As a testament to how small the world can be, I first met Nikki at a showcase for emerging talent at an acting and modeling school in Koreatown. We were both industry guests. Though it was the first time I had met her, I had seen her before, of course. By then she had already appeared in Clueless, Bring It On and several television shows, including ER, Dawson’s Creek, Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Boston Legal. As a testament to how small the world can be, I first met Nikki at a showcase for emerging talent at an acting and modeling school in Koreatown. We were both industry guests. Though it was the first time I had met her, I had seen her before, of course. By then she had already appeared in Clueless, Bring It On and several television shows, including ER, Dawson’s Creek, Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Boston Legal. Still, meeting her in person was a whole other matter. She was energetic, outgoing, friendly… and shall we say, Texan?
After shooting in the studio, we met at Solar De Cahuenga, a little cafÃ© on Cahuenga and Franklin in LA for the interview. I’m having a chicken omelette, she’s having quiche and a side of fruit. And we’re chatting about how she managed to lock herself out of her apartment the night before. In the midst of this pleasant lunch, my mind can’t help running through observations gathered in the last week of working with her. Always upbeat, but she’s also organized, on top of things and independent, often declining help and implicitly saying, “I’ll do it myself.” But perhaps what strikes me most about Nikki is her outlook. What do I mean? Read on.
ASIANCE: So, do you have siblings?
Nicole: I do. I have two older brothers.
ASIANCE: Are you the youngest?
Nicole: I am. I’m the baby.
I was landing great jobs for being new. And keep in mind, back then, this was like 14 years ago, when there weren’t as many Asian American actresses that were on the radar. There’s only a few, so I was one of the few.
ASIANCE: You’re the youngest? You don’t seem like the “spoiled baby”.
Nicole: I wasn’t really spoiled. I wasn’t spoiled with material things. Or with always getting what I wanted. I was probably a little bit spoiled… you know, I was grandma’s favorite, “cause I was the youngest of all her grandchildren, I was the only granddaughter on my mother’s side.
ASIANCE: So I never asked you, you’re Korean?
Nicole: I’m whatever the breakdown says [She says with a smile]. Didn’t you read my imdb page? [Her imdb profile states, “Nicole Bilderback is multi-mixed Asian ethnicities. Which explains her versatile Asian look. She was born in Korea, but her biological parents were of different Asian backgrounds, not just Korean. She was adopted as a baby by her Mom and Dad, Americans Jim and Lois Bilderback.”] But yes, I was born there.
ASIANCE: And the last name comes from?
Nicole: The last name is Dutch.
ASIANCE: So are you… hapa? Are you full Asian adopted? [She’s smiling, enjoying my attempt to figure this out]. Are you… okay, what’s the deal?
Nicole: [She laughs]. What’s the deal, stop beating around the bush!
ASIANCE: Exactly. [We’re both amused.]
Nicole: Well, it’s funny because I get asked that quite a bit. For example, say I’m at an audition, a director or producer will look at me, look at my name, and they’re like, “Bilderback? What is that?” I’m like, “It’s Dutch!” Actually for many years we thought it was German, but then my late late grandfather many, many years ago went to Germany to try to track down the family tree, he just wanted to know the history of it, couldn’t find Bilderbacks anywhere. Went next door to Holland, found Bilderbacks everywhere.
So anyway, then they’re [the directors and producers] like, “… okay… , um, where are you from?” And I say, “Texas!” And they’re like, “Got it!” Which I love, “cause it really does help… For me, it really does help support the thinking outside the box [meaning, not being cast as only Asian]. It is a little easier, a little less limiting.
ASIANCE: Are your parents Asian?
Nicole: No, my parents are Caucasian, I was adopted. I arrived home when I was six months old, and my parents already had my two older brothers who were their biological sons. And my mother, I remember asking her when I was little, “Mom, what made you want to get me?” [She imitates herself as a little girl] And she was like, “Oh honey, you know I always said that if I never had a daughter of my own by birth, then I always wanted to adopt a little Asian girl.” She said she’s always wanted to do that her whole life, and this is before it was trendy. This was before the Brad Pitts, the Meg Ryans and the Angelina Jolies and everybody adopting.
ASIANCE: Were you adopted in Korea or were you adopted in Texas?
Nicole: I was born in Korea, I was adopted from there through Holt International, which is a popular international adoption agency, and my parents at the time lived in New Jersey, so I arrived at JFK. They said I was the best baby on the plane, they said I didn’t cry. It coulda been a crock of sh–. My dad was probably trying to blow some sunshine up my ass [she laughs]. But I believed it, I didn’t care!
So we lived in New Jersey at the time, I was six months old when I arrived, they lived there for a year and a half, two years. Then we moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma until I just turned five, when we moved to Dallas. So Dallas is my home, that’s where I grew up.
ASIANCE: So have you ever found your birth parents?
Nicole: Nope, I’ve never tried to look.
I’m not an Asian actress, I’m an actress who happens to be Asian. You see Asian-American, I’m proud of both aspects of that, and why not embrace both sides of that.
ASIANCE: Is it a question in your mind?
Nicole: Not really, it’s certainly not something that resonates strongly enough to really want to venture out and explore that. But has the thought ever passed through? Yeah, sure. In terms of “God, I wonder, I wonder what the situation was.” It’s different, though, when you inquire about that subject matter because you’re truly lost, or you’re truly feeling some kind of insecurity or fear. It’s one thing to inquire about it when it’s coming from a place of really searching for something that you feel you lack. For me, I never really felt I lacked anything. I was always fulfilled in my family life. I had my mother and father, they are my real parents. You know, blood doesn’t mean anything sometimes, it’s who’s there, who raises you your whole life. That’s a mother and father.
For me, the thought crossed through, more out of curiosity, like “I wonder what they look like?” But not because I felt lost, because I needed to. It’d be interesting, I certainly wouldn’t turn it down, if the opportunity were offered to me.
ASIANCE: But you’ve never gone looking?
Nicole: Hm-mm. Never gone looking. I do wonder, maybe one day, cause people always say, “You think that will ever change?” I can’t say, I live one day at a time. Right now it’s where it’s at, this is where it’s been at for a long time, and who knows, maybe it’ll change.
ASIANCE: So you grew up in Texas your whole life. Where’d you go to college?
Nicole: I didn’t.
ASIANCE: Oh, okay. So you came out to LA and went straight into acting? Did you always know you wanted to do that?
Nicole: There was never a question or a doubt. My mom put me in dance classes when I was three. So I was always a dancer my whole life. I grew up performing. I grew up on the stage entertaining. I always had this attraction to TV and the movies. Anything I would see on TV, I would get lost in this world. In fact, a lot of times my parents or my brother would walk into the living room and they thought I was talking to myself. And I’m like, “No, I’m acting out a scene from Growing Pains!”
ASIANCE: That’ funny.
Nicole: I always had it in me. But dancing was a huge major focus in my life growing up. And then, I guess I was 14, 15, a speaker, an acting teacher came to speak to my theater class, giving information. And I remember, I was doe-eyed, drooling. I was like, “This is it!” I remember running home, “Mom, mom, you have to get me into these acting classes, I’ve got to go to this acting school!” And I started taking classes.
So what happened was, I remember I was in junior high, I decided, because I had a lot on my plate – “ I was in a dance company, I was dancing every single night, four hours a night, then I was acting at a separate acting school after my regular school. And then I was a cheerleader, so I had cheerleading practice, the game, and on top of it, school. So I was like, “I gotta prioritize here!” You know, at 14 years old, I was like, you know what, I made a very mature decision at 14 to not try out for high school cheerleading.
Now I know that sounds like, people will read this and they’ll giggle and chuckle, and say [sarcastically] “Oh, that’s a big deal”. But when you’re 14, and you’re from Texas, it’s a huge decision.
ASIANCE: Oh yeah, especially in Texas.
Nicole: Especially in Texas. It’s like, take yourself out of your adulthood right now, and put yourself back into your youth, our adolescence – “
ASIANCE: Hey, I watch Friday Night Lights.
Nicole: Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you venture back to your adolescence, and you remember how important some of these activities were, and how you could never imagine quitting. It was a massive deal, and even the teachers were walking up to me and saying, “We really respect your decision, it’s a really mature decision for your age to not get caught up in the popularity thing.” And so it was a very mature decision, I wasn’t peer pressured by anybody. I didn’t let my parents make my decision for me. I made it myself. And everything about it felt right, even though emotionally it was hard.
ASIANCE: So how did you end up in LA?
Nicole: At my acting school in Dallas, we had these showcases. My acting school would fly in three VIPs from LA. There were a couple of agents, casting directors, and they would come out. And we would do these showcases, and we would get chosen to come out to LA during the summers, and live here for the summer and audition. So I was living out here in LA, with other kids.
ASIANCE: This was a program? Are you living together, and it was something you paid for?
Nicole: Yeah, we lived at Oakwood [A lot of actors visiting LA find temporary accommodations at the Oakwood Apartments]. Yeah, we had to pay for it, there was a deposit, 3-5 of us would live in an apartment at Oakwood. Of course we had chaperones, so I was completely monitored. But it was for the experience to audition and get into the real world a bit.
ASIANCE: So the transition wasn’t that hard. Did you already have an agent and all that?
Nicole: Hm-hm, I already had an agent. I was already hooked up. Mary Grady was my very first agent and I was with CED [Cunningham Escott & Dipene] before it became CESD, and I’m still with them commercially.
ASIANCE: What was your first booking?
Nicole: It was a commercial for Disneyland, for Southern California, God, I can’t believe I still remember this. It was a special that they were running, “Hi, I’m Nicole from Burbank, and I got in for just $22!” And so I remember, I had to ride on this carousel all day long saying, “Oh, I got in for $22!” But it was so fun, you know, my first booking. My second one was a commercial for Radio Shack.
ASIANCE: What were your other first few bookings, film, TV, anything.
Nicole: One of my first TV jobs was Days of Our Lives, and I was a hooker, but I was a hooker with a heart.
ASIANCE: [Laughing] Of course, all Hollywood hookers have hearts!
Nicole: Yeah, that was one of my first TV jobs, and it was a big deal for my mom, because I grew up with Days of Our Lives. That was her soap opera, it still is to this day.
My very first film was Clueless. I was Summer, the famous line that I still get teased about to this day, “Let’s play suck and blow.” [She smiles] And then I was also in a scene where Alicia Silverstone’s character is taking group pictures of all the friends.
ASIANCE: Yeah, I remember that scene.
Nicole: I’m in a handful of stuff, it’s a small part, but it’s a supporting role, it’s substantial.
ASIANCE: What would you consider your first break?
Nicole: I’m think I’m still looking for the big break.
ASIANCE: How about a small break?
Nicole: Clueless definitely helped, after Clueless, a lot of other jobs were easier. Just having it on my resume, it was the big talk of the town at the time, all of young Hollywood wanted a role in that movie. I mean it was a huge deal. I had no idea. I’m fairly new to LA. I’m still a hostess at Jerry’s Deli. I didn’t know, I was just auditioning like it was no big deal. And I’ll never forget walking into that room, I remember it was Amy Heckerling [writer/director]; Marcia Ross, the casting director; Scott Rudin [producer] was even in there; Adam Schroeder [co-producer]. And I remember sitting there thinking, “I’m doing my lines… ” and I actually remember Amy Heckerling’s expression. I don’t really remember much else. I remember Scott Rudin was this big producer guy, expressionless. And I remember walking out of there, not really thinking anything of it, and getting the call that I got it, and saying, “What?” Keep in mind, Clueless was the re-birth of the teenage genre movies, it was the first one since Sixteen Candles. She [Amy Heckerling] invented it again. And so being able to work with her, not only was she cool as hell, but I didn’t realize at the time, this is Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
ASIANCE: So any other favorite projects?
Nicole: Bring It On, definitely, was one the most fun experiences shooting on a set. A lot of close friendships came out of it, it was just a really great, fun time working with everyone – actors, producers, director. It was a very important time in my life that really helped with growing and transition.
I did a guest star on ER a long time ago, that was really cool because George Clooney was still on it. However what really sucked about it was that I was covered in blood head to toe, literally head to toe. I stood in a pan and they dumped blood on me. Covered, all disgusting, I’m in craft service, trying to get a bagel, in walks George Clooney, “Well hello there!” Couldn’t have been nicer, so nice, so friendly, shook my hand, and I’m like, “I’m sorry” [for all the blood]. And he’s like, “We’re used to it here.” And all the while I’m thinking, “The one time I get to meet George Clooney, I’m covered head to toe in blood, no make up on, and I look like crap! Like, Are you f – ”king kidding me?” But that was really cool.
I really enjoyed doing Dark Angel, first season, cause I think I was the only character or the only female that kicked Jessica Alba’s ass. And the complexity of the storyline, the characters. I’ve been lucky, I’ve had really fun jobs. I did Heroes, was a great experience, did a couple episodes the first season. Loved working on House, and just to be able to observe and sit there and watch Hugh Laurie, it was actually very surprisingly fascinating. I found myself very entranced, because he’s truly just so talented. Literally he has this thick English accent, however, when he’s working, he only speaks with an American accent, even when they yell cut. So even in his downtime, he’s still speaking with an American accent, he never breaks it.
ASIANCE: Do you have any other things coming out?
Nicole: I have a small teeny part in a movie called Wake starring Bijou Phillips and a bunch of fabulous talented young Hollywood actors. But I did that as a favor for Ellie Kanner, who is a very well known casting director, but who has also been directing for some time now. And Ellie’s been good to me through the years. Did it for her, and I have no problem doing that, because I believe there’s no such thing as too small a part. And I think work begets work, and any small part is really up to your perception. Is there really such a thing as that [a small part]?
And I also did a small part for Daniel Waters, who I adore and love, talk about an interesting creature. He directed and wrote a movie called Sex and Death 101, stars Simon Baker and Winona Ryder. Even though that was a small part as well, A, I got to work with Daniel Waters, make that connection and build that relationship, [and B] I got to work with Simon Baker, touched my ass in the scene! So you know what [she slams the table with her hand to emphasize], it’s a win-win situation!
And then I have a movie that I shot in New York, independent feature, the name keeps changing but I believe the title of it right now is The New Twenty. I guess you can call it a coming of age drama, sort of like a St. Elmo’s Fire. It’s currently hitting the film festival circuit, and we just got into the first one for the summer. I’m the female lead in that, and the best part of it, my ethnicity is not a part of the story, anyone could have done that role.
And then currently, I have a few amazing opportunities that I’m very excited about, that are resonating right now. So hopefully these projects will happen, fingers crossed!
ASIANCE: When you first came to LA, did you find being Asian limiting?
Nicole: Even if it was, I didn’t see it. Maybe it was because of naivetÃ©, maybe because I was green. For me, I didn’t really feel a lot of those challenges back then, and I think it was because a) I had just moved out here. I already had an agent. I was already auditioning. I was landing great jobs for being new. And keep in mind, back then, this was like 14 years ago, when there weren’t as many Asian American actresses that were on the radar. There’s only a few, so I was one of the few. There’s probably a lot more than I thought, but in terms of actually working and people knowing us, there were only a couple of us back then. So the competition wasn’t as ravenous as it is now.
ASIANCE: And what about now, what would you say?
Nicole: For me personally? I have to admit. I’m lucky. I don’t really have a strong problem with typecasting. I think having been out here for so long, a lot of casting directors and producers already know me, and so they just kinda know my energy. And I think when you see Nicole Bilderback, you see an Asian-American actress. And I’ve always presented myself with the sense that, you know, I’m not an Asian actress, I’m an actress who happens to be Asian. You see Asian-American, I’m proud of both aspects of that, and why not embrace both sides of that. I’m not going to try to fight harder for one side or the other, and try to prove this or prove that. I think when you just embrace both of them and embody it naturally, and not create stresses. I think when you just sort of let it go and go with the flow is really what has worked for me.
ASIANCE: So what do you do when you’re not acting and auditioning?
Nicole: Live life. I hang out with friends, I enjoy my day, I go to lunches, go to movies, I enjoy hiking. When I’m not acting and auditioning, I get to be… Nikki Bilderback. I get to enjoy my days. I don’t obsess over having a schedule for a day. I definitely keep myself busy and occupied, but I’m okay, I’m at peace with being with myself. I’m at peace with enjoying the moment, enjoying the day, not always needing that validation of constant auditions. Don’t get me wrong, I love the auditions, and I love working, but I also don’t let myself fall into depression or anxiety if there’s not.
ASIANCE: Anything that you aspire to in the business?
Nicole: A dream type of role, I really loved Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill. I really loved V for Vendetta. I really want to work with the Wachowski’s, and I would really love to do some gritty, edgy deep, very unsuspecting role, like some great independent feature that would hit the film festival circuits, and really surprise people. I really love Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, two of my favorite actresses. I really love Natalie Portman’s career…
And also, I definitely have an interest in producing and writing, and possibly directing one day.
ASIANCE: Well, I think that’s about it. What are you doing for the rest of the day?
Nicole: Running errands that I didn’t get to do this morning.
ASIANCE: Thanks for your time.
Nicole: No, thank you.
Photography by Ming Lo
Styling by Nicole Bilderback
Make Up by Allison Nickles
For more on Nicole Bilderback:
For more on Make-Up Artist Allison Nickles:
About Ming Lo:
Ming Lo has been a fan of the moving and still image for as long as he can remember. He shoots headshots, portraits, fashion, beauty and corporate work. More detail on his work can be found at www.minglo.com.
Like many in Los Angeles, Ming wears several hats. He is also an actor, director and investor. His latest acting credits include Pursuit of Happyness; Jarhead; Million Dollar Baby; Dirty, Sexy Money; Private Practice; and Navy NCIS. Prior to working in entertainment, Ming employed at McKinsey & Co. and at Goldman Sachs & Co. Ming has a MBA and MA Political Science from Stanford University and an AB in Government, cum laude, from Harvard College.