Twenty years ago, Nicole Bilderback was nearly as ubiquitous in teen movies and TV shows as Freddie Prinze Jr. She was in “Clueless,” “Bring It On” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.” She was in episodes of “Dawson’s Creek,” the “Clueless” TV series and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Her name didn’t show up on the movie posters, though, and some of her roles were blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slim. Still, she stood out: She was often the only Asian-American in the cast.
“Her characters didn’t have much back story, but she was always sparkly, always delivered her lines with panache,” wrote Jenny Han, the author of the bestselling Y.A. novel behind the recent Netflix hit “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” in a New York Times essay about crafting a teen rom-com starring an Asian-American girl. She remembered watching Bilderback and seeing some version of what white girls get to see all the time: a reflection but glamorized.
“If Nicole was a teenage actress today,” Han wrote, “I’d like to think she’d be more than just a minor character. She’d be the star of a teen movie, because I would make it my mission to write one for her.”
Bilderback, it’s true, is no longer a teenage actress. Years have passed since her time as a staple of teen comedies, but she has kept working, steadily, in TV and film.
And when HuffPost reached out to her last week to talk about her career, the spate of successful movies starring Asian and Asian-American actors and her time as a teen-flick supernumerary, she wanted to make it clear that she hasn’t gone anywhere. “I’m still a young actress!” she addressed Han in a phone conversation with HuffPost, laughing. “You can still write a role!”
Bilderback is always looking for the upside. She even spoke positively about the most bizarre episode in her long career, when an anonymous Asian-American actress from Texas sued IMDB for publishing her age ― and nearly everyone immediately assumed the actress was Bilderback. (Born in Korea, she was adopted and raised in Texas.) In reality, she said, she found out about the lawsuit when her manager at the time called her to ask if she was behind it.
“I immediately kind of went into fear mode, to be honest,” she said. But her fears that casting directors and producers would hold it against her were unfounded; instead, she recalls, many of them were impressed by the move. “My poor manager had to say, ‘It’s not her.’”
The swirl of rumors put the spotlight on her, however, and for an actor, that’s rarely all bad. She watched her IMDb Starmeter ranking rise into the 50s (that’s a good thing), and she capitalized on the attention by making a comedy sketch about it with Funny or Die. “Thankfully, it did not hurt me in my career,” she said. ”But I got really, really, really famous, really, really, really fast.”
Of course, the Starmeter ranking fell eventually, and in 2018, Bilderback is still working on breaking through to the next level in Hollywood. She spoke about writing her own material, auditioning for “Crazy Rich Asians,” the current wave of Asian-American representation in pop culture and what role she’d love to have written for her. (Jenny Han, are you listening?)
When you got into acting, what kind of career did you see for yourself? What actors did you look up to, and what roles did you hope to play?
I moved out [to Los Angeles] in fall of ’93, and there was really only, maybe, a handful of Asian-American actresses out here in LA. So I entered at a really great time, and for me, back then, I was so young. I knew this was not only my dream, but I knew it was what I was meant to do. So I wasn’t guarded.
And what’s even funnier is, I think being raised as an all-American girl from Dallas, Texas, I just saw myself as an all-American girl who just happened to look Asian. So in other words, I didn’t pigeonhole myself as, “Oh, well, I’m probably only going to read for Asian roles.” In fact, that wasn’t really in my thoughts. I was just so free-flowing and young and fresh. I think because of that, because I didn’t limit myself, the industry saw me with very open eyes as well.
When you were auditioning for those first roles and the roles in “Clueless” and “Bring It On” ― those classic teen comedies ― what roles were you auditioning for? Were you auditioning for all the roles, lead roles? Were you going after specific callouts?
Funny enough, “Clueless” was actually my very first movie ever. I remember getting the audition, and at the time I read for two roles. I was auditioning for Summer, the character I ended up playing, and I also auditioned for the role of Amber. When I went in for the callback, which was with the director, Amy Heckerling, and all the producers, I remember they actually added another role for me, so I read also for the role of Heather, Josh’s girlfriend in the movie. So I was being considered for all three of those roles.
You ended up being in this set of canonical teen movies from the late ’90s [also including “Can’t Hardly Wait”], and I’m curious whether you ever read for a lead role in one of those movies.
I definitely read for a lot of lead roles back then, for sure. The industry is funny, and the casting process is funny. A lot of it is very political, where an actor can read for a role, and then sometimes there’s an offer already out on a name. So I did read for a lot of, I should say lead or bigger supporting lead roles, though “Bring It On” was a supporting lead. But I did read for a lot of bigger parts, but there was usually either already a star name attached, or maybe at the time they weren’t necessarily as open to an ethnic actress as the lead. Not as much as they are now.
Although when you read about the way that “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” got made, it sounds like they still weren’t that open at the time of optioning the movies.
Yeah. I’m so happy to hear that [“Crazy Rich Asians”] followed through with an all-Asian cast. I actually read for a supporting lead in it. I have not seen it yet, but I’m so excited to see it and support that. This is like the first major motion picture with an all-Asian cast since “Joy Luck Club.” And “Joy Luck Club” was how many years ago? I mean, Jesus, really?
Yeah, 25 years, I think.
Yeah, I think you’re right. So this is long overdue, and hopefully this is just one of many to come.
Can you tell me which role you read for in “Crazy Rich Asians”?
I read for the role of Astrid, played by the lovely Gemma Chan. And I gave a great read, and casting over in China had contacted my agent and said, “She was fantastic,” and the producers remembered me and everything, so it was all good. But they ended up casting predominantly European actors. It was a bummer. I really wanted that role! [But] I was just happy the movie was being made.
When you were breaking into the industry, did you ever feel frustrated by that being the landscape?
My story, I think, is slightly different than probably the majority of the other Asian-American actors that have been out here doing this for a long time. The majority of the roles that I’ve portrayed have been roles that were either intended for Caucasian actresses or the ethnicity wasn’t specified. So for me, I got lucky in the sense of I wasn’t really typecast as just an Asian actress. And I think a lot of that had to do with the timing. I was one of the first. It was like me, Lucy Liu, Lindsay Price and one or two other actresses who are still working today.
I think I entered at a good time where I could make a name for myself a little more openly and freely as an actress and not a quote-unquote Asian actress. Although at the same time, it also worked to my benefit, being an Asian-American actress, because I stood out. I was something new and something different, rather than the standard blond hair, blue eyed that they’d already seen hundreds of.
You’ve talked a lot about your career over the years, but in this particular moment when these movies are coming out, romantic comedies starring Asian-American women, has it made you think differently at all about your time starting out in the industry? Has it made you think about how different it would be now?
Oh, God, yeah. I wish all this was happening back when I was starting out. I mean, wouldn’t that be great, in an ideal world? But at the same time, I can’t look back and think, “Oh, God, if only this, if only that.” The way I look at it now is, everything is just expanding for myself and for all of us. There’s no point in trying to turn back the clock, because that’s not going to happen. Hopefully this is the first of many other projects that I can be a part of.
What has it been like for you in the past few years? You’ve obviously kept working in TV and film. Has the experience of going out on auditions and working changed a lot for you?
Yeah. You know what? That’s such a loaded question, because there’s always going to be the surface outlook of it and the inner, personal outlook of it, which are totally different. I’ve always been very fortunate. I’ve always worked. But it’s, for me personally, getting to the next level that I thought I would have already been at by now.
Because I’ve always been a contender. I was always getting down to the wire, and politics have been a speed bump. Here I would be a contender for a lead role in something, whether it be a TV show or a great role in a big movie, and there would already be an offer out to a star name, or they went with a different ethnicity.
And then it’s funny, because this year has been a really beautiful, big breakthrough year for me because I returned to writing. I wrote a half-hour, single-camera sitcom pilot, kind of loosely about my life, really. I’m also producing now. I’m producing my first feature film. I had to realize, “Oh, wait a minute, there’s more than one way of becoming a successful actress and reaching the success that I’ve always known I was meant to reach, other than just through auditioning.”
I also wanted to talk about Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Have you read about that or seen it?
No, I have not.
Jenny Han is the author of the books, and you probably saw her New York Times essay about making the movie, because you were in it.
Yeah! I’m actually thinking about reaching out to her, just to give her a little shout-out, and I think that’s amazing. I have not seen the movie. I have not read the book, but I am now, specifically because of that [article] that she did. Have you seen it?
Yes, I’ve seen it several times already because it’s really good. Highly recommend.
When you heard about the article, did it surprise you that there were girls out there who were really deeply affected by seeing you in these movies?
Absolutely. I have gotten a few people here and there throughout the years that have given me some lovely shout-outs and acknowledgments. That’s always so humbling and flattering and heart opening. But I think, reading her specifically, because it came out of the blue for me, was just so touching in a special way.
She wrote about how if you were a young actress today, she would write a movie for you.
I loved that. I think it’s so sweet. And at the same time, I’m like, “I’m still a young actress! You can still write a role!”
You should ask her if she would write a role for you.
Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. Like, “Listen, I’m writing too. Do you by chance want to team up on something?”
Obviously, you’ve been working on lots of projects of your own to make that happen, but if Jenny Han reads this and there’s one kind of role you could tell her you would love to have written for you, what role would that be?
I’ve always, always wanted to be the kick-ass assassin but, like, a good assassin, an assassin with a heart, how about that? I’ve always been very physical. I was a dancer my entire life growing up, and of course I’ve done cheerleading. I’ve done my own stunts in everything I’ve done. I’ve always wanted to do a really great action movie — but an action movie with a story that also has a beautiful message to it — and be that empowered woman that is getting justice for others who can’t and just goes around and kicks a bunch of ass effortlessly and ends up saving the world. Whether that’s in a fantasy period piece or whether that’s in the future or whether it’s now, I don’t care. I’ve just always wanted to play that kind of role.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.