Conversation with Actor Kurt Yue: On Asian Representation and Atlanta Film
If you watch any of Netflix’s most popular shows, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his face.
From Cobra Kai to The Haunting of Hill House to Insatiable, prolific Atlanta actor Kurt Yue is one of those faces who seems to be in everything.
Since moving from Cleveland to Atlanta in 2016, Yue has built up an extensive filmography and made quite a name for himself in the Atlanta film market. He recently landed his first lead role in a feature-length film, as one of the stars in Walker Whited’s 2020 thriller, By Night’s End.
But who is Kurt Yue? I had the privilege to speak with Kurt, and we had a wonderful conversation about his experience on By Night’s End, Asian representation in cinema, and just what it is about Atlanta that makes our film community so special.
In By Night’s End, Yue plays Mark—a victim of home invasion who decides, along with his wife Heather (Michelle Rose), to take a stand against the intruders. In the film, the dynamic between husband and wife is an unconventional one. Heather, who we learn is ex-military, has the greater agency of the two partners; meanwhile, Mark appears to be the more passive one in the marriage. I asked Kurt about their nuanced portrayal of the married couple, and whether he and Michelle discussed the gender roles of their characters. In return, Yue offered a fascinating glimpse into his acting process:
“A lot of people, especially if they don’t know too much about how the whole filmmaking process works, think that we show up on set and just perform. But it takes a lot of homework, which was done both individually and as a group. Michelle, Walker, and I met prior to shooting to discuss our characters individually, as well as their dynamic together. Michelle and I discussed our relationship and created our backstory; part of that is written in the script, but it was only a 90-page script, so the rest of our lives—how we came to where we are, what our relationship is like—had to be figured out between the two of us. We definitely put our work into it and hopefully, it showed on the screen.”
Yue explained that he first worked with director Walker Whited on a commercial shoot, and had no idea at the time that Whited was developing a feature, much less that he had Yue in mind for the lead. Of course, Yue was immediately interested, though, in the industry, it’s not uncommon for people pitching projects to be all talk. But after he read the script and saw how serious Whited was about making the film, it was the professionalism of the production that ultimately won Yue over.
"I credit the producers for doing all of their homework and doing everything right so that when it came time to actually make the movie, it all went smoothly,” Yue said. “I believe we shot the whole thing in 12 days, which is incredible for a feature film. It’s a huge testament to the whole production team. It was a small indie film and they knew exactly what their limitations were. They pushed the boundaries, but never overstepped them to the point that it was going to ruin the movie. They did such an incredible job.”
Yue went on to further share about how he was cast.
“The funny thing is, the commercial I’d worked on with Walker previously was this goofy little mock news segment, kind of like an SNL type of thing. It was maybe 20 seconds long, and for him to work with me on that and then to think, ‘Oh, he could play Mark in this action thriller…’” Yue laughed. “I don’t know how he got from A to B, but I’m glad he did.”
One of my favorite things about By Night’s End was the casting of an Asian-American actor in a lead role where race was completely secondary. As it turns out, the diversity of the casting was purely incidental; Yue explained that Whited cast both him and Michelle Rose based on past working relationships and that representation was not at the forefront of his mind. Either way, I think it serves as a powerful statement.
Yue, who considers himself an actor first and foremost before an Asian-American actor, revealed that he hadn’t given much thought to the issue of representation in cinema until fairly recently.
“I never really looked at myself in that way,” Yue shared “in terms of my acting being a part of this movement to add more diversity to Hollywood. I know Hollywood has gotten better about it in the last few years, but the funny thing is, I never saw it that way. As actors, we’re just trying to get our careers off the ground and just get that next job.”
It was actually Kurt’s YouTube channel, The Acting Career Center that helped him truly appreciate the importance of representation in film—and the difference he was making without realizing it. Kurt’s channel is a resource for aspiring actors, offering his own experience, advice, and tricks of the trade to help jumpstart their careers in the film industry. It was the comments on his videos, Kurt revealed, that helped open his eyes.
“When I started my YouTube channel, I started getting comments there saying, ‘It’s great to see an Asian actor,’ and even comments from younger Asian actors. That really opened my eyes—I still look to other people for inspiration, so it’s a weird thing to now be in the position where other people drawing inspiration from what I’m doing.”
Kurt was extremely humble, adding that he still feels like he is up and coming and is grateful to accept whatever work is available; he doesn’t yet feel in a position where he can be picky about which roles he chooses. That said, from where I’m standing, I see an actor with more than 50 credits to his name and I must say—in my humble opinion—that Kurt has definitely “made it.” I respect that rather than becoming complacent, he wishes to further hone his craft and continue booking larger and larger roles, as evidenced by By Night’s End.
“If I’m an actor I prefer to book something on my merits. I don’t want someone to give me a role just because I’m Asian or anything else. But more and more often, in terms of casting, I’m starting to see that a lot more roles will say ‘Open ethnicity’ instead of specifying. In the past, most of the smaller day player roles on movies or TV shows—like a gas station worker or a waiter—were open ethnicity, because anyone could play them. But now, I’m seeing more of the bigger roles come through as open ethnicity.”
“It definitely comes from the top down,” Kurt continued. “If the script already has a character description, then that’s going to go from producers, through to casting, and to our agent. I don’t know where this is happening—whether it’s the writers starting to do that, which would be great, or if it’s the casting directors going through the script and saying, ‘Some of these characters don’t necessarily have to be what’s written. Would you be open to other options?’ So perhaps that’s happening, too, and kudos to them if casting directors are taking it upon themselves to open that up. With me just being on the acting side, I don’t know where that’s happening. But somewhere it is. And I do think it has to happen in that realm before it trickles down to where I am.”
Like Kurt, wherever this change is occurring, I’m also glad that it’s taking place. I’ve observed an old pattern in Hollywood of casting Asian actors in larger roles only when their ethnicity is somehow relevant to the plot of the film (ex. Crazy Rich Asians, Doctor Strange, The Karate Kid). These are all fantastic films, but I feel that we can do better. In recent years, I think we’ve taken steps in the right direction to reverse this trend, with movies like By Night’s End and Searching (2018), which starred John Cho in a lead role where race was a nonfactor.
Most recently, veteran actor Daniel Dae Kim landed his first series lead as an FBI agent in The Hot Zone. This is certainly a landmark victory for Asian representation in film and TV, but should it have taken 31 years to happen? I would argue no, but we are on the right path. As Kurt said, the change must come from the top down—however, just as he learned, we all play a role in being a part of that change. Sometimes without even realizing it.
Phew, that was heavy, Doc. How about some lighter subject matter?
You like Cobra Kai, right? Who doesn’t? Well, Kurt Yue was there from the very beginning, playing the character of ‘George’ on the All Valley Karate Tournament committee in Season One. When Johnny Lawrence appeals to have the Cobra Kai dojo reinstated, he appears before the tournament committee, meaning Kurt shared the screen with both William Zabka and the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio.
“It was incredible and kind of surreal, especially being an 80s kid. I don’t know how many times I saw The Karate Kid when I was little.”
Kurt went on to share a fun, behind-the-scenes story of how he was cast:
“I auditioned for three or four characters prior to being cast as George, and I’m pretty sure all of those characters were open ethnicity. They offered me one role that I read for, but I had a conflict—I was out of town, working on set on something else, which is an amazing problem for actors to have. But at the same time, it was like a shot in the gut because this was an opportunity to work on Cobra Kai. But then, as luck would have it—and a huge thank you to the producers and writers—when they were casting for the All Valley Tournament committee and the character of George came up, they offered me the role without having to audition because I’d already auditioned three or four times for other characters. I was super grateful to have gotten that opportunity, and for my first scene to be in the room with Ralph and William, it was incredible. Ralph and William were just amazing, the writers were amazing. I felt like there was an excitement on set the entire season.”
The newest season ends (spoiler alert!) hinting at another tournament in the upcoming Season Four. Will the return of the All Valley Tournament mean the return of the All Valley Tournament committee? Whether George will get back in on the action of Season Four remains to be seen, but here’s what Kurt (who is a fan of the show) had to say about the future of Cobra Kai:
“The writers did such an amazing job crafting this story and crafting the antihero of Johnny Lawrence. You keep going back and forth on who you’re rooting for in terms of Johnny or Daniel, and the other characters as well. Everybody has their merits and everybody has their demons. They’ve definitely laid the groundwork to have even more of that happening.”
Couldn’t agree more!
Finally, I asked Kurt what he loves most about the Atlanta film community.
“The best part is the community itself,” he replied. “In my first acting class at Drama, Inc., my acting teacher Jason McDonald said a specific phrase that I’ll never forget: Community, not competition. When I found my community of actor and filmmaker friends here, I found that to be the case all throughout Atlanta. The people here are very much trying to lift each other up and support each other. And you don’t hear those things in bigger markets like New York and LA.”
He went on to explain that he’s met other actors and filmmakers who’ve moved here from New York and LA and that they didn’t feel this sort of community existed there. That it’s everybody for themselves, it’s much more cutthroat, and everyone’s trying to get an edge on the next person just to get their own careers off the ground. But here in Atlanta, everybody’s rooting for each other. And Kurt found, when he moved here from Ohio, that the camaraderie was contagious.
“When I first came down here in 2016, I don’t know if I had that same mentality, but because everybody else did, it rubbed off on me. And now I see myself rooting for people I don’t even know. People I’ve never even met, but I just know they’re an Atlanta actor. I’ll see them book a big recurring role on a TV show and I’ll think ‘I don’t know them personally, but I know that face and I know that person is an Atlanta actor!’ And I’m cheering them on.”
Kurt cut right to the heart of what’s so fantastic about our community. And I know exactly the phenomenon he’s talking about—because, for me, his is one of those faces. Anytime he pops up in a show or movie, I light up with recognition and think, ‘Hey, that’s Kurt Yue! I’ve seen him around!’ And hopefully, after learning about him, you will, too.
Huge thanks to Kurt Yue for taking the time to talk to me, sharing his experiences, opening up about some sensitive issues, and having tough but important conversations. By Night’s End is available for streaming on VOD, and you can check out Kurt’s YouTube channel, The Acting Career Center, here.