Acting can be a brutal occupation, and it gets harder the further away you veer from the standard ideal of beauty. But in Canada, where I grew up, I was ridiculously lucky. After I graduated from theater school, I starred in three films—all written, remarkably, with Asian leads. I knew it was tough to be a minority in the business, but the future seemed limitless.
At 24 I moved to Los Angeles and confidently auditioned for any part—white, black, Klingon. All I wanted was a shot, and if people didn't like what I did, that was fine; rejection was part of the business. I was particularly interested in a movie set in a modern-day city. I thought, I look like someone who lives in a modern-day city. But the casting directors didn't want to see me, despite my agent's best efforts. A friend of mine was asked to try out for the movie, and I couldn't figure out why she got an audition and I didn't. We had similar resumes and the same amount of experience. Confused, I called my agent. "Listen, Sandra," she said plainly. "They won't see you because you're not white."
I'd heard this message before, of course, but this time it hit home and jolted me into clarity. I'd always known that I worked in an industry that blatantly excluded people based on their race, an industry in which people would calmly say, "We're going white." But I'd believed, naively, that I could break through those barriers if I just worked hard enough. I knew I had a light to shine, but those in charge thought I wasn't meant to be seen. The barriers were higher than I'd acknowledged, and in that moment there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
I could have given up. But I thought about the fact that my parents, traditional Korean immigrants, had urged me to go to college instead of pursuing an acting career. They had tried to lovingly discourage me from embarking on a path that they believed would hurt me. If I valued my work enough to go against the wishes of my parents, then I certainly wasn't going to be stopped by anyone else. Since then, my only guiding light has been my desire to be the best actor I can be, no matter how daunting the process. I still have to squeeze my way into auditions, because people often can't imagine that someone who looks the way I do could play a certain role. It doesn't occur to them—but I know I can make it occur to them, if they just give me a chance.