How Diversity Drives ‘Stargirl’ Actress Joy Osmanski: Interview
Joy Osmanski has never been one to go by the book. After all, her upbringing gave her a unique — and often challenging — outlook. Born in South Korea, adopted by two white parents as a baby and raised in a primarily white community, cultural identity was always tricky for the 44-year-old actress, who will star in The CW’s Stargirl, premiering May 19.
“The problem with being an anomaly is that you feel the same as everyone else, but you don’t look it,” she tells me. “I had so many experiences where I’d be in that space that I felt entitled to inhabit, but someone or something would happen that threw a spotlight on how I was different — and it often came in the form of racism.”
Instead of enduring the discrimination, she spun it by using her diverse background to represent on television.
“My ignorance about the world of Stargirl was initial bliss,” Osmanski admits. “When I auditioned for the role, I had no idea who Paula was and that her alter ego, Tigress, was a super villain. All I knew was that I loved how the writing was darkly funny and a little dangerous.”
But the deeper she dove, the more intrigued she got, adding, “This is a legacy character with multiple iterations.”
So we chatted one-on-one about her multilayered character and her multicultural family — and how it all fits in with the state of Asian American diversity on television today.
Just wanted to start by asking how are you and your family doing during this challenging time?
Joy Osmanski: We’ve been ebbing and flowing and “surthriving,” as my husband Corey [Brill] likes to say. My stepdaughter had to come home from her first year of college and I know that’s been an adjustment. Our two preschoolers are quickly becoming Zoom masters, which is hilarious. Imagine 10 four-year-olds doing show-and-tell on Zoom. It’s exactly what you think. We are incredibly lucky to be healthy and safe, two things I never realized how profoundly I’ve taken for granted.
What has it been like stepping into a dual role of both Paula Brooks and Tigress, especially one with such a villainous side?
Osmanski: Playing a villain, especially when she’s written with force and humor, is the best. I’m always drawn to the bad guy, the antihero, the character who’s struggling with internal and external forces — all interesting characters have elements of that. And playing a dual character means exploring a veneer that cracks wide open when Paula is Tigress. It’s thanks to the writers that Paula remains as complicated as she is though — and I love that her motivation stems from her love of her family and her home. Totally relatable.
Female empowerment seems to be a great theme of the show — how do you hope young audiences will react to Stargirl herself?
Osmanski: That was one of my first reactions after reading the pilot… a young woman who takes all the initiative and chooses to transform and empower herself — and all while she’s thrust into a new, intimidating environment with a new blended family. Each of those things — on its own — is a lot. So I hope audiences of all ages will see themselves reflected in this story. For myself, with my blended family, it’s such a gift to see that story on screen.
You’ve had such an impressive and steady career for 15 years. How do you feel Asian American representation has changed on mainstream American TV during that time?
Osmanski: I will never not appreciate hearing that statement. So much of what we do as actors, is about keeping our heads down and striving forward, despite having little to no control. Not that there’s no joy in that, but it’s such a long game that it can be easy to lose sight of what we’ve accomplished. So thank you for saying that. In that time, I’ve seen some great strides forward with Asian American representation in mainstream TV, but we’ve still got a ways to go. We are starting to make a permanent move away from the tired, racist tropes that have burdened Asian American actors since the beginning of Hollywood. I love that stories with predominantly or all-Asian casts aren’t as alien as they once were — and that the stories can be about human issues, not necessarily from an ethnic lens. Or if they are, they can challenge expectations of what it means to be Filipino American, Hmong American, or Persian American.
How do you think the shift has been reflected behind the scenes during casting?
Osmanski: Slowly, being Asian American isn’t seen as “foreign,” as much as it has been in the past. Although, as current times reflect, it often feels like two steps forward, one giant step back. I’ve been fortunate to work with casting directors and showrunners who speak a language of creativity, in spite of dialoguing with executive forces that might try to urge them otherwise. But overall I would love to see more willingness to be open, more readiness to cast against “type,” whatever that means. If anything, it feels like casting directors are looking for more specific ethnicities. We’ve entered a time where a show doesn’t just want an Asian American, it wants a Chinese American because that’s who the character is, and I think that’s great. Remember Memoirs of a Geisha? I highly doubt Chinese actors would play those lead roles nowadays. So the pendulum is swinging the other way. The question is — how far will it go?
What do you think of the current state of diversity on television?
Osmanski: I think it was Joss Whedon, who, when asked “So, why do you always write these strong women characters?” replied, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” To me, the same applies to being asked about diversity on television. If the question still needs to be asked, we’re definitely not where we need to be. And I’m glad you asked because it’s a question that encompasses so much more than ethnicity. We need to see way more representation of people who are blind or visually impaired, people with cognitive disabilities, people with physical disabilities. Actors who are disabled, not actors playing. We need to see people of different sizes, different ages. Make casting choices because someone is compelling, not just marketable. Because haven’t we seen time and time again that when a leap is made, it pays off? Maybe someday, it won’t need to be a leap.
How have you dealt with your own racial identity?
Osmanski: I was lucky – my parents had travelled extensively and had a deep appreciation and respect for other cultures. So they raised me with pride in my Korean heritage. Still, as so many Korean adoptees will tell you, we have to draw an often shaky path toward finding ourselves as Koreans, as Americans, sometimes feeling like we belong nowhere. For me, racial identity has been a constant, thrumming tension. I feel like I finally have a strong understanding of who I am, yet it continues to evolve as I learn more about myself, the culture I come from, and the culture I inhabit.
Osmanski: With my children, I have the unique opportunity to be a mother in three different ways: I’m stepmother to my 19-year-old stepdaughter; adoptive mother to my four-year-old son, and birth mother to my three-year-old daughter. My husband and I adopted our son, domestically, as a newborn, and take the responsibility of raising a black child very seriously. I hope that my experience as an adoptee can give me some insight into his experience and I’ve already learned so much from both him and his birth mother, with whom we have a very open relationship. With my birth daughter, she’s growing up biracial in a world where that’s actually becoming mundane, and that’s wonderful. All three of my kids have access to information in a way never seen before. I hope they experience a world with a much richer language for exploring identity than I grew up with.
What do you think of all the incidents of discrimination and racism against Asian American in the U.S. right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Osmanski: When I read and see the horrific accounts of racism and xenophobia that are occurring right now, I get overwhelmed with frustration and sadness — and anger. Of course, people who already understand that just because a person appears to be Asian does not mean they’re a threat, are not the ones affected by messages of hate. And I desperately want to believe that is most of this country. I want to believe these acts of cowardice are the exceptions. Since it’s clearly not going to be exemplified at the highest level, it’s up to us to be hawk-like with our attention and action. But it can feel overwhelming. So for me, it’s about the small ways I can pay attention, like making friendly small talk with someone, even if we both have masks on. Start small and pay attention.
And finally, why should viewers tune in to Stargirl in May?
Osmanski: If you’re like me and grew up with movies like Back to the Future, Goonies and The Breakfast Club, you love stories that draw you in, make you guffaw and break your heart a little. Stargirl is all of that. [Series creator] Geoff Johns has created a world with all the greatest hits: good-versus-evil, coming-of-age and fish-out-of-water elements — and made it modern, relatable and human. Plus, the action is kick-ass. And if you’re like me, you’re all about escapism right now. We’ve got more than enough reality. Stargirl is going to be a blast of fresh air. And since that’s literally something I’ve taken for granted, I can’t wait.