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The Lessons Learned and To Be Learned from Darren Criss in ‘Hollywood’

Hollywood, a new miniseries created and executive produced by Ryan Murphy, will be coming to Netflix this Friday. Audiences will both travel back in time to the 1940s and explore an alternative universe where a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers — who’re female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ — break into the business and dismantle the boundaries against them in the process.

It seems appropriate that this miniseries will be debuting at the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Aside from the fact that the show was co-written by mixed race Hawaiian screenwriter Janet Mock, there are also not one but two Asian American characters who navigate the chaotic business of mid-century Hollywood. There is Michelle Krusiec as the OG Asian American actress Anna May Wong and Darren Criss as Raymond Ainsley, a white-passing, mixed race Filipino American upcoming director.

For Criss, who is Filipino on his mom’s side and white on his dad’s side, this is the second role he’s playing where the character shares the same background as him — the first being an award-winning performance as serial killer Andrew Cunanan in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. During the Crime Story press junket, Criss stirred some controversy in an interview for Vulture where he not only said he didn’t identify as Asian American, but also that he thinks it’s nice he looks like a white guy.

As weirdly worded and misguided as some of his comments were, I think it’s fair to say that he’s learned a bit since then. In a recent interview he did for Manila Bulletin, the idea of being white-passing and having part of one’s identity be unrecognized was first presented to him when he took on the role of Cunanan, where his character hid that part of himself out of shame.

In the case of playing Raymond in Hollywood, as he recently explained for Inquirer.net, “I feel the survivor’s guilt more recently than ever. Because you think of a lot of any historically marginalized people. If you have this access card, how do you use it in a way that can be advantageous for the other part of you that represents the marginalized group?”

Playing two different mixed race Filipino American characters appear to have both been learning opportunities for Criss, and my hope is that his character in Hollywood also serves as a learning opportunity for the Asian American community* at large. Speaking as someone who is also mixed race Filipino American and advocates for stories by and about people within the community, the mixed race experience is often overlooked and rarely ever talked about.

When Criss mentioned in the interview for Vulture that he doesn’t identify as Asian American, I don’t think there should have been as much controversy over that particular comment. In accordance with Maria P.P. Root’s Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People, he has the right to identify outside of strangers’ expectations for him.

Criss has been open about his Filipino identity for years, and yet has hardly received the same acceptance and support by the community compared to other Asian American celebrities. It also doesn’t help that Filipino Americans are often an overlooked demographic when it comes to discussions about Asian American representation.

Now that’s not to say he shouldn’t deny the existing privilege his physical appearance brings him, and as discussed earlier, it’s fair to say he has a better awareness for it now. At the same time, for someone who could have easily swept his Filipino identity under the rug if he wanted to, he never did and never will.

To me, it’s all very similar to the sudden interest by the Asian American community in Keanu Reeves last year, despite the fact that his career dates back to the mid-1980s. He too has always been open about his background (so much so that we know him as Keanu, and not another one of the five million Chrises already in Hollywood).

In fact, around the time Always Be My Maybe came out, the Fairy Princess Diaries blog presented a similar argument regarding Reeves, Criss, and other AAPI entertainers that can be best summed up as this: Yes, they’re API. Yes, they did tell you. You’ve just been looking the other way!

Bottom line, there are lessons learned and to be learned as Hollywood goes forward with its release. In the years following his head-scratching comments for Vulture, Criss seems to have a better grasp on understanding the privilege he bears as a white-passing, mixed race Filipino American. With regards to his character in the upcoming miniseries, I hope that Asian American audiences will see this story as one of many of the mixed race experience and recognize Criss as the community member he has always been.

*NOTE: Just to be clear, I wanted to be specific in addressing this to the Asian American community and not the AAPI community.

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