Since her international breakthrough in shows by major streaming services, American-Danish-Korean actress Sandra Yi Sencindiver has taken her career's "second renaissance" as a call to redress what she says is Denmark's lack of diversity and representation in the arts.

Sencindiver has had a prolific career in Danish theater since being cast at age 20 in a local production of "Miss Saigon," Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's formerly critically acclaimed stage musical.

Undated image supplied by Epilogue Agency shows American-Danish-Korean actress Sandra Yi Sencindiver. (Photo courtesy of Ian Lim)(Kyodo)

She has appeared in the Scandinavian noir dramas "The Bridge" (Season 4) and "Backstrom" and has written and directed her own short film "Watch" (2023), depicting two women sharing a childhood secret.

As artistic director of the theater company "danskdansk" ("Danish Danish"), she has sought to challenge conceptions of what being Danish means and looks like alongside her extensive advocacy work.

Speaking to Kyodo News before the SAG-AFTRA actors strike, Sencindiver said her international success illustrates how structural racism and discrimination -- rather than a lack of talent or opportunity -- are behind the myth of a white, homogenous Denmark shown on screen.

Born in Busan, South Korea, Sencindiver and her twin sister were adopted by an American father and Korean mother before her father remarried a Danish woman when they were 8.

One year after moving to Denmark at age 9, Sencindiver wrote her first play in Danish, which she performed with her entire class.

Despite being encouraged by her family to learn classical piano, sing, dance and act, she never viewed the profession as a future career.

"Nobody in the family I came from has really done the arts. It was like a healthy hobby," Sencindiver said. "It wasn't part of my reality that it was an actual job. I think a lot of working-class families feel that way."

It was not until she was cast by a big Danish regional theater in "Miss Saigon" that pursuing acting professionally even occurred to her, and she credits the guidance of her fellow cast members in encouraging her to attend drama school.

"Sometimes you just need that little push to go for something you didn't know existed for you. Having somebody believe in you makes all the difference," Sencindiver said.

She now takes responsibility in trying to encourage others too, complementing her career-long goal of "fighting the patriarchy and making the arts more inclusive" -- something of great importance to a woman of color, she says.

After "Miss Saigon" -- now widely regarded as problematic, even racist, for its depictions of East and Southeast Asian characters -- the screen work in Denmark offered to Sencindiver primarily involved "flat, two-dimensional" parts as a cleaner or nanny.

The shock of this treatment pushed her increasingly toward the "broader imagination" of theater instead of the screen.

"Actors want to portray people with flesh, blood, motivation, dreams, hopes and nuances...but (the industry) just wanted me to be Asian and speak with an accent," Sencindiver said.

It was not until "Crazy Rich Asians," starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding, came out in 2018 that Sencindiver saw a global market for East and Southeast Asian representation opening up.

"Longing" to be a part of this movement, Sencindiver took the leap of finding international representation, landing the role of Lady Amalisa in Amazon Prime's fantasy series "The Wheel of Time."

Sencindiver says she found the arc of Lady Amalisa's character, as a fierce protector of her realm who is also highly flawed "so rich and fun to do" after feeling that such parts would never be available for someone with her "experience, body, identity and gender."

Pointing to how the sci-fi and fantasy genres provide ample opportunity to showcase "different species, colors and cultures," Sencindiver also relished playing the "beautiful and politically savvy" Enjoiner Rue Corintha in the second season of the sci-fi epic "Foundation" (Apple TV+), released on July 14.

Sencindiver will also appear in Netflix's "Geek Girl" about a bullied, neurodivergent teenager who is scouted by a modeling agency.

Sencindiver's "second renaissance," as she terms it, in an international screen career, sends a strong message to the Danish industry as the screening giants hire based on talent and "have an audience wanting plurality and diversity on their screen."

According to Sencindiver, racism is challenging to discuss in Denmark due to the perception of it as an "evil, conscious act," rather than being caused by institutional or unconscious bias.

Addressing this and other forms of prejudice, she and four other actresses of color launched a campaign called "A Bigger Picture" in February, highlighting "the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of diverse bodies" in Denmark's film and TV industry.

Images from Jan. 30, 2023, show alternative casts for major Danish productions as part of the "A Bigger Picture" visual campaign, which addresses a lack of diversity in Danish TV and film. (Courtesy of Marie Hald and Per Morten Abrahamsen for "A Bigger Picture")(Kyodo)

Re-imagining the posters of three high-profile Danish TV productions with all-white, able-bodied cast members, they show an alternative of people who better represent age diversity, gender, sexuality, skin color, family, religion, socio-economic backgrounds, body types and people with disabilities.

While these conversations are just beginning, Sencindiver says she and her colleagues have received positive responses from organizations like the Danish Film Institute and are also nominated for a new award from Denmark's Ministry of Culture and Arts celebrating contributions to gender equality and representation.

Going forward, Sencindiver says representing different ethnicities, genders and bodies on screen has the potential to provide great artistic enrichment, which she hopes Denmark will embrace.

"A true artist wants to make something new, and representation is just another tool to do that -- a very hands on tool to make yourself look at things in a new way. I think it's amazing, and we'll only get more amazing art," Sencindiver said.

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