Kelly Hu Of The Orville & BMF On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in TV and Film
… Well, Orville, like Star Trek, is really about inclusion. I mean, think about it. Star Trek was one of the most diverse shows of its time. It showed mixed race couples long before even commercials were showing them. I remember during my years of doing commercials, I was involved in a whole bunch of them for a while. They were trying to pair me up with a Caucasian guy and put rings on our fingers to make it look like we were a couple. But the client pulled it, saying, “No, our audience doesn’t want to see a mixed race couple.” This was back in the 90s. So, we’ve come a long way. Shows like the Orville, which are all about radical inclusion, are really awesome. You know, they include aliens and everything. On the Orville, you have a human having a relationship with an alien that’s just a blob, like a blob of slime on the floor. It’s funny, but it also makes you think. If a human can have a real relationship with a blob on the floor, why can’t humans get along with each other, right?…
I had the pleasure to talk to Kelly Hu. Kelly is a highly versatile American actress, voice artist, former fashion model, and beauty queen who has made notable contributions to film, television, and animation. Born on February 13, 1968, in Honolulu, Hawaii, she carries a rich cultural heritage of Chinese, English, and Hawaiian descent.
Hu is currently starring as Detective Veronica Jin in the critically acclaimed Starz series, BMF, executive-produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. A unique character, Jin is the only Asian American female detective in the murder capital of the world, bringing her experiences as a product of the American Dream to the gritty crime drama.
Throughout her career, Hu has shown a strong range of talent. Notably, she starred in the CBS show, East New York, the Critics Choice and Hollywood Critics Association-nominated film, List of a Lifetime, and blockbuster films like The Scorpion King and X Men 2. Her other credits span from Arrow, The Doors, The Vampire Diaries, Hawaii Five-O, Nash Bridges, Army Wives, Finding Ohana, and she also lends her voice to the popular animated series, Phineas and Ferb.
Before her acting career, Hu was a prominent figure in the beauty pageant circuit, representing Hawaii in the Miss USA pageant and earning the title of Miss Teen USA. She’s frequently been featured in People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue, exemplifying her influence both on-screen and off.
Beyond her professional endeavors, Hu holds a lifelong interest in singing, dancing, and martial arts. In her personal life, she is an avid poker fan and frequently participates in major competitions. Her activism work is prominent, supporting various Asian American initiatives, children’s hospitals, and environmental causes, particularly those concerning her home state of Hawaii.
With her exceptional range and rich career, Kelly Hu continues to bring unique and complex characters to life, inspiring audiences worldwide.
Yitzi: Kelly, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for your time. Our readers would love to hear about your origin story. Could you share some of your childhood experiences and how you grew up?
Kelly: Sure! I was born and raised in Hawaii, primarily on Oahu in Honolulu. However, I also spent a few years living with my grandparents on Maui. As for my modeling journey, it began in the typical ’80s fashion. I was discovered at a mall and started modeling at the age of 13. Initially, I did some work for local stores and such. Eventually, I began modeling in Japan, specifically for Japanese clients. My agent advised me to attain a title like Miss Hawaii Teen to enhance my promotion in Japan since I was still a teenager at that time. Consequently, I decided to participate in a pageant, aspiring to win the Hawaii title, which I ultimately did. Subsequently, I had to compete nationally as part of the prize for winning the Hawaii pageant. Surprisingly, I also won the national pageant, making me Miss Teen USA in 1985. This accomplishment played a significant role in launching my modeling career and provided me with opportunities to pursue acting as well.
Yitzi: I’d love to hear more about how you began acting. What’s the next part of the story?
Kelly: Well, I was only 16 when I won the pageant, so I was still a junior in high school. I had to finish up my high school graduation. I was one of those kids that took drama every single semester, so that’s all the experience that I had. Mr. Bertino, who was amazing, was my high school drama teacher. He gave me so much information about not just the acting part, but also the business side of things. He was also an actor, auditioning for roles like Magnum PI, which was being shot in Hawaii. After graduating high school, I immediately got cast in my first SAG job, which was an episode of Growing Pains. The servers on the show come to Hawaii on vacation. Before the episode even aired, I packed up my bags and moved to Los Angeles.
Yitzi: You’ve had a long career and must have had many fascinating experiences. Could you share one or two interesting stories or anecdotes from your time as an actor?
Kelly: That’s quite broad. I’ve been in the industry since 1987. I believe my first SAG job was in ’87 or ’86, but I’ve been acting ever since. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of modeling and commercials. In fact, commercials were my primary source of income for the first 10 to 15 years. It wasn’t until I landed my first regular role on a TV series, a soap opera called Sunset Beach, that things changed.
Prior to that, I had mostly done guest-starring roles here and there. I was 28 years old at the time, so I had already been acting for about 10 years. But before the soap opera, I was involved in various commercial projects. One interesting experience was when I played the Philadelphia cream cheese girl in Italy.
I did a series of commercials where I portrayed a Japanese exchange student learning Italian and living with a host family. The storyline continued across multiple ads, which was quite unique for Italy at the time. It led to the creation of a comic strip based on my character, Caori. Interestingly enough, someone even made pornographic content featuring the character. They took the story to wild extremes, including an affair with the husband. It was a bizarre turn of events.
Whenever I visited Italy, people recognized me as that character. I guess that’s why I’m here, right? Anyway, on the soap opera, it was even more intense because soap opera fans see you every day as the same character. I would receive fan mail addressed to my character, and people would write things like, “Ray, please give Casey a chance. He seems like a really nice guy.” Some letters would offer advice, like “You should listen to your parents.” It was quite amusing.
Additionally, I received a lot of mail from prison. It turns out prisoners watched a lot of soap operas back then.
Yitzi: Is there a person who made a profound impact on your life? And if there is, could you share a story about that person?
Kelly: Well, I think Mr. Bertino, my drama teacher, was a huge influence. When I moved to Los Angeles, I only relied on what I had learned in high school drama. As soon as I got here, I started acting right away. I never had to take up another job, except once during the writer strike when I was feeling bored. I worked at this store, can’t even remember its name, just to get discounts and buy stuff for my house.
But Mr. Bertino was the one who really shaped my acting career. He taught me everything I knew. I started working immediately, and it was many, many years later that I thought of reaching out to him and expressing my gratitude, thanks to Facebook and all. I wanted to let him know that he played a huge role in building my career.
Unfortunately, I waited too long to contact him on Facebook. I managed to find him, but his daughter replied saying that he had dementia or Alzheimer’s. So, I wasn’t able to tell him in person. However, she assured me that she conveyed my message and greeted him on my behalf. She even mentioned that he remembered me. I can’t say for sure, but it’s comforting to think that he did.
Yitzi: Let’s pretend that you were the Queen of Hollywood. What changes are you happy about seeing over the past five or ten years? And what changes would you, as the Queen of Hollywood, implement and change moving forward?
Kelly: Well, I’m really pleased about the increased work for Asian American actors. We’ve struggled with inclusion for a long time. When I first came to Los Angeles, there were only a handful of us, maybe three girls in my range. The roles we were considered for were usually stereotypical. Fortunately, my agent saw me beyond my Asian identity, so I had the opportunity to audition for roles that were typical of an American girl, unless they needed to cast my family. That always made things difficult because they had to find all Asian actors, and there just wasn’t enough representation.
But now, with the Oscars, Michelle Yoe, Keith Waker, and others, we’re finally getting recognition because we have more representation. It took a long time for us to have Asian shows like Fresh Off the Boat and films with predominantly Asian casts, like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” or “Crazy Rich Asians.” For a while, people didn’t believe that Asian films would be profitable, so they were hesitant to invest.
Fortunately, there are now more Asian groups in the industry where we can network, collaborate, and create our own content. We had to do that in order to gain recognition. These changes are amazing. If I were queen and could change something, I would address the issue that only 4% of actors in the Screen Actors Guild actually make a living from acting. It’s unfortunate that many actors struggle to make ends meet. We rely on our earnings for things like health insurance and pensions, but you need to reach a certain income level to qualify. I wish there was less wealth concentrated at the top and more support for artists. That’s why we’re striking.
Yitzi: Kelly you have such an enormous filmography. Can you share what you’re working on now and what you hope to be working on in the future?
Kelly: What I can share is that I just finished wrapping the third season of BMF, Black Mafia Family, on stars. People can watch the first two seasons on stars right now. I’m not sure when the third season will be released, but it was pretty awesome. I’m in the second season, if people just want to watch me, but you’ve got to watch the first season. It’s such a great series.
I also have a Mortal Kombat movie coming out. I can announce that now because it’s already been on social media. And then there’s a video game that I’m working on that I can’t talk about at the moment, but those things always take forever anyway. Even if I talked about it, everybody would forget by the time it finally came out. I do. Even I forget. I’ll do a video game, and two to three years later, it’ll come out, and some kid at a comic con will ask me to sign the DVD. And I’m like, “I don’t think I’m in this.” And he’ll be like, “Yes, you are.” And he’ll look it up on his phone on IMDB and prove it to me. You know, that happens to me all the time. I have the worst.
So yeah, that’s all I have. Oh, I’m also doing a podcast called “Shoes Off Inside” with Tamlin Tamita and journalist Mei Li. Tamlin Tamita, who was in Karate Kid, Joy Luck Club, that was her claim to fame. Of course, she’s worked on tons of other stuff. But we are doing that. Right now, I’m just planning on traveling and taking a little break and traveling around.
Yitzi: The Orville has a cult following. In your opinion, Kelly, what captured people’s hearts about the series?
Kelly: At first, I thought you had to be a Star Trek fan to appreciate it. But the writing is so good that you really don’t. It helps to understand because there are inside jokes, vague references, and all that. But yeah, Seth McFarland is an amazing writer, director, and producer. He’s brilliant. He does it all. He even puts out albums and sings. I don’t know when this guy sleeps. I really think he’s an alien. He probably wrote Orville from firsthand experience as an alien.
Yitzi: That’s great. What lessons do you think our society can take from the themes of Orville?
Kelly: Well, Orville, like Star Trek, is really about inclusion. I mean, think about it. Star Trek was one of the most diverse shows of its time. It showed mixed race couples long before even commercials were showing them. I remember during my years of doing commercials, I was involved in a whole bunch of them for a while. They were trying to pair me up with a Caucasian guy and put rings on our fingers to make it look like we were a couple. But the client pulled it, saying, “No, our audience doesn’t want to see a mixed race couple.” This was back in the 90s. So, we’ve come a long way. Shows like the Orville, which are all about radical inclusion, are really awesome. You know, they include aliens and everything. On the Orville, you have a human having a relationship with an alien that’s just a blob, like a blob of slime on the floor. It’s funny, but it also makes you think. If a human can have a real relationship with a blob on the floor, why can’t humans get along with each other, right?
Yitzi: That’s great. How would you compare and contrast your personal character, Kelly, with the character you play, Admiral Ozawa?
Kelly: Well, they’re quite different, actually. Admiral Ozawa is very businesslike and she’s really tough on Ed, the main character. She’s the one who keeps him in line, you know? On the other hand, I’m a free spirit. I’m all over the place and can barely hold myself together. Plus, I look completely different from Admiral Ozawa. I don’t wear any heavy makeup or prosthetics, but there’s definitely a noticeable contrast.
Yitzi: I really love how many actors and writers from Star Trek are in The Orville. It’s almost like its the same thing.
Kelly: It’s great, yeah, but with a different humor. I think it’s so much funnier. It’s like Star Trek with all the heart and life lessons, but with Seth McFarland humor.
Yitzi: Okay, this is our signature question. So you’ve been blessed with so much success and you have a lot of experience looking back to the beginning. Are there five things you wish someone told you when you first started acting?
- Wow. I wish somebody told me not to take it so personally because you go through so much rejection, right? As an actor, especially when you’re young, you’re just trying to please everyone, and the fact is you can’t please everyone. And so much of the rejection is not personal. It’s, you know, maybe you’re too tall, maybe, you know, oftentimes for me it was not the right ethnicity. So I wish that people had told me not to take it personally. That was a really big one.
- Also, another one was I wish I knew, I wish that I wasn’t so competitive with the other actresses. I think when you were young there were so few roles for us as Asian actresses. You see the same girls all the time. Instead of seeing them as the enemy, what we really should have been doing was befriending one another, really bonding and helping one another out. But there’s this competitive edge because there’s so little work. It’s like starvation. So I wish that I had known better about being less competitive with people of my own ethnicity. And I wish that there had been more of these organizations of other Asian actors or creators coming together and networking and really sort of making use of that network.
- I wish that I had taken more acting classes after moving to Los Angeles. The thing is I had started working right away. And I was also modeling and doing all these commercials. So I was making great money. And so it didn’t really matter whether or not I got a lot of acting gigs, guest-starring roles and stuff like that. It was always a bonus, but it wasn’t my only focus. So I wish I had taken that more seriously and started taking acting classes so that I could figure out what it was that people had been paying me to do all those years. I feel like I didn’t really start learning to act until my career was way in.
- And, what else? And I wish that somebody had told me earlier to save my money and be careful about my finances. I think I’ve always been pretty good about it because my mom definitely gets on my back. So maybe that doesn’t count because it’s something that I wish that people told me that I didn’t know, right?
- One more thing, I wish… I wish that someone told me to remember to have fun, you know, when I was working. And yes, you want to be serious and you want to take your craft very seriously. But you know, life is all about experience and having fun and enjoyment, right? I mean, that’s part of the creative process.
Yitzi: Brilliant. This is our last question. Kelly, because of your great work and the platform you’ve created, many people will look up to you, listen to you, and take your words seriously. If you could spread an idea or inspire a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can inspire.
Kelly: Well, I actually implemented this idea in a clothing line that I created. During the pandemic, you know, there were so many riots and protests happening in Los Angeles and it really felt like the world was falling apart. I think everyone felt that way in 2020, right? So I was motivated to start a clothing line that promotes unity.
I feel like we’re becoming so divided, not just in the United States but all over the world. Nobody wants to listen to others anymore. Everyone is just stubbornly holding their ground, unwilling to hear different perspectives. But I still believe that we have more in common than our differences if we would just sit down and listen to one another.
That’s why I created my line called 33 edge. It’s a simple collection of T-shirts with words like unity, kindness, humanity, and respect printed in a gradient of skin colors, symbolizing diversity. That’s the message I want to convey.
Yitzi: Wonderful. How can our readers continue to follow your work? How can our readers continue to support your work? How could they buy your clothing?
Kelly: Well, my clothing is called 33 Edge. So they can go to 33edge.com. All of my social media is my name, @KellyHU. So that’s pretty easy. And yeah, I’m not one of these people that, hires somebody else to post for me. It’s all me, right? That’s why it’s just so sporadic and all over the place, kinda like me.
So my social media is kinda the same, but it’s very honest. It’s me on a boat in the middle of the Pacific with no makeup, wearing all kinds of weird-looking things, sailing, or me on a photo shoot, or behind the scenes, or me with my family, singing karaoke, or, you know, stuff like that. People can follow me on social media. I’m super fortunate to have amazing fans and followers who have been so supportive over my decades of work. It’s been over 30 years, going on 40 now, close to 40. I feel blessed every day.
Yitzi: So beautiful. Kelly, it’s been an honor and joy to meet you. Thank you for this interview!
Kelly: Thank you.
Kelly Hu Of The Orville & BMF On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in TV… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.