A Conversation with Keiko Agena
In the first decade of the millennium, there were only a handful of (East) Asian Americans in mainstream media who regularly represented Asian women. Sure, there were the random side characters portraying the usual stereotypes; Pick your two-dimensional poison: masseuse, sex worker, nail salon tech or even that one time we had a kung fu kickass like Lucy Liu in movie blockbuster Charlie’s Angels. In this desert of representation was Japanese American actor Keiko Agena who played Lane Kim, the young Korean American best friend of Rory Gilmore on the WB/CW television show Gilmore Girls. Over the course of seven seasons, we learned about Lane’s quirky hobbies and the stresses of being the “good daughter” in a strict Christian, Korean immigrant family. She wasn’t just a caricature but a rare “well-rounded” character who had time to breathe and evolve during the long run of this popular network television show.
It has been nearly a decade since the final cup of coffee was poured in Stars Hollow and Keiko Agena has continued her steady and successful career as a Hollywood actress. Recently, the Thanksgiving release of the Gilmore Girls mini-series Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life on Netflix has also revived interest in Keiko’s character and how far we’ve come as Asian Americans in media.
In December, I sat down with my dear friend and collaborator Keiko Agena, to debrief this latest Gilmore Girls mini-series madness and what it’s like to be an Asian American actor and comedian in today’s media landscape. Feel free to imagine this conversation punctuated with lots of giggles and cackles of love and delight.
Jenny Yang: Keiko, first thank you so much for sitting down with me. This is fun for me because I feel like we get to chat more formally about the stuff that we would typically talk about anyway because we are in a community together–
Keiko Agena: Yes, and we are supportive of each other as artists, I feel.
JY: We are.
KA: We totally are.
JY: You’re a big supporter of mine.
KA: I would say with many exclamation points and stars that we do that for each other.
JY: Aw, thank you. So I think what interests me and Stage & Candor readers about you… Okay, we just have to talk about Gilmore Girls first.
KA: Okay, yes!
JY: Can I just say, day after Thanksgiving, when Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life dropped, my ass was at home watching the whole damn thing, all day.
KA: Did you really?! All six hours?
JY: I saw all six hours, and it felt good. I don’t know if you remember this, but I feel like people who grew up on 80’s and 90’s sitcoms, whenever they do a reunion show, they always would give you what you liked, right? They give you what you wanted. Do you remember those reunion shows?
KA: Yes, yes, yes!
JY: Whoever would write it made sure of that.
KA: Someone became a princess, someone became the editor of Time magazine…
JY: They gave you what you liked, and I think that – definitely spoiler alerts ahead–
KA: Stop reading here if you don’t want any spoilers.
[Editor’s note: The Gilmore Girls section of this conversation will be in grey.]
JY: Skip ahead to where we don’t talk about Gilmore Girls anymore. But I feel that as a 60-70% Gilmore Girls fan, that even I got the itch scratched for all that I needed.
JY: Number one, not enough Keiko.
KA: Not enough Keiko! More Keiko!
JY: Not enough Lane Kim.
KA: #MoreLaneKim is very lame. Don’t do that.
JY: We don’t say ‘lame’ anymore, Keiko.
KA: Oh, sorry.
JY: It’s okay. I just reprimand. But yeah, it’s not cool. But I think #MoreLaneKim is good.
KA: Let’s Donald Trump this hashtag. What is the most direct and simple–
JY: As Donald Trump would tweet, “Gilmore Girls. It was good. But not enough Lane Kim. Sad. #MoreLaneKim”
KA: Exactly. To the point.
JY: But anyway. It did scratch that itch of it opened with a meta joke about talking really fast and a lot, and crazy commentary, and pop culture references. Then we got into seeing what their lives are all like – all the cameos, all the different men in their life, and where they’re at.
KA: They got a lot into those six hours. You pretty much saw or heard about every character that you knew about in the original seven seasons – which is an accomplishment – and introduced you to a few new main characters as well. I don’t know that there’s a stone left unturned.
JY: Yes. I feel the only thing that I was a little surprised by but definitely loved, was the fact that Rory Gilmore didn’t have her shit together.
KA: No. And it got worse as the episodes went on. She really hit a low. You saw her fall apart. All of the things that she was counting on slipped away, and you’re really going with her on this journey downward. It’s heart-achy.
JY: Thirty-two and not super together with her career goals–
KA: And her relationship goals–
JY: –and her relationship goals. Not that I know what that’s like.
KA: Are we veering off?! Are we tangent-ing? How personal are we going to get?!
JY: No, no, not personal.
KA: Follow Jenny and I on our new show as we talk about personal things. We are going to create it right after this interview.
JY: Anyway. That kind of intrigued me because of course it made it more interesting. There was a sense, watching the show before, that Oh okay, miss ‘I got into Yale, I’m so smart’, maybe she’d have her shit together. But knowing a bunch of these overachieving people – maybe myself as one – I know for a fact that after you go through college, and you’re an overachiever, real life happens, and it’s not perfect. You no longer have this structured world. I feel it’s almost like it’s a stereotypical overachiever Asian American story. Maybe at 32 you’re not going to have everything you’re supposed to have.
KA: Yes, not all the boxes are checked off. Especially if you go for the primary thing that you want, which she did – she wanted to be a journalist and a writer – and she’s going for it, and this is that time in her life where… It’s not that she’s been unsuccessful, because she has had success, but that’s not the end of the story. It’s not that you can just check that box and say, Okay, career success, let me sail into my 70s. That’s not the creative life and I think maybe people who read Stage & Candor know that. I have yet to meet a creative person where that is their journey. No artist I know found exactly what they wanted to do at 23, and rode that train safely–
KA: Yes, uphill to greater and greater success.
JY: It’s not a linear process.
KA: It’s not.
JY: Totally, which is why we’re supportive of each other!
KA: It takes a village.
JY: It does. So how do you feel about being back in the Gilmore Girls revival? What was it like for you?
KA: You know what’s funny is, besides feeling like slipping into comfortable shoes, or something that’s fun, is that seeing it as an audience member really made me appreciate what we were just talking about. The people that were kids when we first met them – Paris, Lane, Rory – they’re all of a certain age, and their lives aren’t perfect, and they still have a lot of stuff to work out. I think when I was originally filming it, I was so focused on where Lane was that I thought, Oh it’s only Lane that doesn’t have her perfect dream life. Now, watching the series, in the greatest way possible, I think we feel the angst and the struggle and the ambition of all of those 30-something gang of people, where we have some successes but there’s still a lot to discover and a far way yet to go.
JY: Yeah, as if turning 30 is this magic number where everything is figured out.
KA: It’s not now, and I don’t know that it ever was in the past, or if that’s just the fairytale that previous stories have taught us.
JY: Right. So it was very gratifying, with lots of jokes and references and dialogue packed in there.
KA: Did you enjoy that? I know that I loved all that fun stuff that only happens in Gilmore World.
JY: Yes! I loved reading on my Facebook feed, where a comedy writer friend of mine who was confessing on a status update, Already got through my first viewing of Gilmore Girls revival. Getting started on episode one again. Same day.
JY: I know. Day after Thanksgiving. She was so happy.
KA: There’s a lot packed in there.
JY: There is. I feel like it’s like fine art. You see something new probably with every viewing. But #MoreLaneKim.
KA: I like that they won’t get to hear our laughing. Wow, Keiko is really uppity! That’s all she talks about! #MoreLaneKim!
JY: Chuckle chuckle chuckle. When did the final season end?
JY: [gasp] That’s like nine years ago. Almost ten years ago.
KA: Yeah. So a lot has happened.
JY: So for you, what have you seen in terms of changes as an Asian American actor in that time in terms of the industry?
KA: I feel that last year, especially, was such a high tide year. We were talking about it when we were doing the fundraiser for Angry Asian Man where we were talking about Wow, if we were to choose what our favorite scene was that an Asian person was in on television for the last year in America, we’d have so much to choose from.
JY: Much more.
KA: Way more than you would five years ago. Five years ago, you’d have to really search your brain for any scene that you could remember that an Asian person was in that was your favorite. I feel like now, there are so many shows that are out now, and there’s a lot to celebrate. Again, there’s a far, far way to go, but I think the content and the quality that is coming out is something to be supported and celebrated.
JY: Yes. Seven years ago, if we asked the question, What are your favorite characters and scenes up until that point? It would be maybe a Lane Kim reference, maybe Margaret Cho, maybe Lucy Liu, and maybe Brenda Song.
KA: As you know very well, 2016 has been a crazy year with whitewashing feeling like it’s making a resurgence of some kind, which is challenging to come up against.
JY: I feel like it happened in 2016 because it’s been an increasing drumbeat of Hollywood wanting to be like, Oh, we’ve got to make Asian stuff so that China will want it, so let’s maybe start making more Asian stuff. But it’s also the drumbeat of, We have these other ‘diverse’ properties like the Marvel and DC world, let’s just also bring that up. So they’re deciding they just can’t bear to take a risk on non-white talent, not even have us play Asian characters. They do these crazy mental jiujitsu public gymnastics around justifying why the whitest actors are playing the Asian characters.
JY: It’s almost a joke to me that the palest, porcelain, transparent actors are chosen, right? Emma Stone is translucent. Benedict Cumberbatch?! It’s like the whitest… It’s not even like Italians, you know?
KA: Maybe it’s the love of the geisha.
JY: The paleness? The pale Asian?
JY: In the right light, Scarlett Johansson’s European roots will look kind of pale and Asian.
KA: It’s tough, man.
JY: Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Stone: they all have the most pale ethnic heritage.
KA: Yes, I think it’s true.
JY: And then there’s Matt Damon, but he played a white person that’s saving China.
KA: Yes, and that’ll probably do well, too.
JY: So I feel that’s kind of upsetting that China is also down for it. I feel like they got brainwashed. The world got brainwashed to want white people as heroes.
KA: I feel like I’m part of that generation too of being brainwashed a little. You think it’s natural and then one day, you go, Is it? What would it be like to have a different option? I look at that trailer for “Ghost in the Shell”, and – first of all, I love Scarlett Johansson, I think she’s incredibly talented and she does play that type of character very well.
JY: You mean slightly robotic and a little flat?
KA: I know you said it as a joke, but yeah, kind of! It’s funny because that’s actually a very tough thing to play – to still be human, and still create empathy, but be dead inside. Anyway, as I’m watching, I cringe and clench a little because it’s so Asian-stylized, and there are just a few people that pop up in Asian dress that it’s uncomfortable to watch. But the second or third time I watched it, I thought, What would it have been like to see a fresh Asian face in that role? It would’ve been incredible. It absolutely would have been star making material, because it’s so incredible. I guess that’s the whole point though, that they don’t feel like it’s bankable – but I don’t think this is bankable the way it has been done.
JY: The trailer shows oriental things as only costume and backdrop.
KA: Someone already wrote this, but all the bad guys get to be Asian, and that’s been true in other movies too.
JY: Since the 80’s films.
KA: Yes. You can have the people that actually know kung-fu and different martial arts, the bad guys, be actual Asian people, and that’s acceptable.
JY: So you came up during a time where you were probably a part of seeing the default as this is how it works. It’s white people who are the ones that are chosen to lead. How has that shifted for you, or not?
KA: I guess it has shifted, little bits over time. I do know when I was a kid, I didn’t think about Asian people because there were none. But I was a huge consumer of media, and I related to all of the white characters, and I emotionally invested in them. So I didn’t feel at that time that I was cheated, but maybe that’s because I didn’t know what I was missing. When you actually do see someone that’s Asian, there’s a different level of excitement that comes with that, that I didn’t even know was an option, I suppose.
KA: It’s like living on skim milk ice-cream and being satisfied. When you have a taste of full fat ice-cream, you’re like, Dammit, I want more! Give me more Constance Wu! Give me more! Then for some reason, you’re not satisfied anymore.
JY: I think that’s a good analogy. If you think there’s only skim milk ice-cream…
KA: Damn, this is alright!
JY: Oh it’s sweet, and kind of creamy. It’s ice-cream!
KA: This is what ice-cream is!
JY: Oh, I like that. Do you ever feel like now, especially with the rise of social media, and the ability for us to basically protest something that’s not good, how different that feels? You’re basically a Generation X-er, and now Millennials are like, Oh what the fuck, this isn’t good.
KA: I think without social media, there are pockets of people that would have this opinion, but there wasn’t a way for you to know that a thousand miles away, there’s another pocket of people that have the same opinion. Asian Americans are concentrated in some big cities, but we’re also spread out all across the United States. So having this platform where people can come and show themselves – we have a voice in this way that has been very productive. In a lot of ways, niche groups have used social media to be very dangerous also, but I think in this way, for the Asian-American community, it’s been extremely helpful.
JY: And therefore, #MoreLaneKim, #NotDangerous.
KA: Now, let me ask you, how do you feel as someone who has switched – because I think this is very interesting viewpoint – from a completely different career where you were seriously involved, into now having become an artist and producer full-time? What are the changes that have happened for you in the past five or six years? How do you think it’s coincided with how the country has been changing?
JY: Oh god, that’s a big question. So I used to work in politics, where creativity was very limited. I didn’t start pursuing entertainment in my early 20s like a lot of folks I meet in LA, so I feel like I had the benefit of work experience and some maturity, but I personally could not have the kind of career I have just five years in, now, if I had started in my early 20s, because of social media.
KA: The timing was right for you.
JY: The timing was right for me – oh, I’m reliving my early 20s, girl.
KA: You’re not in your early 20s?!
JY: It’s a completely new terrain. I’m able to have my career because I decided to do a very old school craft of stand-up comedy, where it’s just you and an audience. That’s the core of what I do, but I’ve been able to grow an audience and get work because of new media. Honestly, if I wasn’t on the ground floor of when Buzzfeed Video started… I mean, that’s when they started, three or four years ago. It doesn’t sound like that long ago–
KA: But so much has changed in that time.
JY: Yes, so much has changed in three or four years. If I wasn’t there, knowing one of the original director/producers who comprised of this new BuzzFeed Video unit, I don’t know if I could’ve had the career I’ve had already in just the last two or three years, simply because I was a part of that process of figuring out what made a viral video. I feel like I’m a part of that history.
KA: That’s also half of where I see the success of your career, too, because you’re a very proactive go-getter/producer person.
JY: Right – touring, events, and shows.
KA: I think it’s an interesting point to say that from an outsider’s point of view – knowing you for a long time – I can see all of the experience that you have gained through the work that you’d done previously of knowing how to organize people, knowing how to set up an event, learning all of that on the job, training, and being very proficient at that… All of that translates now into a new goal and a new dream. That life experience isn’t lost, it just gets funneled into your new creative endeavor. Sometime what maybe would’ve taken 10 years previously, now the time is even quicker because you have an engine of knowledge that’s pushing you forward.
JY: Damn. That’s a good summary of my professional life.
KA: It’s true though.
JY: Yes, all the skills I learned while working, I have been using to build my career now. It makes me hit the ground running a lot more. I have all these business skills because I know about resumes, I know about business communication, I know how to negotiate contracts, because that’s what I used to do. I know how to run meetings, I know how to run large scale events for people, and produce things.
JY: One of my first jobs was in communications. I was being trained to write a press release, or know how to pitch to a reporter. All of these skills I learned in politics like organizing campaigns and being a part of that all applies to leadership skills, and business skills for being an entrepreneur, essentially.
KA: Right. One of the last big things that we worked on together was the Comedy Comedy Festival. How many people were a part of that team and that were volunteering? You had a leadership circle that was how many people?
JY: We had about 15 people on the leadership team that took big chunks of what the work needed to be.
KA: Right. Then with volunteers–
JY: That was another 20.
KA: And that’s not even counting performers.
JY: 150 performers.
KA: So there was a lot happening.
JY: Right, and I was able to do that because that was stuff that I did in my previous career. I feel very fortunate that not every stand-up comedian is able to do something like that. I feel very grateful that people feel grateful that such a thing exists. It has helped my career – me personally – but I think what’s tough is balancing external energy like producing things versus, Oh yeah, I need to be writing and creating new material. I think that’s a struggle.
JY: But going back to you.
KA: We will get back to me, but one thing I do want to say is that that is also a great thing that has happened in the last couple years, where there is the Comedy Comedy Festival that you put on, which is a place for Asian Americans to come and perform, and it’s important for us to have a place with that much support and that many people involved to make it great. Even Will Choi, who is starting to do this stuff over at UCB, is starting to put together shows that have an Asia focus. I feel like this is also a new thing that’s starting to happen right now, where maybe five years down the line we’ll look at this year and be like, Wow, can you believe that this last couple of years, the seed of us all coming together and doing these shows have built into something else? Who knows where that goes.
JY: I hope so. When people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, host, producer,” but I really do still think of myself as an organizer, cause that’s what I did for politics. I just apply that same perspective to organizing my career and organizing like-minded people. I see myself as organizing Asian-American audiences and creatives. We have to, or else we’re missing out on opportunities to collaborate and strengthen each other if we don’t get to know each other and build these relationships. I’m super proud about that.
KA: You should be super proud.
JY: I’m super proud of Comedy Comedy Fest. Will Choi gets complete credit for creating these really successful shows at Upright Citizens Brigade, and really expanding the Asian-American presence at UCB. I personally also feel that it’s part of this greater movement of all of us through Comedy Comedy Fest, or even Tuesday Night Cafe, if we want to go back to that institution in LA of Asian American Artists – that’s where you and I met.
JY: I feel like it’s up to us to keep really solid institutions like Tuesday Night going, but also to build on that, and to adapt to current needs. Let’s get all Asian-American people doing comedy together, and include YouTubers, live performers, up-and-comers, as well as veterans.
JY: I feel good about that, that we’re a part of that, you know?
KA: Uh huh, I think so.
JY: High-five. [They do.]
KA: Final thoughts?
JY: I feel like a lot of the drum beat and the message that everyone has been saying is, We have to tell our own stories.
KA: Yes, absolutely. We have to create our own stories, right?
JY: And we’re not the first ones to say that.
JY: How has that call to create or tell our own stories evolved for you, in terms of your work?
JY: For example, I know that you had taken a stab at improv, and it wasn’t a super positive experience necessarily, and then you came back to it, and now you’re an improv beast. You’re an addict! You’re in it, and you love it.
KA: Absolutely, for sure.
JY: I know that you write, you draw, all this stuff. So that idea of creating your own material and telling your own stories, how has that call operated in your career?
KA: I have a podcast called “Drunk Monk,” where the shell of it is where we get drunk and we watch Monk and we talk about it, which is a fun starting point, but really, we go into a lot of tangents. What’s fun about that podcast is that we didn’t intend it, but we’re two Asian people – me and Will Choi, who we mentioned earlier – so we have our point of view, which is an Asian-American point of view by the mere fact that we’re Asian Americans. It’s something that comes up every once in awhile, but I think even if you weren’t coming to it for that perspective, it’s just part of what it is, which is something that I like about it. We also get very personal and we share a lot of personal stories over the course of it. I find that really fulfilling, because that structure is something that we create on our own, and it could be whatever we wanted, and so it is exactly what we wanted. In that way, it’s completely fulfilling because you’re not answering to anybody.
KA: The other thing about creating through improv is that part of the reason why I think improv is a draw – especially for people of color – is because you can play family members to anyone that’s on stage. It might sound silly, but it’s not really silly if you think about the fact that I can’t go in and audition for a family member for 90% of the roles out there. I’m not going to match that person as a family member. The freedom of being able to play any type of role that I can think of and not have to be constrained by the fact that I am a 43-year-old Asian woman is freeing in a way that almost feels at this point necessary to my creativity as an artistic person. It’s not something that necessarily gets fulfilled in other areas of my career at this point.
JY: Because you’re at the mercy of the character descriptions that you get sent for auditions.
KA: Yup, uh huh.
JY: Asian. Thirties. Blah blah blah, you know?
KA: Yes. I really do appreciate that a lot of them, especially recently, are written as open ethnicity. I appreciate that. That’s most of what I go out for, or a mix of that. The good and the bad of that is, almost everything is written now as open ethnicity, which is great, but, the other side of that is that the two leads have already been cast, and they’re white. That’s the ‘norm.’
KA: So they’re open to all ethnicities, except for the leads.
JY: We’re working on that, Keiko.
KA: We’re working on that.
Keiko Agena is best known for the TV show, GILMORE GIRLS, where she played LANE KIM for seven seasons. As a guest star she has appeared on such shows as SHAMELESS, SCANDAL, TWISTED, HOUSE, ER and WITHOUT A TRACE, and got to work with Frances McDormand on the film TRANSFORMERS DARK OF THE MOON. Besides iO she has also trained with Dave Razowsky, at the Groundlings and UCB and her band FLYING PLATFORMS has a monthly residency (first Fridays) at the Grandstar Jazz Club in downtown LA. Plus (believe it or not) Keiko was once featured in PEOPLE MAGAZINE’S 100 MOST BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE ISSUE, in the “they play meek and geeky, but off screen they shine” section, with America Ferrera, Jenna Fischer and Mary Lynn Rajskub!