Interview: Actress Lilan Bowden of “Andi Mack”
By Alex Chester
Representation matters. Growing up I did not see anyone who looked like me on TV, and it sucked. As a child actor, it was even more difficult for me because—aside from not seeing the representation anywhere—I was constantly being told by casting and agents that I wasn’t “Asian” or “white” enough.
It’s taken Disney many years, but I am so happy to finally see someone who is Hapa on the Disney Channel. Lilan Bowden stars in Andi Mack as Bex. Not only is this show ahead of its time to feature a mixed-Asian family, but Andi Mack also features a gay middle-school boy character. Go Disney and your intersectional-badass self!
Lilan Bowden is also a Cali girl like myself. I am so thrilled to have gotten the chance to interview this awesome woman!
What makes you Hapa? How do you feel about the word? Is it how you identify?
Hapa was introduced to me by other “Hapa” peers as slang for “half-Asian, half something-else.” I’ve heard that it can also be a derogatory word, but that wasn’t the case for my peers. I like the word and totally identify with it!
What was it like for you growing up mixed-Asian? How has being mixed affected you and your career?
I don’t really think I understood what it meant to be, as I’ve heard other mixed kids put it, “always fitting in, but never belonging,” until I was in college and had some time to reflect on my experience. Even now I’m looking back on my childhood, I remember being frustrated for being teased by my American classmates about the food I brought to school, or the off-brand clothes I wore, and not feeling totally “American” but at the same time, I was also frustrated that I wasn’t taught fluent Taiwanese or Chinese like my relatives.
The phrase “always fitting in, but never belonging” I could also apply to a lot of my acting journey. There aren’t a lot of mixed families represented on television. I have felt there are roles I could fit into, but rarely does a role feel custom-tailored to my look, especially if casting for a family. That is, until Andi Mack :) . Andi Mack was the first time I felt like I was accurately representing my background as a mixed-race person.
You have an extensive background in sketch comedy and improv. How did you get your start at Upright Citizens Brigade [a premiere improv school based in NYC and L.A.]?
I took a 101 class! I had just gotten to Hollywood and was ready to find an improv theatre I could study at (I did short form improv in college and high school), and I signed up for an Upright Citizens Brigade class online. Since that time I’ve had the privilege of performing on two house teams, one sketch (Bonafide) and one improv (Rococo). I’ve performed in countless shows, and even was able to have an official run of my own show I wrote with my best friend Wilder (Lilan and Wilder). Getting to do all those things didn’t come easy, and took many years. But, what was easy was connecting with other driven people who loved comedy as much as I did.
You are paving the path for so many Hapas. Growing up I would audition and get down to the wire for several Disney TV shows (which will not be named). But ultimately I would be told I didn’t book the role because I wasn’t Asian or white enough. How does it feel to know you have broken that glass ceiling at the Disney Channel?
Whoa, I wanna know what shows! I’m also sorry to hear that. It’s a reality in Hollywood (as you know too well) to get told often you didn’t book the part because of something totally out of your control. But it doesn’t make it less upsetting. I don’t feel like I personally broke that glass ceiling. I feel fortunate that circumstances worked out so I was able to be a representative of a Hapa person on a Disney show. But what I do feel is a responsibility. Now that I’m here, and because there are so few of us, it is so important to me that I do my job well. I feel like my performance reflects on the whole minority group I’m a part of.
What are your thoughts on “representation” versus “presentation” in the entertainment industry? Should one play a specific ethnic role just because they look like said demographic, even if they are not that? Specifically if you are mixed-Asian?
Ooh, really good question. I don’t know the answer to this question. I think coming up as an ethnic actor conditions you to be grateful for whatever opportunities come your way. And maybe as an unfortunate side effect, [that] lowers your personal bar for what you expect out of film and television programming. Years ago, I gave a lot less thought to what races were “appropriate” for other races to play. I think it even took me a while to understand that “whitewashing” was a real thing, where ethnic roles often go to more prominent white actors.
Concerning minority/mixed race actors, I think my current feeling is “there are so few of us out there anyway, why be picky? Just flood the screens already! We’ve got a lot of catching up to do!” Regardless of how we get there, what I’m hoping for in the future is to see such an abundant representation of marginalized groups on screen, people of all specificities will be able to see themselves represented in many stories, not just one, or none.
Favorite family recipe?
My mom makes a wonderful mapo tofu. For the years I was vegetarian, she made it vegetarian-style and it was just as good. I guess a “recipe” means how you make it; I have no idea how to make it. I just know that it’s very tasty.
What’s next for you?
I do many projects here and there. I just played a part in a short film made by my friend Tess Paras called The Patients which has an almost all Filipino-American cast (I might be the only exception, actually). I’ve booked a couple of TV roles since Andi Mack has been filming. But I also think it’s important to support my friends’ projects, and keep creating content of my own. I put out one or two comedy sketches online with “Lilan and Wilder.” They’re short, fun, dorky, and low-budget, and they are so fun to do.
Any words of wisdom or advice for the aspiring Hapa actor?
Oh hello, Hapa actors! Hapa actors, in a way I think we have a weird advantage. Hollywood is a tough city and acting is a tough and random business. People who are used to having life give them what they want are in for a very rude awakening. But I think we have a strength. We know what it’s like to be “outside,” to navigate a world that isn’t necessarily catered to us. Many of us possibly feel a subtle (or in some cases, not-so-subtle) rejection from the communities we identify with, but this gives us a resilience. We know what rejection is like, and because of that, I feel like we know how to work hard to be seen. Work hard, be amazing, don’t give up, and you will be seen.
End of Interview
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.