One of my favourite interviews with any Vietnamese celebrity ever has to be the 90 minutes I spent at Ru Nam café having coffee with actress Kathy Uyen. At the time, we at Metro Writers were exploring our first biography projects, and I was interested in learning more about Kathy personally so that I could portray her human side in contrast to the characters she portrays on screen. What is most memorable about our conversation was the fact that much of it centered around her new hairstyle: while this would be a terribly boring topic for your average interview piece, somehow Kathy managed to communicate a great number of fascinating character details by explaining coherently and intelligently what inspired her choice of cut, and what her hairstyle brought to bear on her public image.
Biographical articles are best when they manage to condense a complex personality into a short number of paragraphs, so that readers can gain a unique insight into the life of that figure; a slice of their true selves. Kathy gave me a number of great quotes, only a fraction of which I was able to fit into her article. As a kind of sequel to the piece that appeared in the July 2015 issue of Oi Vietnam, I provide here a number of extracts from our interview that I wasn't able to fit into the magazine. Here's a good deal more about Kathy Uyen for those who, like me, are fascinated by her considerable dedication to the art of acting: in her own words, to the point of obsession.
What made you finally make the decision to get that cut?
If you give too much power to something, it controls you. If you give too much power to audiences to judge you and you take it too seriously, then they will start controlling you and you will lose control of what you stand by and what you believe and what makes you you.
I wanted to play characters that were strong and not so obedient and submissive. But I had long hair before. I felt like it didn't fit me. It didn't fit my personality. But I kept it long because I was scared of losing out on acting roles, because most... this is true, when I was in LA or Hollywood, I would never cut my hair, because I was scared my agent/manager would be like... a lot of roles that get cast are Asian women with long hair. That's the stereotypical look. At least back to when I was in Hollywood from 2004 to 2008, I never dared cut my hair even if I wanted to. It's too much of a drastic change and it costs money, you've got to do more head shots, it's like changing a logo on your business.
Writing your own role was a crazy move - "there's no movie for me, so I'm going to write a movie for myself" - and it worked. What kind of strategy is that?
I knew when I wrote it there was no guarantee that it would get made, no guarantee on whether I would finish it or not. At least I was doing something, I didn't know if it would take one year or ten years, at least I knew that one day I might get to play this role. In my mind, I knew that it would happen one day. I just didn't know when. In reality, it took three years. In my mind, I thought it'd take a year, but script writing's very hard, so it took a while. But I learned a lot.
After that role, I felt really empowered. But - I still had that long hair. So I ended up cutting my hair in March of 2014. That's when I was premiering that movie. Super drastic for me. I have always had my hair long all my life.
So when I cut my hair, I wanted to cut it shorter but I didn't have the guts. I still wanted to cover my face. I was ballsy to do the move, but I wasn't 100%.
After the movie I felt a new sense of completion. It was screened in America. I thought, I'm going to take a risk. I now had the confidence to make a movie. Before I didn't, so I was still at the mercy of a producer or at the mercy of a director. I had to keep it long, because what if they want it long? And what if I got rejected if it was short? It was the fear of reject, reject. Then after I finished my first movie, I thought, I don't need their approval. So I'm going to go ahead and cut it the way I want it, and when I did I found it really matched my personality, I felt like it was more me.
I'm not a complete Tomboy, I am girly but I like that contrast.
Who supported you?
My mom and my dad, like in High School. I've wanted to act since I was twelve.
You've written that it was a secret passion for acting.
No... my parents would take me to auditions when I was in High School, but then when I went to college, I didn't study acting, I did film studies and economics, and then my parents wanted me to get a business degree... it's safer. They weren't against me acting, but they wanted me to do something real, for a full-time job. I could do acting as a hobby.
I tried during college to not follow acting. I knew I loved entertainment, so I interned at Warner Bros and Dreamworks, I interned for Adam Sandler, I did PA stuff, I did marketing, I did casting, I did TV research and development, I did different things behind the scenes of the entertainment industry, because I knew I loved the entertainment industry. Then after college I realised, no, I really tried hard to not act. But during this time, I was also taking acting classes, as a hobby, and I also was doing lots of short movies and independent movies, as a hobby. I did a lot of Indie movies, actually.
Then, I got my first feature film with Victor Vu in 2002. I was still in college. So I was acting in summer, my first movies I got paid for. The others I did for free, you don't get paid, you just do it out of love.
My first thing is, I got to do a TV show. I ended up producing it, I didn't know I was producing it at the time, I got tricked into it. Like basically it was this ad for, like "hey, do you want to join to do a TV show, to interview people, Vietnamese American, successful people." There was no phone number, you just had to go through the search engine, they don't want to give you the number. But I knew the company so I googled the company and I found the number, I called the guy and said I just saw your advert on Monstertrack, I want to meet with you today.
I got into my car, I drove one hour to meet the producer of the show, who was working for a Vietnamese TV station in Little Saigon. I told him, I want this job. I said, so tell me more about the show. What channel does it air on, what time, what do we do? He said Oh, we don't have a show yet. We have to put together a pilot, then we have to pitch it to the TV station to see if they will air it. So if you want, you can create the ideas for the show with me. And we will put together a presentation, and we can go pitch it.
So basically, I became a producer.
You still said yes?
Yes! I loved it. I didn't care. I had no money, I got no money for the first year because I just wanted to do it. I didn't really think about the money. It's very competitive in America.
Did you still pass?
Yeah, I graduated in five years, two majors, two schools. So I had started putting together a TV show, before you knew it. So I was calling people, setting up interviews, and that's when I met Victor Vu.
I was very whitewashed growing up. Americanized. Growing up in America, if you speak Vietnamese, they think you're not cool. But I grew up in a city, San Jose had a lot of Vietnamese people. But we all spoke Vietnamese to each other.
Did you speak Vietnamese at home?
At home I spoke Vietnamese, yes. But I didn't really speak it socially with friends. I was in the Vietnamese club, because I wanted to learn about the culture. But then, when I started doing the Vietnamese TV show, I started meeting more Vietnamese Americans, who were very successful and doing great things.
Were you interviewing in Vietnamese at that time?
I was interviewing in English. It was an MTV style TV show for Vietnamese Americans.
That's when I started getting my first taste of the industry. Then I met Victor Vu, and I found out about the audition. Then I got the movie. At one point I was working the TV show, from like 8am to 2pm, run and shoot the movie from 2pm to 4am, and then I'd wake up and repeat. But it was the summertime.
Then I did two more feature films with me as the lead before I graduated college. So when I graduated college I had already done three feature films. And a lot of other small things, but I don't count those. I didn't get paid.
Then I realized when I graduated that I would move to LA and become a waitress, and become a full-time struggling actress. So there went my economics and film studies degree. I got my bartending license. I was bartending... you can make money as a bartender waitress, you get a lot of tips. So that's how I survived. During the day I took acting classes, and I went to auditions – I was like full-blown in it, hardcore.
So do you see yourself as contributing to Vietnamese cinema?
I don't know if I would say that, but I feel myself lucky to be a part of this movement now, where the industry is open to new creative ideas. There's a lot of things that could still be done here, and I feel excited that I can do something here and it would make a difference, as opposed to if I go back to LA, there are certain State institutions and things already set up. You join those things. But in Vietnam, we don't. I want to set up my acting class and workshop. I want to do that here. And there isn't anyone else who is setting that up. Acting techniques like the Stanislavsky method, meister, all the things I learned in LA. We don't have it here. We have people that have studied it.
So you are contributing. This is part of your plan.
Well, it is part of my plan. But I haven't done it yet. So I can't say... I mean yes, have I contributed to other things, yes, but I feel Vietnam is contributing to me as well. I can't just be saying I'm the only one giving value in Vietnam. I also am learning a lot too that has given me that. It's a two-way street. I need Vietnam to give me the opportunities to meet people that will inspire me - it's teamwork.
But there's a big change for you right now.
It is a big change. I do feel a new energy. I feel like something new is coming because before my life has been for the longest time all about acting. Meaning when I was so passionate, call it obsessed, call it hypnotized, call it drawn to... acting. I was just dying to feel... like whenever I was in between projects, I do feel a little bit of anxiety. Because when you're not doing what you love doing, you feel a bit lost, right? If you're in the middle, you're floating, right? Because everyone else has a job they do every day. It's like being fired from a job, and having to find a new job, it's like being a freelancer, right? You kind of go through your ups and downs. But that's what we choose to do, because we like that feeling of not being stuck to one thing. That's why we're freelancers, right?
But acting is not like I can do 10 movies a year. With acting you just do one per year. What if you're not doing it every morning, how do you do it? So then you feel lost, because you have that much more space when you're not acting. But now that's why I'm feeling an up when I'm writing and creating, you know you have that... you've created some sort of, passion projects.
Are you worried that you'll slow down on the acting, that you'll move into becoming some kind of acting teacher?
Not now. I worried about that before but now I realise that I'm still actively writing scripts, so I know that in 6-7 months I'm going to have the next movie that I'm working on to produce.
So you are working on one right now, right?
I'm working on one right now. But that doesn't take all my time. I can still multi-task. I can still squeeze in two or three classes, you know like one class meets twice a week one class meets once a week. So it's not that it's full-time. But then it balances me out, because I like writing and creating, but then I also like talking...
Are you a good writer?
No... but I'm very creative. I wouldn't say I could write to you, it probably would not.. my grammar is not precise. I'm more of a creative writer, like I have a lot of ideas. I'm more about concepts, concepts come to me, creativity comes to me, I'm more that writer. I need someone to edit my grammar sometimes, it's not 100% correct.
I like poetry too. It's not like poetry, more like spoken word. I don't follow the rules. I just like to write. I've never published, no. But I've written songs. I write the lyrics to songs. I've recorded maybe six songs? So I like writing for fun, as a hobby. But it's not, I don't think I would enlist to be a full-time writer.
I'd love to see your poetry.
It's really weird, because I don't like to follow rules. The thing is, I didn't study it. So I don't even know if what I'm doing is right. It just feels right. I like to just be able to convey... I want to find... it's a challenge to try to capture the sense of what you feel through the human language of words. As soon as you feel something, how do you shape that into words that someone else can relate to? It's a powerful thing. The more precisely you can convey this feeling, then you can connect because if you feel more...
So here we are. You've gone through the transition of these roles. You've cut your hair. Now you're looking at being an acting teacher, and staying here for a long time.
Well, I'm still going to be producing,. Setting up the acting classes, that's something I can do. Each class is maybe two or three months? You can commit to that, and then you can take a break and you can do a movie. It's still flexible. It's just that I really like it, it's a need. The kids... I get so many messages in my inbox from the kids wanting to know more. I feel compelled to share. It's pointless for me to come to this country and just hold everything I know inside my mind like I'm not sharing anything. Even like, I realised as I was working with actors here, sometimes I ended up coaching a lot of my co-actors on set. I would like give them tips - "Oh, I think the director wants you to do this", or the director would tell them and then they would turn to me and like, "what does that mean?" People sometimes, they just give you the result. The director will give you the result that they want, they don't know the process to get to that result.
But I'm able to break down what you need to do to get that result. Knowing what you want and telling people how to get that result, that's not how you're going to get the result. Let's say you're flipping out, and someone tells you "just relax!" It's like, no shit, I know that! How are you going to relax me?? Just relaaax... take a chill pill. You're like no, I'm not taking a chill pill, because...
So I'm like, what I'd like to be is, "why don't you take a deep breath, why don't you think about what gave you anxiety, where did you put it? Is it in the back of your head? Is it in the back of your eyes? Are you stressed in your shoulders? Think back on whatever happened to you. Maybe someone said something to you that triggered something, why did it trigger something? Because they said something that you were defensive about, why? Because maybe deep inside you have that fear of it. That triggered your insecurity. So you reacted defensively to it. You got really irritated. And then something else happened. That kind of triggered that, and then you exploded...
If you break it down and you go backwards, what happened, what happened, what is that emotion, where did it come from, the imagery, and then you accept it. Acting is like psychology. Because you have to understand how you felt that way for you to recreate that feeling. take after take. If you're an actor and you naturally have the ability to be sensitive to people, but that sensitivity is affected by your mood, too. Let's say you're really happy and you're going to go and do a scene, like a crying scene, you want to kill yourself. How do you get from so happy to feeling suicidal? To do that in one take, that's great. But can you do that 6,7,8 more times while the camera changes the angle? And you move in for the close up, and you do the wide, and then you change camera lenses? You can't just wing it.
Do you think local actors here do that? Is that what you're saying?
I don't know what they do here, but they have their own ways of doing it. They have a different technique. I don't know what their technique is. But a lot of the actors here - I can't speak for all of them - but if I were to generalise, then I don't think, I haven't seen from my working experience anyone that is using a method or technique, something I've learnt. What they're using I don't know.
I hear a lot of expats say that throughout all professions, that they don't know what's in the local people's minds. Is it like that?
I think there's a charm to the Vietnamese culture and the people here. They are hustlers. They improvise, they make it work, and they're practical. They don't need this whole "system" to explain this detail by this detail. They just do it. Sometimes there's no rhyme or reason for everything here. But that's the beauty of it. Sometimes in life you don't need these ten steps to get to that one result.
Where do you think Vietnamese cinema should go? Should it appeal more to a foreign audience, or try and build on the local audience?
The movies here are geared towards local audiences, that is the majority. But for me, obviously, I can only write what my experiences are, right? So I'm going to write things that are more half in half. Or write something from an experience that I personally experienced. Whether I can write a full-on story about a girl from the countryside in the rice fields, I would have to experience that myself to write it. I can't just write out of my head, because I can't imagine, the chores they have to do, and the blisters on their hands, to do what they need to do, and the mud that stains their legs, that never get washed because they're in the mud every day, the grime under their nails, I can't really experience that. I can imagine, but... so what I'm saying is that yes, I am writing more modern stories. I am trying to write for the local audiences, but I guess my stories are going to be more urban, modern stories. Because it's from my experience.
Photos: Ji Nguyen Costume: The Blue T-shirt