Taiwan-born newcomer Esther Chen managed to break free from the type-casting and land a role not typically given to an Asian. (China Daily)
Yun Jin Kim as the intelligent doctor on Grey's Anatomy, Ellen Wong as the driven high schooler in The Carrie Diaries, Lucy Liu as the poker-face lawyer in Ally McBeal ...
While Asian actors tend to be cast in roles that fit the Asian stereotype on American TV, Taiwan-born newcomer Esther Chen managed to break free from the type-casting and land a role not typically given to an Asian.
Chen just made her television debut in the US as a police officer in the crime series Redrum, (which is "murder" spelled backwards), on Investigation Discovery channel.
"For police officers, I thought perhaps they would go for white people. So I didn't really think I had a chance," said Chen.
Before auditioning for Redrum, Chen was very insecure about her looks - not about whether or not she was pretty, but rather whether she fit the Asian stereotype.
"When I first started, I was extremely concerned that I would be hard to cast because I don't look very Chinese," said Chen, who is often mistaken for a Latino mixed blood for her relatively darker skins and big eyes.
"But I was fully prepared for the role," she said, "and acted calm and collected as the role requires. I guess after all it's about how you can deliver the character, the whole package, not just your looks."
Born and raised in Taiwan, Chen said her career in American show business has been a lucky coincidence. Tired of the education system in Taiwan, she moved to the US several years ago to continue her high school education and has lived here ever since.
Talkative, confident and switching comfortably between Mandarin Chinese and English, Chen said she had planned to go back to Taiwan after college and help her mom teach English through theatrical performing. But her music teacher pushed her to pursue a Master's in educational theater at New York University (NYU), which set her on the road to acting.
"At first I couldn't understand a thing because those readings for theater and plays were so difficult," Chen said. To gain more theatrical experience, she studied acting at Michael Howard Studios during graduate school.
"It was tough but very rewarding," said Chen, whose training help land her roles in movies and musicals after graduation.
Last year Chen made her debut as Gigi in the acclaimed Miss Saigon at the Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts in Iowa. Immediately after that she got the role of the wicked witch in Shrek the Musical, produced by the same company.
"I was terrified competing with all those talented and experienced professionals, especially the dancers, but I guess eventually my ability to interpret the character helped me get the role," Chen said. "I'm lucky that my director thinks that story-telling is above all."
Language is another hurdle for Chinese actors entering showbusiness and must be taken seriously. But for Chen, it is an obstacle she has long since conquered.
"My friends in the States were surprised when they heard me speaking Chinese. Many think I am a native [English] speaker," she said.
It's not a matter of perfect pronunciation or grammar, Chen emphasized. What it takes is to think in the English mentality and understand the local culture, idioms and values to master the language.
Occasionally Chen needs to pick up new accents to better interpret a character. When she was preparing for a role in Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl she had to speak like someone from the American South.
"Coming from Taiwan, I have spoken Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese since I was very little. Then I learned English and French, so I'm not afraid of new languages or accents," Chen said. "You just have to be very observant and have good ears."
Looking ahead, Chen is determined to continue her acting career in the US.
"In Taiwan it's a popularity contest. People become popular not necessarily because their artistry is better, or their artistry makes people think more, or because it moves society forward," said Chen. "So I guess it might not be as free as it is for me here in the US."
Chen's next project is Hedda Gabler by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
"I'm very obsessed with this character. The more I dig into the play, the more I learn and the more possibilities I never thought of open up," she said.
Zhang Yang contributed to this story