Ally Maki’s grandmother Miyo, who survived the Japanese American internment camps of the Second World War, lived by three rules: say what you want to say, don’t be afraid of what people think and be strong.
That’s sound advice for any, and it left a lasting impression on Maki. From a young age, she loved to perform on stage. When one day a talent manager scouted her at an acting class in her home city of Seattle, she took it as a sign to follow her dreams of screen acting and ran with Grandma’s advice — at 14, Maki moved alone to the City of Angels, booked her first gig in a small role on Disney’s “That’s So Raven,” joined an unashamedly mid-’00s girl group called Valli Girls (where she counted two of the Haim sisters as her bandmates) and stuck true to her love of the arts.
Nearly 15 years later, Maki’s landed firmly on her feet as one of TV’s frankest, funniest women via the TBS stranded-on-an-island sitcom “Wrecked.”
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
As Jess, Maki’s the hot, feisty all-American girl trying to make her way post-plane crash on an island filled with a motley crew of characters. The show’s what you’d get if you took “Lost” and got it high on doses of slapstick humor and pop culture references. Jess — sans the fact that she is Japanese American, and not a blue-eyed Tiffani Thiessen or a blonde-haired Alicia Silverstone — is the girl Maki grew up watching on her television screen, the girl with whom she identified as a kid even while popular media and Hollywood told her otherwise.
“I almost didn’t go for the audition because the idea that I wasn’t [the image of] all-American was so ingrained in my head,” Maki said. “I thought, they’re never going to go Asian American. It just wouldn’t happen. I fully believed that with all my heart, through years of being in this business, being told who I am and what I can and cannot do. But I always felt like I was out [in Los Angeles] pursuing my dreams. My mom calls me the Mack truck, because when I have something, I just gotta go for it.”
Mack trucks are hard to stop. Not long after she went for the audition, she received a call from the show’s producers that put her on the next flight to Puerto Rico to shoot Season 1. Maki’s co-star Will Greenberg, who plays her 30-something frat bro boyfriend, describes her as “fearless.” Greenberg has seen her compassion in unlikely places, like the time she and a couple of cast members raised money for a local orphanage while shooting in Fiji and got everyone else to join. He witnessed her grit through tough filming conditions that would have had others halting production, like the time she refused to let her seasickness on a rocking boat impede her from wrapping a scene. “That shows you how tough she is,” Greenberg said. “She’s a professional to the nth degree.”
To be sure, Maki’s role as Jess has been a turning point — it’s pointed her toward the question: “If this is possible, what else is possible?”
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
To seek answers, Maki looks to Grandma Miyo’s life of resilience and perseverance in the face of bigotry. Before her grandmother’s passing, Maki compiled her own oral history archive of interviews with a Flip video camera. The stories she heard sparked inspiration like nothing else. “[My grandmother’s] generation really never let anything define them,” she said. “I take a lot of that with me. It’s about being vocal, even when you feel like no one’s listening. In the last couple years, I feel like [the APA community] has really found our voice, and the way to make change is to call them out on it every time. After we started to talk about whitewashing on Twitter, people are more careful now. They’re not used to Asian Americans speaking up. We’re part of that new generation that’s like, ‘We’re going to be vocal.’”
And what’s possible now is that, through characters like Jess, through creating her own content on platforms like YouTube and through additional projects — like the book she is writing based on her grandparents’ love story — Maki’s left behind her early days of playing Japanese Girl (2003, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and sexy and/or nerdy sidekicks to tell her own stories, and tell them through her undeniably all-American voice.
“My dream is to do a rom-com where it’s an Asian American lead,” Maki said. “Why can’t Asian American girls be Emma Stone or do what Anne Hathaway does?” Well, what would Grandma say?
Photos Jack Blizzard
Style Katie Qian
Hair & Makeup Nikki Popkow
This article appears in Kore Asian Media’s 2018 Annual Issue. Order your copy at charactermedia.com/subscribe.