In an era when diversity in Hollywood is at the forefront of many people’s minds, an Asian American superhero seems a no-brainer. Yet actors of Asian descent still often struggle to find meaty lead roles. That dilemma is at the heart of Paul Yen’s indie one-man play, SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS — which reimagines Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man to examine the history of Asians in America and Yen’s own struggle with identity in the film industry. Yen shared with RECURSOR about the show’s inspiration, why Batman could easily be Asian American, and how stories featuring diverse characters can still be universal.
RECURSOR: Tell us where the idea for SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS came from.
YEN: The idea came around the time that the movie THE LAST AIRBENDER was in production. It was based on a cartoon about mainly Asian and Inuit characters, and I naively thought, “Cool, maybe I’ll get a chance to audition for it.” They ended up casting all the lead roles as Caucasian actors. Immediately I thought, if we can’t even play Asian characters, I’ll never get to play Batman, Superman, or Spiderman. The only way to do that is if I write something for myself. SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS came from that moment.
In CRISIS, you imagine what it would be like if Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man were of Asian descent. And you tie in Bruce Lee, who also ran into the challenge of limited roles for Asian Americans. Tell us how Bruce Lee plays into your show’s story.
YEN: I thought, if I were to be Batman, how would that work? Why would he be Asian? What if his name was Bruce Wang, and he was Chinese American? What if his father was prominent in the Chinese American community and was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and named his first and only son after Bruce Lee?
As I did research, I was able to connect certain things about Bruce Lee to the Batman story. For instance, Lee played Kato in THE GREEN HORNET. So, Bruce Wang and his father watch THE GREEN HORNET together, but young Bruce doesn’t want to accept what his father tells him to watch. He wants to watch American things, American cartoons. One day, his dad surprises him with a movie screening, and Bruce rushes out of the theater and the father gets killed. In that moment, Bruce realizes that because he rejected his own culture and what his dad was trying to show him about Chinese American culture, his parents were killed.
From that moment, he becomes obsessed with Bruce Lee, and he starts to learn jeet kune do. And of course, Kato and the Green Hornet are masked vigilantes, so that’s how Bruce Wang creates his Batman, in honor of his dad.
There are so many versions of Batman on screen — but an Asian American perspective on the character is refreshing. Was that your goal?
I may not have known it when I was creating the show, but over time, I realized at least for myself that it was refreshing because as much as I enjoyed Christian Bale’s Batman, Michael Keaton’s and Ben Affleck’s, how many times can you see the Batman story retold over and over and over again played by a Caucasian actor? Putting this spin on it made it really refreshing and new for me. And it renewed my excitement about superheroes, especially nowadays that there are so many superhero movies being pumped out.
How did you get involved in performing CRISIS at the Hollywood Fringe Festival?
I’d been working on this play for a long time, and I thought I had something really special. So I started to reach out to people who are writers, because I’m not and I still don’t consider myself a writer yet. I teamed with a writer named Jessica, who said, “Do you think you’d want to put your show up for the Hollywood Fringe? I think it would be great for it.” I wound up getting one of ten diversity scholarships awarded out of 250-300 submissions.
What was the reception for CRISIS like when you performed it at Fringe?
I think the reception was pretty overwhelmingly positive. Aside from the opening show or the preview, we sold out every show. The show received the producer’s encore award for two more shows, and those sold out too.
How did the audience respond to an ethnically diverse superhero-based story?
I had people who came up to me who were Jewish, who said, “I know we’re not Asian American, but when I came over from Israel, I went through the same thing you went through. I didn’t have friends, or I didn’t feel like I was a part of the cool kids at my school. I felt like an outsider.” I had people who came up who were white and said, “This show really made me think back on the jokes that I made in jest at my Asian friends.” People who were Asian said, “Thank you for doing this. It’s so refreshing to see an Asian hero or to see Batman or Superman in this new light.”
For me, it really enforces the idea that our stories are interchangeable, they’re relatable, they’re universal.
What are your future plans?
Originally when I created the show, I always wanted to tour it. I want to bring it to New York; that’s a dream of mine. I also want to tour on college campuses with the show to help inspire young Asian Americans to say we are more than just doctors and lawyers and mathematicians. We can also be heroes. So, I’m seeing how I can tour it as well as expand it to be on a bigger stage.
Why is it important to have more Asian American representation in films, TV and stage plays?
There’s such a huge amount of stories out there from so many different cultures and backgrounds, especially Asian Americans. When you tell those stories, not only does it enrich America as a society — because it reinforces the idea that America was built by immigrants of all sorts of different cultures — but it also brings people together. People say, you know what? Asian Americans aren’t so different from us. They are relatable to us, and their stories are universal.
And why is it valuable to foster independent work, like the play you’ve created?
Because you get new stories! When you hear from one perspective, one culture only, you’re going to get the same stories. But when ethnic people create indie stories, you get not only a new perspective. It also shows that we can work outside of the system. We don’t need to work inside the system anymore. And if you have the courage to do that, it expands the talent pool, and creativity too. The indie scene allows different voices to expand on the sci-fi world.
SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS will be back for a one-day show in January at the White Fire Theater in Sherman Oaks, CA. To stay up to date with Yen’s future plans, follow his page on Facebook.
Paul Yen is a Los Angeles-based actor who has built a diverse array of roles on a variety of platforms. Most recently, he received the Hollywood Fringe Scholarship to premiere his one-man show, Secret Identity Crisis, which uses American history to reimagine the origin stories of three iconic superheroes as Asian American men. The sold out show received the Producers’ Encore Award and Pick of the Fringe. Other stage roles also include a former boxer haunted by his past in FUBAR and a naive adolescent with a crush on his mentor in Habitat (Latino Theater Company). On television, he’s played a detective in Amazon’s Bosch, an assassin on CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles, a military captain on TNT’s The Last Ship, and had appearances on HBO’s Silicon Valley and NBC’s Marry Me. Paul has appeared in independent films as an ex-gangster-turned-entrepreneur in One Hour Fantasy Girl, a computer programmer in Nightmare Code, and a young gay man in love with his straight friend in Midnights with Adam (Los Angeles Asian Film Festival). His commercial work includes Fitbit and a fun national spot for Verizon with Edward Norton.