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Netflix’s ‘Partner Track’ star Arden Cho talks sexism and racism in big law

"Maybe if she was a man, maybe if she was not Asian, maybe she would have already been partner," the actress says of her character.
Image: Arden Cho Partner Track
Arden Cho in "Partner Track." Vanessa Clifton / Netflix

Arden Cho knows a thing or two about the challenges with breaking a glass ceiling as an Asian American woman. For most of her acting career, Cho, who rose to fame as the sword-swinging Kira Yukimura on MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” was told that she would never lead her own English-language show.

But in Netflix’s “Partner Track,” Cho does just that. In the new legal drama that premieres Friday, she plays Ingrid Yun, a young woman navigating a turbulent personal life while gunning for her dream job at a prestigious New York City law firm — where she must deal with the all-too-familiar microaggressions that stem from racism and sexism in the workplace.

It’s become a dream role for Cho, who made headlines in February when she passed on the “Teen Wolf” movie revival due to a pay disparity with her white co-stars. Now, Cho, who has “learned the power of saying no” but would prefer to not dwell in the past, wants to use her story to inspire the next generation of Asian American women.

“Even though I’m not a lawyer and I’ve not worked in a corporate setting, I had experienced so many of those moments,” Cho, who had once considered a career in law before becoming an actress, told NBC Asian America. Her character Ingrid is ambitious to a fault “because she doesn’t want to lose [her edge], but she ends up making mistakes that she regrets," Cho said. "It’s so tough because she has so many things against her. Maybe if she was a man, maybe if she was not Asian, maybe she would have already been partner,” she added.

Asians in the U.S. make up 13% of the professional workforce, but only 6% are at the executive level, Pan-Asian research organization Ascend Foundation recently reported, a fact often referred to as a “bamboo ceiling.”

When she first was offered to audition for “Partner Track,” which is based on Helen Wan’s novel of the same name, Cho politely passed on the project, because co-showrunners Georgia Lee and Sarah Goldfinger were looking to cast a Chinese American actress who could speak fluent Mandarin.

It wasn’t until months later that they decided to widen the search to include more Asian Americans — at which point Cho auditioned and fell in love with the “fearless, whip-smart, strong” but beautifully “flawed” protagonist, who is hellbent on ascending to the firm’s upper management despite its lack of racial diversity.

While there are some similarities among the different Asian cultures, Cho, who identifies as Korean American but admits she can sometimes pass as Chinese or Japanese due to her possibly mixed heritage, said that interchanging those cultures — without any research about their different nuances — can be “very problematic” and hurt the way a story is told. In this case, the producers decided to change the character to reflect Cho’s own cultural identity, adding a layer of authenticity to Ingrid’s background.

Image: Arden Cho, Desmond Chiam, Angela Gomez, and NaTasha Yvette Williams
From left, Arden Cho, Desmond Chiam, Angela Gomez, and NaTasha Yvette Williams in "Partner Track."Vanessa Clifton / Netflix

For instance, Cho pointed to a scene in the second episode in which Ingrid celebrates Chuseok, a Korean harvest festival, with her family, and multiple scenes where Ingrid and her mother speak “Konglish,” a mix of Korean and English. “It’s the way that my mom and I talk,” she said with a smile. “We need more Asian Americans to write our stories, to tell our stories, and we just need the world to learn that there are differences [between] being Korean and Korean American.”

After Netflix released the show’s first trailer last month, the cast and producers of “Partner Track” received backlash for seemingly making a strong Asian female lead choose between two white male love interests. While she understands the criticism, Cho thinks “this is just one world that an Asian American woman exists in — it’s not every story,” adding that Ingrid isn’t hypersexualized but rather given the agency to make her own decisions.

Cho revealed she also did months of chemistry reads with Asian actors before producers cast Desmond Chiam as “Z,” Ingrid’s charming, clean-energy client, who exudes all the qualities of a leading man and potential love interest.

“People want all of these Asian American stories to be happening and they want to see more stories — we do, I do — but they also get so angry when it’s not perfect in the way that they want it to be told,” she said.

“I feel like, when there is such a big expectation for every Asian American film or TV show to make everyone happy and to be perfect, you just sort of set them up to fail. But I really believe that we just have to tell great stories and have great projects and create opportunities and platforms for people to have a voice,” Cho added.