By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Last spring, actor and comedian Mary Sohn landed on a network TV show after years of hard work performing on cruise ships and waiting tables. Sohn was talking to her mom who, at that point, was finally much more on board with her daughter’s unconventional career path.
Sohn’s mom was so excited for her daughter’s big break that she told all of her church friends to tune in on March 1, 2018, to watch the premiere of her daughter’s show.
“I remember saying to her, ‘I know you told all your friends to watch, but it’s pretty dark,’” Sohn said. “‘Just know that — we’re not talking about Jesus that much.’”
Sohn’s mom and her friends ended up receiving the show well and were impressed!
“I think it was because the comprehension level was not — very high,” Sohn said. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Talk about the clothes some more!’”
Sohn’s show is NBC’s “A.P. Bio,” a half-hour comedy series centered about a self-loathing and disgraced former Harvard philosophy professor (played by Glenn Howerton) who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio where he pretty much scams his way into teaching Advanced Placement Biology at the local high school. He actually doesn’t teach biology to his students at all — he actually spends all of class time making plans to ruin the life of his arch-nemesis.
“A.P. Bio” is now in its second season, and Sohn plays Mary Wagner, an art teacher at Whitlock High School. She is part of a rich ensemble class that includes other teachers (played by Patton Oswalt, Paula Pell, Jean Villepique, and Lyric Lewis) and students (Aparna Brielle, Nick Peine, Allisyn Ashley Arm, Eddie Leavy, and more).
Sohn is from Champaign, Illinois area, which is two hours south of Chicago by car. She describes the place where she grew up as a farm town. She is the third and youngest girl of two Korean American immigrants.
The South Korea that Sohn’s parents grew up in was one of the poorest countries in the world following the end of the Korean War in 1953. They immigrated to the United States for a better life, following the lead of a Sohn’s maternal uncle, who settled in Iowa.
Sohn’s dad had gone to college in Seoul before he completed pharmacy school in Iowa. He realized his dream of becoming a pharmacist in his adopted home country. Sohn’s mother became a grade school ESL teacher. Two of the couple’s daughters followed in their footsteps — today, their oldest daughter is a pharmacist, and their middle daughter is a teacher.
“My parents were pretty strict,” Sohn said. “But I’m the third out of three girls, so by the time they got to me, they were like, ‘Meh. We’ve already got a smartie. We’ve already got a good kid.’ … I truly am the black sheep.”
Growing up, Sohn watched her dad act as the unofficial mayor of their church. He emceed events and, she said, was very funny and perhaps modeled a sense of humor that she’d later take inspiration from and develop into a career. Like her father, Sohn really gravitated to the stage at church. As a kid, she’d pretend to be an interviewer and would host a talk show.
Sohn’s father passed away six years ago.
“My mom filled those shoes after that, and I realized how insanely funny she is,” Sohn said. “She really stepped into who she was.”
Being a performer
Before she was bitten by the bug, Sohn was actually on track to follow in her dad and older sister’s footsteps. She planned on studying medicine when she entered college.
But then she caught a Second City live performance during her first semester. The Second City is a famous improv comedy troupe based out of Chicago, that has churned out a high number of well-known comedians, actors, directors, and more.
“I was really blown away,” said Sohn. “It like, moved my soul.”
So she started taking classes, changed her plans, changed her major, changed her projection of her future, and never looked back.
“I remember telling my grandmother that I was going to be theater major,” said Sohn. “And her words over the phone was, ‘That’s a thing? You can get a degree in theater?’”
Sohn also remembers her dad coming to one of her shows with Second City, though. She remembers feeling like he understood what she was doing.
Over the course of her career, Sohn has written and performed a number of shows with Second City, done voice overs, commercials, and industrial films for companies like Bayer Aspirin and Toyota, and Eli Lilly, and has acted in film and television, notably in “Hello Ladies,” “Love,” and “The Boss.”
The road to her current state has involved a lot of hard work and also just sheer belief in herself and love of what she is doing. For a long time, she looked around and saw the lack of roles and lack of representation of Asians in television and film and — going to what she described as “Midwestern insecurity” — really bought into the belief that she was lucky to even get jobs. She worried about whether or not Asian Americans were even going to want her to represent them.
“We are still pretty far behind,” said Sohn. “We are not really there yet, when it comes to real representation. We have ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ these aspirational characters, but we haven’t infiltrated the system enough to just be ourselves, to just tell our own stories that aren’t filled with money and glamor. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Crazy Rich Asians! This is great!’ But what about regular-ass Asians?”
Sohn said that Asian American actors contend with a lot of subtle microaggressions in the industry — sometimes it’s as simple as not having a stylist or makeup artist on set that understands Asian skin tones and how makeup should be applied because there is an assumption or a lack of concern, that makeup techniques and products for white skin tones is fine enough for use on someone non-white.
Sohn said that there are also not many parts for Asian American women. And then within the parts that are available, many of which are what she describes as “mousy IT secretaries,” roles, ones that lean on tired tropes of Asian Americans.
“I know, for me — I know that there will be less. I won’t be going out for as many roles — because now I choose to let those go,” she said. “And I can say, ‘That’s not me. That’s not the stereotype I’d like to portray.’ It’s not a challenging role for me. Yeah, the pool starts to get smaller, but I think that’s the fight — to push back against that and to believe there’s [going to be] enough for all of us.”
Sohn’s character’s name on “A.P. Bio” is also named Mary, and that’s probably because show creator Mike O’Brien, is a friend of Sohn’s and wrote the part based on an amalgamation of her, his sister, and his sister’s friends.
The Mary character on the show is sassy, brassy, loud, and joyful. She loves giving unsolicited advice, and she is also sometimes more immature than her students. “Plus, she has terrible taste in men, and she says sorry too much,” said Sohn. “She is a whole person.”
And she has been well-received by the Asian Americans that Sohn has talked to.
“The response I’ve gotten goes against my fear, of people saying, ‘Oh no, you’re not the Asian person we want representing us,’” said Sohn. “Asian Americans have been very kind.
They have said, ‘We’re so excited to see a three-dimensional Asian person on TV. Also, I think when we see Asian people on shows, we see these tiny, tiny stick-figure women. I like that, on this show, I simply am what I am. I feel valued for who I am. It’s a thrill that they connect.”
Beyond “A.P. Bio,” Sohn has a few irons in the fire, creatively. She’s doing some writing projects, trying to capture the voice of a regular Asian woman.
“One that is sometimes lazy,” she jokes.
She’s writing a pilot, trying to write a show. She describes her projects as still being puzzle pieces, but hopefully containing stories that will be of interest and value.
She sometimes remembers the discouraging days she used to have, waiting tables and taking a lot of crap at her day job, which supported her passions for years. She remembers that, on the discouraging days, what kept her going was the joy of being an improviser. She loved doing it. It gave her joy. It filled her up in a way where, there was a reserve ready when she had to go work a shift at a restaurant.
“I remember someone saying, ‘No one has to live your life except you.’ I remember being so impacted by that. It was kind of a eureka moment. Even with my parents — as Asian people — we have this need to please and to do the things that our parents have told us is of value.
But in the end, your parents are not living your life. You are living your life. I think, as artists, we’re born that way. We like to create — and that never goes away.”
NBC’s “A.P. Bio” airs on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. “A.P. Bio” can also been streamed on NBC.com or Hulu. Sohn’s podcast, “The Real Housewives Kiki Show!” can be streamed on SoundCloud and iTunes.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.