by young Asian American actors like Lee. “At the time, guys like John Cho were saying there wasn’t enough opportunity, even for people like him,” says Lee. “Now imagine the opportunities for an Asian kid, they were even less. There were just no roles.”
Unlike many young actors, though, Lee didn’t grow up in the heart of Los Angeles. He spent most of his childhood in Mission Viejo, an Orange County suburb almost 60 miles south of Hollywood’s lights. As a result, he didn’t feel the same ever-mounting pressure that many actors face to find the next job—and fast. “It helped that I didn’t live so close to L.A. I come from a background of athletics,” says Lee, who competed in mixed martial arts between acting gigs. “That was another big thing that kept my head straight when things were on the slower side. It’s so important for actors to have other things that they’re passionate about.”
Lee isn’t struggling as much for roles today. He keeps busy with voicework and appears on the interactive Twitch series “Artificial,” alongside his girlfriend, actress Tiffany Chu. He acknowledges, though, that it could have turned out very differently for him. The very mention of child and teen actors often conjures thoughts of Lindsay Lohan-esque slides into disgrace, horror stories of sex scandals and drug addiction.
“People don’t realize, when you have a magnifying glass on you, and you’re at that age—we all did things that we regret,” Lee says. “I got really lucky that I wasn’t in the limelight. Maybe you can call it overprotective Asian parents. But as a kid, there are certain things where it’s important to still be a kid.”
Under the glare of lights and the click of camera shutters, Cech, Basco, Min, Chen and Yang transform into practiced professionals. They know their angles, and are unruffled by the stylists who swarm around them to adjust their hair or outfits. But while the group exchanges goofy grins for composed expressions, their personalities still shine through. Between shots, it’s easy to catch a flash of Cech’s giddy smile, Basco’s regal gaze, Min’s poised shake of his shoulders to loosen up.
There’s a lot of pressure on those little shoulders. As if filming weren’t enough to have on their plates, they all have plenty of projects off-set. They stay busy modeling, playing music or working as brand ambassadors. And that’s all on top of classes and homework.
“You get to go to cool, new places, and you get to see things that you normally wouldn’t have, and you make these connections at such a young age,” says Chen, who stars as the cheerful Evan Huang on “Fresh Off the Boat,” alongside Yang. “But especially with school, sometimes it’s hard to schedule everything, and you have to make sacrifices.”
It might be difficult to focus on studying for a math test, for example, when you have to be at the Emmy Awards the next day. But according to Min, there’s more than one way to make it work. “It’s all a balance: acting, school, everything,” says Min. The 12-year-old actor has been playing minor roles in film and TV for years and picked up a recurring role as Mason on “Black-ish.” He found himself having to handle two separate filming schedules after getting a part on the Randall Park and Ali Wong rom-com “Always Be My Maybe,” which filmed in San Francisco and Vancouver.
The charismatic “L.A. boy” laughs as he recalls flying in for school in the morning, then heading right back to the airport after classes to catch a flight back to Canada. “It’s a lot of time management, because right when you fall back, you fall back more and more, and it gets really tough to catch up,” Min says. “So, yeah, I struggled before, but now I’ve got the routine down. After Vancouver, I can do anything.”
In the internet era, these kids do have certain advantages to help maintain that balance. With online classes and the capability to simply email an audition tape rather than attend a casting call, it’s become easier to live the kind of double life required from young actors than ever before. Networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also make it easy to spread the news of landing a starring role in a film. But social media is a double-edged sword.
“My mom helps run my Instagram,” says Cech. “Sometimes on social media, there will be people who are negative, but I try not to pay attention to that.” The young actress made her film breakthrough as Suzume Kimura in “The Darkest Minds,” and has been busy ever since. She’s even worked with Emerson Min on “Always Be My Maybe” and stars in “Rim of the World,” which hit Netflix at the end of May.
True to her word, Cech doesn’t focus on the downside for long. “There are also people who support me on social media, and they’re really nice, and they have a much bigger impact. You just have to ignore what everyone else is doing and be yourself,” she says, with a bright smile.
Comedian and actress Amy Anderson is another mother who helps run social media for her daughter. For Anderson, that child is Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, who’s well-known for playing the adorably precocious Lily Tucker-Pritchett on ABC’s “Modern Family.” Anderson acknowledges that while social media can play a major part in landing roles, it’s also crucial to recognize the inherent dangers of the platform.
“Public scrutiny does concern me, and I try to talk to Aubrey about social media regularly—just playing things safe, keeping things classy, being selective about what you choose to say and do and post,” Anderson says, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “And those are conversations every parent needs to have with their kid, whether they’re a celebrity or not, in this day and age. But especially for Aubrey, the wrong move could be a career-killer for a kid who wants to be an actor.”
As an entertainer herself, Anderson is well-versed in the demands of show business life. After Aubrey booked her role on “Modern Family,” Anderson stopped traveling comedy circuits and settled in L.A. to help her daughter pursue her own career. At the time, Aubrey was 4. But Anderson feels fortunate that she had all the experience necessary to guide her daughter through the ups and downs of life in Hollywood.
Other stage parents are usually not so lucky. “It’s unfortunate, but there are so many predatory people in this business,” Anderson says.
Based on historical predecessors (remember rumors of a 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal becoming addicted to cigarettes while filming “Paper Moon”?), many people believe child actors are most vulnerable to exploitation, but Anderson says it’s often the parents who fall prey to manipulation by Hollywood execs, or even scammers. “Parents get excited, they think, ‘Oh, they’re interested in my kid! They think my kid is cute!’ Because we all think our kid is the cutest. It’s really easy for parents to get emotionally wrapped up in that, and it’s so easy to suck people in,” she says.
To that end, Anderson is creating a seminar with Denise Crovetti, another Hollywood mom who has three children in the business, to educate parents on what they’re getting their families into when they decide to follow a kid’s dream of appearing on TV. The seminar isn’t to scare people away, but to show parents how raising children in the lights of Hollywood might be different—and not so different—from a more conventional childhood. “Acting is just like anything else, and kids have problems across the board,” says Anderson. “Is it more common for kids who are in the entertainment industry to end up with issues? Not necessarily. We just like to focus on the ones who do because we recognize them, and we feel like we’ve been following their lives. It gets blown out of proportion, but that’s what sells; that’s the entertainment business.”
It’s fair to wonder when, in the hustle and bustle of casting calls, school and photo shoots like this one, these actors ever get a chance to just be kids. But often, the best time to act their age is on set. While waiting for new props and lighting, the kids occupy themselves with Legos, building precarious towers that crumble almost immediately. When they get in front of the camera again and the photographers encourage them to shout for a picture, they do so with gusto, yelling in Korean, English and more, competing for who can be loudest.
Though these actors speak with maturity and confidence that can disguise their tender ages, it’s easy to see they really are still just kids. They have bright futures ahead that might take them down unusual paths, but they have ready replies to the age-old question of what they want to be when they grow up. Cech has to keep her answer under wraps for now, but Yang wants to travel the world and pursue a dream of owning his own restaurant as a professional chef. Basco wants to continue her work as a musician, and adds that she’d also like to play a “quirky know-it-all” character.
Chen pauses and has to think a moment before answering. “I actually love aviation,” he says, moving his hand up and down to mimic a plane flying through clouds. “I’d love to play a pilot someday, like ‘Sully.’”
Min doesn’t have any specific roles in mind, but says he loves doing comedy, and that he’ll be happy as long as he’s able to follow his passion for acting. “As an Asian actor, it’s really cool that I can see other people on-screen who are like me,” Min says. “That encourages me to just do more, so other people can feel the same way I did when I saw other shows with Asians. And that makes me feel really good.”
Just like Sandra Oh, Randall Park and other adult Asian American actors, these young actors are blazing new, crucial trails for on-screen representation. They might not be hosting the Golden Globes or Academy Awards just yet, but who knows—they might be accepting those awards someday.
This article appeared in Character Media’s Summer 2019 Issue.