Gedde Watanabe Says He Didn’t Find His ‘Sixteen Candles’ Role Offensive at the Time

Photo Credit: Greg Doherty / Getty Images

Sixteen Candles was released in 1984 and instantly became a Hollywood classic. With Molly Ringwald, Michael Schoeffling, and Anthony Michael Hall in the lead roles, the film was a major box-office success and has withstood the test of time in many ways. Gedde Watanabe, who played a much smaller but equally as memorable role, explains how his character did not age well and was problematic from the get-go; he just didn’t realize it at the time.

Watanabe didn’t find it offensive at first

Gedde Watanabe in the film ‘Vamp’, 1986. (Photo Credit: New World Pictures / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Watanabe played the character of Long Duk Dong, a Chinese foreign exchange student, in the film. In an interview with People, he revealed that he didn’t even realize the character was an offensive stereotype at the time of filming. “Frankly I was like, this is a good job, and I’m going to get paid more doing one week in this movie that I did for all the years I was in the theater,” Watanabe said.

“It didn’t really occur to me that it was a stereotype, because there wasn’t really anything out there for Asian actors at the time. It was just so scarce. So I didn’t think it was stereotypical or racist. Isn’t that weird?” he explained. However, he was aware that some of the lines in the film were certainly problematic. “I remember the movie using the word ‘Chinaman,’ and even then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not great.’ But you also have to remember in that period of time, people still had to be educated about parameters, what the alarm bells were when it came to being offensive.”

Watanabe tricked Hughes

Hughes wrote and directed the film. (Photo Credit: Universal Pictures / movienutt / MovieStillsDB)

Watanabe, a Japanese-American actor, was born and raised in Utah and has always spoken with an American accent. When it came time to audition for the role, he said “I wasn’t even sure I could even pull [the accent] off.” To prepare, he worked with a friend to lock down the accent. “But I had a friend who sort of sounded like him, and he helped me and let me listen to him and would talk with me, and then I went in and auditioned and got it.”

From the time he auditioned up until the table read that was held in Chicago, Watanabe kept up with the accent, never breaking character. Then, he finally switched and spoke with his regular accent, much to the surprise of writer and director John Hughes. “He totally burst out laughing,” Watanabe explained. “He was in shock.”

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He feels the role has helped in a way

Gedde Watanabe in May 2022. (Photo Credit: Michael Yada / ABC / Getty Images)

Many of Dong’s lines in the film have held their own throughout the years, with fans of the film often repeating them over and over again. At first, Watanabe wasn’t a fan of this, but things eventually shifted as time went on. “You go through a period where it’s really annoying, but as you get older it’s almost sweet. You get where they’re coming from,” he said of fans. “So I don’t take it as anything bad.”

Of course, the character is extremely stereotypical and highly problematic, but Watanabe also says that it has been a driver of positive change for the representation and inclusion of Asian-American actors in Hollywood. “People study him in the Asian studies class,” he explained. “In some ways, that takes the sting out of the role. People are having conversations about him. It’s interesting that this one role did so much.”

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He also said that in his own unique way, Hughes was actually playing against Asian stereotypes by having Dong’s character land a sexy American girlfriend. “That was really unusual in a sense, for the Asian character to get the girl and party and be in bliss like that.