Former “Teen Wolf” star and MTV actress Arden Cho is the ultimate polymath: actress, singer, songwriter, creator and YouTuber. Oh, and she also blogs on her site, East of Arden, and is the founder of her own company Leonard and Church, an accessory brand. The characters she has brought to life through her work on screen don’t easily lend themselves to archetypes and she describes them to me as “refreshingly complex and true to the experiences of not only the characters, but Asian Americans.”
Cho recently starred in the upcoming film and celebration of female friendships, “The Honor List” alongside Sasha Pieterse, Meghan Rienks and Karrueche Tran, which is written by Marilyn Fu, who aims to create stories that tell an Asian-American narrative, and directed by Elissa Down. The film celebrates female coming-of-age and representation in Hollywood, with 60 percent of the cast and crew being women, and is produced by sisters Mariel and Zoe Saldaña.
With her latest film, releasing on May 15, being just one example, she consistently plays strong and complex characters on-screen, advocates for the increased visibility of Asian-Americans in Hollywood and chooses roles that allow her to do so. From intelligent and powerful yet awkward kitsune Kira Yukimura in “Teen Wolf,” to party-girl Emily in “Chicago Med,” she actively subverts stereotypes and showcases her acting chops through a diverse array of characters.
Cho sits down for an interview with me via telephone and we discuss her love for and gravitation toward powerful females on screen, advice for burgeoning actors, and the women in film and television that inspired her.
What follows below is an edited and condensed version of my one-on-one, exclusive interview with Arden Cho.
Q: Thank you so much for this, Arden! Growing up, who were the characters and women in film and television you gravitated toward? And how did they inspire you?
A: I always gravitated toward strong women on TV like Buffy, Topanga, Charmed Sisters, Sabrina, Kim Possible… and even today it’s the strong women characters like Annalise Keating, Olivia Benson, Eleven, Olivia Pope & more that really inspire me! Kira Yukimura is one of the strongest women I’ve gotten to be. I loved her & her mom! I’ll continue seeking opportunities to portray strong women on the screen. Our representation is still an uphill battle but it’s moving forward. Strong women are beautiful & powerful, so fight like a girl!
Q: Could you tell me about your background and your childhood career ambitions?
On your YouTube channel, ardenBcho, you said when you were in elementary and high school, when there were casting calls for school plays, you always wanted to audition, but you did not know where to start or how to prepare a monologue and this held you back.
Have you aspired to be an actress early on?
A: I was born and raised in Texas and I ended up moving to Minnesota for middle school and high school. I went to college in Illinois, so I’m from all around that middle area I guess.
And when I was younger, I wanted to be something different every day. I think at one point, I wanted to be a vet, a doctor, a teacher, an artist, a CIA agent, a spy – all sorts of funny things. I wanted to be a fireman, too.
I think there were times when I wanted to be a singer, but I don’t think I ever really wanted to be an actress.
Q: When did your love for acting develop and did you immediately pursue it once you discovered it or did the decision take more thought?
A: When I was younger, I think when I was in college, I fell in love with acting. I was taking theater classes, I worked on an independent film and just fell in love with it. That was so much fun, and challenging, and interesting – very different. That thought crossed my mind quite often and I thought, ‘I wonder if this is a possibility.’ I never really thought it could be until, I guess, after I graduated college and thought, ‘Guess I should give it a shot.’
Q: Nowadays, more Asian Americans and more diverse casts are on mainstream television. How do you feel about this as an actress?
What do you think of the representation of Asian Americans in shows such as ‘Teen Wolf’ and ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and what is it like to see them be received so well?
A: I think it’s really great that these days we have so many more Asian American faces on TV.
And it’s so exciting just to see shows like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ be received so well because we finally have Asian American families on TV. And it’s great that’s one.
We need a lot more because that family doesn’t represent every Asian American family – just one, you know, I want a ‘Teen Wolf’ as well, obviously. We have a small Asian American family there and a multi-cultural Asian American family, so that’s kind of cool.
Q: More Asian Americans in the industry have been spotlighted and awarded mainstream recognition. What do you think is responsible for this change and surge forward for so many people in their careers?
A: I think Asian Americans have gained more popularity these days just because we’re finally getting a chance to be a part of it. I don’t think it’s anything like, “Oh yeah, Asian Americans are so in right now.”
I think it’s really just a matter of, we’ve just never had as many opportunities as before, and people are seeing us just as people.
They’re seeing us as just normal people, you know: good-looking, funny, charming guys and, you know, funny, dorky girls, or just, you know, just everything.
Q: How would you describe accurate representation of Asian Americans in film and in screen? What do you think about Constance Wu on ‘Fresh Off the Boat’? She represents Asian Americans, but does not conform to stereotypes.
A: A wide range of characters that people are playing as opposed to the very niche stereotype, you know, and I think it’s something that I love about Constance Wu on Fresh Off the Boat.
She is a Taiwanese mom, but at the same time she’s sexy, she’s beautiful and she’s really funny. And a lot of people might think that, “Oh, Asian moms, maybe, are very conservative and very serious, and not very funny.” But I love that she’s playing that as that character. I definitely do think it is important for shows to keep diversity in mind when we want to keep their show on air for a long time just because that’s the audience.
Q: What is it like to see all these shows with such diverse casts like “Orange is the New Black” and “How to Get Away with Murder”? What we see on screen is getting closer and closer to what we see in life. For example, with Teen Wolf, many characters come from racially diverse backgrounds and you’re able to represent Kira Yukimura, who is half-Korean and half-Japanese. As an actress, do you consciously choose roles to offer representation to the viewers?
A: Nowadays, seeing shows that have a very diverse cast, like “Orange is the New Black” or “How to Get Away with Murder,” makes it more realistic. I mean, that’s what life is, right?
You look around and everybody’s something different or mixed with something, and so I think it’s just a more realistic approach. And I think that “Teen Wolf” does a really fantastic job of being diverse. I think there are lot of characters that, I don’t even know what they are sometimes, and, you know, we’re all a little bit mixed. I mean, I play half-Korean, half-Japanese, but for most of my life I always either play Chinese or half-Korean or half-Chinese or half-something.
So, I’m always playing something mixed and I think that’s great because, I feel like at the end of the day, whatever I can represent as an actor, I want to be able to play that role. And as long as it’s believable, I think it’s fine.
Q: What is your best advice to those entering this field and who want to pursue a career in film arts or acting? It is a very competitive industry and many people have to make compromises in playing certain roles because of type casting and representation. How can you prepare for opportunities that come your way and become more comfortable? Talented performers and artists often do not feel it is a risk they are willing to take regardless of their passion because of fear of failure. What would you say to that?
A: I think for me, the best advice that I would always give is, “If you love it, do it.” Just try – you have to try. If you don’t try and take the shots, then you’re going to miss it.
And I think there’s going to always be a lot of different voices and opinions along the way, but you have to really stay true to yourself and believe in yourself, in it. If it’s acting that you want to do, I always say take as many classes as you can. Get involved – theater programs, student films, read books – just do whatever you can to learn and grow and be a great actor.
Train because when that perfect opportunity comes along, if you’re not ready, you’re going to miss it. And everyone says this business is all about luck, but what is luck? Just when opportunity meets preparation. Don’t be afraid to fail because failures add character and color and it’s those imperfections and flaws and mistakes that you make along the way that add to a great story. Failure is definitely going to be your biggest roadblock, so don’t let failure get in the way because that’s just you holding you back.
Q: Do you push yourself to succeed so you can represent the community in a positive way? In the past, you have discussed facing discrimination because of your race and having to turn down certain roles because you didn’t feel you were the best fit to represent the character on East of Arden. What is your driving force and how would you encourage others in entertainment to break out and not lose sight of themselves during the hustle?
A: I’m doing my best to push myself as an actor and push myself as an Asian-American actor to get myself out there and represent the community in a positive way. We just wanted to bring good food to good people. If you love what you’re doing, go do it because if we can do it, like, so can you.
Q: How would you describe the current role of Asian Americans? And how can they move forward in entertainment and media?
A: Asian Americans, I’d say, are known as trendsetters. There’s no barrier to entry. You just need to find who you are inside and move forward with it and show the world what you have.
Q: Do you think opening the conversation and speaking out about Asian representation will make progress? What is the best way we can enact change?
A: In terms of Asian representation, it’s an important issue and the more there’s a dialogue about it, I think the more progress that can happen.
To ask these questions is really important, but what are the answers and what are you going to do with the answers to these questions that are the most important thing.I think that’s the only way to change anything, is to just take it and change it yourself – you.