May Hong on Netflix’s ‘Tales of the City’ Gives Gay East Asians The Representation They Need
In celebration with the recent Pride season last month, an iconic work of Armistead Maupin resurfaced from 1994 to 2019. Netflix successfully relaunched “Tales of the City”— a fiercely empowering and admired LGBTQ+ series since. Only this time, we returned to San Francisco welcoming a new, much more diverse community alongside the icons Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. Following the stories of returning home to their chosen families of close-knit residents in the boarding house on 28 Barbary Lane, this show navigates love, acceptance, and queerness as something to be celebrated within intersecting tales of each relationship.The main characters in the books were primarily white, but 25 years later, a ton of new people of color actors were added to the narrative. Both were and are very much of their time, but this round is more inclusive with black and brown stories.
As a Korean-American break-out actor, May Hong, playing the role of Margot, has won hearts and is passionate about representing gaysians on screen,. I had a chance to chat with her after San Francisco’s Pride March sharing her experience working on “Tales of the City,” working with her co-stars, and the importance of accurate representation on television for Asian and LGBTQ+ people.
Hi May! Thank you for chatting with me and absolutely love the show. Can you briefly tell me how you got on board with Tales of the City?
“Thank you! It’s been a total trip! The way I got involved is pretty straightforward — I was asked to self-tape the audition while I was away at an artist residency in Michigan. I came back a few days earlier than I had planned in order to make it to the callback. It was pretty wild to spend a month painting and barely talking to anyone, to then find myself in front of Alan Poul, Lauren Morelli, and Laura Linney, auditioning for my first big acting job.”
What is your favorite thing about your role as Margot and how important was it for you to play her?
“It was so important for me to play her because she was the kind of character that I needed to see growing up. I often find myself asking if 15-year-old May would look up to present-day May, and I know I’m doing the right thing if the answer is yes. I am constantly thinking about my ‘biculturalism,’ about being a first-generation Korean American New Yorker, so I was pining for this role. My life experiences were Margot’s bones, and I was so drawn to her honesty and bravery. To see her simply exist in the world of 28 Barbary Lane without any explicit attention being drawn to her background was profound. That is to say, Margot is Margot, not ‘Asian’ Margot.”
“Tales of the City” involves a lot of important themes… Episode 3 “Happy, Now?” showed your confrontation with Jake regarding the drawing you made of him before he transitioned. This highlighted one of the struggles your character faced. How did you identify with that scene?
“Yes, that scene is absolutely heartbreaking. If you have even a sliver of empathy, you can’t watch that scene without feeling for both of them equally. I think we all know what it’s like to realize that there is a block in a relationship that isn’t up for negotiation. I’ve certainly been in that place before and experiencing that scene gave me an opportunity to meditate on previous relationships I’ve had, in which I may not have been as understanding as I could have been.”
What were you able to take away from your Margot’s relationship with Jake?
“Margot’s relationship with Jake allowed me to revisit my own needs and desires. I was able to give myself permission to continue exploring my own queerness, and being welcomed into the ‘Tales of the City’ family was one of the most impactful experiences I could have asked for in that regard.”
Were you aware of the potential statement that you were making a huge representation of everything that Margot’s character is and everything you are as a break-out As/Am actor?
“Growing up Korean American and seeing almost no American content featuring any Asian characters that I aspired to be or connected with impacted me in more ways than I can say. I knew how important this kind of representation would be for people, and I was as excited as I was scared to take on the responsibility of telling Margot’s story. But this is just one of hopefully many, and I’m so grateful to have been part of the changing landscape. I am so touched when I receive messages from people telling me that Margot’s life resonated with them, that the show made them feel seen and heard. The way I feel about media visibility for people of color is that we’re no longer trying to crowd into the same tiny mouse hole — rather that we all open doors for each other, each time multiplying the number of doors in each room we enter.”
I can only imagine how vibrant your set was, could you talk a bit about what’s it like working with these people especially, Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Ellen Page and the rest?
“Olympia, Laura, and Ellen are all unbelievably kind and generous with their time. Watching the three of them work is astounding. Seeing their processes was huge for me, as this was the first time I’ve ever seen performances in progress so frequently and at length. It made me excited to get better at what I do.”
You mentioned you just visited SF, I’m super curious what your impression the first time you went on set at 28 Barbary Lane and if it changed until your last shoot there or visit?
“I had been to San Francisco before, and it’s obviously a magnificent city… but we actually shot most of the show at a sound stage in the Bronx! The entire house was built inside, and a lot of outdoor shots were shot in Yonkers. It was really cool to see such an elaborate buildout of an iconic house. Of course, there were scenes and episodes shot in SF, but I didn’t actually make it over there for anything Tales-related until the premiere. The love we received at the Castro was insane. And being there for the SF Pride Parade was indescribable. I never ever thought in a million years that I would be a grand marshal!”
I truly admire how you portrayed Asians and lesbians on the show. It’s empowering to take back the agency against all the stereotypes. What do you hope people will take away from this?
“I did feel so empowered to live Margot’s life, knowing it would be seen globally. I hope it inspires everyone to live as unapologetically as Margot does, but I also hope it inspires everyone to think twice about Asian women and the stereotypes that have been placed on us historically by narrower mainstream media.”