interview by Angela Dee
I'M THE ONE
In your own words, how would you describe yourself as an actress?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I’m not sure that who I am as a person is different from who I am as an actress. For me it’s all the different sides of me, that aren’t always expressed on a daily basis, coming out to play.
I’m always curious about an actors’ path into the industry. When did you know this was the career for you and how did you get going?
I knew when I was about 3. I just always knew. But knowing you want to do something and having the conviction to actually head out and pursue it as a career are two different things. I was a double major in college. Theater and Chinese. The semester that I was going to study abroad in China I was offered the role of May in the Sam Shepard play “Fool for Love” at Middlebury on the mainstage. It’s such a great part and the professors said to me that if I didn’t do it they weren’t doing it at all because they felt I was the one for that part. It was a very hard decision at the time. My parents weren’t supportive of their well educated daughter being a starving actress when I could have had a very high paying job using my Chinese right out of school. And I was scared of it too. So I chose to go to china. That 6 months in china is what made up my mind to be an actress. I had friends, who living in a communist country, were told what work they would have for their lives. Here I had the freedom to choose and I wasn’t taking it. So I decided to become an actress. I always say now, “sometimes you find your destiny on the path you choose to avoid it.”
It is a dream for a lot of actors to book a national TV commercial campaign – especially one as funny and engaging as the Orbit ads. How has that experience informed your career?
Well, I didn’t really even audition for commercials when I booked that. It was kind of just luck. It was incredibly fun to help create a character that has become so iconic, so engrained in pop culture. Everyone who ever watches TV knows my face, more so than most actors on TV shows, but in real life no one ever knows its me. So that has been a real blessing because it has afforded me the opportunity to have two very separate careers, my film and TV work and the commercial one.
I read that you were born in London but that you studied in the US. It seems like you’ve moved around a lot. This can be quite a hard but handy experience for an actor. Would you agree?
I LOVED moving around. In fact I can’t stay put now. I’m rarely in one place for longer than two weeks. And as for acting it’s amazing in many ways. Mostly because I have the ability to truly see that life can be completely different, and I mean COMPLETELY, depending on where you are living. Rules that we have here, don’t apply elsewhere. It’s very freeing and as an actor you incorporate in your body the absolute knowledge of something different, not just the imagining of it. And of course it has helped greatly with accents and languages.
I’m a yes girl. The riskier the better as far as I’m concerned.
Does all the work you do come from your agent/manager directly or do you find material independently sometimes?
No sometimes it has been through other avenues. Direct offers, people I have worked with before and all my work in China has come through word of mouth.
What draws you to the characters you play?
That’s a very esoteric answer I am afraid. I love playing CHARACTERS. People who are VERY different from me, who are more extreme, that physically you wouldn’t picture me playing. Not always but most of the time. It’s a kind of thing that happens when I read a part I just know if it sparks in me. I either feel kind of bored or extremely excited and that’s when I know that I respond to it and want to play it.
There’s an idea that the difference between an English actor and an American one is that the English work from the outside in – using physicality to inform emotion – and the American’s work from the inside out – creating an emotional life and allowing it to imbue the physicality of their characters. Being an actor who works cross-continentally would you agree with this observation?
Actually yes i would. It’s a good observation. I use the American version but I notice my English friends doing just that.
Lee Strasburg is often credited for the American/inside-out approach to acting. Have you had any experience with the “Method” and other forms of Stanislavsky training? Or do you come from a completely different school of thought?
I studied Strasburg, Stanislavsky, Hagen, all of it when I was in school. I don’t know if I follow any one school or really ever did. I learned from them all and then kind of do a mishmash approach of my own.
There are many schools of thought that say acting is a god-given talent and that it cannot be learnt. What is your opinion of this? Do you agree? If not, what would you say makes a great actor?
I believe that actors can become better for sure. But I do believe that it is a talent and something you are born with. That’s the same with anything though. You can go to see many doctors, some may be good and others great, or financiers, anything you can learn but some people are born with specific gifts.
How do you feel, personally, about your own abilities as an actor? Do you see room for improvement? If so, how does a busy, working actor like yourself continue to work on your craft?
I actually have been feeling recently that I am nowhere near reaching my own potential. That I have not worked hard enough at examining what can be better. SO I am in the process of doing a lot of that right now. I am not in any class currently, but I was in NYC doing a play reading for the theatre associated with my college and many alums and my wonderful professor Cheryl Faroane and it was so reinspiring to remember how much I love language and the true drama of the stage. Helps to keep my mind and passion for it fresh. I also tape myself a lot and watch it to really learn what works and what doesn’t.
The style of acting on camera has changed quite remarkably over the past fifty years or so. What would you say has been the biggest shift in technique?
That we no longer use the mid atlantic accent. Dead movie star speech. I want to bring it back. I do it sometimes with my friends.
Something that interests actors and non-actors alike is how to cry on cue. Have you ever been asked to do this? If so, how did you approach it? Do you have any tips/tricks?
Yeah, I have to do it a lot. It’s misery for me. I have to conjure up all the worst things and then I feel miserable for like two hours afterwards. You have to find your own way in. But don’t be afraid on set to take the time you need. Ask how long it will be till you will be needed to being that place and prepare. You can actually use up all the emotion too or I can and so I pay attention to which are the master shots and which the close ups so I can be in it deeply when needed.
Is there anything you have been asked to do as an actress that you flat-out said “no!” to? What was it? And, do you regret it?
Yes. His name was George. I deeply regret it. No actually. I’m a yes girl. The riskier the better as far as I’m concerned.
I read that in addition to speaking fluent French that you also speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. There are some amazing, Chinese filmmakers today, have you had any opportunities to meet/work with any of them?
I have done three films in China with some great filmmakers and one long time kungfu master. Working in china is an extraordinary and grueling experience. I’m not sure it’s for everyone. But for me it was amazing. I’ve worked in the middle of nowhere where filming stops for a goat herder and his goats. I’ve crept out of a car over a 2000-foot drop with no safety restraints to get a shot. It’s always an experience.
Who are the actors that most inspire you – those whose films/plays you will always see without necessarily knowing anything about the productions?
Judi Dench, Micheal Caine, Meryll Streep, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Chastain, Ryan gosling.
What’s the best business advice you’ve been given as an actor?
To learn how to see myself as a product, and learn how to sell that product.
What’s the best craft advice you’ve been given as an actor?
Micheal Caine’s book on film acting. It’s wonderful.
What are your aspirations as an actor?
To be happy. My aspiration in everything.
Being in the industry, we can be surrounded by a lot of unsung talent. Are there any up-and-comers that you’re aware of that you’d love to see get more opportunities?
Not really an up and comer but I saw Jessica Chastain in the Help the other day and she is truly the next Meryl Streep. Unbelievable.
If you ran into a young you who was about to embark on this career, what advice would you give her about acting? The industry? And her/yourself?
I would tell her to be a dancer first and then go into acting. I would have loved to be a dancer. Never took any classes but I know it now. And I would tell her that so many fun amazing things were going to happen. More than she imagined, in so many ways. I would also tell her to take her own ideas about what she could and couldn’t accomplish away at a younger age. I held onto too many for too long, and I think it held me back a great deal. Until recently, even. And then just enjoy the ride.
And finally, to channel Proust, “What is your favorite motto/quote?”
“When I was young and naive, I used to admire clever people. Now that I am older and more clever, I admire kind people.”