“Seminar” actress Hettienne Park discusses her experiences as a minority in the world of acting
On Monday evening, students filed into Science Center 199 to hear Hettienne Park of Broadway’s recent debut “Seminar” discuss her experience as a minority in the acting world. Brought to campus as part of Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Month, Park shared stories of familial conflicts and economic struggles related to her pursuit of acting following college.
“Seminar,” starring Alan Rickman, follows four aspiring novelists who enroll in a writing class with a notorious literary giant. Park’s character, Izzy, is unabashedly “ambitious and seductive,” according to Park, and comfortable in sleeping her way to the top. In addition to “Seminar,” Park has appeared in “Bride Wars” with Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson, the 2011 Diablo Cody-penned comedy “Young Adult,” and “Year of the Fish,” a variation on Cinderella which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 and won multiple awards for best film at various festivals that same year.
An economics and religion double-major from the University of Rochester, Park realized she was not interested in pursuing a career in either field. Instead of securing a job after graduation, she stayed in Rochester and began acting at a local community theatre before deciding to head to New York City, hoping to gain experience and take some courses on acting. Once there, she enrolled in the William Esper Studio, a college for the performing arts in Manhattan, paying her own way by working up to three jobs at a time.
Her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Korea in their thirties, did not support Park’s decision to forgo a career. “My parents were really hard on me. They either wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or wanted me to go into business, or marry a doctor or lawyer or someone going into business,” Park joked. “When I first told them I wasn’t going to pursue a job [after college] there was a lot of fighting, a lot of ‘this is the way it’s going to be.’ … it was really difficult because I felt so guilty. They had worked so hard to give me opportunities. So I gave myself a few years, [and said] I’m going to show them that this is what I’m meant to do.”
It wasn’t until her mother came to see her perform in the Tony Kushner play “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” that she started to understand — and support — Park’s lifestyle choices. Watching her daughter perform onstage with Alan Rickman in “Seminar”, Park’s mother recognized “that I was succeeding in my own way,” Park said. Distracted by an appearance by Diane Sawyer, Park’s mom even seemed forgiving of her daughter for flashing the audience in the middle of the first act.
Steven Gu ’15 thought Park’s description of her parents hit the nail on the head in addressing a common stereotype of Asian parents. “I think what really struck me is how she described why her parents disapproved,” Gu said. “It wasn’t that they thought acting was frivolous or not worth pursuing. As immigrants, they didn’t have job security or economic security in their new country. That definitely rang true for me and my parents … they pushed lawyer or doctor or business person, like hers did, because there is security in that. It was great that she explained that aspect of Asian parents, because it’s not about going into careers that make a lot of money, it’s about having that security, and I think that’s something that a lot of people with parents who are immigrants can relate to.”
Acting, a career that generates very little security for the majority of its pursuers, is especially unprofitable for minorities. Citing a recent study, Park shared that Asian actors and actresses secure only 2% of available roles on New York’s main stages, compared to the 80% white performers land. Because she cannot afford to be choosy as an actress, maintaining a sense of racial integrity and breaking down racial stereotypes is something she believes best handled not by rejecting casting opportunities, but in the choices she makes in portraying her characters.
However, she found herself going against her own advice and turning down an opportunity to appear in a sitcom early in her acting career, offended by a part that called for an Asian woman speaking in a thick accent while the stars of the show made fun of her.
“I don’t think any one actor is going to change people’s perceptions of races,” Park said. “I think you as an artist and as an individual have to decide how you’re going to portray a character. I’m grateful the stage roles I’ve done were written for an Asian female and didn’t play into stereotypes.”
An already-enamored audience fell harder for Park after she offered to take interested theatre students backstage to meet the cast of “Seminar” as long as they phoned ahead. “I remember starting off and wishing I knew one person, one person who could answer my questions,” Park said.
Although the event centered on Park’s acting career, Gu felt she made her experiences accessible to all attending the conversation. “I think she went about and beyond what SAO brought her here for. Not only did she explain her experience as an Asian minority or what it’s like to act on Broadway, but she gave life advice that anyone can associate with. She used her lens of Broadway and could connect with everyone in the room in a candid and genuine way.”