Your worth isn’t tied to your productivity — I’m still working on this, but very often social media makes us feel like we’re worthless if we don’t have new content constantly, news to share, or projects that we’re working on. Know that you’re going at your own pace, and that’s okay.
I had the pleasure to interview actress, comedian, and singer Anna Akana. On her debut album Casualty, Anna Akana takes an unapologetic and uncompromising look at all the battles she’s faced throughout her life, from depression to abuse to toxic relationships. But with the same unstoppable spirit and magnetic presence she’s shown in her self-driven career as an actress, producer, filmmaker, and writer — as well as a social media superstar whose YouTube channel boasts over 2.5 million subscribers — Akana turns all that pain into a message of strength and self-empowerment. As shown in her irresistibly powerful songwriting, Casualty is the outcome of Akana’s lifelong and unwavering devotion to music. With no limits to her artistry, she’s honed her sophisticated musicality while forging an astoundingly multifaceted career in nearly all corners of the entertainment industry. In 2011, Anna started a YouTube channel featuring her semi-autobiographical short films and sketches, and soon found breakout success as writer and star of the digital series Riley Rewind. Along with appearing in blockbuster movies like Ant-Man, she’s also landed recurring roles on shows like Comedy Central’s Corporate, launched a second digital series (Miss 2059), and served as the star and executive producer for YouTube Red’s Emmy mominated, Youth & Consequences. In addition, Akana made her debut as an author with the 2017 book So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters To My Little Sister, a Random House/Ballantine title now in development with Warner Bros. for series adaptation. As she gears up for the release of Casualty, Anna Akana is tapping into her filmmaking ingenuity to create videos for each of the album’s 13 tracks. She’s also developing her captivating live show, which adds yet another dimension to her indomitable talent.
Thank you so much for joining us Anna! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
My intention for most of my life was to be a veterinarian in the military. Though I always secretly wanted to be a performer, in the 90s there weren’t many Asian American actors and my parents were dead set on me being somehow in the medical field. When my sister died in 2007, I was forced to confront the very real possibility that I would die. At 17, I was pretty convinced that I wasn’t ever gonna die. After coming to terms with my grief and my mortality, I ditched the whole conservative plan and opted to pursue my dreams.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?
Most of the funny or interesting stories in my career would be unfit for publication hahaha.
What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?
I’d definitely advise young people to just start. Make your own stuff. Explore the areas you are interested in. Give yourself permission to fail. There’s so much pressure that we put on ourselves to be good at something the moment we begin, but that’s rarely the case. There’s a few savants out there who do that, but for the rest of us, we need to work consistently to find our voice, get better at our craft, and be on our way to success.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Margaret Cho. I saw her perform when I was 19 and she inspired me to go into stand up. I’d never seen an Asian American female comedian before her. She was the first person to make me laugh after the death of my sister and I owe my entire career to seeing someone who looked like me doing it.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
I’m a passionate mental health advocate. A lot of the content I produce on Youtube is advice that my therapist has given me and I’ve put into practice. I’m vocal about issues that are important to me like animal rights, gender equality and mental health. Recently, I was in a documentary by Soul Pancake & Funny or Die that interviews various comedians about our experiences with mental health.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
There was a young girl at the DMV. She was maybe 15, 16 years old. She ran up to me while I was in line. She was crying and immediately hugged me. Apparently she’d been ready to take her life a few years ago when she came across a video I made called “Please don’t kill yourself.” She said that upon reflection of that video, she couldn’t leave her brother and sister behind to deal with that kind of pain. It was the first time I truly felt like I’d made a difference.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
I hope individuals continue to speak up about their mental health issues. There’s so much internalized stigmatization that we don’t even realize when it surrounds depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. I hope society takes a more active role in practicing compassion and understanding, both in person and especially online. And I hope that the government makes mental health resources more affordable and viable for everyone.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
1. It’s okay to speak up — I very often kept my mouth shut when I was in uncomfortable or dangerous situations. I felt so grateful to even be on set that I didn’t want to “be difficult.” But you have to advocate for yourself, or others, in order to make change.
2. Always get it in writing — I’ve had several situations turn ugly because I didn’t get the proper paperwork in place prior to doing a project. You never know how people feel once money is on the table, so be sure to protect yourself.
3. Your worth isn’t tied to your productivity — I’m still working on this, but very often social media makes us feel like we’re worthless if we don’t have new content constantly, news to share, or projects that we’re working on. Know that you’re going at your own pace, and that’s okay.
4. Don’t post when you’re upset — Don’t tweet, instagram, or do facebook posts when you’re upset. Make it a draft and read it later. Many a drunk tweets have been deleted haha.
5. Failures are necessary to succeed — Failures aren’t failures if you learn from them. They’re opportunities to get better. They’re a necessary part of success. Without failure, you can’t reach success.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My ideal would be everyone doing one kind thing for another person a day. Giving back is such an important aspect of feeling good. And the online space can be a very ugly place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” — Maya Angelou
I’m someone who creates a version of people in my head and then hold them responsible for that image. In my friendships, relationships and often work life, I tend to be imaginative to the point of hindering myself and dishonoring others. It’s something I’m working on in therapy, but seeing people as they are, and not who you want them to be, is a huge lesson for me.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
God I’d love to meet Obama. I’ve had two opportunities to go to the White House, but both times I was booked on films. I think he’s just the greatest.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!