From The Straits Times    |

It’s a typical morning rush hour in Manhattan, New York City. The sidewalks of the city’s buzzing financial heart are teeming with a bustling crowd that’s moving along with a frenetic pace. Amidst the sea of professionals in dark suits, the only woman of colour stands out. Clad in a powder pink suit ensemble, she’s strutting down the street determinedly with purpose in her stride.

Meet Asian American lawyer, Ingrid Yun, who’s also the lead character of Partner Track, Netflix’s new contemporary legal drama. And bringing Ingrid to life? It’s none other than actress Arden Cho, of Teen Wolf and Chicago Med fame.

“Shooting in Manhattan is a big event. It’s a busy city, and there was a lot of pressure,” says Cho, of the scene described in the opening paragraph. “In that moment, I realised how powerful a walking scene could be. The scene defines it as Ingrid’s world, and we get to see the show from her lens, in her voice, while we’re in her shoes.” This scene also serves as the opening sequence of both the trailer and the first episode of Partner Track.

“That’s a really special scene for me, and it didn’t hit me until I was watching it while recording the voiceover for the opening. When I was filming it in that moment, all I was thinking about was me walking. It’s only afterwards when I watched it – I just started crying,” she tells me with a small laugh, picking up her coffee – she takes it black – after a pause. We’re chatting whilst comfortably ensconced in a business meeting room within Cho’s hotel in town – the actress was in Singapore last month for a brief holiday mixed with a couple of press days for Partner Track.

You were crying in the sound booth? I parroted back to her, surprised. “Yeah, because I was like, oh my gosh, little Arden would have given anything to see a show like this,” she says with a shrug. “[A show with] an Asian American woman is walking down the streets of Manhattan [as] the main character…I can’t think of another time that I’ve seen that.”

[A show with] an Asian American woman is walking down the streets of Manhattan [as] the main character…I can’t think of another time that I’ve seen that

Arden Cho

Taking the lead

While Cho has an acting career that spans more than a decade, Partner Track marks the first series that she stars as the lead. The show is an adaptation of Chinese American novelist and lawyer Helen Wan’s 2013 book of the same name.

Similar to the book, the 10-episode drama series documents Ingrid’s life (both personal and professional) as she attempts to make her way up the partner track – a term used in law firms to describe an associate’s potential for partnership – in order to become the first Asian-American junior partner at a prestigious New York City law firm that’s rife with thinly disguised misogyny and dominated with old boys’ club culture. 

But there are key differences between the show and the book. Cho, alongside Chinese American writer and director Georgia Lee, who runs the series with fellow executive producer Sarah Goldfinger, took creative liberties in order to portray a deeper, more authentic story with their own stamp on the show. 

For example, a twist in the show that didn’t exist in the books is Lee’s creation of Ingrid’s younger sister, Lina, portrayed by actress Lena Ahn. “It adds a really nice dynamic to the show while revealing another part of relationships and experiences for Asian American [families],” says the actress. 

Another difference between the book and show is Ingrid’s ethnicity. The character was originally written as a Chinese American, as she stemmed from both Wan’s and Lee’s experiences. When Cho, who is Korean American, came on board, the character was eventually developed as a Korean American as well. 

“It was interesting, because we wanted to tell the story authentically. Being Korean American and being Chinese American is different; the cultures, in fact, are very different,” Cho explains. “We thought that if Ingrid was Korean American, it’s just more authentic. From my experience as an actor, I’m able to speak Konglish (a mixture of Korean and English) and I’m able to have these nuances that come a bit more naturally [as compared to] if I was portraying a Chinese character. Georgia, Helen, Netflix and the producers were very supportive. They said, ‘Let’s do whatever helps us tell the most authentic and relatable story.’” 

“A relatable story” is a key message for Cho when it comes to the show. “For me, I don’t even consider [the show] as a Korean American story. I consider it an Asian American story. I hope that people can relate to the Asian American experience, because I was born and raised in Texas and grew up in Minnesota. I grew up in very white environments and for most of my life, I didn’t know what it meant to be Asian American.” 

Having watched press screeners prior to this interview with Cho, I highlighted a scene near the end of the series where Ingrid’s father, who brought her up with strict familial values and cultural conditioning, immediately assigns the blame to her after an incident. He tells her he’s disappointed in her, without hearing her out.

Was this scene relatable? “Yes, and I think the experience she has with her father is also very relatable for so many minorities who have this immense pressure from their family to succeed because [their parents] gave up so much to be [in America],” she notes.

“The mindset is to never complain, don’t rebel, and to just work hard and keep your head down. But unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way, and sometimes we need a little love and support. I feel like people forget how lonely and tough it can be when you’re trying to be the best.” 

Family comes first

I wonder if Cho’s parents had given her a similar pressure – to keep her head down and not rock the boat – when she first started her acting career. After all, she had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Illinois, and afterwards left for Kenya on a medical mission trip. Upon her return from Kenya, she booked a one-way ticket to Los Angeles in 2007 even though she was “pretty much broke”, in order to pursue her passion for acting. 

“The first seven to eight years of my life was quite a struggle, with lots of auditions and failures,” she recalls with a wistful smile. “And my mom – like every Asian mom – just worries so much. She worries that I’m in a tough industry; that I’m not married; that society is tough. It’s a long list of worries!” Cho chuckles. “But at the same time, in the last 10 years, she has become a very big supporter. I feel like when I don’t get auditions, she’s even more disappointed and heartbroken than I am.”

It has become tradition for Cho to dial her mother after an audition and have a chat with her about it, and it was no less different for the audition for Partner Track. (When I ask Cho what the audition was like, she reveals that “the main thing I remember is that well, there’s a lot of producer sessions with eight to 10 people in the room and everyone’s male. For this producer session, I remembered it was full of women, which was really nice, and the energy was really positive.”) 

“Right after I got the confirmation call, the first thing I did was drive down to Orange County where my parents live,” she recalls. “I knocked on the door and right as [my mom] opened it, I started crying and then she started crying and we hugged for 10 minutes. I told her I got the role and she just told me: ‘I know’.” A mother’s intuition is never wrong, indeed. 

Taking a stand

Does Cho view herself differently now that she has made strides in her career? “Well, I don’t think that I’m Arden Cho, the actress,” she notes thoughtfully. “I don’t see myself that way. I [see myself as] Arden Cho, a daughter, a friend, a mom to my puppy. For me, I just really love authenticity and being loved for who I am.” 

Being authentic is a big thing for Cho, especially when it comes to self-image in the industry. “Women have so much more value than just our physical appearance. And I think now that I’m in my 30s, I’ve learnt to be kinder to myself. I actually used to be so harsh and mean to myself and it was terrible and toxic. Now, I’ve learned to respect my body and my worth and know that my identity isn’t in the exterior.” 

I’ve learned to respect my body and my worth and know that my identity isn’t in the exterior

Arden Cho

She tells me that she has been eating her way through Singapore and Australia (where she was on holiday for a month, prior to her trip here), and now “most of [her] pants don’t fit”. “But instead of critiquing myself like I would have before, I just tell myself now, ‘Good job, Arden. You’re having a good time and living the life – let’s go buy some new pants!’” 

Cho radiates confidence now. She’s quietly self-assured, and she knows her worth – whether it’s physically, when it comes to body image, or emotionally and spiritually, when rejecting roles that she knows are unsuitable for her. 

If her focus 10 years ago was to succeed, her focus now is to move the needle, starting with representation on the small screen. “It’s so exciting to see the interest for shows like Partner Track. We don’t often get to see Asian Americans being represented this way, and I definitely didn’t see this when I was growing up. I’m excited for young girls to see me in this kind of role and hopefully be inspired by Ingrid and all the characters on the show,” she enthuses.

Inclusivity is at the heart of the Netflix show, and that’s the key formula for Partner Track, says Cho. “I hope that people don’t see it as just an Asian American female show, but see that there are a lot of different types of characters and people represented on this show. There is representation for all groups integrated into Partner Track, and it’s a show for everyone.”

Partner Track premieres August 26 on Netflix, worldwide.

All images courtesy of Netflix.