For the seven-year run of “Gilmore Girls”, and then again during its Netflix revival in 2016, Keiko Agena played Rory Gilmore’s best friend, Lane Kim. Many of the millennials who grew up with the show thought of her as our best friend, too, particularly children of immigrants, who saw our mother-child dynamics reflected less in Rory and Lorelai’s relationship than in Lane and Mrs. Kim’s, which despite its sternness and secrecy we also recognized as loving.
Nearly two years after our last on-screen glimpse of the Kims, Agena is back in the best friend role with her new book, “No Mistakes: A Perfect Workbook for Imperfect Artists,” out Tuesday.
For anxious artists held back by perfectionism, “No Mistakes” provides 150 pages’ worth of interactive pep talks inspired by Agena’s experience doing improv, where there’s no such thing as a mistake, only creative choices for team members to build on collaboratively.
The book includes prompts for writing, drawing, list-making, page-destruction, and breathing exercises, interspersed with inspirational quotes and Agena’s abstract line drawings. Silly prompts (draw the items you’d take with you in a zombie apocalypse) sit beside painfully deep ones (list the negative things you think about yourself).
Since “Gilmore Girls,” Agena has guest-starred on shows like “House,” “Scandal,” and “13 Reasons Why.” She and actor Will Choi also co-host the Los Angeles performances of Asian AF, an Asian American variety show based at Upright Citizens Brigade that has featured Margaret Cho, Kelly Marie Tran, Randall Park, and many other Asian American stars. You might know Asian AF for its T-shirts, which read, “Scarlett & Emma & Tilda & Matt,” calling out some of the most visible instances of Hollywood whitewashing of Asian characters in the past few years.
The show’s main purpose, Agena says, is to give a platform to talented people who happen to be Asian. “Some of the content is about being Asian, some of it’s not, because it’s really about the performers and writers getting a chance.”
I met Agena at Los Amigos Bar and Grill in Burbank, Calif., where we discussed her work, but also her love of the personality typing system enneagram (she’s a type 6). She talked about her struggle with anxiety and how she copes with it: the strategies in her book, therapy, non-attachment meditation and yoga, plus watching romantic comedies (recently “Ibiza” and “Set It Up”) and going out with her husband, musician Shin Kawasaki, every morning for coffee.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: How did you develop the activities in “No Mistakes”?
Keiko Agena: The funny thing about writing something like this is that any time I would get stuck, it was the exact opportunity to figure out why I was stuck and what were my tools for getting unstuck. Then, each tool itself could become a prompt or a page or a question. So, it kind of propelled itself as I sat with my own insecurity and thought, “Well, what do I need in this moment to heal myself or make myself feel better or distract myself in this moment?” The answer was often right there in front of me. Sometimes it’s just setting things aside for a minute, or sometimes it’s challenging yourself, but it feels like it’s different all the time.
TL: How did you get into drawing? Is it something you’ve always done?
KA: No, not really, although my dad is an artist, not professionally, but he always drew. The initial impetus was about three years ago when I started a Tumblr page, and I had nothing to put on it. I was like, well, I’ve been repetitively drawing these little hearts. That’s something, I’ll just put them on Tumblr.
I think the thing that drew me to drawing was that there’s an end to it. I mean, it’s never done because you can always redo it and rework it, but to post it on social media was an end, and as an actress, you’re not necessarily in control of your creative life. You’re always dependent on other people. So in this small way, I could be creative and I could have an end product, even if it was a simple little post, and then move onto something else. I found it kind of therapeutic actually, and then I just got obsessed with it. I think that is really a nice aspect of social media, that it’s not an art show. It doesn’t have to be perfect in that way.
TL: Did that sense of freedom and confidence you felt about posting your art spread to your acting and other parts of your life, too?
KA: This is something that is growing over time. Writing the book and drawing, also like my relationship and my friendships, all of these places where I feel like I have a healthier creative attitude — I really want that to influence my career life, because that’s where I’m hardest on myself, is when it comes to acting. But I don’t need to be. It doesn’t help to be so stringent and unforgiving in that way. So the influence hasn’t spread 100 percent, but it’s definitely moving in that direction.
TL: When you were first starting out, what did you want your career to be like, and then once you were on “Gilmore Girls” and the show was so successful, did that change your idea of what was enough for you in your career?
KA: The main thing has always been to be able to make a living as an actress. I can’t believe I’ve done that for as long as I have. It’s the gold standard to me. It’s like the only thing I actually want. The hard thing when “Gilmore Girls” came out was that I had gone from basically having a day job to being on a show, so I hadn’t had that period of time of being a working actress with smaller gigs before I had this very big gig that went on for so long, for seven years.
I think part of the nervousness was, I didn’t know how to live without the show, so when the show was gone, I didn’t have confidence that I would be able to do the working actress side of it, and then I would be a receptionist at a temp agency, which was what I was doing before. I thought, in my imagination, people would come into the reception room and say, “Weren’t you Lane Kim on ‘Gilmore Girls’?” That would just be so difficult. Now it’s a little easier, because I have experienced what it’s like to be a working actress and not reliant on one single show.
TL: You mention in your book being an anxious person for many years. Can you tell me more about that?
KA: My anxiety exhibits itself in self-talk. There’s another page in the book called “Nobody actually said that.” I will play these scenarios out in my head that are so detailed, because I have a good imagination, of people I admire just talking about me, and it’s terrible, and all my friends are just saying how terrible I am. I have to remind myself, “Wait, stop, hold, just pause. No one has actually said this to you. Maybe ease off.”
Another one of my coping mechanisms, and this I find very useful no matter what the situation, is if I’m having a difficult time I’ll say, “I promise you, there will be a time when what you’re feeling right now, it will not feel this hard.” I know that that’s true, and sometimes when you’re in a really tough place, just repeating that over and over again can kind of lessen the intensity of what you’re feeling.
Sometimes I will know that I need to just really do a big brain dump, where I just sit at my computer, or I’ll write out on paper and I’ll just write the terrible-est, most nasty, f----- up shit, and I’ll just write it all on paper, and I’ll scratch it out and look like a psycho killer. But you just write it all down, and you’re just mad, and you’re tearing up the paper. You just keep going until there’s a turn, even if it takes a long time.
Also I want to mention — because I think that especially in the Asian American community, there’s a stigma about mental health and going to therapy and things like that, so I want to fully put that out there that I have gone to therapy. I think therapy is great. It’s different than talking to a friend. It’s very useful.
TL: A lot of this book deals with confidence, and there’s one exercise in particular about how to talk about your strengths without sounding apologetic or like a jerk. I definitely struggle with that, and I see it a lot among my Asian American women friends, this hesitance to talk about our accomplishments. Have you found a way to do it that feels authentic to you?
KA: That is one that I still work on. I do think that being a woman seems to make it more difficult. We’re so used to cutting ourselves down, laughing it off, deflecting attention, that it becomes second nature to downplay everything that we do. I think that one is a lot about practicing and simplifying because the more comfortable we become with what we do, the less noise there needs to be. I find that for myself, if I can speak simply about what it is that I do and that I’m proud of, it can become more of a placing down without an expectation of how the other person is going to respond.
TL: Do you have a favorite exercise in the book?
KA: I think the first one that’s in there is “Draw a janky piece of kid art.” I like that. I think I just like the word “janky.” And then, oh, I know there’s a scary one in there, but for me it really did work, the one that’s about a time limit, where it says, “If I’m not blank in five years then I’ll walk away.” Even though that’s a scary page, I actually did that. I mean, right around 1999, I was at East West Players in one of their programs, and there was a guest speaker that came in, and he basically said that sometimes you just need to put a time limit on something and move on so that you’re not bitter. That really hit me. I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to be old and bitter and hate myself and hate this craft.” So I did, I put myself on that time limit. I was like, “Well, I’ll do the best that I can for the next five years, and if I’m not where I want to be, then I’ll just do something else.” That was right before “Gilmore Girls” came around.
TL: So you’re safe right now, you’re not on a time limit for yourself?
KA: I’m not on a time limit now. But I’m sure there could be a time when I would do that again, because the thing is, sometimes it’s fine to switch gears. We’re talented at a lot of things, you know? And maybe there’s something else that deserves your full heart and your full attention and your full power, and you don’t know it yet because you’re focused on this one thing.
TL: What is it like being married to someone who has a Japanese background but is from Japan while you’re American, so you have cultural similarities and differences? Does that come up a lot?
KA: You know what’s interesting? Shin, my husband, we say this a lot, that in some ways, we are more similar to each other than we are to Asian Americans that have grown up in California, because in Hawaii, Asian Americans are the majority. And obviously in Japan, Japanese are the majority. There were a lot of things that I was very clueless about when I first moved to California, and Shin, too.