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    Logic or Intuition

    michelleJames Chen, the American born Chinese star of fashion-set romance Front Cover, is looking effortlessly arty, dressed in jeans, boots, and a long sleeve black shirt as he waits for an early morning flight to New York at LAX.

    In the film, Chen plays Ning, a proud Chinese actor who arrives in New York to promote his new film, which is expected to make him a breakout star. Ning meets with Ryan (Jake Choi), an openly gay fashion stylist, who will help craft his image for American audiences. Of course, the pair come into conflict before coming together.

    “As Ryan and Ning develop trust, they have more professional anxiety and obstacles in their careers, so they need to lean on each other,” Chen explained over Skype.

    In one of the film’s key scenes, Ryan dresses Ning in silk pajamas for a photo shoot to show how sexy Asian men can be. The scene is notable not just because Ryan—who rejects Asian men and his Chinese heritage—finds the shirtless Ning attractive, but also because some racist comments by the crew on the shoot prompt Ryan and Ning to bond.

    “I am proud of that scene because it addresses an Asian, masculine image,” Chen says, admitting he did extra crunches to work on his abs for the shoot. “I think we need more! [Laughs].”

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    The actor relishes playing an Asian man who is neither a computer geek nor a gangster, but a three-dimensional character–even if it means being that rare Asian man who is objectified as a sex symbol.

    What the actor does not want to play is a stereotypical Asian character. “I’ve never been in a situation as awful or racist as the scene in Front Cover. No job is worth your dignity in that respect. Actors have the power of saying no.”

    He continues, “Being an actor, I identify with and empathize and sympathize with actors getting work. It’s hard to be judgmental of actors taking stereotype roles. If anyone does this role, let it be me, so I can bring as much dimension to the writing as possible.”

    A recent New York Times Sunday arts cover story addressed the lack of Asian visibility in Hollywood. Hashtags, such as #whitewashedout, #starringjohncho and #myyellowfacestory, have raised the point on social media.

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    Chen acknowledges the challenges of being an Asian actor: “I’ve been in the game, and it’s been rewarding, but it’s hard–I won’t lie to you. But what it has done is inspired an activism I didn’t know I had. Most people don’t know that they have activist bones in them until they become marginalized and fight for equality. Every minority has its struggle.”

    He cites Daniel Dae Kim, Constance Wu, and the openly gay George Takai as actors becoming more vocal about Asian American diversity in Hollywood, stating, “We haven’t had a critical mass of performers in the industry.”

    With his exposure in Front Cover, hopefully Chen will change that.