Jade Wu knows firsthand the tough road Asian American actors face in landing great roles. It’s been a road of challenges throughout her career with her latest reward landing her a part in her current film The Motel. Jade plays Ahma Chin, the mother of Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) in one of Sundance’s favorite films “The Motel”. Asiance Magazine spoke with Jade in the middle of promoting her own documentary films and exactly what secrets kept her motivated to stay in the game.
ASIANCE: Talk about your background.
Jade: I was born in Tokyo Japan. I was raised as a military brat. We traveled quite a bit. My father was stationed in Taiwan. He spent most of his time in the US Army and we traveled all over the world and pretty much settled in the DC area because he worked at Capital Hill. I’m Chinese heritage. I was raised in the DC area then moved to California and attended the University of California San Diego and received a MFA in Acting, Directing and Writing and a BS in Bio Chemistry.
ASIANCE: How did you originally get into acting?
Jade: I was doing research after my first year of medical school. I was actually going to medical school at USC. I decided I wanted to give up the sciences and went back and got my MFA in Theatre. I did it early. After receiving my graduate degree, I moved to New York for fame and fortune. I couldn’t get a job because there were no roles or positions for Asian Americans at that time. There were just a handful of them getting any work and there was just so little work that no one was really looking. So I got into advertising and segued into the corporate arena. I literally did not do any acting for quite awhile, about 20 years. I, for some reason, was semi-retired for a little bit. One of my old headshots happened to end up in a Homicide: Life on the Streets series episodic casting office which was shooting in Baltimore and I had relocated to Maryland at that point. They called me in for an audition. I was completely shocked because I thought it was a joke. They called me back and then I got a recurring role. That put me back into the whole arena and then since the late ‘‚¬Ëœ90s, I’ve been doing this ever since.
ASIANCE: Were they looking for an Asian?
Jade: They were looking for a Korean immigrant. Even in the late 90’s there were so few Asian American actors who were trained and eligible to even audition. I ended up getting the role which put me in contact with the whole world again and I kind of made a re-entry then.
ASIANCE: Do you think the landscape has changed now and how much longer until we don’t have to ask this question?
Jade: Incredibly so. I feel very fortunate to be part of the movement because it has changed so much. It may not appear so because of our visibility in the media but really it has changed because there are so many more roles. There are so many more roles that aren’t stereotypical in television and film. There is so much more cross over especially in theatre. Theatre is beginning to open its eyes and see the landscape that Asian American’s aren’t invisible anymore because it’s life’s landscape and we’re not invisible.
I think the corporate landscape is changing. A lot of the major corporations like Chris Lee. He has his own corporation now, a production company. I think Asians are inherently reticent. Our progression and progress at the executive level has been a little slower because we are taught not to boast about ourselves. I think the squeaky wheel gets the oil. It’s just our reticence that has been one of the barriers which we have to knock down. As the generations grow up and the younger generations come in, they are much more vocal than my generation. In my generation, now in the acting field, they are very vocal. I think it has something to do with the younger generation.
ASIANCE: How was your experience working on The Motel?
Jade: I loved working on The Motel, we were a family. We literally created this family. We didn’t know one another. We stayed in a motel that was probably 2 grades above the one in the actual movie.
ASIANCE: Not only was The Motel a breakout role at Sundance that year, so was Alice Wu’s Saving Face (we interviewed them as well). That is incredible for two Asian American indie films!
Jade: It’s going to move us all even further. Not just us because we are involved in the production but for Asian Americans in general because this film does have a universal message. I think it’s just going to cross stories and cross ethnicities. I’m very proud to be a part of it.
I’m really glad Alice got the support from Sony Pictures. She is such a great filmmaker. It seemed like that year (2005) was Asian year at Sundance.
ASIANCE: Nothing Asian this year right?
Jade: Nothing of this caliber came through this year but the year before (2005) there was Saving Face and The Motel. Both of us weren’t in competition but we were an American spectrum which is really a coup. To have an Asian American film in an American spectrum is unbelievable at Sundance. To have 2 of them is just phenomenal.
I’m really glad Saving Face got the publicity and the longevity that it got and was such a success and it still continues to be a success. Our stories are just so different. That story was just so different than this story but the more and more the better.
It’s a quite film, but I think its quite storytelling. Mike the filmmaker is a genius in just writing the film and carrying it through. It has taken such a very fruitful path for all of us because of being at Sundance and everyone involved it in, from the top down, even from the executive producers of the film. Richard and Esther Shapiro are so generous and supporting in Independent Film. To choose this film to executive produce is a god sent. Here is a couple that created Dynasty and to have them just look at this film and give it some credence and even support it is just amazing. It was an amazing experience.
It appeals to a younger audience but also an older audience is embracing the film which is really curious because they can relate to the immigration story, they can relate to the raising of children, the difficulties and struggles of raising kids and developing a relationship with your child which is one of the main focuses of the film.
It could apply to any race. They could have been Italian American, German American, and African American. It doesn’t matter. That’s what I think makes this story. I feel very positive that this is going to be a sleeper hit, word of mouth. The more word of mouth, the better. It has a long shelf life. It’s a story that’s not going to go away as everyone grows up. We play to all audiences. I don’t know anyone who’s hated it.
This whole process has been a dream because we are playing at the Film Forum which is the place if you want to premiere in Independent Film. It qualifies you for the Academy Awards. It is the premiere venue to screen your film. It has such prestige behind it that it’s just a dream come true for all of us.
ASIANCE: How was working with Michael Kang, the director?
Jade: Mike was so great in directing the kids. For a first time filmmaker, this is his debut film and to work with all these kids. I’ve worked with kids before but this time I couldn’t ask for anything better because we got along so well. We really did create a family unit.
When the blackout of 2004 happened in New York, we were filming in Poughkeepsie, NY and we were running on generators. We had no idea the blackout had happened. So when we finished wrapping for the evening we were driving back to the other seedy motel where we were staying and it was pitch black. It was so hot, there was no air conditioning and we ended up having an all night barbecue. We got some ice which was left over from 7-11 and we just had this huge barbecue and we stayed up and slept outside which brought us all together. At the time, to experience a crisis, when it really wasn’t a crisis, but when you’re shooting a film it is. It just brought us closer together. It kind of tied into the message of the film because Jeffrey is going through a crisis and then the mother is and they reconcile together. Everyone kind of converges at the same place.
ASIANCE: What is the greatest aspect of acting for you?
Jade: The greatest aspect depends on what medium it is. For film and television it is really bonding with the people who are in the production and really giving your best performance. It’s a mini performance because you are usually filming things out of sequence so there is no continuity in your acting as there is on stage. You develop a character in 30 seconds, 2 minutes, five minutes, whatever that scene is. You really have to get to know the other actors in order to get there. It’s a very personal reward.
For stage it’s completely different. You’re developing a character from beginning to end and you have to work as an ensemble because it’s life or death on stage and you have everything to risk as does everyone else on stage.
Film and television is different but if you don’t bond at the time you are producing and shooting it when the time comes for it to be on the big screen that’s when you can tell. And I think you can tell in this movie that we bonded. I think it’s pretty evident that it’s a true ensemble.
I see Alexis and Jeffrey all the time. I’ve watched them grow. It’s been three years since we shot the film. Samantha graduated from High School. Everyone is so proud. Jeffrey got into Bronx Science which is a really hard high school to get into. Samantha is going to Boston University so we’re all cheering. Alexis is coming into her own and she’s a gymnast. She has such gymnastic talent that they are actually entertaining the notion that she will go to the Olympics. I’m sure Jeffrey will be this great neurosurgeon.
Sung who plays the bad guy is making this great leap from being nobody to being in a major motion picture, then The Motel and now he has another one that’s coming out at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Everything is happening!
ASIANCE: What about the Asian accent?
Jade: At first when I read the script I fell in love with it. I’ve know Mike (director) for years as colleagues. I fought so long in my career to not do an accent. So when I had to do an accent for this film, it was a big decision for me. But I felt that the character needed it and the flavor of the character needed it and the premise of the character needed it. So I did not feel stereotyped because I felt it was a real life depiction of a family dynamic and that made it ok. I’ve been asked that numerous times, “You don’t have an accent, yet you are playing someone with an accent. Isn’t that going backwards?” No, not in this film.
ASIANCE: Did Mike write the film for you?
Jade: It’s funny. I’ve known him for years and we used to workshop our scripts together. I never knew he actually had me in mind the whole time. I went through the audition process. I was actually doing a show in Philadelphia the time and he was wrapping up auditions so I asked him to hold off on wrapping up the auditions until I was finished because I really wanted to try out for this part. So he did, I auditioned and the next day I got it.
Actually he told me a few months ago that he had me in mind when he wrote the script. But that’s the way it works because you never know who moves on or who pops into your life. It’s just unpredictable and it happened. I was at the right place and the right time. I couldn’t be more fortunate.
ASIANCE: What is your favorite film?
Jade: I have so many. I love character driven films. Storytelling that really develops characters in situations that people can relate to. I’m not a real big fan of action thrillers, kind of commercial types of films which is why I stay in the theatre scene and try to choose projects that are very close to social and ethnic exposure. I’ve been doing that for several years now and I’d say maybe 90% of the projects that I take on are associated with that type of scene. I think it’s important and it’s my objective in life. The more involved I am in those projects and character driven projects that expose our Asian American presence in this vanilla world and put them on the map that is maybe a little bigger than a spec, then we’re actually going to become a color in the wheel. Once we become a color in the wheel, then I think we’ll be a major player. And I think that’s happening really quickly. I think you’ll see that happen over the next 3 years.
ASIANCE: What is up next for you?
Jade: I just got cast in “Shakespeare in the Park” in Central Park with the Public Theatre doing Mother Courage with Meryl Streep. Last time she played people were camping overnight. We start rehearsal the day the film is being released at the Film Forum. So it’s going to be a good couple of weeks for me. It’s been a good couple of years for everyone else. The Motel is charmed! (laughs)
ASIANCE: Is there anyone that you would die to work with?
Jade: Well I will be, Meryl Streep. I’d love to work with anyone who has the passion for the arts that I do. Whether they’ve acted before or not, like Jeffrey (Plays Ernest). He’s never acted before but he was so wonderful to work with. He is actually one of my favorite people that I’ve worked with in my career. Alexis and Samantha all of them in the film. This film was my favorite project that I worked on in terms of everyone involved. Not changed by ego. That’s why I’ve never exploded into the commercial arena because I think you lose that passion. You become money driven and it’s all a matter of money and not art. I may never be rich but at least I’ll love what I do!
ASIANCE: Any Asian American women you admire?
Jade: A lot. Janet Yang. She’s a wonderful human being and she’s also been a major player in helping us get an Asian American presence. I think Joan Chen. There are a lot of women who historically haven’t been given any notice; Iris Chang. I think she died way too young. She’s actually my idol in terms of social awareness. I actually narrated her book “The Chinese in America”. They don’t promote the book and they don’t promote her work. They should have. I truly admire her.
I think there are a lot of Chinese American scientists. Chien-Shiung Wu was someone I admired that no one really knows about. She should have gotten a noble prize for her science research as she was known as the “Queen of Physics”. She died in 1980 but she worked on the Manhattan Project and was responsible for Oppenheimer working on the Atomic Bomb. Nobody knows about these people but these are the people I admire. The people who have actually done something for humanity and for science and who have never been recognized. I would like to be considered as one of those people and if there comes a time, I can be very visible and vocal about it.
ASIANCE: What is important for Asian American women to know?
Jade: Follow your passion. Don’t follow it frivolously. Follow it with full conviction and you’ll succeed. Never be afraid of who you are. I think the younger generation has so much potential to change the world. I’d like to see the younger generation be more aware and less angry about whom they are. You have to be 5 steps ahead and never let anyone know what your 5 steps are. Never be afraid of the inner core because the inner core is actually who you are. I think that’s one of the problems with the older generation. They know the inner core but it’s too painful to express. But I think now they are beginning to express it and I think that’s important because all our stories need to be told.
For information and schedule for The Motel in your area check out their website
We are working on our archives at the moment; in the meantime you can read bits of our interview with the Saving Face cast and crew here http://www.ialink.tv/e_news/6-01-05/savingface1.html