Veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu brings JA history to Netflix’s hit series ‘Never Have I Ever’


Clyde Kusatsu as Ted Yoshida and Darren Barnet as Paxton-Hall Yoshida in episode 209 of ‘Never Have I Ever’ photo by Isabella B. Vosmikova/Netflix © 2021

Clyde Kusatsu as Ted Yoshida and Darren Barnet as Paxton-Hall Yoshida in episode 209 of ‘Never Have I Ever.’ photo by Isabella B. Vosmikova/Netflix © 2021

The racial consciousness of the “Me Too” movement and the current era of diversity, equity and inclusion has led to an explosion of movies and television shows that feature Asian Americans. It’s been building for awhile — the fuse was lit in 1994 with Margaret Cho’s one-season sitcom, “All-American Girl.” But the sparks that have led to today’s number of Asians on screen really caught on when “Fresh Off the Boat” (2015-2020) and then “Dr. Ken” (2015-2017) debuted on the small screen, and of course when “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) took over the big screen. All of a sudden, Hollywood realized that not only would Asian Americans watch actors that looked like them, but so would non-Asian audiences.

Mindy Kaling, the South Asian actor who first made her mark on “The Office” and then on her own “The Mindy Project,” has proven that a show that features a very diverse cast of Asian Americans in starring roles can become a worldwide hit. Netflix has now approved a third season for “Never Have I Ever,” Kaling’s often serious comedy series about a South Asian high school student (loosely based on a young Mindy) who struggles with her cultural heritage and juggles the trials and tribulations of a teenager’s social — and romantic — life.

The lead character, Devi Vishwakumar (played wonderfully by novice actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), has a serious crush on the school jock, Paxton Hall-Yoshida. Hall-Yoshida, as the name suggests, is a biracial Japanese American, and he’s become a popular heartthrob for fans of the show. In one of his early appearances, actor Darren Barnet — who in real life is the son of a Japanese and Swedish mother whose grandmother taught him to speak Japanese — rips off his T-shirt when, in a dream sequence, he offers to have sex with Devi. That scene became a virtual Internet meme with guys trying to pull off their T-shirts as quickly and elegantly (showing off some amazing abs in the process).

In past interviews, Barnet said his character was originally named Paxton Hall. But when he was overheard speaking Japanese with the show’s assistant director Yuko Ogata, Kaling and co-producer Lang Fisher asked him if he was OK with the character being changed to reflect his actual ethnic and racial heritage, with a Japanese American father and a Caucasian mother. So the character’s name became Paxton Hall-Yoshida.

In the show’s second season, the Hall-Yoshida character’s backstory got more attention and a new character was introduced: Ted Yoshida, Paxton’s grandfather played by veteran Japanese American actor Clyde Kusatsu. In one memorable and moving episode, Paxton asked his ojiichan to open up for a class project about his experience as a child in the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp during World War II. Without lecturing or expressing anger over his family’s experience, Ted recounted the experience of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, and added, “I need to tell my story so that no one ever forgets.” It was an emotional moment, both for the classroom in the show and for viewers.

For Kusatsu, it was something of a homecoming as an actor. He began his Hollywood career in early 1970s TV series such as “Room 222” (uncredited, as a man walking into a café), “Ironside” (as a parking attendant) and “Kung Fu” (different roles in five episodes). But the role that cemented his reputation was as Teddy Wakatsuki in the 1976 TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar,” based on author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir of life in the concentration camp.

Kusatsu said in an interview that talking about Manzanar in a script so many decades later allowed him to speak with the “emotional truth” of looking back to the past.

“When you grow older, you develop an understanding that dialogue has a certain resonance behind it,” he said. Back in 1975 during the filming of “Farewell To Manzanar,” he had heated discussions with other crew members about defending the Japanese

American community going off quietly to concentration camps. Now, he said, “I am glad to be able to tell my story” without a layer of anger and outrage. Kusatsu thinks the new generation of the show’s viewers probably don’t know about the Japanese American experience and the episode helped educate them without talking down to them.

Kusatsu said he doesn’t know if his character will return in the third season of “Never Have I Ever,” but he enjoys working with Barnet. He pointed to the increasing visibility of mixed-race Asian Americans in Hollywood.

In the past, he noted, “if you were a hapa, sometimes that was held against you. You were brand new, the ‘other,’ right.” Today, he pointed out mixed-race Asians (and other ethnicities) are increasingly common in commercials, and prominent roles on TV and films. “The more that you see of the fabric of America, the more people see it in front of them constantly on their commercials and stuff like that, it’s not that jarring. So the next step is that when you look at the shows being cast, the younger people, there is a mixture of races,” he said.

“You know, it used to be OK, we got the Hispanic kid, we got the Black kid, we got the Asian kid. And all the lines are done by the white kids.” But in a show like “Never Have I Ever,” which is centered around a South Asian family, which has a mixed-raced Japanese American and his grandfather in the plot, and includes Asian American and African American women as Devi’s school friends, diversity becomes a given, a baseline.

Kusatsu has watched this evolution in the industry from the inside. He’s the national vice president Los Angeles for SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, and said, “The work is always ongoing in advocating and pushing the aspirations of many. Ironically it’s taken that MAGA anti-Asian outlash to finally unify everyone under AAPI because it no longer was Chinese, or Korean or Japanese or South Asian …. everyone has seen their faces reflected in the mirror of hate.”

The new generation working in front of and behind the cameras, he added, includes “young Asian Americans who are finding their voice and beginning to speak up. And this is great. It’s very important. They’re no longer just quiet Americans.” That’s a reference to Japanese American journalist Bill Hosokawa’s groundbreaking 1969 book “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” which was for many post-war readers the first time they learned about the wartime incarceration.

“You can’t be quiet Americans anymore, Kusatsu said. “You know, you’re gonna be able to push back.”

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