Asian In Hollywood?


Yes, I’m Asian.  This usually surprises people since my family name is Santos and people automatically assume it’s Spanish.  While this is true, it is also a Filipino surname, and I am in fact Filipino.

In truth, I am what Hollywood likes to label as “ethnically ambiguous” which can be a blessing and a curse.  I have been very lucky to be able to play characters from a myriad of races and backgrounds, and yet at the same time, I usually don’t look enough like any specific race to be cast when that character has to be a sister or daughter in a family that is full blooded [fill in the ethnicity here].  This is because I am also half Russian/German.

Helenna Santos-Levy

This was always a strange thing for me growing up in Canada in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood.  Kids would say “what are you?”  And while they wanted to know what my ethnic background was, they actually might as well have been asking me if I was an alien.  Add in the fact that as an adult I married a man with a Jewish last name who is a practicing Buddhist, and I have become a human melting pot of race, religion, and tradition.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, lately I’ve come to realize that even though I am Asian, I’ve never really been involved in Asian/American culture and this kind of bums me out.  I didn’t have any Filipino friends growing up aside from my family (who are royally awesome), but I don’t speak Tagalog and I feel like I don’t know enough about Filipino culture to fully identify as Filipino.

This is something that I started thinking about when the teasers for this fall’s new television shows started to be released.

At first, I was incredibly discouraged by the lack of minorities, specifically Asian Americans in major roles in the new shows this season. NBC’s fall line up was the first to be released and I was really bummed out to see that it was a sea of mainly white faces in leading roles in each, “Infamous” being the exception having a strong African American lead.

(NOTE: this post was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAY 21st, 2012 at so I’m talking about the Fall 2012 line up

Now, I don’t know why this surprised me so much considering that Hollywood has always been really slow to pick up on the fact that the landscape of America has changed and that television needs to reflect this.  There has been a lot of discussion about the “white washing of Hollywood,”  but specifically I’ve been very interested lately in the fact that Asian Americans are often marginalized and shown as two dimensional caricatures. And of course it isn’t just Asian Americans that aren’t properly represented, but I am quicker to notice this because of my ethnic background.

Then the teasers rolled in from FOXCBSABC, and the CW and I am happy to say that while there aren’t huge number of minorities leading shows this coming season,  I was proven wrong in thinking that Hollywood would keep ethnic minorities as supporting characters only this fall.

As far as minority leading ladies go, I can’t wait to see Lucy Liu rockin’ it out in “Elementary,” Kristen Kreuk in “Beauty and the Beast,” and Mindy Kaling looks HILARIOUS in “The Mindy Project.”

Now, in the middle of me contemplating minorities in Hollywood, specifically the Asian American experience, little did I know that the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival was happening in my neighborhood.  Like I said before, I have not been really “plugged in” to the Asian American community so this totally would have slipped past me, but thankfully I read Lynn Chen’s fantastic blog “The Actor’s Diet.”  She talks often about the projects she works on and I started reading about the films she had in the festival and started checking out the trailers and the people who worked on those projects.  And holy crap was there some incredible talent at that festival!  I was introduced to the amazingness of H.P. Mendoza whose films “I Am A Ghost” and “Yes, We’re Open” both won him awards.  And then there is the rad musician Goh Nakamura who stars with Lynn Chen in “Surrogate Valentine.” Heads up, the song he wrote of the same name is absolutely beautiful.

I am in awe of these awesome talents and it made me realize that while the Asian American community might not be represented enough in the top tiers of Hollywood, we are rockin’ the indie film scene in a major way.  And not only that, but we are also kicking ass online.  ”Uploaded: The Asian American Movement” is a documentary that I can’t wait to see talking all about “the visibility of Asian Americans in pop culture since the inception of new media such as YouTube.”

All in all, I am feeling incredibly encouraged about the future for minorities in Hollywood.  I think with each year that goes by there will be more leading roles played by people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and more and more minority directors, writers, and producers will emerge with strong voices that traditional Hollywood will have to listen to because the scales will have tipped.

We still have a long way to go, but I am pretty sure that 2012 is the year that we make some pretty big strides, and I am proud to be a part of that change.  Because, yes, I am Asian.  I am a minority. And to Hollywood, I am also ethnically ambiguous.

So, even with things slowly getting better and more ethnic diversity coming on to our screens, why the heck is it still taking so long for minorities to be properly represented?    In order for this to happen, we need to have more minorities writing, directing, and producing the films and shows that we watch.   So how do we make this happen?

Tweet me, email me, comment below.

Xoxoxo helenna 


Helenna Santos

About Helenna Santos

Helenna Santos is the Founder of “Ms. In The Biz” and a producer, writer, and actor with Mighty Pharaoh Films. She can often be found on panels and appearances at conventions such as San Diego “Comic-Con”, and has been interviewed by major press outlets including CNN and FOX News. ​Her work as a contributing writer has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine, Backstage Magazine, and IndieWire, and she co-authored the book "Thriving in Hollywood! Tenacious Tales and Tactics from Ms. In The Biz". She is currently in post-production on 2 feature films that she produced and stars in, the adventure/thriller "At Your Own Risk" and the sci-fi/thriller "RESOUND".

  • malia

    I couldn’t agree more!

    • It’s interesting to see how diversity has since played a role in shows since I originally wrote this post in May 2012. I’m feeling more and more encouraged. I just hope that Fall 2013 keeps moving in the same positive direction 😉

  • What’s always given me trouble is that what Hollywood considers “Asian” or “Latina” is more limited than what those things actually are in life. For example, no one casts Alexis Bledel as Latina even though she grew up in Argentina, speaks fluent Spanish, and loves Juanez. Because, clearly, Latino/as are Brown. And. That’s. It. 🙂 I hope that changes, too. Because even within each minority group, there’s even MORE diversity! But…one thing at a time, I guess.

    And now, I’d love to shout-out one of my favorite Asians on one of my favorite TV shows right now – Filipino, Reggie Lee as Sargent Wu on NBC’s Grimm! 🙂 He wowed me from the pilot when he stood out delivering, like, THREE lines. Since then, he’s been a major part of storylines, and steals every scene he’s in. Love. 🙂

    • Ms. In The Biz

      great point about Alexis Bledel. Hollywood definitely is limited that real life. Here’s to MORE diversity indeed! oxo

  • Musme

    I recently read an interview (years old, btw) with Alexis Bledel and American Ferrera. America mentioned how she would love to do more than just Latin roles, and Alexis mentioned how she would love to do a Latina role. As Teresa mentioned earlier, within minorities there is even more diversity… and Hollywood cannot wrap its head around that.

    • I agree. I think with each year it’s getting better and better, but there is still so much farther to go.

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