Amazing Asians in the Arts: Jennifer Betit Yen
Jennifer is a NYC based (born and raised) actress, activist, producer, and writer! She has had roles in theater, tv/film, and written and produced short films. She is also the President of Asian American Film Lab, a 501c3 non profit dedicated to the promotion and support of racial and gender parity. Keep reading to find out more about what makes Jennifer an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Jennifer Betit Yen
Heritage: Chinese, Irish and French
Hometown: New York City
Current City: New York City
Current Projects: A series of short form entertainment media segments raising awareness about COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism (example: https://youtu.be/HwgRrldLyTw)
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
The role of Aimee Kamoe on the NBC series "New Amsterdam" especially when I got to get sprayed with fake blood for a prison riot scene and then went home afterwards with fake blood still all over my face and scared the heck out of the people in my building elevator (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2299662/);
the short film "The Opposite of a Fairy Tale," because it was the first "real" movie I both wrote and produced and because it was intensely gratifying to see other entities use it to combat and raise awareness about elder abuse (https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-opposite-of-a-fairy-tale/id1236999030);
the IWATTAU project, because we were able to use live theatre to draw even very conservative audience members into constructive dialogue about immigration and xenophobia (https://www.broadwayworld.com/off-off-broadway/article/The-Tank-Presents-Limited-Engagement-Of-IWATTAU-IWATTAU-20190124);
and, finally, the fact that the Mayor of NYC named a day after me last May for "arts and activism" work, which was pretty cool. I'm hoping I can take my proclamation to local bars and get free drinks each May 9 now (https://twitter.com/nycmayorsoffice/status/1126992087356977152?s=21&fbclid=IwAR3nTmErEiZGXLvo9TS2ixr1GeUSfIxVB4sRoCpNqYvc39KvPZ_GkCroCiQ).
Do you have any non profits you work with that you'd like to highlight?
I have worked for the Asian American Film Lab since 2012. The Film Lab is a 501(c)(3) not for profit that has been dedicated to the promotion and support of gender and racial parity in entertainment media since 1998. The Film Lab accomplishes that goal in three ways: (1) education; (2) outreach and support; and (3) production.
Education– The Film Lab runs monthly events that are open to the public ranging from screenings to seminars to Q&As, all designed to increase awareness of the current state of diversity in media and to provide audiences with the tools and motivation to effectuate positive social change through entertainment.
Outreach-Support– The Film Lab runs various programs ranging from the famous 72 Hour Shootout filmmaking competition to filmmaking how-to workshops to networking parties, all of which work to connect people of color, particularly Asian Americans, and mainstream media executives and to create mentorship and distribution opportunities for people creating diverse works. The 72 Hour Shootout filmmaking competition is arguably the Film Lab’s most important annual event; bringing together A-list judges and established and aspiring filmmakers across the globe. People of allcolors, backgrounds, religions, and cultures with a common goal: to battle inequality through creativity; to promote gender and ethnic diversity through entertainment; and to challenge stereotypical mainstream constructions of race, gender and sexuality. Top Shootout films have screened at the Asian American International Film Festival and the Time Warner Theatre in New York City and aired on CrossingsTV. The screenings typically sell out.
Production– The Film Lab produces media with positive and prolific perceptions of women and people of color. The TV series, Film Lab Presents currently airs on CrossingsTV (Spectrum Cable & Xfinity). We also have an online channel, AAFL TV, to which viewers can subscribe to for free at youtube.com/asamfilmlab.
How did you get your start? I studied theatre arts and political philosophy as an undergraduate with the idea of being a waitress in D.C. A professor told me that, because of my race, I would likely not get cast in anything but Miss Saigon and recommended I get myself a back up plan. At the time, the availability of auditions (or lack thereof) to me seemed to suggest that what she was saying was true so I applied to law school, graduated and worked as a litigator for several years, during which time I continued to do voiceover, film and theatre work. One of the indie films I had a lead role in did well on the festival circuit and got me the offer of an agent in LA. I figured a law degree won't expire but an opportunity like that certainly would and left with quite a lot of suitcases and hit the pavement in LA.
Who do you admire? Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern are two currently living people who I very much admire. Out of history, Sojourner Truth and Mabel Lee (a Chinese-American advocate for women's suffrage in the United States) are two people who I admire and who inspire me. Ching Shih is another fascinating historical figure, although she did some things that were not so great (piracy, you know).
What is the most valuable lesson you've learned during your career? To pick my battles
Do you have any mentors? My grandmothers. One was Chinese and she was all about doing the best that you, personally, can do - she emphasized not focusing on others or comparing oneself to others but just to focus on within and doing the best you can with what you have; and the other was Irish and she was all about being independent and adventurous and, whether she would have described it with this word or not, feminist. They were both very strong, courageous women who lived through some wild adventures and times. I miss them both a lot. I was very lucky to have had them in my life.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
The double whammy of being a woman of color is still very challenging when you want to pursue an acting career in mainstream entertainment media. I have some funny stories (http://jenniferbetityen.weebly.com/ethical-is-beautiful-be-beautiful-a-blog/hint-of-an-asian-american-accent) and some not-so-funny stories. On good days, you'll book a role where they didn't stereotype you and you are playing something really multi-faceted and great and, on bad days, you're in a cattle call with a hundred of your fellow Asian American thespians for the role of Vietnamese Manicurist #5. Once I went out for a lawyer role with a non-Asian sounding surname and the casting director was like, "But you're Asian. You don't look like a lawyer or a Ms. [surname]." I was like "And yet I could be both and actually am one." I did not get the role.
Where did you study at? Cornell University and Boston University School of Law.
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself? I love to box and I am learning how to make vegan cheese!
Do you have a website or an organization you'd like to share?
My own website is www.jen-yen.com. Although my primary occupation is acting, I also run a non-profit, the Film Lab, that promotes gender and racial parity in entertainment and, as an animal welfare activist, launched a start up, A2Px, aimed at helping farmers transition from animal based agriculture to plant based agriculture. I also have a small blog called "Ethical Is Beautiful. Be Beautiful" that discusses simple ways we can vacation, eat, shop, and just be in a way that maximizes our respect for others, as well as for the planet.