dress-CHARLES AND RON

Kristina Tonteri-Young

On challenging labels and finding beginnings in endings

Words: Jiselle Liu @jiselle03

Talent: Kristina Tonteri-Young @kristina_tonteriyoung

Photos: Matt Doheny @dohenyphoto

Fashion: Sky JT Naval @sky_is_dlimit

Makeup: Elaina Karras @elainakarras_

As Kristina Tonteri-Young hops on the call, I am greeted with a friendly, laid back smile that immediately sets the tone of our interview. In a casual sweater and her hair tied back, she speaks with the kind of unassuming confidence of someone who knows who she is, even if it isn’t in the traditional sense.

“I don't think I thought about [my ethnic identity] that much growing up,” Tonteri-Young recalls. Instead, she considers herself a “citizen of the world". “I was born in Helsinki to my mom who is Finnish and my dad who is Chinese, but his family moved to Auckland from Hong Kong and he grew up in New Zealand.” Towards the end of 2005, she and her parents moved to New York where she spent much of her formative years. In middle school, she spent a few years in Moscow where she attended the Bolshoi Ballet Academy but eventually returned to New York after a series of injuries that ended her ballet career. After pivoting to acting, she went to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

“People ask me about my accent because when I'm in America, I speak with an American accent and when I'm in Britain, I speak with an English accent. And then they're like, ‘Why [do you switch]?’ Well, English is not my first language. So it doesn't really matter to me which one I use. It's just easier to make yourself something that they don't need to ask questions about. You kind of become this chameleon.”

Tonteri-Young says it helped when she stopped “obsessing” over her answers, or rather, how to define herself. “I was running into a lot of walls,” she recalls. “I would try on an identity like a costume and be like, ‘Is this who I am?’ and then it would feel wrong after a while and then I would switch it off and then that wouldn't feel right either.”

As we continue to discuss how to tackle the dreaded question of “Where are you from?” Tonteri-Young makes the observation that, “as someone of mixed heritage, you always feel like you don’t really belong anywhere.” Despite this, she remains positive, saying, “When you've seen people of different backgrounds and how they live, you learn to make a home for yourself wherever you are.”

This skill set comes in handy with the amount of traveling required of her profession. “There's no better way of getting perspective on the world than traveling in it and living in it everywhere you can, as broadly as you can,” Tonteri-Young tells me. “I think it gives you the kind of tools [as an actor] because you're always around different people, so you can kind of belong anywhere.”

It is an important mindset to have as she carves out space in an industry and landscape that doesn't always reflect her. For many actors, being pigeonholed can be their worst nightmare, but for multiracial and other nonwhite actors, this comes with the additional difficulty that they are often typecast based on others' racialized (and often incorrect) views. And labels, while helpful in figuring out who you are, can often be restrictive.

“I think if someone asks me today, like—‘Are you an American actress? Are you a Finnish actress?’—I still would not know what to say,” Tonteri-Young says. “And that's completely fine. I would just ask them, ‘Why do you need to know?’ Is it not okay just to be an actress or an actor or a human from wherever? You don't have to necessarily be like, ‘I am from here and it's one place.’ It's okay to just exist in the in-between. The beauty of being multicultural is that you can swim between all of these different cultures.”

It’s fitting that for her first onscreen role, it comes from a show that by her words “transcends genres” and parallels her own journey in discovering herself and breaking restrictions. On Netflix’s fantasy drama Warrior Nun, Tonteri-Young played Sister Beatrice, one of the sister warriors in the Order of the Cruciform Sword, a fictitious top secret Catholic military organization established to support the titular Warrior Nun. In addition to being the group’s lead strategist and most experienced fighter, it was established later in season one that Beatrice was queer, which delighted many fans, especially queer fans of color.

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“Beatrice is a very guarded individual,” Tonteri-Young observes. “I think her upbringing and her life up to the point where we meet her in the beginning of the first season has kind of forced her to become protective of herself and her true nature.” She looks to the side a few times through the description, contemplative. “I think she's very logical, very calculating, but also still a real softy on the inside. Though I think that's the part of her that she doesn't really nurture that much until we start to see her going on this journey with Ava [the Warrior Nun] and with the other sisters throughout the two seasons where she can actually start becoming more open and more free and more herself.”

While Beatrice’s backstory wasn’t specifically an Asian one, the character resonated with many Asians, especially queer Asians. “I am not actually sure whether she was originally written to be Asian,” Tonteri-Young says. “I suspect so because of the style of martial arts that she does, and I guess that little bit of Asian perfectionism stereotype that was sprinkled in there.”

As she reflects on her own experiences, Tonteri-Young finds herself relating to her character as well. “I think growing up I was very much a know-it-all child. I felt like I had to prove myself all the time to be smarter and be better and be the best in class and do everything perfectly in order for other people to see my value. That I had to bring something useful to the table or just be useful to other people and to make other people proud. And then as I've kind of gotten older, I've realized that, you know, that's not very interesting. You can be a living, breathing, colorful human being and also be all of those good things that you know you can bring from your skill set.”

The show itself was not about queerness or race, but it did make striking statements about both topics despite its gentler touch. While Beatrice was both queer and Asian, those aspects informed her character but didn’t define her. At no point was she treated as a simple side character or reduced to a love interest or a stereotype.

For actors like Tonteri-Young who are Asian or of mixed race, it is not just their craft they are often recognized for but also the representation they are expected to shoulder whether they want it or not.

"Obviously, it's always lovely to see specific cultural representation in the actual subject material,” Tonteri-Young says, "but I don't think that it's always necessary to push it in ways that are too forceful." She gesticulates as she speaks—a testament to the thought she’s put into the subject. “I think it is enough that you show up and you are already who you are. And you being there as a mixed or Asian person, whoever you are, is already massively representing that culture."

Between Nico Minoru (Marvel’s Runaways, 2017-2019), Ellie Chu (The Half of It, 2020), Eve Polastri (Killing Eve, 2018-2022), Alice Kwan (Good Trouble, 2019-), and Joy Wang (Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022), we’ve had some great examples of queer female Asian representation very recently across various genres. Still, it’s a small group, so any addition feels like a breath of fresh air. Representation can be a little tough to watch sometimes, especially when there is little diversity in the material. So Sister Beatrice, a character clearly developed and portrayed with care, with her own backstory and arc, was a noteworthy inclusion.

“It's my pleasure,” she says. “It's a great honor to have played her, and yeah, I agree. It's nice to not have to like, bite your lip through something just because you have to watch it because it's some kind of representation. Like, ‘I'll take anything, give me the crumbs?’”

But while she understood the representation she was bringing to the table, even Tonteri-Young wasn’t expecting the kind of response fans have had to her portrayal of Beatrice.

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“I knew that it would probably have an impact,” she says, “but no, I didn't expect such a large scale and positive response. Not that I expected a negative response at all, but no, I didn't really have any idea of how it would go. I think also because it was, at that time, my first job. So I had no idea how it would feel to receive any kind of reception from fans. So I mean, I was definitely positively surprised and very grateful for the opportunity to be the face of that kind of representation, which is so important. But yeah, it still surprises me to this day. I get messages all the time that are so heartfelt and just the ability to have, you know, the outreach and the platform to be able to reach people in such a way that actually can help them in their lives is very humbling.”

Unfortunately, Netflix announced that Warrior Nun would not be renewed just one month after the second season was released. It seemed a definitive end, but fans decided to rally in hopes of saving the show, with the hashtag #SaveWarriorNun surpassing three million tweets and a petition garnering over ninety thousand signatures in just a few weeks.

Since the official announcement, Tonteri-Young has had time to ponder what a third season for Beatrice might have looked like. With Beatrice leaving the order, fans have wondered where she would have gone next.

“I think she would have definitely tried to look for Ava,” she says. “I think she would have continued to do, you know, research and try to find a way to get to her on the other side.” She pauses with a smile. “But I'd like to think that she would have sprinkled a little bit of trying to see the world a little bit more as well, as Ava would have wanted her to live.”

Regarding Beatrice’s arc, Tonteri-Young shares, “I assumed that she's leaving the church, but it doesn't mean that she's leaving the fight. It just means that, you know, sometimes in life, you're on a path and you realize it's not the right path. You're going towards the right thing, but you're taking the wrong route, so to speak, so you need to find another way of getting to your goal. So I think she would have been, you know, finding another way to fight, but in a way that's more truthful to herself and where she can be more available to be free and honest about herself. I think that's something that I would have looked forward to.”

With Warrior Nun’s fate not looking so good, it is likely that this chapter of her life is coming to an end. But Tonteri-Young is no stranger to endings.

“Leaving dance was—you could say it was a big end,” she says, face pensive. “But I mean, after every end is a kind of beginning, so I think the new beginning of not really knowing where I was at the time kind of allowed me to have that step back a little bit and have that perspective of, ‘Well, where do I ultimately want to be, and what do I ultimately want to be doing?’ And then that allowed me to kind of zoom out and see what I wanted and then kind of zoom back into the situation and see the path that I wanted to take. And I think sometimes we all need to kind of step back for a second, especially when we're in these big, you could say, cataclysmic moments in our life when you could take any path.” Her hand comes up, moving to emphasize her words. “You can make a beginning wherever you are whenever you are. You can choose to change your path or take a different path or change direction completely. So yeah, I think that moment when I left ballet, that was like a big beginning. Because if I had never left, I would not be an actor today.”

Looking ahead, Tonteri-Young is ready for new beginnings. “I have just moved to LA,” she tells me, “so I am trying to kind of get my feet in the dirt here and see what the new year will bring. I think it's the perfect time to start off on a clean slate and get rid of these old thought processes and constructs that are not working for me anymore.”

Tonteri-Young’s excitement shines through as she talks about her future plans. “I think in the new year it's just auditioning as much as I can and trying to meet the right people and make the right connections,” she says, “and then all in all just trying to hit the road running in the new year.” When prompted for the kind of roles and projects she would like to tackle next, she adds, “I mean, well, it's no secret. I love the action genre. I love doing action. So I think that's something that I'm definitely going to try to pursue as well. But I think the stories that are worth telling are the stories that are not already told, so I want to tell stories that have not already been done. I want to tell stories that impact people, you know, the same way that Beatrice has impacted people. Stories that help people find their backbone and stand up for themselves. I think that's important. But it's sometimes hard to find a role model or someone who's already done it in a way that you know. So if you see yourself represented in the story, you can say, ‘Okay, I can do it as well.’”

Whatever opportunities are in store for Tonteri-Young, we can be certain that she will meet them with the same adaptability, creativity, and thoughtfulness that she has in other aspects of her life. And that wherever she lands next, be it another new city, a new show, or something else entirely—she will get there while staying true to herself and forging her own path.

I, for one, can’t wait to see where she’ll wind up next.

The second season of Warrior Nun was released on November 10, 2022. Both seasons can be streamed on Netflix.

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dress-ONG OAJ PAIRAM, gloves-CHARLES AND RON