Discover Nikkei

Maya Erskine, of Amazon’s ‘Betas’ TV Show, Challenges Hollywood’s Status Quo

Among the many characters in the web-based shows that are beginning to sweep the internet, one star in particular is stealing our hearts.

Los Angeles native Maya Erskine loves getting out of character and playing someone she isn’t. This was true for the half-Japanese actress even when she was young. “I was always into make-believe and fantasy,” Erskine says. “I played really weird games with myself. I liked imagining myself as an older female. I would have a martini glass and put apple juice in it, find a fake cigarette, and talk to myself for hours in front of the mirror.”

Photo courtesy of Maya Erskine

As a child, Erskine found solace in theater particularly in middle school, when she had a difficult time truly identifying with her peers. At school, her classmates were predominantly Jewish and Caucasian students, as well as some who had grown up in Korea.

“It was hard to see where I fit in exactly,” she said. “Acting was the one place I could get lost in other characters and be accepted as whatever character I was playing.” She remembers playing Maria Nunez in “West Side Story”—bad Puerto Rican accent and all—as the definitive moment that propelled her to study theater at New York University and then move on to pursue an acting career in Santa Monica.

These days, Erskine’s getting more attention as Mikki, a sassy and techy character on Amazon’s original show, “Betas.” On the show, she navigates the male-dominated startup world as a sassy, witty young woman with plenty of tech can-do. Erskine actually went into her auditions by chance—she’d simply happened to hear about the opening from a fellow Asian actor—and fell in love with the character’s lines.

Photo courtesy of Maya Erskine

Erskine is currently channeling her humor into a comedic web series that she’s writing with Anna Konkle, which includes audience participation. “It’s about rejected reality show pilots,” she says. “We’ve made five different pilots that you can vote on, and the one that is voted on the most is the one we’ll produce a whole season for.”

While Erskine enjoys walking the line between smart and flaky, strong and misunderstood, she notes that she’s struggled with landing satisfying roles because of her ethnicity in the past. One particularly bad moment: When she auditioned for the role of Alice in “Alice in Wonderland,” she was shooed away because she didn’t have blonde hair. She was encouraged to play another part—a minor one, of course. “The only roles in the market were ‘Chinese waitress number 2’ or ‘Asian girl at the coffee shop,’ and these are not the roles I want to be going out for,” she says.

There do seem to be more roles for both Asian American males and females these days, but Erskine doesn’t think it’s quite enough. And, she adds, Asian prevalence in media can in part be attributed to a surface need to diversify, at least thus far. “It’s just to fill some kind of quota,” Erskine adds. “It feels awful, but I do think it’s changing.”

Even in films scripted with Asian characters, casting teams have room for improvement. Erskine points to Memoirs of a Geisha as a missed opportunity. “I thought, ‘Oh what a chance for Japanese people to play these roles,’ and then they cast lead roles with Chinese people,” she says. “It was almost like they saying, ‘Well, what’s the difference?’ I can see a whole lot of difference.”

Unsurprisingly, while she’s played a variety of roles—including an Asian Southern belle in “Hart of Dixie”—her favorites have remained the same over the years: “I like playing strong females characters, almost maniacal or twisted,” Erskine says. Ever the contrarian, she also adds, “I noticed that I like playing as males as well. I don’t like to only stick to my gender. Hamlet was the most fun I’ve ever had. It didn’t matter if I was a guy or girl, he was just very mischievous.”


*This article was originally published on Mochi Magazine, Spring 2014.


© 2014 Catherine Zaw

acting actors artists Betas (web series) entertainers hapa Maya Erskine media Mochi Magazine racially mixed people stereotypes web series
About the Author

Catherine Zaw is an undergraduate majoring in biology and linguistics at Stanford University. She currently works as a news editor for The Stanford Daily and as a research assistant at the Stanford School of Medicine while enjoying her other passions of creative writing, swimming, and eating broccoli. She plans to publish a novel, walk the entire Great Wall of China, own a food truck, and eventually become a doctor.

Updated March 2014

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More

Discover Nikkei Updates

Nikkei Names 2: Grace, Graça, Graciela, Megumi?
What’s in a name? Share the story of your name with our community. Submissions now open!
Episode 16
June 25 (US) | June 26 (Japan)
Featured Nima:
Stan Kirk
Guest Host:
Yoko Murakawa
See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon!