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Interview of the Week, Keiko Agena, 11.09.01 ...

Keiko Agena is an Asian American girl who just wants to be an average teenager. Unfortunately her parents have a more traditional picture of who she should be.

Best known for her recurring role last spring on The WB drama Felicity as Leila Foster, a college student who inspired Felicity (Keri Russell) to stage a demonstration at the student health center, Agena now makes her debut as a series regular in Gilmore Girls.

Agena was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she lived until she was 17. She made her acting debut at age 10 with a small part in the play "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" and enjoyed the experience so much, she decided to continue performing. Her parents were very supportive, with her mother taking her to auditions and helping her memorize lines for roles in community theater productions.

After high school, Agena studied drama at Whitman College in Washington state. She came to Los Angeles during the summer break after her first year and never returned. Her first professional audition came before she had a chance to take head shots, so her agent improvised and took Polaroids of her. Fate intervened and she wound up getting the role nonetheless - a guest spot on the television series Renegade.

Since then, Agena has guest-starred as the mother of a deaf boy on ER, and a student reporter on Sister, Sister, as well as appearing on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Agena also played the lead in the upcoming feature film Hundred Percent, an independent Asian-American drama featuring the interwoven stories of three couples.

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ChauncÚ Hayden: I guess I don't need to tell you that "Gilmore Girls" is one of the most successful shows on TV this season.

Keiko Agena: Yeah, I know we've gotten good press lately! I'm jazzed about that!

In fact, your season premiere attracted 6.6 million viewers.

Wow, I didn't know that! That's amazing.

The odds against being on a successful television series are staggering. Are you surprised that "Gilmore Girls" did so well?

I'm not really surprised. I knew when I first read the script that it was a really well-written show. I really thought that it would do well. However, I was afraid that not enough people would be able to see it at first.


I was just concerned that it wouldn't be given enough time. But to be honest, I'm sort of going along blindly. I'm oblivious to the whole "being lucky" thing. This was my first big network test and I thought this is what happens on every show. I'm a little naive that way.

Most of the television shows you've guest appeared on to this point have all done well. I'm referring to "Felicity," "E.R.," "Sister Sister" and "90210."

Knock on wood. I've been having a good time.

But isn't it difficult for an Asian actress to get roles in Hollywood?

Yeah, statistically we're probably the most under-represented minority. But I think it's also hard for all the actors trying to get roles. I have my obstacles and other actors have their obstacles too. Actually, I look at being Asian as an advantage.

In what way?

At least I know my niche.

By niche, do you mean you can only play the stereotypical cute Asian girl?

When I say niche, I know that I'm Asian, I'm female, and I'm young. So from that starting point, I hope I can do almost anything. I hate the word stereotypical. In fact, I can't even do an Asian accent very well, and I'm glad I haven't had to do that kind of thing. In fact on "Felicity," my character wasn't even supposed to be Asian. They never even explained why my character's name was Leila Foster. There was no explanation at all why I didn't have an Asian name! I loved that!

Tell me about the role you play on "The Gilmore Girls."

There are some cultural things that are exaggerated on "The Gilmore Girls." But on the whole, she's based on an actual person and she's completely Americanized. However, her parents are first generation and that's very common in America today.

For those who have never seen "The Gilmore Girls," how would you describe it?

I think of it as a comedy, even though it's in a drama format. It's so witty. It's basically about the Gilmore family and dynamics among the three of them. The setting is so beautiful. It's a very, very small town and everybody knows everyone. It's just a lovely town for this eclectic group. I would love to live there!

Some have compared it to "Northern Exposure."

You know, when it first came out, a lot of people compared it to that show and I love that comparison! I think "Northern Exposure" was such a great show!

I believe it still airs on cable late at night.

Really! I just got cable so I have to watch it!

Just got cable? You've been a successful actress for several years. Don't they pay you people in Hollywood?

(Laughs) Well, it wasn't so much of a money thing, it's just that I'm a true television addict. So when I had cable, I would never leave the house. So I had to free myself of television for a little while. But now I feel like I have the self-discipline to have television again.

What did you do without TV?

I really had to go cold turkey for a while. For one thing, I would listen to the radio more and I would write more. I have a lot of friends who write, so I slowly started to experiment in writing.

It's a good thing not everyone stopped watching TV or you wouldn't have a job.

I know! TV is a good thing!

Are you into watching reality television?

I haven't seen a lot of them. I actually missed the whole "Survivor" thing. I'm probably the only person on the planet who missed all of them.

What kind of TV junkie are you?

I know! How sad! Actually I'm addicted to sitcoms.

Which ones?

I can admit it now because we're not across from them anymore, but I like "Friends" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

So at what point did you first believe that "Gilmore Girls" was going to be a big hit?

Um ... there was never one moment, because right from the beginning there was always good news about the show. It was a slow-moving snowball. It just kept building. Personally, I felt a big sense of relief once I knew it was official that we would be picked up for a second season. I was just so glad. The characters are so strong on the show that I've fallen in love with them. Last night at the table read, I actually broke down and cried. The actors are just so good and the writing is brilliant.

Do you actually watch "Gilmore Girls"?

Oh, I do!

Is it weird watching yourself on television?

It is weird. I've gotten better at it. But it's so great to see the whole chemistry among all the other actors. Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann are just amazing!

There are loads of Web sites dedicated to "Gilmore Girls." Have you checked them out?

I do once in a while. There's one that I really like, called The girl who runs it is very nice. I really didn't realize how many Asian-American kids watch the show and relate to my character. That was the best thing to me! That really touches my heart. Actually, anyone who says they don't peek to check out what is being said about them on the Internet is lying! (Laughs)

How has your life changed over the last year? I'm sure you can buy rather than rent now.

(Laughs) Yes, financially it's been wonderful. I would recommend being on a hit television show to everyone! The hardest thing for actors is to work a day job and then try to sneak away to go on auditions. At least it was hard for me. Now I have so much freedom and the time to do other things.

Do you get pressured to speak out on Asian-American issues from various organizations?

I wouldn't say that people place demands on me, but I definitely feel pressure because I want to be good enough. I want to be the kind of person that people can look up to. I want to make the kind of choices that are intelligent and good. But I put that pressure on myself. Nobody puts that pressure on me but me.

So will we ever see you in FHM, Stuff, or Maxim magazine?

(Laughs) Well, I will never say never! But I'll say for the record my tastes don't really lean toward that style. But you never know! I think I may be the only person in Hollywood who feels uncomfortable doing those magazines!

A lot of actresses feel like they have to be in those magazines to get work.

Right. She's only hot and popular if she's in those magazines. But I'm crossing my fingers that casting directors are reading other things besides Stuff.

Like Steppin' Out, for instance.


Interview by ChauncÚ Hayden for Steppin' Out Magazine.
Credit: Steppin' Out Magazine

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