Peyton Elizabeth Lee remembers her auditions to play the lead on Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” well.
“There were people of all races which really made me a little bit nervous because when they have such a large variety of people, you don’t know what they’re looking for,” Lee told NBC News.
Whatever nerves the 13-year-old felt, though, didn’t get in the way of her winning the title role of Andi, a quirky middle-schooler who discovers a family secret: Her older sister Bex (played by Lilan Bowden) is actually her biological mother and Andi is a result of an unexpected pregnancy. The series explores the subsequent fallout, including how Andi deals with meeting her biological father (played by Trent Garrett).
“For me, [the model minority] doesn’t really reflect reality the way I grew up...It’s very exciting to have a show that depicts Asian-Americans as multi-dimensional characters that have a wide array of experiences."
Although the role was not originally written to be multiracial, Lee’s breakout performance convinced showrunners to cast a multiracial family similar to Lee’s Chinese and white heritage. Lee’s father is Chinese-American actor Andrew T. Lee.
For Bowden, the chance to play a multiracial lead was a departure from the supporting roles she usually goes out for. “I looked at Peyton, and I read the sides [audition copy] and thought, ‘Wow, this is so interesting and cool.’ I’ve never felt more drawn to a part than when I read my audition pieces,” Bowden told NBC News.
Veteran actress Lauren Tom (“Futurama,” “Joy Luck Club”) felt similarly. Tom plays Celia, Andi’s strict biological grandmother who has raised Andi as her daughter — and whose tense relationship with Bex drives much of the conflict on the show.
“I was doing a little jig,” Tom told NBC News about the role. “I was just really proud that something like this was written. The showrunners are really engaged with what’s happening in the world in a more authentic sense, so kids can really relate to the show.”
That authenticity has made “Andi Mack” a ratings winner for Disney Channel, and the series has been renewed for a second season. According to Variety, at the time of its renewal, "Andi Mack" was the no. 1-ranked show among girls ages 6 to 14 and has experienced a week-over-week growth in viewership, including a 34 percent ratings increase since its premiere in April.
The show's themes of family, friendship, and individuality have also resonated with fans, many of whom express their appreciation with cast members via social media.
“We’ve had a lot of people say how relatable it is to them, and that’s really the ultimate goal for me, at least — it’s that people all around the world see that they aren’t different and they’re not alone,” said Lee.
The show is part of a wave of Asian-American-centric programming in recent years, including “Fresh Off the Boat,” Emmy Award-winning "Master of None," and Margaret Cho’s upcoming scripted comedy “Highland,” which broaden depictions of Asian Americans on TV beyond the model minority stereotype.
“For me, [the model minority] doesn’t really reflect reality the way I grew up, the people who were my friends, the people I hang out with. It’s very exciting to have a show that depicts Asian Americans as multi-dimensional characters that have a wide array of experiences that are outside this image of being a good student and stereotypes of playing piano,” said Bowden.
Tom says that even the seemingly stereotypical “tiger mom” qualities of Celia are rooted in truth. “My character is pretty tough and can be mean and judgmental, but I wanted to portray her as real as possible because I’m basically channeling my mom and my grandma,” said Tom.
“We’ve had a lot of people say how relatable it is to them, and that’s really the ultimate goal for me, at least — it’s that people all around the world see that they aren’t different and they’re not alone."
Disney Channels Worldwide head Gary Marsh has called the show this generation’s “Lizzie McGuire,” and for its breakout star, it’s an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of other young Disney stars.
“‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ was my favorite Disney show of all time. I just remember looking up to Selena Gomez, and that I get to be that kind of quote-unquote figure for someone else is just insane,” said Lee.
The same goes for Bowden, who references an earlier Disney title.
“It’s really cool to think ‘Andi Mack’ might play the same type of role that ‘Mulan’ played for me. When Disney came out with an Asian lead, I just remember thinking, ‘That’s my princess. That’s me,’” she said. “I wonder if there are kids out there now — and I hope there are — saying, ‘That’s my family, that’s my sister, that’s my mother. That’s me.’”