Amy Hill on being Hollywood’s ”go-to Asian” and why working with Mike Myers was hell

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Amy Hill on being Hollywood’s ”go-to Asian” and why working with Mike Myers was hell

Image: Earl Gibson III via Getty Images (Graphic Nick Wanserski)
Image: Earl Gibson III via Getty Images (Graphic Nick Wanserski)

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Amy Hill is the perfect Random Roles subject. A character actress who has appeared in over 150 different movies and TV shows over a 30-plus year career, Hill has played everything from a Dr. Seuss neighbor to Margaret Cho’s grandmother. Hill is part Japanese, meaning that given Hollywood’s limited understanding of the importance of diversity, she’s has been cast as damn near every single Asian nationality, from Filipino to Korean.

Hill is in a number of different shows currently making the rounds on various media outlets. She plays Dr. Wagerstein on Lifetime’s UnREAL, Mama P in Amazon’s kid-friendly Just Add Magic, Lourdes Chan on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and will pop up in the pilot of CBS’s new sitcom The Great Indoors, which premieres Thursday, October 27. The A.V. Club talked to her about a few of those roles, as well as some of her best—and worst—times on set.

UnREAL (2015-16)—“Dr. Wagerstein”

The A.V. Club: How did you get cast in UnREAL?

Amy Hill: I auditioned for the pilot early on, but I didn’t get cast. They shot it in Atlanta, but then just before they started shooting the season, they decided to replace whoever was in the pilot and offered it to me. It was like two weeks before they were shooting. I was on vacation in Las Vegas and they said, “Could you come up to Vancouver in a couple of weeks? We need your passport number and all this stuff for paperwork,” and it was crazy. But I got my work permit and everything in order and I flew up. I think they’d already started shooting, and I arrived and fell into place. Everyone was delightful. The actors are all wonderful. I’d worked with a couple of them before.

No one—not the director, not the producers, no one—said anything about what my character should be. I knew my character’s name, and I knew my character’s description was “a therapist.” I knew it was a reality show and I saw the short film that Sarah [Gertrude Shapiro] had gotten so much acclaim for. But the therapist in the short film didn’t say anything. She really didn’t do anything. She was very quiet. So I just thought, “I’ll make up my own person.” And I did and nobody ever said anything. They just let me do whatever I wanted.

AVC: Your character has a little bit of moral ambiguity, not unlike all the other characters on that show.

AH: She’s a therapist who has an agenda of being, perhaps, a celebrity therapist, because you see them on TV. They have those Celebrity Rehab and celebrity relationship shows and they’re all done by these therapists.

Who wants to be on TV and submit themselves to that kind of invasiveness? But then the therapists, I think, are really kind of skeezy, so I just think my character wanted to be a celebrity, but nobody ever said anything. By the end of the first season, they had written that I blackmailed the boss into getting my own interstitial and my own little segments. So it all fell into place. They were thinking the same way I was thinking: “What therapist does this?”

The Great Indoors (2016)—“Carol”

AVC: Are you in just the pilot for The Great Indoors? Or do you recur on the show?

AH: I believe I’m just in the pilot. There were no guarantees of anything. I just said yes. That was an offer as well, which is lovely. They just said, “Could you do this HR person?” I did HR on Enlightened and so I thought, “Yeah, I can do that.” I know how to play an HR person.

The big draw for me [on The Great Indoors] was Stephen Fry and knowing that he was in the show. The director’s Andy Ackerman, and I’ve worked with Andy many, many times. I just thought, “This is going to be fun even if it’s just the pilot.” And it was.

I could sit at Stephen Fry’s feet and listen to his stories forever. And Andy Ackerman is the most lovely director for comedy ever. Everybody else on the show is really fun and really nice too. It was a great experience. When you’re going to spend a couple of weeks with people, you want to be with people that are enjoyable. So there you go. I’ve been lucky.

AVC: Had you met Stephen Fry before?

AH: No! I’d just seen him. He’s of that Monty Python, Footlights era, and he’s just amazing. Historically, I just wanted to be around him.

AVC: How often would you say you audition for stuff and how often do you get offered stuff?

AH: I’d say it’s about half and half.

AVC: Are there roles you think you get called for more than not? You seem to have played a lot of nurses and nail salon employees, and you mentioned that you’ve played an HR person more than once.

AH: It happens in cycles. I’ll do a good HR person and I’ll get a couple of HR auditions or offers. If I do a really good nurse, then nurse offers start coming in. Now I’m a witch on Just Add Magic and I’m waiting for the witch offers to start coming in.

I’m usually sort of ambiguous in terms of whether I’m playing a good person or a bad person. I can walk that line of funny but also dark, and I’m happy doing that. I naturally think in terms of comedy whenever I see anything because tragedy is so close to comedy, so I like to add the tragedy to the comedy or a little bit of comedy to the tragedy in order to make them both feel more real to me.

American Dad (2007-13)—“Mah Mah”
King Of The Hill (1998-2003)—“Mrs. Kalaiki-Alii / Mrs. Laoma Souphanousinphone / Michiko”

AVC: You’ve done voices on a number of projects. For instance, you’ve been on both American Dad and King Of The Hill. How did you get into voice work, and what do you like about doing voices?

AH: I lived in San Francisco for about eight years and I did a lot of improvisation there. The improvisational world ruled the voice world in San Francisco, so I became a voice talent there and did a lot of commercials and worked all the time. But I never could break into animation.

When I moved down to L.A., I started to look for a voice agent because I thought, “I’ll fall back on that because I’m so good at this.” And I couldn’t even find a voice agent. They said I had to be a celebrity for them to take me on. So I had a voice agent that somebody forced on me because they were big in San Francisco and they had a voice agent there and they said, “You’ve got to take Amy,” and I never really got anything.

When I started doing on-camera fairly well and became sort of a well-known person, they started offering me animation. If there was an Asian in something, they would say, “Can you do this?” So I started going in the back door as a sort-of celebrity to do things like HBO’s Fairy Tales For Every Child, where I played an Asian fish or something. I can’t remember. But I started doing animation that way.

Then I got a manager, and the manager got me a pretty good agent for voice-overs. I just knew that I didn’t want to do a lot of auditioning, because I’m lazy, so I told him that I just wanted to do animation. And that’s how I ended up doing more animation.

I’m really comfortable doing voice-overs, but it’s really fun to do animation. Those animation talents are hysterical. They’re so good and they’re so amazingly quick on their feet. When I was in The Life And Times Of Juniper Lee, I remember Carlos Alazraqui sitting there going from Scottish to Mexican to—I mean, he had, like, three characters who were talking to each other and he was doing all three of them at the same time. And they were full, realized characters! I think these people are genius, and I’m not. I can do one character really well at a time, but I’m really happy.

King Of The Hill was an offer initially, and then whenever they had some Asian person, they’d just bring me in. It didn’t matter if it was Samoan or Chinese or Cambodian or Japanese. Then on American Dad I play one character that comes in whenever they need me.

AVC: Is it flattering to get those calls, or is it frustrating that they’re lumping all those nationalities together?

AH: No. I’m happy to get those calls, because I enjoy the characters. Especially if it’s Asian—and even if it’s not Asian—I’m really flattered that they call me in because I think that I create pretty full comedic characters. They’re not stereotypical or stupid. I enjoy them. And I know that I do really good accents, so I’m happy to go in and do them.

Sometimes I think, you know, there are such good people out there. I’m lucky that I have this niche at least. If I really worked at it, maybe I could do other characters but I don’t.

I’m also really happy with the on-camera work that I’m doing. Sometimes I realize that some of the voice talent, they should be doing more on camera, because they’re really talented, but they’ve fallen into the voice work and they’re doing really well. But I bet they would like to do more on camera, so I feel lucky.

All American Girl (1994-95)—“Yung-hee ‘Grandma’ Kim”

AVC: You did 19 episodes of All-American Girl, which was one of the first shows to have an all-Asian cast. What was that like at the time and what has 20 years of perspective done to that show in your mind?

AH: Margaret [Cho] was a perfect person because those were the days when they were really doing a lot of pulling people from standup and trying to build shows around them. She was one of those people that they pulled from standup and tried to build a show around, but they didn’t have any writers, they didn’t have producers, and they didn’t have people in the industry behind the scenes that were Asian American that could support her. And they weren’t comfortable having her have as much say as she would have liked in the creation of the show. They tried to make it an Asian-American Cosby Show or something more formulaic. I think that was the downfall, because they couldn’t put a lot of Asian-American writers on the show because there were probably no Korean-American writers. There were maybe a couple of Chinese-American writers but, you know, Chinese is not Korean.

That’s the other thing. You kind of go, “Just because they’re Chinese doesn’t mean they understand a Korean sensibility.” So those were some of the issues, and I think the producers were all Jewish. I don’t think they had many Korean people, and Margaret had a lot on her hands. She was the star of the show and she was helping to create it, but it wasn’t like her stand-up. She was trying to be more of a round peg in a square hole or whatever, and it wasn’t her. She had to act like another Margaret instead of just being her and creating that.

Now, you always know there’s going to be some compromise when you’re doing something for television, and especially network television, but it didn’t work. It just didn’t work. It wasn’t okay. I think it had the same numbers as The Drew Carey Show, certainly, but the network didn’t believe in the show, and I don’t believe we were given the opportunity to try and make it better.

Now, 20 years later, Fresh Off The Boat is based on a book by a fabulous writer and it has a great voice to it and they have an amazing cast of mostly Chinese-Americans. It’s not all the people, but there are also Chinese-American writers on the staff. The showrunner is a person of color who understands the immigrant experience because her parents are from Persia. It’s not the same, but she understands the immigrant experience because she’s looking at it as an immigrant experience rather than necessarily just Chinese immigrants. And that kind of does work for everyone, because everybody has that immigrant experience in their family. Not everybody in the world, but a lot of people. So she’s not trying to just tell Chinese stories, which works.

The producers are good, too, because of all the shows that have happened on all these other platforms that are taking bigger chances like Master Of None and Transparent and all these shows that are edgier. They’re taking bigger chances, and it’s really affecting the way network executives is approaching television. There’s still formulaic stuff on network television, but there’s also more of an opportunity to have your way with storytelling, especially in sitcoms. That’s what the difference is.

I think some people don’t believe that they can relate to an Asian-American show because that’s not their experience, but then they watch it and go, “This is everybody’s experience.” It’s also cool that it’s set in the ’90s because then everybody can stroll back to that time in their lives and talk about music and crazy hair and the clothes that you wore. It’s really a great show. The chemistry of the actors on that show is amazing. I love all the kids, I love the parents. It’s a great show.

50 First Dates (2004)—“Sue”

AVC: 50 First Dates was a hit when it came out, but it’s since become this gigantic hit. What are your thoughts about that movie and what it’s become since?

AH: I think it’s the gift that keeps on giving, because I get residuals every couple of months.

It was a wonderful experience. I can’t believe that was 2003, so, like, 15 years ago. It was a long time ago and it was so much fun and everybody was wonderful to work with. I had the best time. My daughter was with me. She was only 3.

You never know how things are going to turn out. It’s so nice to run into people even now who—if I’m out, a couple of times a week, somebody comes up to me and says, “I just loved you in 50 First Dates. That movie is my favorite movie, I just watched it last night.” In my head, I’m always thinking, “You’re kidding me. I never watch anything twice.” But, you know, these are movies that mean something to people. And it makes me feel like stuff that I do is not all just worthless business. I got into this because I love to perform and I love to perform characters, and sometimes when I’m doing television and film, I just feel like I’m making a living. I’m good at it, but I’m not really being artistically challenged.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-16)—“Lourdes Chan”
Just Add Magic (2015-17)—“Mama P”

AVC: Well, you’ve done single episodes of a lot of shows.

AH: A lot of shows, but that’s fun, because then I can create a character for each one.

It’s nice to have something to do. The show that I’m working on—UnREAL is wrapped for now, but we start up again in March, probably—but on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I play the Latina mom. That one is recurring, so I never know when I’m doing it, but I love that character.

The character I play on Just Add Magic—it’s a kids’ show, but it’s like a Harry Potter thing on Amazon Prime—I get to play a character that’s very old and rich and you don’t know if she’s evil or good and I really enjoy playing that person. It’s challenging. I have to figure out myself what’s going on there. It’s like I’m doing theatre and it’s TV. And it’s on Amazon Prime so, again, they give us a lot more license to be interesting.

General Hospital (2009)—“Dr. Laura Brown”

AVC: You’ve done longer stints on other shows. You were on 12 episodes of General Hospital.

AH: Yes! That was hard. I thought to myself, “I’m never doing this again.” It felt like I was almost saying the same thing every time I was there. And I realized the storylines really don’t move forward that fast. So 12 episodes of that is like one episode of a show, because I would be in the 10th episode saying, “Didn’t I just say that in the last episode?”

AVC: I talked to someone else who did soaps and they said it’s also hard because you have to reintroduce your story after every commercial. You say everything twice.

AH: Exactly. That’s why it’s like you’re constantly repeating yourself!

People who work on soaps all the time understand the formula of how to do it, though. I remember the first day I was watching the monitor, and you don’t rehearse—you just rehearse the blocking for the camera—so they’re holding their scripts and they’re just messing up like crazy. And then they go, “Okay, now we’re going to shoot it.” I thought think, “Oh my God, this is a nightmare. They’re not going to know what they’re saying.” But they put the scripts down, they start shooting, and everything’s fine. I thought, “What the hell!” You’re just holding on by the skin of your teeth.

But they’re amazing, these actors who have worked on soaps for years and years and years. They know what they’re doing. They don’t hold you word-for-word on every line and you can fudge it a little, but they know what they’re saying and they repeat it every time they come on.

It’s a special kind of acting, soap opera acting. It’s hard for me.

Seinfeld (1995)—“Kim”
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2001)—“Psychic”

AVC: You have done both an episode of Seinfeld and an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David. Let’s talk about Seinfeld first.

AH: That’s another one where probably once a week, somebody comes up to me and says, “I loved you on Seinfeld.” And that was 20 years ago, wasn’t it?

AVC: A little over, yes.

AH: Seriously, people are addicted to Seinfeld. And that was great. I had the best time because I was with Jerry Stiller and he’s one of those people from my childhood that I was in awe of. Stiller and Meara—you’re probably too young to know about them, but I watched them in black and white on The Mike Douglas Show. They were really huge in the ’60s. So for me it was like, “Oh my God! I’m working with him!” And he was so wonderful. Everybody else in the cast was great but my main scenes were with Jerry [Stiller], so I had the best time.

AVC: Do you remember how that worked? Did you have to learn any Korean?

AH: No! That was another offer. I had just come off All-American Girl, and I think they thought—because on All-American Girl I did say Korean every once in a while, just little phrases or things. I think they might have thought I was Korean.

Anyway, they said, “You could play the Korean lady who speaks Korean or the character that was Jerry Stiller’s love from a long time ago,” and I said I would rather do that and so I didn’t have to speak Korean at all. I made a choice. I’m very happy.

[Curb Your Enthusiasm] was an offer, too, from the other show, but it was easy because I was a psychic. I’ve actually played a lot of psychics.

AVC: Really?

AH: Yeah. Phew! I tell you, there’s always a run. If I play one psychic, then I’m playing a psychic at least three or four more times. It’s what happens. It’s bizarre. But that was all improvised, and I come from improv, so it was really easy. They said, “This is what I want you to talk about, and I want you to end on talking about this. Go.” And that was it. I didn’t have to memorize anything, but I knew where I was going. You know where the beat is.

AVC: And it was with people that are obviously very talented, so that had to help as well.

AH: Oh, they all are, again, great people. I think my scene was with Cheryl Hines, and she’s really sweet and really easy.

You’re picking really good things that I enjoyed.

Friends (2000)—“The Woman”

AVC: You were also on an episode of Friends, and that’s certainly another show that people still watch today.

AH: They do and, not once a week but maybe once a month, somebody will say, “I love you on Friends!” Because people still watch that.

I think that might have been an offer, too. This is interesting. You’re picking all the things people offered. But that one was the first time I was on a super, super huge hit, and it was towards the end. Jennifer [Aniston] was going out with Brad Pitt. So I remember Brad Pitt being around.

All of the regular actors weren’t there, so we rehearsed with stand-ins all week. It was so weird because I was like, “Aren’t the regular people coming at some point?” But they were busy with their career stuff. They were running around. I don’t know what they were doing. Looking good, probably. David Schwimmer was the director, and he was really sweet and wonderful to work with. The day before taping, when they do camera blocking, that’s when the actors came in, and they all knew their lines, they all knew what they were doing and they just kind of did it. I think they maybe pre-shot a few things, and then we taped it.

It was like a machine. They came in, did their thing, but they only had to do two days a week. And at that time they were getting a million dollars an episode. I thought, “Well, that’s the way to do it.” I want to be on a show that’s a hit and only have to come in a couple of days a week. And they were good!

AVC: Some of those multi-camera sitcoms are really just machines.

AH: They know what they’re doing. The actors know their characters and the writers know how to write for them, so it’s not like they have to work on that.

Even on this kids’ show that I’m doing, the writing is really good. When the writing is good and it suits your character, you don’t have to memorize anything, because it just makes sense. You read it and you go, “Oh, that makes sense.” And it’s easy.

That’s how I feel on these shows that have been around for a long time. It’s not hard to work. It’s the joy of moving the character forward in the story.

The Cat In The Hat (2003)—“Mrs. Kwan”
The Naked Truth (1997-98)—“Suji”

AVC: Since I’ve been picking projects you really liked, what’s a project that you didn’t like working on? Or that you at least found to be really challenging?

AH: The Cat In The Hat.

The Cat In The Hat was with Mike Myers who, if I saw him today, I don’t think he’d even remember who I was. He is like a little hermit. He would come in and, I guess, be in hair and makeup. We would wait. I’d be there at the crack of dawn, waiting. We would all be waiting for Mike Myers to come.

He had his handlers dress his trailer, and his area was all covered with tenting because he didn’t want anybody seeing him. It was so weird. It was just the worst. It was like I was there forever, and my daughter was 2 and a half and I felt like I was missing her first everything. I was miserable. I just thought it was really rude for him to not take all of us into consideration.

And the director [Bo Welch] was really lovely, but it was his first time directing, and he deferred to Mike so much. Mike would do a take, and then he’d go over and look at the monitors, and then he’d talk to the director and then we’d do another take.

It was just a horrible, nightmarish experience. I don’t think he got to know anybody. He’d just be with his people and walk away. People would come and then he’d stand there. There was a guy who held his chocolates in a little Tupperware. Whenever he needed chocolate, he’d come running over and give him a chocolate. That’s what divas are like, I guess. Or people who need therapy.

The other bad experience I had was working on the last season of The Naked Truth with Téa Leoni. She hated the show and wanted to be off the show and, for the whole season, tried every way to be fired. So every episode, rehearsing was hell, and taping was hell. One of the actors actually kicked a writer during the taping and was fired, and I had to do the rest of his lines for the rest of the episode. It was crazy.

My character was a tabloid photographer, and [Princess] Diana was killed before we started shooting, so my character couldn’t be my character anymore. So I’m a tabloid photographer one day, and the next day, they said, “We think your character’s more like a Roseanne Barr character that lives in Beverly Hills.” It was like, “What are you talking about?” It made no sense. Nobody knew what to do with me because my character couldn’t be my character.

AVC: But you were on the show, and so they had to use you somehow.

AH: I had to be there because they had to pay me anyway. Those are my contracts. So they said, “We’ll just keep her there.”

The showrunner would say to me almost every day, “You’re funnier in a lower register.” He wanted me to talk in a deep voice the whole season. I just lost it, probably around episode 20. I said, “Don’t talk to me anymore. I’ll talk however I feel like talking.”

AVC: That also seems like something that they wouldn’t necessarily have told a man.

AH: That character was actually supposed to be a guy, but they cast me. At the network audition, it was me and LL Cool J, I think, and we were both up for that part, but it was written as “a Danny DeVito type.” So they said, “Let’s bring Amy Hill in.”

AVC: That makes no sense.

AH: I obviously look nothing like Danny DeVito.

AVC: Neither does LL Cool J.

AH: No. But I made a lot of money, so it’s okay.

Too Soon For Jeff (1996)

AVC: You were in an ABC Afterschool Special in 1996.

AH: Yes! With Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jessica Alba as a little girl.

AVC: It has a hilarious name: Too Soon For Jeff.

AH: Too Soon. I remember [Jessica Alba] because she was so pretty and she was so young. I think she was a teenager. And Freddie Prinze Jr., you kind of go, “Wow,” because he’s Freddie Prinze’s son and you think, “I hope he’s okay.”

But they were wonderful. It was so sweet and young and you kind of knew that they were going to do okay because they seemed really grounded. I know Jessica’s mother seemed really lovely. When you work with kids, you realize if they have a really good, stable family environment that they’re going to be okay.

AVC: I don’t even know what your role was in that movie because it’s not on IMDB.

AH: I was the nurse, or maybe I was a doctor. It could have been a doctor or a nurse. I know I was in a hospital setting. Maybe I was the obstetrician who told them that they were pregnant. It was a long time ago. It could have been Planned Parenthood. I don’t know.

AVC: You’ve played a nurse so many times.

AH: I have played a nurse many times.

AVC: They don’t make afterschool specials anymore, I don’t think.

AH: No, they don’t. And I’ve never done any Hallmark movies. I don’t know why.

AVC: One of these days, it’ll happen. With as many credits as you have, it’s inevitable.

AH: The things I aspire to, right?