“Maybe my job on this planet is to make the Asian accent sexy," says Jimmy O. Yang. The comedian and actor, 29, takes this role seriously.
Yang is best known for his role as the intern Jian Yang on Silicon Valley, and he’ll soon be introduced to a wider audience as Dun “Danny” Meng in the Boston Marathon bombing movie Patriots Day. Both characters have thick Chinese accents, though off-screen Yang, who immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong when he was 13, does not.
“When a Spanish actor does an accent, that’s sexy. When Peter Sellers did a French accent in Pink Panther, that’s funny—he got nominated for a Golden Globe,” Yang says. “How come whenever an Asian actor does an accent, he’s stereotyping?” To Yang, Danny is as sexy as Jian is as sexy as Tyler, the perfect boyfriend he plays in Life of the Party, a Melissa McCarthy comedy he filmed this year. “The problem is not in the accent itself. It’s the perception of the accent.”
Yang does not fancy himself a crusader, but he’s perfectly aware of the complexities around perception in an industry in which actors of Asian descent are underrepresented. As a kid growing up with an interest in stand-up comedy, the absence of Asian and Asian-American comedians in the mainstream was glaring. He lived and breathed Chappelle Show and latched onto George Lopez. “I was like, if George Lopez can do this for the Latino community," he says, "I think there’s a void in the Asian community.”
But it wasn’t always clear that it was a void Yang himself would endeavor to fill, at least in some small way. At the University of California, San Diego, he studied management science, which he describes as “one of those safer majors that my very Asian parents would think was legit.” He took theater classes and got pretty good at making beats, but he didn’t see the arts as a viable career path. When Mike Judge gave the commencement speech at Yang’s graduation in 2009, recalling how much he loathed his physics major before eventually turning to comedy, Yang felt like a one-man audience to a guy singing his tune. Five years later, Judge would be Yang’s boss, as the co-creator of Silicon Valley.
The path to Yang’s guest spot on the HBO show—which would eventually lead to a recurring role—was paved with a lot of meagerly paid open-mic nights. Yang moved north to Los Angeles with a couple thousand dollars in his bank account and got himself an agent to book college gigs. Though he was just scraping by, he had finally found a community in which the feeling of being an outsider, which he’d felt since arriving on U.S. soil in the eighth grade, was an asset. “The great thing about the comedy world is that everybody is somewhat of an outsider. That’s the community where outsiders feel like they’re insiders.”
Three seasons into Silicon Valley, Patriots Day marks Yang’s most substantial foray into dramatic work and his first feature film. Yang plays Dun Meng, who goes by Danny, a Chinese student whose car was hijacked, with him in it, by Tamerlan and Dzhohkar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers, as they attempted to flee the city on April 18, 2013.
“He’s a real-life hero, honestly,” Yang says of Meng. “My job was just to make it authentic and make the story come to light about how heroic an everyday person could be—an immigrant. I really relate to that.” Meng made himself available to Yang as the actor prepared for the role. When Meng mentioned an aspect of his story that hadn’t made it into the script, Yang would bring it to director Peter Berg and advocate for its inclusion, a collaboration that resulted in one of the most emotional moments in the film.
After Tamerlan (played by Themo Melikidze) gets into Meng’s car and cocks a gun to his head, he asks Meng a seemingly simple question: “Is there anyone that cares about you here?” “It’s a mental chess game,” explains Yang. If Meng says yes, Tamerlan might worry that someone is going to notice his absence and alert the authorities. When Meng responds, “No, there’s nobody who cares about me,” Yang explains, “The line sounds really sad—he’s this immigrant kid, he has no family here—but what he really was trying to do is survive.”
To see an immigrant portrayed as an everyday hero—Meng’s bravery ultimately led to the arrest of both suspects—is no small thing given the anti-immigrant sentiment that animated much of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Visibility for the underrepresented is as critical as ever. Which gets back to that accent, and the ongoing conversation about the perks and pitfalls of assuming one (of any kind) for a role. Some actors, including Aziz Ansari, have begun to refuse to do. “I know a lot of Asian actors that won’t even audition for a role when there’s an accent,” says Yang. “Maybe it’s that American-born Asians have a different perspective on it, but me being an immigrant, I came to America, I couldn’t really speak English when I was 13, so this is very close to me. This is all real people.”
Amid conversations about the whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood, Yang says he takes things role by role. He’s grateful for the work of organizations like the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), which fight for more representation while he focuses on turning out his best work. “My job is to go into that audition and be good enough of an Asian actor—or an actor in general—to land that role so they don’t have to go out and hire a white guy. My job is to make sure I capitalize on these opportunities that other people created.”
In Life of the Party, due in 2018, he plays the boyfriend of Melissa McCarthy’s daughter. For Yang, it was a nice change of pace to be cast as a love interest, not to mention one that adds to a short list of fictional relationships between Asian men and white women (see The Walking Dead, The Edge of Seventeen). "It was liberating to play the straight man that’s considered attractive," he says. And, yes, sexy—but no sexier than Danny Meng.