Interview: Charles Melton
By Sam Tanabe
How do you measure “how Asian” you are when you are mixed?
Is it how you present? What languages you speak? Can a Hapa actor fulfill the role of an Asian character on the big screen? Charles Melton and I discuss it all in his interview for Hapa Mag.
In the wake of “Crazy Rich Asians,” it’s exciting to see another Asian man as the romantic lead in theaters. Charles Melton (from the CW’s Riverdale) stars as Daniel Bae in the “The Sun is Also a Star,” which just came out.
This book-turned-movie is a whirlwind love story set against the backdrop of New York City. Fate leads Korean-American Daniel Bae to meet Jamaican immigrant Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi), but Daniel has only one day to charm Natasha before the harsh realities of life tear them apart and Natasha’s family is deported.
“The Sun is Also a Star” is a movie where race plays an integral role in the plot. The role of Daniel was written Korean-American. Natasha’s family comes from a family of immigrants struggling to stay in America. It is vital that actors of color fill these roles and tell these stories.
I got to chat with Charles about his experience playing Daniel Bae, specifically as a mixed race Korean-American. Charles has a cool, laid-back confidence about him, and it was encouraging to hear how passionately he spoke about the need for more diverse representation in Hollywood.
Check out the interview below!
I know you’re Korean-American, but do you mind sharing what else makes up your racial identity?
My father is white-American, which dates back to England, and my mother’s Korean. She immigrated to the U. S. with my father in 1990. I was born in ‘91. I’m first generation on my mom’s side, and my mother became a citizen when I was eleven or twelve years old. Just to be a part of that process, quizzing her every day, every week, until she became a citizen, was a beautiful thing.
Where did you grow up?
So, I was born in Juneau, Alaska. I’ve lived in Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Korea five years, Texas two years, Germany four years, Kansas five years, New York two years, and then L.A. four years.
You’ve been everywhere.
Yeah, I’m very cultured to the extreme.
Wow, and did you grow up speaking Korean with your mother and in the home?
Yeah. What’s unique is that back home in Kansas my mom has four refrigerators, and she makes the best kimchi, man. Three of those refrigerators are for her spring kimchi, summer kimchi, and winter kimchi, and you know she cooks every meal. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner, and there’s always rice. I grew up speaking both languages in the household. That was all normal in my mind but unique to other people. “You’re parents don’t speak two languages at home? You don’t eat rice even for breakfast too?” People would come over and be like, “What is that? That smells gross!”
“That’s kimchi, man!”
Yo, I love Korean food. What’s your favorite Korean dish?
Kimbap. I love kimbap. Or bibimbap.
There’s been so much recent discussion about who can play what roles in Hollywood. As a mixed race Korean-American, what are your thoughts on all of this?
I think it’s essential that we see more stories that are told from a global perspective, stories that people can connect to empathetically and visually, so you see someone that looks like and represents you. To be on both sides, being Caucasian and Asian, how inclusive or exclusive do you want to be when it comes to race, with being Asian? It’s weird when some people try to measure your Asian-ness, when it’s like, “I’m Asian.” It’s so extreme. “Oh, you’re half, but you’re not Asian.” I am Asian. I’m probably more “Asian” than you. I grew up in Korea. I grew up speaking Korean and being spanked by my mom with the rice spoon. Then you have people in America that are second or third generation but they’re full Asian. Do they see themselves as more “Asian” than you when you’re just half or a quarter? When you grew up in Asia? How do you measure that? If you’re Asian, you’re Asian. If it runs through your blood, it runs through your blood. How exclusive do you want to be?
When I was in Korea, people knew I was Korean, but they knew I wasn’t full. When I’m somewhere like Kansas or Texas, they’re like “Oh, you’re Asian.” Depending on where you are in the world or the U.S. affects how people are going to measure your “Asian-ness.”
I want to talk to you about The Sun is Also a Star, since that’s coming out soon. What was your favorite experience or memory from filming?
Honestly, there’s a scene that really stood out to me personally. It was having my mom on set, having my mom in the movie. It’s when Omar meets Daniel in the train station and the train station stops and all the commuters are huffing and puffing. My mom was the passenger sitting in front of me. It was really cute to see her. This is gonna be her debut feature.
So, what do you believe? Are our lives determined by fate or random events of the universe?
Dude, I think something that seems random today can make sense tomorrow, ten years from now, twenty years from now. Fate does play a role in it, but that doesn’t mean you let go of life. Live it purposefully and fully, but understand certain things in life are gonna happen that may not make sense. Stay on that path that you believe in and are passionate about.
Final question for you: Do you have any advice or encouragement for any of our readers who struggle finding confidence in their mixed identity?
Yeah. Being mixed is a like being a new race. You’re a part of something that’s changing, and pretty soon in our world everyone is gonna be mixed. It’s a representation not just of your community, not of your country, but of the world, and that’s something to be proud of. That’s beautiful.
End of Interview
Sam Tanabe is a NYC based performer and writer for Hapa Mag. He has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatres across the country. His passion for the arts has led him to fight for diversity and representation on stage. Follow this kawaii yonsei hapa bb on social media @Tanablems.