Cover Arden Cho wears a Gucci suit, shirt, tie, and earrings.

Asian American actress Arden Cho discusses the authentic representation of identity in her new Netflix series, fighting for equity in Hollywood, and how saying no can be empowering

Before Arden Cho became an actress, she had her sights set on another career. “When I was younger, I definitely imagined myself as a lawyer. I even studied pre‑law,” she tells Tatler Singapore over video call, a few weeks before coming to town this July on a press tour for her recently released Netflix series Partner Track and for this photo shoot. “I probably would have made my parents so proud, as with any typical Asian American family.”

Well, Cho is now making her Korean American parents proud in other ways, including realising her dream as a lawyer—albeit a fictional one—in the 10‑episode contemporary legal drama, which premiered in late August. The series is based on Chinese American novelist and lawyer Helen Wan’s 2013 book of the same name.

While Cho’s body of work includes popular TV shows such as Teen Wolf and Chicago Med, the drama marks her first as a series lead, portraying protagonist Ingrid Yun. “I remember my first day on set,” the 37‑year‑old recalls. “I sent my mum a picture of Ingrid’s Harvard diploma and I was like, ‘Look, mum, I graduated law school. Are you proud?’ She texted me back: ‘Yes, I’m so proud.’ And it felt like she was genuinely proud, even though it was a fake diploma.”

Cho describes the character as one who is “smart, incredibly resilient, determined and sophisticated”. The series follows the young lawyer as she wrestles through male power structures and old‑boy corporate culture in order to become the first Asian American junior partner at an elite white‑shoe New York City law firm. The drama is “full of fun and romance”, but it also conveys the added pressures in the workplace for women and those from under‑represented backgrounds.

Netflix tapped Asian American writer and director Georgia Lee (best known for her work on the Amazon Prime series The Expanse) as well as Emmy‑winning writer and executive producer Sarah Goldfinger (who worked on Netflix’s Trinkets)as co‑showrunners, while Julie Anne Robinson (the director behind several episodes of Netflix’s global hit Bridgerton) directed the first two episodes. “There was really great energy on set, and I felt really safe and nurtured,” says Cho on working with these power women. “It was a beautiful journey of chaos and all the women involved just brought their best to it.”

Read more: 5 Things to Know About Arden Cho, Star of the New Netflix Series ‘Partner Track’

While she is careful not to divulge any spoilers, Cho hopes that the series would help spotlight the subtle difficulties—whether it is sexism or racism—that Asian American women often encounter. “Sometimes, it’s the subtleties that are really tough,” she notes, having worked closely with Lee to portray these nuances on screen. “They can be hard to describe in words, but hopefully, when the audience catches all these little moments, they register them.”

Would a show like Partner Track have been helpful to Cho as an Asian American growing up in the US? “Of course,” she says. “What I would have [given] as a teenager [for] a show where the lead was someone who looked like me. I grew up praying that I would wake up with blue eyes because I thought the only beautiful woman was Caucasian. I didn’t think that I could be beautiful. I wasn’t the standard of beauty.”

Born and raised in Texas, Cho attended high school in Minnesota. Throughout her adolescent years, she struggled with her self‑identity. “I was often the only Asian in the room, and my identity crisis was definitely a battle as I tried to figure out who I was,” she says. “Americans, for some reason, don’t see me as American even though I was born and raised in America. But when I’m in Asia, they tell me I’m white, American, and that I should go back to my country.” 

Read more: 6 Netflix Shows to Add to Your Must-Watch List This September 2022

COMING INTO HER OWN

Perhaps it is the authentic representation of identity that makes her first lead role all the more special. “Growing up, Asian American women were rarely the leads on the small screen. We were always portrayed as side characters,” Cho says. “Which is why it’s so great to see Ingrid Yun on screen. I think it’s refreshing and exciting to see life from the lens of an Asian American woman.”

She notes that while she and the character have very different personalities (“Besides the fact that she’s so much smarter than I am,” says Cho, “she’s also a dreamer and she’s not jaded about life—not yet.”), there are some similarities between them. “I feel like we’re both strong women with a mission and a drive to be respected, to be treated equally, and to be seen as who we are,” Cho asserts.

Just like how Yun is fighting for recognition within her law firm in the series, Cho is fighting the disparity within her acting career. “For a long time, I didn’t believe that I deserved to be here. I was often devalued and discriminated against. Whether it’s being paid lesser or treated worse, I accepted the bias,” she reflects. “But then the older I got, the wiser I became. I realised that I had to start believing in myself, or no one would. People say you can’t [find love] until you love yourself, and this applies to respect and credit; [you have to respect yourself and give yourself the credit that you deserve first].”

Surely, Cho is defining her own narrative when she turned down the offer to star in Teen Wolf: The Movie, the upcoming Paramount Plus film sequel to the popular MTV series in which she played Kira Yukimura, a high school student with kitsune supernatural powers who is the love interest of the show’s lead, played by actor Tyler Posey. Cho had a recurring role when she first appeared in season three of the franchise, and became a series regular in seasons four and five. However, she was abruptly dropped from the cast when season six rolled around. While the reason for her departure was not addressed at the point in time, it was apparent that the decision did not come from her end—in a YouTube video announcing the news, she noted that “sometimes, in a show where [there are] so many characters, there isn’t always room for everyone”. 

So it came as a surprise when fans learned that she declined to return and tie up the loose ends for her character’s story—until a report emerged from Deadline this February that Cho, who was the only actress of colour among the four female regular cast members, had been offered half the per‑episode salary proposed to her counterparts.

“To be honest, I don’t think I was surprised [by the offer] because this has happened so much in my career,” says Cho, a tinge of weariness in her voice highlighting the weight of the issue. “It’s unfortunate, the way things turned out. I mean, I loved Kira and would have loved to tell a great closing story for her, but you can’t control every thing.”Cho is not hung up over it though, for she is not one to dwell on the past. “I want to focus on the good and channel my energy into the other projects that I’m working on,” she says. She is grateful for her fans and supporters, but maintains that they should not get caught up with being upset. And while there is still a long way to go when it comes to the pay disparities in the entertainment industry, Cho is hopeful. “I think people are being a bit more transparent and they are more aware [of the pay inequity],” she shares, stressing that whoever leaked the report was not from her team. “It’s someone who saw that it was unjust and they shared it, and so I think things are really changing.”

So does she think she is sending a powerful message across the industry by turning down the offer? “I’ve actually been saying no a lot during the past couple of years,” says Cho. “Not because I didn’t want to work on those particular shows, but because I wanted to work on a story that I felt would bring change.”

It has not been easy, she admits. “But nothing good comes easy. Plus, looking back now, if I had said yes to some of these other shows, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do Partner Track,” she reflects. Learning how to say no has taught her a lot over the years and she hopes to encourage other women to do the same. “Sometimes, as Asian American women, we feel like we have to work so hard, and we’re not allowed to say no. But I’ve learned that saying no is so powerful. We do not have to do everything, and we definitely don’t have to do the things we don’t want to do.”

For Cho, this is just the start, whether it’s telling Yun’s story or calling for more diversity on screen. “I certainly hope that there’s a season two. I feel like season one is just scratching the surface. There’s just so much more to tell in Ingrid’s story and her journey,” she enthuses. “The show is a really amazing opportunity to reflect on the beautiful, diverse world that we live in. I really believe that this is such a beautiful time, with a lot of great shows coming out that highlight incredible Asian American and Asian talents. We’re becoming a part of the conversation, and hopefully one day, we no longer have to feel othered.”

  • PhotographyStefan Khoo
  • StylingTok Wei Lun
  • HairJunz Loke
  • Make-UpMelissa Yeo
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