In the third episode of “GLOW,” Netflix’s original series about a group of down-and-out actresses-turned-professional wrestlers, Ellen Wong’s character, Jenny Chey, corrects a white male producer who calls her “oriental.”
“I’m Cambodian,” Jenny says.
For Wong, the two-word line marks a start in Hollywood diversifying its portrayals of Asian characters — something she missed growing up after rarely seeing Asians and seeing even fewer Cambodians on screen.
“I told [my parents], ‘I need to do this for myself, and if you guys get in the way of that, I will end up resenting you. You need to let me have the space to do this without commenting on it, even if it’s something you don’t like.’”
“Being able to say that one line is huge,” Wong told NBC News. “There’s so much more to explore in the Asian identity. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface yet.”
Born in a suburb outside of Toronto, Wong, the eldest of three daughters, was raised by two Cambodian immigrants of Chinese descent who moved to Canada as refugees after escaping the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s.
Growing up, her parents worked on an assembly line. Her dad packed furniture; her mom sewed clothing labels. “It was definitely hard financially,” Wong said.
Things didn’t get easier in school, where Wong felt outcast as the only student who was Cambodian and had parents who were refugees. “A lot of the kids from school would be from Hong Kong or Beijing, so the Chinese dialect they spoke was different than the one I spoke,” Wong said. “I felt out of place because I didn’t fit in anywhere."
Wong eventually found a place in acting, a craft she fell in love with in grade school after growing up watching martial arts movies with her dad and performing French plays in drama class. She knew immediately she wanted to be an actor, but her parents didn’t share the same dream.
“They would say things like, ‘You probably won’t make it. You probably can’t do that. We’re not from a class or the type of family that can afford to go and do that,’” Wong said. “They were also ashamed of failure before failing. They didn’t want me to tell anybody I wanted to be an actor in case I would fail at it.”
So Wong kept her love for acting a secret. She dabbled in other interests, like taekwondo, which she eventually earned a black belt in, she said. It wasn’t until after college — when Wong went on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and visited Cambodia for the first time — that she knew she needed to give acting a shot.
“I thought about how there are so many places where people don’t get to dream,” Wong said. “If I dream and it doesn’t work out, I have other options. I live in a country where I can find another way.”
When she returned, Wong sat her parents down and told them her plan: She would pursue acting full-time, and they couldn’t comment on it for one year.
“I said, ‘If you can’t be supportive of what I want to do, I don’t want you to say anything at all for the next year.’ I gave them a time frame,” Wong said. “I told them, ‘I need to do this for myself and if you guys get in the way of that, I will end up resenting you. You need to let me have the space to do this without commenting on it, even if it’s something you don’t like.’”
Her parents agreed. Soon after, Wong quit her job as television network assistant and began auditioning. That same year, she scored her first major role as Knives Chau, a lovestruck teenager who falls for Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim in 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” It was the role that launched her acting career. But for Wong, the film was sentimental for a different reason.
Still carrying her parents’ disapproval, Wong invited them to set one day to watch her do a fight scene. To be polite, Wong’s parents arrived with a dozen small cakes purchased from a Chinese supermarket to feed the cast and crew, unaware that there were hundreds on set. “They just wanted to show up and bring a treat for everybody,” Wong said.
The surprises continued when Wong’s parents saw her perform a fight sequence in which she flew across a soundstage on wires while wielding knives. “There was a moment where I looked over at my parents, and they were so in awe with where they were,” Wong said. “I still remember the look on their faces. That was a moment I knew they were proud of me without them saying it.”
With the support of her parents, Wong was determined to succeed. But after her first movie, she quickly learned that not all parts would be as nuanced.
“It wasn’t until after the film came out and I started to do press that I realized how big a deal it is to see an Asian character go through this entire arc,” Wong said. “As I continued to audition for things after ‘Scott Pilgrim,’ I felt like I was hit even more with the reality that these type of roles don’t exactly come around often for a minority.”
After years of seeing parts for “hackers” and “nerdy sidekicks,” Wong found her next major role as Jill "Mouse" Chen, Carrie Bradshaw’s pragmatic best friend, on The CW’s “Sex and the City” prequel, “The Carrie Diaries,” which ran from 2013 to 2014. Though the show only lasted two seasons, Wong considered the role — which she said wasn't originally written as Asian — as a huge stride in color-blind casting.
“I was thrilled I could work with a creator who was open to something new,” Wong said. “I hope that we can continue to have more blind casting like that, where they’re not saying, ‘Well, she was written this way, so she has to stay this way.’”
After the show’s cancellation, Wong moved to Los Angeles, where she eventually landed an audition for “GLOW,” a new comedy from “Orange Is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan. In the audition email, Wong was linked to videos from “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” the original 1980s wrestling show “GLOW” was based on. In the videos, women donned outrageous costumes, rapped, and performed over-the-top skits.
Unlike anything she’d ever seen, Wong immediately put together an audition tape in which she slathered on makeup, wore neon shorts over a one-piece bathing suit, and jumped on bleachers to get into her wrestling persona. “It was the most creative audition I ever had,” Wong said.
The theatrics paid off. Soon after, Wong was offered the role of Jenny Chey, an “Asian Valley Girl” who finds herself in the wrestling ring. But the excitement soon turned to fear when Wong saw in the script that her character’s wrestling persona would be named “Fortune Cookie” and that she would have to perform a line in which she said she was “fast like dragon” and “cute like panda.”
“I had this moment where my heart literally fell to the floor,” Wong said. “I didn’t know if this was a stereotype we were making a comment on or if there was no awareness here.”
After running the part by her friends, talking to the show’s writers, and having a discussion with her 13 other co-stars — some of whom also had to play racial stereotypes — Wong came to the conclusion that there was awareness. She reasoned that the depictions were necessary to highlight the still-prevalent stereotyping in entertainment and society.
“What is really awesome about ‘GLOW’ is that we play these two characters. In the ring, you are these stereotypes. But then you see who these characters are in real life outside of the ring and how they feel,” Wong said. “Jenny is trying to be this all-American girl in the ‘80s, and she’s basically trying to fight all these stereotypes and at the same time here she is playing this stereotype. What does that mean?”
Wong’s faith in the show grew when she learned that the creators wrote her character as Cambodian after meeting her. For Wong, the move was huge considering how little she saw Cambodians on screen growing up.
“There was a moment where I looked over at my parents, and they were so in awe with where they were. ... That was a moment I knew they were proud of me without them saying it.”
“Yeah, you’re excited to see an Asian face on screen. But at the same time, their story doesn’t exactly reflect your family’s story. It’s a little bit different, and you still feel a little left out,” Wong said. “I really hope that we continue to talk about the range in Asia. Asia is really huge. There are a lot of countries. It doesn’t mean you’re only from China.”
As for how diversity can improve, Wong believes it’s up to her generation to pursue the dreams and create the stories their parents couldn’t.
“I don’t think my parents could’ve come into a new country and been like, ‘OK, I’m going to change the landscape of what people see on film and T.V.,” Wong said. “But here we are, the next generation, who are either born here or who are young enough to grow up in North America and take a different path. We never got to see ourselves represented on screen. We need to change that. We can change that.”