Marvel Studios fans who watched the premiere episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were introduced to an exciting new character in Leah, played by Miki Ishikawa. With Leah, fans of Bucky Barnes finally had a chance to see a little bit of romance included in Bucky’s story, and as I wrote in my review, the two had incredible chemistry.
Of course fans of The Terror: Infamy know Ishikawa well from her role as Amy Yoshida in AMC’s groundbreaking series that infused a horror story with socially and historically relevant messages.
Miki Ishikawa Interview With POC Culture
I had the chance to speak with Ishikawa virtually and we discussed a wide range of topics, including social justice activism, the troubling growth of anti-Asian sentiment (even prior to recent events), the Asian-American acting community, and even touring with the likes of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers as a kid.
Of course we also talked about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and what it feels like to be part of the Marvel Studios family, but expectedly, she couldn’t say too much about her role.
Please note, this interview took place in 2020 and has been edited for clarity.
POC Culture: How are you doing? How have you been managing?
Miki Ishikawa: Right now I’m good. In the beginning it was a bit of an adjustment. Some days were really good. Some days were really bad. I have anxiety and sometimes depression so it was definitely harder but I’m fortunate to have my therapist that I talk to once a week and having a solid group of friends that I’ve been able to connect with has been really important to me. I think I just had to learn that it’s okay if I’m not okay one day. Everything is perspective. At the end of the day I can still eat, go get food, have a roof over my head and pay bills.
POC Culture: Who’s been helping to keep you afloat and how have your friendships evolved?
Miki Ishikawa: It’s funny because some of my newer friendships have really flourished during the quarantine. We kind of talk about how if we didn’t have this time, we wouldn’t have taken the time to dive into these relationships. I’m in several group chats. We keep in touch with each other that way. There’s a group of Asian actresses in a group chat and we talk on a daily basis and do Zoom calls. They keep me sane. Right now, nothing really matters in terms of what we’re working on, it’s just “how are you doing?” It’s been nice to have that blanket of feeling like you’re not alone because you’re more connected with people than ever. And I feel really fortunate. I love food and that’s also been my way of keeping up with people. I’m Asian! I don’t know how to cook for just one person, so I make so much food and I’ll drop off food to my friends. So that’s been my way of seeing people. My specialty dish is gyoza so then it turned into me selling them and all these people were hitting me up wanting orders. The last 2 days I banged out 225 gyozas. It’s a lot of love and care. It kinda started out as a joke and then it’s like “Why not?”
POC Culture: That’s awesome. I love it. You talked earlier about the anti-Asian sentiment going on. How have you experienced these issues and how has it impacted you? (Editor’s note: Reminder that this interview took place months before the latest anti-Asian hate crimes).
Miki Ishikawa: Personally, I haven’t experienced anything directly at me. In the beginning I really didn’t go anywhere. I go for walks with my dog and in the beginning when things started spiking, I definitely felt more aware leaving my house. Even though I come from a culture in Japan where wearing a mask is totally normal, but here, I started thinking whether people would think I was weird. I almost didn’t want to because I didn’t want to be looked at a certain way.
Seeing everything. All the hate crimes and all these outlets showing everything. It’s definitely infuriating. But also there are so many points to it. I hate seeing minority on minority crime. I wish that could be tackled. More dialogue needs to happen. Everytime something happens there’s always a scapegoat. With COVID, anyone who’s Asian is now lumped together and it’s our fault even if we were born here.
And just seeing all the other stuff going on with police brutality, police murders, and people being shot in broad daylight. I try to stay vocal and vigilant, and as an Asian-American person, how can I support another minority group that is clearly going through something on a daily basis? I really feel strongly that if we don’t use our privilege and our voices for another minority group, especially the Black community, then how can we expect them to support us? I really feel like Asian-Americans have been looked at as the model minority who won’t say or do anything, but now we all have a civic duty to use our voice. We can’t have that fear anymore. If we see anything being done to another human, it’s only right to say something and do what we can in our power.
POC Culture: I completely agree with you.
Miki Ishikawa: And this was the first time as a whole Asian community where we were faced with something like this, and there have been a lot of people complaining that others aren’t supporting us, but how can we expect those things if we won’t do the same when they need us during a crucial moment? True character is really forged in a crucial moment. We have a voice and we can use it and it’s about how we can continue to do so.
POC Culture: Have you always been aware of supporting everyone. You were born in Denver and then moved to Hawaii right?
Miki Ishikawa: It’s two things. Living in Hawaii was great because I was young and I never thought about my race. I grew up with a bunch of Asians. My school was very diverse. It was normal. The mixture of cultures in Hawaii. I moved to California when I was 10. For the first time, I was one of three Asian kids and the things I would bring to school for lunch, people would make fun of me. They said it smelled and it looked funny and that’s when I realized I was different. Going from a place where nobody batted an eye to “Oh you’re Asian.” Even sleepovers, my parents would do their best to make food, but sometimes my friends would not want to eat that so my parents would have to drive to McDonald’s to pick up Happy Meals. And I felt so bad because my parents made this meal and my friends wouldn’t eat it and those things made me sad. At some point I was one of those kids who didn’t want to take the bento for lunch. I just wanted a Lunchables or just a PB&J. And now I’m like “God what an asshole!” [Laughing]
POC Culture: We’ve all had that moment! [Laughing]
Miki Ishikawa: I think we’ve all gone through that if we’re from a traditional background! I even remember being in 4th or 5th grade and out of nowhere this kid in front of me put a picture on my desk of these soldiers coming down and he said “These are the soldiers coming to kill your people.” We were learning about World War II and briefly about the internments and I was so offended. For me, I was so young and it was very strange.
On the other side, me trying to understand other communities, it’s just from close friends that I’ve had growing up. It really expanded me to want to learn more and really understand, because I’ll never experience certain kinds of fears of just stepping out of the house. Especially when so much started escalating in the news of police just killing Black people, I started having fear for my friends. And they would tell me that growing up they didn’t have the “Birds and the bees talk,” they had the “What to do when you’re pulled over talk” at like age 10.
We all talk about how similar our cultures are, but also, how we can continue to have these conversations between cultures on a grander scale? So that’s really made me aware of how a lot of Asian people don’t say anything and just let it happen. And the killing of Latasha Harlins is a huge reason why there’s so much animosity between the Black and Korean community. We need to be aware of that history and ask ourselves, how can we stop that? How can we reach out and support one another? So that’s where all of that stems from for me. And it’s not to criticize those who feel like they can’t be as vocal as I am, but how can we at least have that conversation? I think the important thing is that if you don’t know about something and you don’t know where to start, just ask. It’s better than doing nothing. And I think a lot of people don’t do anything because they don’t know where to start.
POC Culture: I completely agree with that. Switching gears a little. You mentioned before that Asians have never faced all of this public vilification…except for the time during World War II. Which, your show The Terror: Infamy, brought to the forefront. How ironic that your show came out in 2019 and was both commentary on the past and prescient for the future! Can you talk about how you got the role and how it’s impacted you?
Miki Ishikawa: My parents were from Japan but I was born here. So I’m American. I never had family that was interned. I have a lot of friends who have and know people who were. We studied very briefly about it in school, so I was aware but I didn’t know much. I knew about Manzanar. Saw Farewell to Manzanar and that’s it. So when this project came about, I was like “Yes! Automatic Yes!” Our showrunner Alex Woo wanted Japanese heritage for these roles and I remember being in the producers room in my first audition. I actually read for Yuko, Kiki Sukezane’s part, and I told them that, “I don’t even care if I get this project, just, thank you for even making this. The fact that you’re even making this speaks volumes and I’m so grateful that I’m even here.” I was just ecstatic to support it. Especially being a Japanese-American person and knowing what people went through.
Then I read for my role Amy [Yoshida] and as soon as I read her description I thought “Oh my gosh this is me!” Right from the beginning, when I read her I felt like she was a young Yuri Kochiyama, so I channeled as much of her. I ended get up getting the role and I dove in as much research as I could. I didn’t have any human resources that went through that experience, so I went to the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo and also picked up as many books as I could. I listened to podcasts, there’s one called Order 9066 that was really great to hear all these audio clips of people who experienced it. I tried to really prepare myself as best I could mentally of what space I would be in.
The idea for the show is that these are fictional characters but loosely based on real experiences. Filming was amazing. The cast was amazing. George [Takei] was a personal encyclopedia on set. Whatever we asked, he had all these stories and it was amazing. It was amazing to be part of something that is actually showing what happened. We felt so grateful and that it was our duty to tell this story as accurately as we could. I loved my character and was grateful that I got to explore all the different things that I could.
Since then, it has made me way more vocal and vigilant to make sure that people know that this happened. The craziest part for me was realizing that people didn’t know that this happened. It comes down to education and there are many places in the U.S. that don’t even study it, and in other countries it’s not mentioned. They don’t talk about it in Japan so they don’t know that Japanese-Americans were interned. So it’s just this history that’s swept away and that’s insane to me. At the end of the day, these people were stripped of everything that they owned and worked for, and told to put everything in 2 suitcases. They never got an apology…or got a really sh***y one. Barely got any money when they were released and so many people had their lives destroyed and had to start over from ground zero.
So when the show came out, hearing so many people say “This is real? This really happened?” Now cut to COVID and you have people comparing stay at home orders to internment of Japanese-Americans is enraging. We have the luxury of staying home so others don’t get sick vs. Japanese Americans, who were stripped of everything and imprisoned. And the men and women who had to serve their country to even prove their Americanness. It just shows me the lack of education there is. So going forward I’m passionate about how we can get more of those stories out. That’s what George said, we all have stories and we have to tell them. He’s obviously so vocal about his internment experience and he’s such an advocate. Because another thing is that so much of that generation don’t want to talk about it. But the younger generation has to make sure that we know so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again in any extent.
POC Culture: It totally speaks to the power of pop culture. I grew up in a city that had an internment camp and barely learned anything about it. I’m so glad that The Terror came out so that when people are making those gross comparisons between the internment camps and wearing masks, whatever part of the population is more aware because of your show, at least we have that.
Miki Ishikawa: I can only hope so and that people will become more inquisitive about this. And again, it was really anyone that looks Japanese was viewed as the enemy of the State and there’s a huge parallel to what’s going on now. It’s really interesting to experience that now and realize how much history can repeat itself.
POC Culture: How did your parents react when you landed the role?
Miki Ishikawa: They were really happy. My dad didn’t even know much about the internment experience. Both my parents are from Japan and they said it’s not really mentioned in their curriculum. My great grandfather fought in World War II but it’s almost like two different types of stories. But they were super happy that I was able to do this. My dad hates horror shows but he watched the show on a weekly basis. Every day he would call me and say “I can’t watch this! It’s so scary!” [Laughing]
POC Culture: Since the show, what’s it been like being an actor going through pilot season and then running into the pandemic?
Miki Ishikawa: It was an adjustment to realize that this is the new normal. At the end of the day I still need a job. Productions are slowly trying to get back on track and I’ve read for a few things but it’s all up in the air as to when we can go back to work. It wasn’t too much of an adjustment because actors when we’re not working we’re just at home. That wasn’t that big of a deal because I’m used to staying home and keep busy. But I’ve tried to use this time to stay creative. Lee Shorten and I have this pilot that’s finished and we’re starting to pitch. I’m writing some other scripts and pitches too. Obviously that’s easier said than done because some days I can’t do sh*t. Some days I feel like if I can just do five-minutes of work, I feel accomplished. So it’s just about how I can create more content and what can I actually do right now.
POC Culture: You’ve been acting a long time starting at a young age. How did you get into it as a kid?
Miki Ishikawa: My mom was a model so I started kid modeling when I was really young. My mom told me that my first photo shoot when I was 2, I started wailing and she thought “She’s not cut out for this.” Then we moved to Hawaii and I started doing more print work and commercials and I was singing then too. Then we moved to LA and I really started getting into it. By 11, I was with an agency and booked my first film by 12. So I was fortunate experiencing that. I can call myself a child actor and I think I came out kind of decent. It’s funny because I feel like I’ve lived many lifetimes and have experienced many different things in my short 28 years of life!
POC Culture: Is there a highlight of your child actor period?
Miki Ishikawa: I had a lot of fun. Yours Mine and Ours was my first film. That was crazy because there were 18 kids. That was such a good experience because we had so much fun on the set and the adults like Renee Russo and Dennis Quaid were so sweet to us. And then going to Disney and Nickelodeon stuff and joining the tour group and traveling all over. This was at the height of Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers and it was so normal to get on a plane and fly to go do a show in front of 50,000 people. It’s so weird because it feels like hundreds of years ago but it was such a big part of my life. I have a lot of fun fond memories of that.
POC Culture: You joked that you think you came out pretty well but that’s no small thing to be in the public eye at such a young age. How did you stay balanced?
Miki Ishikawa: Normalcy right? What does that mean? I think I had a good group of friends. They kept me centered. I practice Buddhism and it’s a daily practice and I think that’s really been the key factor in keeping me centered. I was able to keep my friends and we were able to still be kids together. By the time I was 21, work was dead and I went through a rough time because my reps didn’t know how to transition me from a kid [actor] to an adult [actor] so I had to get a real job. I worked in retail. That was definitely an ego check. It really humbled me and grounded me. It made me feel more hungry and passionate about what I really wanted to do.
I never felt like I was done. It was just a moment that would pass and time will help. So I went through a long period of not working and that was rough for me. But I believe everything happens for a reason, so all those experiences have rounded me out to who I am and where I am now. To the point where if I never get work again, I have no problem going back to work. Which I did even after Terror. I went back to work. That’s the thing a lot of actors don’t talk about. We’re on this high if we’re a series regular on a show, but the reality is that we always knew that I still needed to get work. Do I go back to my old job and be smart about it? I felt like it was normal for me and didn’t feel shame about it. These are things we don’t talk about because we’re embarrassed by it. But I gotta eat and pay bills!
POC Culture: I’m glad that you’re embracing that because it’s a reality that every actor has to face. There’s no shame in making sure you’re secure financially.
Miki Ishikawa: I wasn’t comfortable talking about this for a long time. But I just realized that I shouldn’t be embarrassed because I know what I want to do and I don’t think anyone else really cares. But it’s a constant ego check. Like right now, none of us can work. I’m used to this! My experience has helped me mentally with these types of things.
POC Culture: Let’s talk a bit about the Asian-American actor community in Los Angeles. I’ve seen on social media that young Asian-American actors are very supportive of each other. How did that come about?
Miki Ishikawa: Personally for me, even though I’ve been in the industry since I was young, I never felt embraced. I was never invited into this community and just didn’t know how to get in it. And really it wasn’t until The Terror when I started seeing people in the community reaching out and praising the show and promoting it. Little by little, I met people online and then met them in person. There were so many who I knew who they were from auditions and it started just being like “Oh, I know who you are and I just wanted to say congratulations!” I think whatever walls we had up for such a long time have crumbled in the best way.
Before, it felt the Koreans were over there, the Japanese over there, the Chinese, etc. There was even animosity between the groups about certain roles. But it finally started to crumble because we just support each other. There are people like Daniel Dae Kim who has been very vocal from day one for the community. He’s a person I’m so grateful for. It’s funny because he was actually one of my retail clients and that’s how we met. We didn’t even meet through the industry. And he found out I was reading for The Terror and he always tried to find out where I was in the process and we became friends. He was always like, “We started at the same place and we have to help each other out,” and I will always cherish that. And I feel like sometimes once people get to a certain level, it’s like “I did this work and I can’t share this so you have to figure it out.” But I feel like there is room for everyone, so why not try to help somebody who you see is working hard?
It’s amazing to see, because a lot of my Asian-American friends that I have now are all pretty recent, but we’re all super close and we all support each other and our projects. It’s really great to see because for so long when I was younger I didn’t see that. I can’t imagine what it was like for Lucy Liu or Kelly Hu, who paved the way, but being “the only one.” Now it’s about how we can help to make sure the generation that follows us can have the same experience and continue to be there for one another. It’s really beautiful to see. And again, it’s so recent for me too. The last year and a half. We all want to work, uplift the community and be seen and heard and we can do that together.
POC Culture: You’ve been cast in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Is there anything you’re allowed to say?
Miki Ishikawa: Oooh what can I say? Watch it when it comes out! Laughing. I really don’t know what I can say. Obviously there’s a lot of speculation as to who I’m playing and who I am. People will just have to see!
POC Culture: How does it feel to be part of the Marvel Universe? It’s THE franchise to be in right now right?
Miki Ishikawa: It’s everyone’s dream right? I definitely FREAKED out. Laughing. I definitely freaked out for sure. And Marvel is very secretive of everything so I didn’t know anything going into it.
POC Culture: Did you even know you were going in for a Marvel role?
Miki Ishikawa: I knew that but I didn’t know for what or with who. Everything’s fake, so I had no context. I just knew what the scene was and that’s it. I didn’t know anything else. Which is hard. I just used as much imagination as I could. So even I’m excited to see what it’s all gonna look like!
POC Culture: Very much excited to see you in that. Anything final thoughts?
Miki Ishikawa: I can only hope that more and more content that comes out will be more representative of the Asian community. And I just want normal stories of normal people, falling in love, getting in fights…just normal stuff that we’ve grown up with and I hope that becomes the norm. Instead of Asians playing Asian. Like Tigertail was beautiful and Christine Ko’s character got to play a normal person. She only spoke Mandarin at the very end and you didn’t even know if she spoke it or not. And I love that. And I hope that we all can create more stories like that.
POC Culture: Well said. Like you said before, we’re American!
Miki Ishikawa: Yup. But I’m also really proud of my culture and so proud to be Asian. I just want to show that we’re normal people that do normal stuff!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.