Mika Kubo: Redefining the American Dream
It’s not easy to chase our dreams these days.
Those of us coming of age now are confronted with the difficult task of reconciling our many passions with what we choose to pursue as a career. Compared to the generation before us, the need for a greater purpose in our work outside of making money is a trait that defines our age group.
For those of us walking a more unconventional path, the decision to pursue a career in the arts or entertainment can be both daunting but exciting, especially when the goal is not just to make it as a creative, but to influence the entire industry itself.
Mika Kubo is an actress and environmental activist who finds personal purpose in her passion for social change and her desire to perform on the screen.
Photo by Alejandro Ibarra
She dances, she acts, she’s bilingual, multi-national, and a firecracker of a woman. While still in the early stages of her career, she has various commercials under her belt, and has starred in a guest role on an Amazon Prime series, the latest Transformers movie Bumblebee, and will star in a an upcoming Pixar short film called Float.
In her own words, we asked her about what inspires her, what it’s like trying to make it as an actor, how diversity and women’s empowerment is changing the industry, and most importantly how her identity as a Mexican-Japanese-American has shaped her life and experiences.
Q - So first, can you tell us a little about yourself?
A - Hi, my name is Mika. I enjoy long walks on the beach… LOL I am originally from Mexico. I grew up in Cancun, Quintana Roo and moved to California when I was 12. I graduated from UC Berkeley a few years ago and have been trying to figure out life ever since.
Q - You didn’t speak any English when you moved here?
A - I did speak some English when I first moved but I still had to participate in ESL for a few years. It was a really difficult transition because I was at an age when there is already so much changing with your body and your relationships and your understanding of yourself — doing that in a new country, speaking a new language, while trying to make new friends was incredibly challenging. Also 13 is just a fucked up age!
Q - How old were you when you realized you wanted to go into acting? And what has your journey in deciding to pursue acting been like?
A - I think since I was really young, I always knew I wanted to go into entertainment. My mom put me in dance classes since I was little and that helped foster my love for performing. But I think I naturally had an affinity towards it from the get-go. There are literally videos and photos of me when I was only 1 year old, setting up my stuffed animals along the staircase in my living room. I would perform shows and dances for all my toys. [laughs]
But it wasn’t until I was about 8 or 9 that I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to be an actor when I grow up’. That was always my goal, and people in school knew me as the person whose house you’d go to and I’d make you be a character in my movie. At 12 years old I was writing scripts and using my mom’s camcorder to record them.
At the same time, I've always had a deep love and appreciation for nature. The area I grew up in was practically the jungle so every other week I'd come home with a bird that fell from a tree, or my brother would adopt a snake.
When I was 10, I wrote a book ON what I wanted to change about the world, and one thing was all the trash and pollution; this was before I even knew what climate change was!
We used to help free sea turtles at my elementary school and would do field trips to visit alligator reserves. I think that all really informed my passion for sustainability and environmental justice. These are all things that I was drawn to as a kid but didn’t realize would develop into what is now my life.
I glamorized what the US was like growing up in Mexico, and yet coming here was such a different experience. I was bullied pretty horrifically and did poorly in school because my math and English were just not up to par. So instead of going to dance and theatre classes, which had been my life growing up, I became solely focused on bringing my grades up.
I WAS torn apart because of my identity: this immigrant girl who doesn’t look the part of an immigrant, but doesn’t speak English, and has the wrong accent for how she looks and does all these things that aren’t cool.
Like it really wasn’t cool to be this theatre girl that had to go to ESL during lunchtime. So through all of my adolescence and early adult life I kind of forgot about acting entirely because looking back on it I was afraid to be who I was.
I always told myself I’d try to pursue acting again after I graduated college, but kept putting it off. That’s how I fell into Media and Peace and Conflict Studies — I decided to pursue the humanitarian and environmental justice work that I had always been interested in because it felt more legitimate than majoring in theatre at the time.
I got my dream job working as a motivational speaker for an international charity. I got to fulfill my interest in social justice campaigns, climate change, and empowering youth, but it also fulfilled me in a creative way because I was in front of people and performing.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to make ends meet as an entry-level worker in the nonprofit world. That’s what actually pushed me to start picking up acting gigs on the side. Sadly, working a full-time non-profit job doesn't pay the bills living in San Francisco. So, the fact that I needed to make money was sort of an excuse to do it, even though it was something I’d always wanted to do.
Q - So the universe made it happen in this unassuming way, almost like it happened unintentionally?
A - I think it was more of a synchronous effort. It didn’t just fall on my lap. There’s a quote I love by Pablo Picasso that somewhat epitomizes what the process has been like for me:
“La inspiración existe, pero tiene que encontrarte trabajando”
It means, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I actively began looking for acting jobs and researching agencies while I still had a full-time job. And the more I planted seeds, the more I saw results. But at the beginning (and sometimes even now) it is this big intangible thing; I literally found myself Googling, ‘How do you become an actor?’
Without being fully aware of it, I was taking these little steps to get there, and eventually, I started booking gigs. First I was an extra on set, and then I got an agent, and it kind of snowballed from there until I booked my first big role.
Q - What is it like being Asian-American in the acting industry, and how has it affected your experiences while auditioning?
I’m happy to be starting at a time when conversations around diversity, sexual harassment, wage gap, etc. are taking place. Compared to just a few years years ago, there’s a space being built for more voices to be heard.
But it’s not at the capacity that we need it to be. For instance, in the case of Asian-American representation: the roles I go out for are not only very limited but very limiting -- always the sidekick, never the protagonist or the hero. It’s hard because you fight tooth and nail to book a role -- but a lot of times those roles are stereotyped (the smart friend who hands a banana to the protagonist) and it’s hard to give a character like that a life of your own life.
Q - Which I’m sure is also funny as someone who primarily identifies as Latinx-American -- like are you Asian, or are you Latina?
A - Yeah that’s a whole other thing. That’s a space that has not yet been created and which I’m really interested in talking about. Even with the diversity wave taking place, there’s still a huge gap culturally and physically in roles that POC and WOC are able to get. You can’t just lump all Asian-Americans and say that’s diversity. I remember being really bummed out when I auditioned for Deadpool 2 because even though it went really well at the audition and I got great feedback from the casting director, the question at the end was: do you speak Japanese? And the answer is no… but I can speak Spanish. The conversation is there but it’s not as complex or as intersectional as it needs to be.
So I always have to be someone I am not, and I don’t think there’s been a space for a Japanese-Mexican-American who is ethnically Japanese but is culturally Mexican. That doesn’t exist in Hollywood yet.
Q - How does being a woman inform your experience in the industry?
A - While I've only been working in the industry for a short time, I do know we have to work extra hard, be extra alert and do twice as much for half the pay (as all women do in all industries.)
I think that’s because historically a large part of directors and writers of scripts that get picked up by large networks are men. So consequently, they write with male leads in mind.
I recently worked on my first commercial with a female director, the wonderful Lauren Sick. I’ve done over 15 commercials since I started and it was my FIRST time working with a female director, which is crazy if you think about it. The director was a woman, the 1st and 2nd assistant directors were women; the entire cast, talent, extras, background, everybody was a woman. And the experience was just so different in the best way possible.
With wardrobe, the director made sure to ask us if we were comfortable with what we were wearing because we had to dance in short skirts and heels. I’d never had the experience of a director asking me if I’m comfortable with what I’m wearing.
I felt like I was working with someone who understood what I was feeling. I think we’ve been conditioned to expect secondhand treatment, but to have been given consideration I didn’t ask for was just so different from every other experience I’d had.
This speaks to a paradigm shift in the industry that is very slowly creating differences, especially when projects are led by women. There’s the age-old conflict of women breaking into the industry through acting because that’s what people perceive culturally, but it matters even more behind the camera.
Q - What do you do to get inspired or feel driven?
A - It could be a lot of things, but a huge one is surrounding myself with people that are also creative and inspired. They don’t have to be in the entertainment industry, they don't have to also be actors, but when you’re around people who are really into what they’re doing and talking about it with passion, it inspires you too. Being around people who are hustling and making a change by what they’re doing makes me want to tell my story in my art form as well.
Q - What advice would you have for someone interested in pursuing acting?
Just start. Don’t wait till you have your headshot or your agent — if you’re creative and want to get into it, start recording stuff. Start putting yourself out there. A lot of times people are waiting for this blueprint or handbook or instructions on how to become a successful actor, and I think every single person from me to someone who is successful and has 5 Oscars — no one knows how they got there. Everyone has such a different path and I think that’s what’s terrifying and exhilarating about this industry because there is no ‘real’ way to do it.
But I understand how vague and undefined this all sounds.
I remember reading every blog and listening to every interview from working actors saying, “Just do it!” And I would be like, okay. FUCK YOU. HOW?
So although I hate to say, “Do x, y, and z and then you'll become an actor!” A good place to start is to get involved locally in any way you can. This means taking classes. This one is important! So many people want to become actors but have never taken a single acting class in their life. Get started in student films, convince your musician friend to put you in their music video, write a one-woman show and upload it to YouTube! Just start where you are with what you have and just start chipping away. Someone once told me this career is a marathon and not a race. And although that sounds daunting, its somewhat liberating when you understand that you're not too late, or too old, or too inexperienced. You just need to start and keep doing small things to move you forward.
Q - Who are the 5 people you would invite to a dinner party, dead or alive?
A - Hayao Miyazaki, Greta Thunberg, Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein, and Mindy Khaling.