An Expanding Universe

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A new animated entry into the “Star Wars” franchise kicks off Sunday, with diversity front and center.

Kaz Xiono, center, is a young and eager pilot in the new Disney animated series “Star Wars Resistance,” premiering Sunday on the Disney Channel. The show is set prior to the events of “The Force Awakens,” and includes the characters (from left) BB-8, Tam and Neeku. (Lucasfilm)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment

Growing up, Christopher Sean didn’t have an abundance of role models that he felt he could relate to. He had his heroes, for sure, and one in particular proved to be inspiring in more ways than one.

In his room hung a poster of Bruce Lee, and the young Sean was inspired to pursue martial arts, including jiu-jitsu and taekwondo. It was Lee’s words, however, that have had a farther-reaching impact outside of the gym.

“Take what works, discard what doesn’t and make it your own,” Sean said, paraphrasing Lee.

Sean has made a new role his own, one that might well make him the hero of a new generation of youngsters. The 32-year-old is voicing the lead character of “Star Wars Resistance,” the newest entry into the biggest franchise in the known universe.

The animated series debuts Sunday on the Disney Channel and across Disney’s various streaming platforms.

Viewers of the NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives” or “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS will surely recognize the handsome and hunky Sean, as he was a regular on both shows for a couple of years. His voice, however, may not be as familiar, and his first gig in animation couldn’t have come on a larger stage.

“I’m most proud to maybe pave paths for people who might look mixed like me,” said Christopher Sean, who plays the lead role in the series. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS / Rafu Shimpo)

“I got a call that said Lucasfilm wants me to read for the lead of this new show, so I thought that was awesome,” Sean explained, noting recent progress of Asian faces or voices gaining prominence in mainstream entertainment.

“It was just me being me, what I know in my life, what I knew about some of the characters, and applying my story to the character,” he said. “After I booked it, they showed me a drawing of the character and I said, ‘Is that me?’ It was like they modeled him after me.”

In “Star Wars Resistance,” Sean plays Kazuda Xiono, a hot-shot young pilot of Asian heritage who has been tasked with helping Po Dameron to spy on the evil First Order. The series is set temporally before the events in “The Force Awakens.”

With this being his first foray into voiceover work, Sean immediately recognized the differences from appearing on-camera.

“You can’t hear an eyebrow raised or hear a smirk,” he explained.

Sean was born in Oak Harbor, Wash., but was on the move at an early age. His father, Patrick, was in the Navy, meaning the family was often relocated to wherever Dad was stationed.

Years earlier, it was during a deployment in Japan that Patrick was lost in a train station and asked a young woman for directions. So smitten was he with the lady named Sayuri, that he returned to the station on several occasions, hoping to reconnect with her. They found each other again, initially communicating through the use of translation dictionaries, and were eventually married. Three children followed, Sean and two sisters.

As the family moved between the Philipines, Japan, Mississippi and Southern California, Sean developed fluency in English, Japanese and Spanish, with some ability in Tagalog and Thai.

With his father often away from the family on deployments, Sean and his sisters would make video messages to send, a habit that led him to develop a level of ease in front of the camera.

As a kid, he knew he was different from his peers – “In Japan, I was always considered ‘Amerika-jin,” but in the U.S., I was always Asian,” he said.

His ethnicity became a problematic issue when he decided to pursue acting. “I was never white enough to play white, but not Asian enough to be, for example, the stereotypical tourist. I was too big for that.”

Sean’s size and conditioning have been another key to his success. After doing some modeling work, he won the title of Mr. Asia USA in 2007. One of the prizes was a one-year acting class, and upon completing the course, he began auditioning as much as he could.

“They showed me a drawing of the character and I said, ‘Is that me?’ It was like they modeled him after me,” Sean said. (Lucasfilm)

He has made appearances on shows such as “The Bold and The Beautiful” and “The Mindy Project,” but his big breaks came in 2014, when he landed a regular role on “Days of Our Lives” soon after being cast as a recurring character on “Hawaii Five-0.”

Sean said the recent success of films like “Crazy Rich Asians” is an encouraging sign, not only for his own career, but for the entertainment industry as a whole.

“This is amazing. This is huge, because it’s diversity. Diversity means inclusion, and inclusion means more people have role models. They have someone about whom they can say, ‘Not only do I respect and love what this person is doing, I look like that person and I’m no longer an outcast.’

“It’s cool to jump around in different shoes, and I think I’m most proud to maybe pave paths for people who might look mixed like me,” he added.

After years of frustration from being seen as “other,” Sean is encouraged by expanding Hollywood’s acceptance of what is “normal.”

“Now that that the opportunity is here, it’s strange that my ethnicity is working in my favor,” he said.

With his parents settled in Oxnard, Sean lives in the L.A. area with his wife and three kids. He said one of the major challenges of accepting one of the greatest jobs in acting – a Star Wars role – is that he was forbidden to tell anyone about it.

“Being on a soap opera, it’s hard enough with a six-month turnaround, and I couldn’t talk about what was happening in the show,” he explained. “But with ‘Resistance,’ it was a year and a half. My kids would ask, ‘You going to work, Dad?’ and I would say yes, but if they asked where, I couldn’t say, and they’d shout, ‘You’re not really going to work, are you?’”

Sean said his animated counterpart is an accurate reflection of himself, offering a comfort level that made for an easy entry into the role.

“In a lot of ways, I’m still the black sheep, so [it’s good] to have a character that has a mixed look, that people can relate to,” he said. “He works with some amazing characters as he goes on his mission to spy on the First Order, people like Po and Leia Organa.

“He’s amazingly talented, full of heart, a genuine character who makes a lot of mistakes, but he does the best he can to make it right as quickly as possible so no one gets hurt. That’s a wonderful journey to be part of, and I’m very proud.”

“Star Wars Resistance” debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on the Disney Channel, with subsequent airings on Disney XD. It will also be available via DisneyNOW and Disney Channel On Demand.

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