LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - International action star and heartthrob Chow Yun-Fat, who plays the pirate lord Captain Sao Feng in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” says he’d like to snag a leading-man role in a Hollywood drama or romance but is getting lost in translation.
Chow, whose acting range and stature in Asia have been compared with that of Robert De Niro, voiced frustration at racial barriers that persist in America’s movie industry.
“Honestly, I prefer (to do) more dramas. In American society ... Asian actors are not accepted as leading men,” he said in an interview last week for the “Pirates” publicity tour. “Maybe we have to wait for a few more years.”
“Pirates” director Gore Verbinski said that as soon as the writers decided the plot would take the film to Singapore, he knew he would try to cast Chow.
“Once we knew that, there was nobody else,” Verbinski said. “Yun-Fat is a living legend.”
The 51-year-old Hong Kong actor is known to Asian audiences as a cross between Cary Grant and James Bond, but in Hollywood he has had trouble moving beyond the period films like “Anna and the King” and martial arts fare like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that U.S. audiences know best.
“He has experienced a glass ceiling in Hollywood,” said filmmaker Jeff Adachi, who explored the topic in his PBS documentary “The Slanted Screen.”
“The tragedy is that there are roles that should be offered to Asian leading men but people are not used to seeing that ... so it’s something that studios are not willing to invest in,” Adachi said.
The first Asian actor to achieve stardom rivaling that of Caucasian actors in U.S. films was Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who became a silent film phenomenon after his turn as a merchant who extorts a white woman to have an affair with him, then brands her when she tries to leave him, in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” in 1915.
The role propelled Hayakawa to silent film superstardom, and saw him playing romantic leads frequently opposite white actresses, said Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media in San Francisco.
“The amazing thing that happened is that suddenly Hayakawa overnight became a huge star and his fan base was American women,” Gong said. “They didn’t know what to make of him.”
Hawaiian-born actor James Shigeta also broke the racial barrier in the late 1950s and 1960 with leading roles including “Bridge to the Sun,” opposite Carroll Baker and the 1961 musical “Flower Drum Song.”
But those roles have been less plentiful than “Yellow Peril” villain roles, such as Ming the Merciless from “Flash Gordon,” “asexual beings” like the comic character Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles,” or martial arts roles made popular by Hong Kong imports Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Adachi said.
Film historian David Thomson said that while Chow has a shot at landing dramatic roles of the type popularized by action star Harrison Ford, he still faces an uphill struggle for romantic leads.
“We break down these barriers very slowly and I don’t think we are doing we are doing it quickly enough to encourage an actor like Chow to think he will get away with it,” Thomson said. “I think there is a great deal of racism in the country too.”