At first glance, Netflix’s hit comedy-drama “Emily in Paris” delivers exactly as promised. There’s fashion, food, flings and friendship, tied together in the form of escapist TV one can expect from “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, albeit with Fifth Avenue swapped out for Champs-Élysées.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you might begin to see the reasons for all the controversy surrounding the show and how it enraged a whole European nation after its first season premiered in 2020. While some viewers admired the titular character’s charm as she navigates a world she knows nothing about after uprooting her life in the States, others found her sense of American exceptionalism insufferable.
But sticking by Emily’s side in the show is her best friend Mindy Chen, an aspiring singer with a rollercoaster ride of a backstory, played by Tony Award-nominated actress Ashley Park.
With the second season now available for streaming on Netflix, Park spoke with NextShark over the phone, reflecting on the past year of anti-Asian hate and what it means to take on the role of Mindy. Addressing the controversy over Emily, she offered a different perspective – one that highlights Emily and Mindy’s friendship as being the “best version on screen” of what relationships with “white allies” can resemble.
Park shared her experiences as an Asian American woman in entertainment, revealing that it wasn’t just her onscreen persona who found a “white ally.” She credits some people she’s worked with for using their positions of power to support her along the way.
Following the tragic shooting in Atlanta that took the lives of six Asian women in March, Park went viral in a vulnerable Instagram video, asking the questions many in the Asian American community have desperately sought answers to amid the surge of anti-Asian hate. “Why? How did it come to this? Why, why is there that hate?”
Reflecting back to that moment, Park said: “I talked about how I really believe that all of his hate is coming from a place of just fear and unfamiliarity – fear and anger when you’re not used to different people from different walks of life.”
While Park won’t necessarily choose roles to make a political statement, she acknowledged that it inherently sends a message, particularly with characters like Mindy who aren’t often portrayed by Asian American women.
An heiress to a kingdom that found its fortune through zipper manufacturing, Mindy flees her comfortable life in Shanghai, China, after a disastrous singing performance turns her into the country’s very own viral meme. In her search for a fresh start, she befriends Emily, played by real-life best friend Lily Collins.
“I think it’s the first time a lot of people have gotten to know on screen or in life an Asian woman who means the best and is there to support and is warm and honest and confident,” Park said. “And I think that’s what is most exciting to me – that there’s an Asian face that people associate with that on a screen.”
“It’s very important that we have characters like that who are nuanced and who have all these different layers and… who are equated with things that will change the perspective on how Asian people are. And it’s a huge honor. And I realize that responsibility in a sense now.”
Season Two of “Emily in Paris” brings more depth to her character as she explores new love interests and hints at a complicated relationship with her family. Viewers also get to see the Broadway star bring her vocal talents to the screen while paying homage to her Korean culture by singing a cover of BTS’ “Dynamite.” As it turns out, Park was the one to suggest the performance to the show’s producer as a way to connect with Asian audiences. A performance she only envisioned being a small portion of an episode became the most expensive day of shooting, factoring in the costs of obtaining the rights to the hit K-pop track.
No gaslighting, just understanding
Park acknowledged the need for more of these kinds of roles, in an industry where there have been “clear examples of discrimination or archaic and systemic racism.” While overcoming those challenges is what gave her the strength she has today, it took daily effort, she said. And it’s because of that continuous struggle, of being constantly “thrown up against a wall over and over and over again” that people of color have too often lost the joy in their craft.
But she also stressed that just as important is the representation behind the screen.
For “Emily in Paris,” she highlighted one of the writers, Sarah Choi, who is also Korean American, saying it was “amazing having her there as well, just because she understands different perspectives as well.”
Park recently wrapped up shooting as the protagonist in an upcoming comedy film directed by Adele Lim, a co-writer of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.” It was her first time working with an Asian-led cast and crew, and her experience was one she says she couldn’t have even imagined.
“It gives me, as the lead, a totally different kind of experience, knowing that there’s no explaining that has to be done,” she said. “There’s no gaslighting, there’s just understanding and the same perspective, from all levels. And that’s a very unique situation. And what’s crazy is I didn’t even know to wish for that, because that’s just never been something that’s happened.”
That’s not to say the experience was better, per se, as Park says it ultimately boils down to “support from all sides.” Throwing in a “splash of color on the screen” just for the sake of it won’t end well.
“While I was playing Mindy, I don’t think I could have played it that way if I didn’t have complete support and an ally in the leading lady Lily Collins,” she said.
Park listed Lily Collins along with film producer Josh Fagen as two people she’s grateful for, for having shown her “exactly what the standard of what a white ally looks like in the business, so that I know exactly what I’m able to need and ask for as we start to find our own voice.”
She went on to describe an uncomfortable situation she encountered when she first arrived in Paris, keeping some parts of the story private. Being new on set and conditioned to remain silent, she struggled with finding a way to navigate the problem. “My first instinct at that time was, ‘OK, how do I not offend anybody? How do I make it better? How do I just be quiet and not say anything and still do whatever to navigate that?”
Park noted how Collins, both the lead and a producer on the show, could have easily ignored the situation completely or went so far as to speak up on her behalf, leaving Park with no say in the matter. Instead, Collins took the initiative to pull Park to the side and speak in private. Asking Park how she felt first, Collins told her she personally found the situation to be offensive and stopped to listen to what course of action was needed.
“She gave me the space to say how I felt, and she wasn’t judgemental or forceful or anything. She was just really there to listen. And then she went, took care of it for me, because she knew I wasn’t in a place with the power to do that.”
Park looked back at the moment with appreciation as the two have since quickly become good friends, just as their characters did on screen.
While she does understand some of the frustration with Collin’s character Emily, Park recognized the good in her intentions and a willingness to learn. This is seen in the ways the character stops to listen to Mindy without any objection when called out on some of her “tactless” behavior.
It’s something Park suggested may not be so common in real life. “I think a lot of people, especially white people, are in denial of the position of power that they’re in. And they’re either resentful of the fact that they are and that we see it, or that they just don’t want you to know and they don’t take responsibility.”
Featured Image via Netflix / “Emily in Paris”