Rosette Rago

When I was a teenager in the Philippines, living outside Manila, I entertained myself by tending to my various blogs about Western pop culture, which I consumed vigorously online. The internet gave me access to movies that weren’t being shown in local theaters or sold in local video stores.
It introduced me to worlds I longed for and envied, as depicted by Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze and Richard Linklater, among many others. I was attending a Catholic university and stayed home most nights — but really, I wished I were Julie Delpy on a European train flirting with the cute but morose guy sitting across from me.
These characters moved so freely in their worlds, while mine suffocated me. I wondered if I was even allowed to behave that way, since I wasn’t blonde and white. I wondered if the stories would be the same if I were in these characters’ shoes, looking the way I do. I wanted to be the main character, not the nerdy best friend. When I watched Diablo Cody’s “Juno,” I imagined myself as the main character Juno and not Su-Chin, the Asian protester outside the abortion clinic yelling in imperfect English.
That scene embarrassed me when I saw it for the first time. Was this how the rest of the world saw people who look like me?
Three years ago, the screenwriter and digital strategist William Yu started#StarringJohnCho, in which he and others photoshopped Cho’s face onto several movie posters, sharing them online as a way to push for more Asian-American leads. What would it look like if Captain America and James Bond were Asian-American? Projects like his come from the same desire that I have to see myself represented on the big screen, and not just as a sidekick. We want to see ourselves as the heroes, too.

Now living in Los Angeles, I’m caught between honoring the culture I grew up with and adjusting to the freedom that my new home affords me. I am constantly modifying my behavior, afraid to completely lose my values and disappoint my family. At the same time, my life here in America sometimes feels like a chance to explore my boundaries as a woman of color.
When I began this project, I reached out to my friends first. Once people had signed up, we worked together to decide what characters they would play; I felt the images should hold some meaning for them, too.
By composing my own photographs, I’ve been able to revisit the movies that made an impact on me growing up. Through these characters I love, I’m examining my place in the world, one frame at a time.

Images and text by Rozette Rago

Rozette Rago is a visual journalist based in Los Angeles.

Produced by Raillan Brooks, Alicia DeSantis, Gabriel Gianordoli, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life.

Actors: Ann Pastor as Leslie Hayman as Therese Lisbon, Ericke Tan as Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon, Jessica Wu as A.J. Cook as Mary Lisbon and Lhiyanne Reyes as Chelse Swain as Bonnie Lisbon in “The Virgin Suicides”; Brandon Tan as Steve Zahn as Sammy Gray, Rozette Rago as Winona Ryder as Lelaina Pierce, Tracy Nguyen as Janeane Garofalo as Vickie Miner and Myrrh Raguro as Ethan Hawke as Troy Dyer in “Reality Bites”; Neil Reyes as Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly and Ericke Tan as Amy Adams as Amy in “Her”; Angela Guo as Mickey Sumner as Sophie Levee and Sabrina Imbler as Greta Gerwig as Frances Halladay in “Frances Ha”; Tracy Nguyen as Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”; Howin Wong as Armie Hammer as Oliver and Abe Kim as Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman in “Call Me by Your Name”; Heather Sten as Julie Delpy as Céline and Daniel Varghese as Ethan Hawke as Jesse in “Before Sunrise”; Jonny Sun as Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom Hansen and Saera Hur as Zooey Deschanel as Summer Finn in “500 Days of Summer”; Ria Misra as Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff in “Juno.”

Film still credits: Paramount Classics (“The Virgin Suicides”); Universal Pictures (“Reality Bites”); Warner Bros. (“Her”); IFC Films (“Frances Ha”); Focus Features (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”); Sony Pictures Classics (“Call Me by Your Name”); Castle Rock Entertainment (“Before Sunrise”); Fox Searchlight Pictures (“500 Days of Summer”); Fox Searchlight Pictures (“Juno”).