We grew up watching her. We laughed as she learned how to drive and what a PRNDL was. We learned important lessons about body image and breaking stereotypes. A ditzy, rich hotel heiress—played by an Asian American actress? At the frontier of Asian American representation and steps toward diversity on the TV screen stood London Tipton, played by actress Brenda Song. From her decade-long start in Disney stardom to her most recent project, Hulu’s Dollface, Song takes a look back on the experiences in her career that celebrate friendships and diverse narratives in our 16th issue.
From Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior to London Tipton on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, how would you describe your time on Disney?
Absolutely amazing. I feel so fortunate that I got to, at such a young age, be a part of a company that was letting me live out my dream. They gave me such amazing opportunities on that channel, like with London Tipton and with Wendy Wu, and Stuck in the Suburbs, and all these things. They were the one outlet that had so much diversity and so many different fun things; they were 2019 back in like 2005. They were giving me my own TV, movies, and things like that.
On Disney, you played these characters who don’t align with the traditional Asian stereotypes as we know, such as the classic nerdy Asian archetype. In your eyes, how have your previous roles contributed to redefining what an Asian character can be?
The truth is people ask that a lot and I’m just like, it’s really hard unless you’re getting very specific on a personal struggle or a personal story. It’s like, whether you’re Asian, Caucasian, African American, black, white, Latinx, Spanish, whatever it is that you are, we’re all just people. And that’s the thing. We were just telling stories about people. There’s something beautiful about true representation in the U.S. With Disney and with a lot of projects early on, I feel very fortunate to not have been cast specifically because I am Asian. So I feel really lucky, but at the same time, especially now, there are so many more opportunities that weren’t there even five years ago, 10 years ago, to share more stories that are personal, and people are more open to seeing [actors of different ethnicities] as the lead. And I think that’s wonderful because that’s true representation of what not just America, but what this world really looks like.
Throughout your acting career, have you ever felt like your looks or appearance determined which roles you’d be given the opportunity to play?
I’ve been acting since I was five years old, and I had to learn rejection at a very young age. I may have gotten an audition, but I couldn’t play certain people’s daughters and I could only be their best friend. But when you’re that young, you don’t even think about it. The reason why it didn’t discourage me was the fact that I love doing what I do. I love acting. And it’s part of why I love auditioning because, for me, every audition is its own job. I love playing pretend. I love stepping into other people’s shoes and getting in their skin and figuring out what makes them tick.
What type of roles do you seek today?
Throughout my career, I feel very fortunate to have worked on all sorts of different projects. But the older I get, the more I realize that I only want to do projects that I’m willing to stand on the firing line for, whether it’s that I love working on that set, or I wanted to work with these people, or this is a project that I am so passionate about. To me, it’s all about my own personal journey at this point. So I feel like the sky really is the limit, and right now I’m very, very open to what’s out there.
Behind the scenes, how do you think the industry has evolved in terms of this diversity and casting?
I think people have to realize that it’s not just representation on camera, it’s also representation off-camera. That was one thing that was amazing about working on Dollface was that not just on camera, but also behind the scenes—our creator, our directors, our executive producers, our camera operators, our sound engineers, our editors—[were dominated by] women. People went out of their way to give women of all ethnicities and nationalities an opportunity to show that, “Hell yeah, we can do it just as well as everyone else.” And I think that’s the key, that we finally have an opportunity to expand on this idea of representation.
Speaking of your latest project, Dollface, if you could kind of summarize the main message of the show that you’d like fans to take away, what would that be?
Take care of your relationships with your girlfriends. There is not an amount of time that is past that is too long or too short. If you find your core group of girls, take care of them because those are the people that will be honest with you, through and through. I feel very fortunate that I have an amazing group of girlfriends, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. I think your relationship with your girlfriends is so special, so that’s why when I read [Dollface] I was like, I love this because it makes me want to go hang out with my girlfriends.
Behind the scenes, what was it like being on set and working with such an amazing cast?
Honestly, I feel so lucky to say this. It was literally like going to work and hanging out with my girlfriends every single day. Kat and I live very close together. So most days, more days than not, I pick her up and we’d go to work together and we’d just be talking. We’d go to the makeup trailer, we’d be talking, we’d go to set, we’d just be talking, talking, talking, talking. We literally just hung out for four months. And I feel so lucky because we actually are the most like our characters in our friendship group because we are all friends. Kat and I still talk every single day. Esther and I FaceTimed yesterday. We are all still friends, and this is the first time in my career that I was a part of such a female-centric cast.
What advice would you give to teens today struggling with their identity and accept it?
My mom has always said that there’s only one you in this world and you can only be you. There’s only one Brenda and there’s only one of everyone else. You have to figure out what you love to do, what you feel like your strengths are and sort of steer into that and be the best version of you.