Back when she was writing the songs on her debut album, 2019’s Casualty, Anna Akana had just left a toxic relationship, and her songs were both a form of therapy and a way to directly address her musician ex.
Shortly after, she began writing what would become No Longer Yours, which the 30-year-old actor/comedian/YouTuber/filmmaker released last February. The glossy, thumping pop songs present a strong woman whose heart is healed, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth when she was attempting to skip the heartbreak.
The difference this time? A community of women who had each other’s backs.
“We celebrate each other’s success. We’re there for each other in really hard times, and it feels so much like a true camaraderie and a true friendship, like I finally found my tribe,” said Akana, who built for herself not one but numerous successful parallel careers, as a stand-up comedian, then a comedic and advice YouTuber with millions of fans, then as a film and TV actor (she was Stan Lee’s “crazy stupid fine” guerilla journalist in “Ant Man”) and more.
That team includes the likes of Maggie Levin, who’s penning the new “Labyrinth” film, cinematographer Auden Bui, who’s directed most of Anna Akana’s videos, and her friend Jennifer Newman, who designs all of her costumes.
Her crew helped Anna Akana embrace who she was outside of a relationship. She was still in pain, despite singing that she wasn’t, but with help, she was able to fake it until the pain melted away.
Music has always been there for the very creative Akana. When she was first doing stand-up, more than a decade ago, she would finish her sets with a short comedic music set. She plays guitar, too. But those were joke songs. Opening up about her feelings was more difficult.
“I actually thought stand-up was easier than performing music,” she said. “At least with stand-up, you say a joke, and you get an immediate—laugh or not. … Music was always infinitely more vulnerable and scary to me than stand-up and public speaking ever was. In 2018, when I wrote the album, I was like, ‘I shouldn’t put it out there,’ and it was something that really scared me. Usually that’s a sign that I’m going in the right direction.”
Music was yet another way she could tell stories, alongside acting, writing and directing. It’s here to stay, Akana said. She already has a second full-length album done and is shopping it around to labels now. No date is set for release just yet.
She’s able to work on music along with everything else by, as she and her manager calls it, “nudging all the plates forward 1 inch every day.”
She didn’t always have goals in the arts, but she was always highly motivated. Both her father and grandfather were military officers, and for the first 19 year of her life, she presumed she’d be one as well, attending ROTC, going to military summer camps and participating in color guard. She presumed she would be a veterinarian in the Marine Corps—a vet vet.
Then, tragedy struck when she was 17. Her 13-year-old sister took her own life. Akana went a long time without laughing. It was a TV performance by comedian Margaret Cho that got her to smile and forget her pain for a few minutes. In Cho, she also saw someone who looked like her, and decided she could tell jokes, too.
As her success grew, so did her performing opportunities. Akana got to thank Cho for the role she played in her life at a show they performed at together in 2019.
“I did stand-up for about 12 years, and as much as I liked it, I’m definitely more of a morning person. I don’t like to be out at 1 a.m. drinking with comedians,” Akana said. “So much about the industry is about your community, and most of the comedians I came up with had really tragic backstories; [they were] really sad people, but wouldn’t go to therapy and would only deal with their trauma on the stage.”
And so, eventually, she made the leap to acting in Hollywood—where she quickly found there was a lot of racism. She was stereotyped time and time again and had no recourse because she needed the money. That’s what prompted her to find a creative outlet where she got to be her own director.
“I started doing YouTube to try to have a role that wasn’t a massage therapist who would give someone a blow job or a student who’s upset about getting a B grade,” she said.
Anna Akana launched her YouTube channel in 2011 and has racked up close to 1 billion streams since then. She creates both comedic and slice-of-life videos. Among her successes on YouTube is web series “Youth & Consequences.”
She’s not above getting hooked on number-watching with streams and followers.
“I am but just simple human who craves validation,” she said, laughing. “I’m not as obsessed with the numbers as much anymore, except when they go down, because then I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to have a job. I can’t pay my mortgage.’ But I try to remember that these things are not an indicator of my worth. And I often fail.”
Much of the more personal content often focuses on the importance of mental wellness and suicide prevention. In fact, in 2013 she published a series of diary entries following her sister’s death, called “Surviving Suicide,” and in 2017, she followed that up with “So Much I Want to Tell You: Letters to My Little Sister,” about the author’s struggles coping with her loss.
Through her videos and now her music, Akana has opened up about her own struggles, including addiction and depression. One of her goals is to destigmatize therapy and antidepressants.
She runs all life advice past her own therapist before passing it on to her viewers.
“I think mental health and wellness is kind of just built into the things that I do,” she said. “It’s something that I very naturally gravitate to. I have a lot of sister themes in my work, and I write a lot of mental illness themes. I don’t really find it hard to balance those two things.”
As Akana’s success continued to grow, the quality TV and film role opportunities expanded. She acted alongside Sally Field in indie comedy “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” and had or has reoccurring roles on Comedy Central’s “Corporate,” Disney Channel’s “Big City Greens,” “Amphibia” and ABC’s “A Million Little Things.”
In 2020, she starred in dramedy “Go Back to China.” And she stars on Syfy’s adult animated series “Magical Girl Friendship Squad,” about two roommates that struggle with paying rent while saving the universe. And if that doesn’t impress you, both actor Michael Peña and Stan Lee called her “crazy stupid fine.”
She got to meet the iconic Marvel co-creator on-set during the filming of 2015’s “Ant-Man.”
“I miss him so much. He was a sweet man, just so happy,” she said. “He was like, ‘Oh, is it you? Are you the crazy stupid fine one?’ … I was like, ‘Oh my God, he just called me crazy stupid fine. … I’m happy to be the one that Stan Lee called crazy stupid fine for the rest of time. It was awesome.”
Her next on-screen project is her biggest yet: Netflix’s adaptation of Mark Millar’s (“Kingsman,” “Kick-Ass”) “Jupiter’s Legacy.” She plays ninja Raikou on the show, which arrives on May 7.
Akana said she was blown away by the production and her costume on the big-hitter, which cost more than $10 million to produce per episode.
“It was like that moment where you’re kind of like, ‘Is this what making it feels like?’” she said.
A decade ago, the ninja character would likely have been nothing but a two-dimensional stereotype, she said. But Raiku, a contracted assassin with daddy issues and a chip on her shoulder, is fully formed. Her being a ninja is just her day job.
Because of all of the plates that Anna Akana is nudging forward inch-by-inch, she was able to stay busy in 2020. Even though acting opportunities dried up because most productions were halted, she was able to complete a trip to Canada to film her spots on “A Million Little Things” and has been writing and filming YouTube videos from home.
She also wrote two film screenplays. One is a sci-fi thriller about a universe where women are used as furniture as a symbol of status, and the other is about a group of Japanese-American kids in World War 2 internment camps trying to investigate a serial killer murdering internees. She compared the latter to “Stranger Things” and “Stand By Me.”
And music will continue to be a part of her life; something for which she sees much room for growth. She took the initial steps between Casualty and No Longer Yours by removing the spoken delivery of the former (with which she’s comfortable from her acting and stand-up careers) and focusing more on pop singing.
She also worked hard to provide hope in some of the songs and not have them be wallowing in misery. The songs were purposefully more danceable and more directed toward alt-pop. Her next album will make even bigger gains in that direction, she said.
“I tend to think of myself as a pretty harsh but loving critic when it comes to my own work,” she said.
Until then, expect a little bit of everything from Anna Akana.
“I’ve never done anything else but a bajillion things at once,” she said.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.