Carving out a career in any part of the entertainment industry is tough. Any field you go into requires countless hours of practice, discipline to stay focused on your goals, and an often thankless schedule to make everything happens. All of that effort is required to get into just one field. For those who want to branch out and take on more than one creative outlet, the work multiplies rapidly. It takes an extraordinarily talented, dedicated person to pull such a feat off. Anna Akana is one of those people. She’s done a little bit of everything so far in her career, acting in movies and on television (appearing in Ant-Man and Corporate), running a successful YouTube channel, performing across the country as a comedian, and authoring a book, all while remaining open about her bouts with depression and her experiences as a bisexual Asian woman in entertainment. As 2019 reaches its summer zenith, she’s adding musician to her list with the release of recent single “Intervention” and “Alone Together,” taken from her upcoming musical project Casualty. As much as any one person can, Anna Akana is doing it all.
As one can imagine, all of these endeavors make for a busy schedule, and I talk to Akana during some rare downtime as she prepares for he debut concert in LA on July 24th. Her secret to figuring out her time? “Color-coordinated Google Calendar is like my best friend,” she says with a laugh. Even before she became as busy as she is, she was fascinated with “time-hacks” and how to increase her productivity or recognize when she needs to focus her energy elsewhere. On the inside of the machine, Akana is very familiar with how the grind can get to a person. “We live in a society that really rewards exhaustion and productivity and looks down upon relaxation time, which is really frustrating because that’s such a necessary part of being productive,” she explains. She goes on to talk about how over the years, she’s become good at knowing when she’s pushing herself too far and taking some downtime to reset herself.
Her knack for music is also something Akana has picked up over the years. “I was performing music since I was a teenager in my stand-up routine, so my focus was obviously more [to] setup punch in music, and much more comedy-focused,” she says of her past experiences with music. While she says she continues to love stand-up, a personal shift as she approaches her 30’s (she’s 29 now) and a shift in the world as a whole changed her focus towards music as a career path to explore. “I feel like we’re at a juncture just politically and nationwide and spiritually where it’s like ‘I want to put out a serious message and I want to explore art forms and really contribute something to the world,'” she explains about her shifting interests. Another key aspect in her music career is the role music has played in helping her during some of her depressive episodes and a desire to in turn help people in a similar way.
The shift from writing for comedy to a more standard musical project has presented its challenges for Akana. “The struggle there is to do it in a way where it doesn’t feel super overt or cheesy,” she says. “Alone Together” and “Intervention” both address serious subjects like heartbreak, and it’s safe to say upon listening to both that she’s accomplished her goal of being sincere in her music. In some ways, she does find it easier to write for this project. From a content standpoint, she explains writing a punchline that has to be taken a certain way is harder than writing a song, which can be left partially open for interpretation from the listener. Additionaly, Akana says “[she’s] found it to be very cathartic” to be writing these songs. The preparation and live aspects are different as well, and she’s relishing the changes. She describes the rehearsal for her upcoming show as “a really fun, collaborative process,” and contrasts that with the isolation of being alone on stage and tour for stand-up. “The idea of getting to tour with other people and having other people around and having friendships and having bandmates and being in it together is so exciting to me,” she says eagerly (she’s still getting used to in-ear monitors, though).
Whether through her various creative outlets or in conversation, Akana is frank and open about her mental illness and its effect on her life. “I lost my little sister when we were teenagers to suicide, and I myself have battled with depression and suicidal ideation on and off throughout my early 20s,” she tells me. The former event is what moved Akana to write her 2017 book So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters to My Little Sister, which touches more on how she’s coped and the lessons she’s learned. Akana explains she wants to be open and talk about her own experiences so that others struggling can see that they’re not alone and have people who understand and support them. “To me it’s really important to normalize that so people don’t feel so isolated and like they’re weird and they can’t talk about it, and to also be very open about the fact that I go to therapy. I go to therapy, I go to a professional licensed psychologist, I learn things from them,” she says. She’s encouraged by the progress we as a society have made so far in talking about mental illness, but wants to still keep being open about it to continue making a difference for those who need it.
With so many topics Akana wants to explore and so many creative avenues at her disposal, she considers each pairing carefully when considering how to deliver each message. “I’ll have ideas first and foremost and then realize what platform it needs to be on,” she says of the process. She considers how she wants to tell her story, and gives So Much I Want To Tell You as an example. “I realized I would love for this to be a book, and I really saw it as something that an older sister could buy for a younger sister or a mother could buy for a daughter,” she explains. This illuminates her other consideration when making these decisions, which is how it’ll best reach and help those consuming it. In the case of Casualty, the album was inspired by a breakup, and the recollection of music helping her through past breakups led her to put this message into music. In Casualty‘s case, Akana says the message is “I’m not a casualty just because you don’t love me anymore.” She explains that she did not totally believe that message when she was writing the album, but wanted to strive towards reaching that point and building an entire album around it.
While Akana does have an extensive team around her, as most all musicians/actors/comedians do, she retains complete control over her career. The importance of this to her is twofold. She explains to start with, she’s unfortunately still had to push back against outdated, offensive ideas about what an Asian woman can do in Hollywood. “There were so many parts or auditions I would get that were just offensive. Offensive to me as a woman, offensive to me as a woman of Asian descent. I got so frustrated as a teenager going out for these parts because I was like ‘this is what people think Asian women are? Like I’m going to cry because I got a B on my math test?'” she remembers. At that point she decided she would stake out on her own to create the career and roles she wanted. On a more positive note, Akana also credits her parents with imbuing her with the values that pointed her on this independent path. “My dad is very disciplined, very hard working, very business-oriented and my mother is very free flowing and artsy and creative, and so growing up I was fabricated by the best of both worlds,” she says. Additionally, they were a military family, which acclimated her to change as the family moved around.
The idea of creating her own roles is what made Akana so excited about the release of the music video for “Alone Together.” The video stars Akana and Jenna Lyng Adams as a broken up couple, and through a split screen shows how each is handling post breakup life. This is significant for Akana, as it’s the first piece of art she’s released that showcases her bisexuality since she came out in late 2018. Akana says she was very nervous before releasing it, but is very proud of the final product. She explains that she wanted to depict this part of herself, but did not want the video to just feel like “checking a box” when it came to diversity, as she has been on the other end of those type of casting decisions. “To me it was like ‘okay, well now that I’ve come out, I would love to own this part of myself and that means injecting it into my art.’ And I want to do that in a way that’s responsible and loving, and the identity of these characters isn’t completely based on sexual orientation or race or anything. They’re just people,” she explains. She recalls seeing Margaret Cho perform stand-up and how the consumption of media helped her realize she could have a career as herself, and wants to pass on that same feeling to others.
No matter what artistic avenue Anna Akana chooses to go down, she’s going to give it her all. Whether it’s stand-up, writing, or debuting new album Casualty, she has the willpower, drive, and talent to make it work. With that work ethic combined with a strong sense of purpose and a willingness to be open, Akana is propelling herself into the career she’s envisioned for herself. Be on the lookout, soon you’ll be seeing Anna Akana everywhere you go.
If you or someone you know are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or at 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741).