Actress/producer Anna Akana is one of the more recognizable personalities on YouTube, with her channel on the video-streaming service, generating more than 211 million video views and nearly 2 million subscribers since launching in 2011. In March, the 28-year-old Asian-American actress made the transition from YouTube star to scripted series executive producer and star with the launch of the high school-themed dramedy series Youth & Consequences on the YouTube Red subscription digital video service.
Akana spoke with Multichannel News about her new series, her YouTube celebrity and the increasing opportunities for Asian-Americans and other people of color in front of and behind the camera in a multiplatform video environment. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.
MCN: How big a jump was it to move from creating and building your own YouTube brand to now developing and starring in an original scripted series?
Anna Akana: It’s been honestly a dream come true. Not only because I love the script that Jason [Ubaldi] wrote, but also because of YouTube being an awesome creative partner in giving us a traditional TV-level budget and being really being hands-off during the creative process and trusting us to make a show that works. So it’s been a huge step for me and I feel like it’s been what I’ve been working toward — to be the lead of a show that I’m really proud of and love.
MCN: What is it about the series that hooked you?
AA: When you first read the script or you first see it, you’re like, “Oh, she’s a mean girl and she’s a bitch — I’ve seen this before,” but that gets totally turned on its head at the end of the pilot script, when you find out she’s been benevolent this whole time. I thought it was so fascinating to have a girl who is really comfortable being disliked and being in power, but really doing things to get a sense of justice and for her idea of what’s good and right. I also love that it was a female ensemble cast who was really complex and empowered characters, and I just loved how kind of like the guys were accessories in the show.
MCN: The cast of Youth & Consequences is also very diverse. How important was that for you?
AA: A diverse cast was 100% important to me. As an Asian-American woman I faced a lot of stereotypical typecasting roles in auditions, and I wanted the show to reflect the real world. I wanted to have people of color on the show and have a voice for the LGBTQ community.
MCN: Given the increase in distribution platforms, are there now more opportunities for Asian-Americans to tell their stories from a cultural perspective?
AA: One hundred percent yes. I mean, when YouTube first started its main stars were predominantly Asian. It was Natalie Tran and Michelle Phan, and people were asking why are all the stars on You- Tube Asian? I think it’s because we lacked such mainstream representation that when we saw a face that looked like us doing comedy or doing lifestyle videos we were drawn to it. It was like, “Oh my God, there is someone who looks like me finally on the screen.” And so I think it’s provided such a huge voice for people of all kinds of backgrounds and cultures that normally don’t get the kind of representation on TV due to barriers.
MCN: Are you starting to see the same opportunities in the traditional television arena?
AA: I Think so. The change is slow, but we see shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Doctor Ken on the air. So there are changes being made. It’s slow moving, but surely it’s going to happen.
MCN: Throughout your years on YouTube, did you ever foresee a day where the platform would provide opportunities for content creators such as yourself to go beyond videoblogs and into scripted content?
AA: A lot of us who have been on the platform for a long time did see this coming in terms of creating longer-form, narrative content the moment Netflix took off. We were like, “It’s only a matter of time until there are competing platforms for streaming services because people want to consume content on their own time in a convenient place for them.” As far as me ever getting to have that opportunity, I was small potatoes at the time so I wasn’t entirely sure. But I think what I brought to the table was the fact that I’m a classically trained actor. I started in standup and acting, and YouTube is just the thing that took off for me.
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