Annie Chen doesn’t know exactly when she saw Grease for the first time—all she remembers is that she loved it. But even though the original 1978 movie stands out in her mind because of the songs, the characters and its iconic dance moves, Chen says that, like other films from her childhood, she didn’t see herself reflected in Grease.
“I grew up watching TV with barely any [people of colour], especially Asians. I barely saw that unless I was watching an Asian channel, so for me, being an actor is not something I ever thought I could do in Canada,” she says. “Like maybe I could fly back to Taiwan and go into that industry, but even for my parents, they didn’t think it was something I could do professionally. So it’s pretty crazy what I’m doing now and who I’m playing.”
That would be the role of Frenchy in Grease: The Musical, Chen’s favourite Pink Lady from the original film—a role that is a far cry from the stereotypical characters she was offered when she first stepped into television and theatre.
The actress, who can also be seen as Lily in Designated Survivor, started trying to make the leap from professional dancer to actor six years ago, and it wasn’t easy. In the beginning, she says that the gigs she was put up for ranged from one-liners to big guest starring roles, but they often had one thing in common.
“I either did not speak English or I spoke with an Asian accent or it was set in China—which I’ve never even been to,” she says. However, Chen notes that she has seen big changes since she first started out—including roles like Frenchy being open to actors that don’t look exactly like the white-skinned, brunette character originally played by Didi Conn.
Though Grease is set in 1959, Chen says that it was important to the crew behind the Toronto production to update certain aspects of the classic musical to make it relatable for a modern audience. That included casting a brunette Sandy (Pretty Little Liar‘s Janel Parrish), plus two Pink Ladies who are women of colour.
Even though Chen may look a bit different than the Frenchy people originally came to know and love, she says that there has been little reaction to the production’s more progressive casting. She recalls one audience member who thanked her for representing different cultures on stage, but overall, she says the goal of the production is to “normalize [diversity], and not make it a thing.”
Seeing Chen in roles like Frenchy and Designated Survivor‘s Lily gives viewers and audience members hope that things are changing, but the actress makes it clear that this is just the beginning.
“I’m definitely noticing a big improvement but I still feel like there’s always the token Asian on stage… so it’s still the minority,” says Chen. She recalls going out for a lead part for a film that had already cast an African-Canadian male lead. Once she found out that another POC was signed on for the title role, she was disheartened, feeling that “there’s no way they’re going to cast two ethnic leads in this movie.”
Thoughts like that bother Chen, and she says that she hopes that in addition to more female leads in general, Hollywood and theatre can eventually have more than one ethnically diverse main character.
“We’re not there yet,” says Chen. “[Diversity] is being brought up and we’re aware, but it’s not fixed by any means.”
Grease: The Musical is playing in Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre until January 7, 2018