Jodi Long is the actress you may recognize from Broadway, The Hot Chick, or Margaret Cho’s mother in All American Girl, or currently as Eli Stone, a judge. Now she is a filmmaker herself and with the help of Christine Choy, the Chair of NYU’s Graduate Film and Television Department and Patricia Richardson (of Home Improvement) she has come out with an inspiring documentary called Long Story Short, about her parents’ struggle as Asian American actors/vaudevillians in the 40’s and 50’s. The film details the lives of her parents’ through photographs, pictures, their special appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1950 and snippets from her own monologue performances. She talks with her mother about the experience of being sent to a Japanese internment camp during WW2. Her father’s experience as a Chinese-American is shown through the film and his early role on Broadway, in Flower Drum Song, which (the later version) Jodi herself was cast in.
The film was screened as part of the Asian American International Film Festival at the Asia Society and there was a very large turnout. It has had success recently and it was very pleasant to talk with Jodi about the meaning of the film, her acting career, and what life is today for Asian American performers.
ASIANCE: Tell us about your film Long Story Short and how it came to be produced!
Jodi: This started as an idea that Sally who was a screenwriter friend of mine came up with when I was cast in Flower Drum Song. She knew my dad had been in the original production and thought I should make a documentary. But I said, “I’m not a documentary filmmaker but if you think it is so interesting, you make it!” It was good timing because I had started writing a one-woman show called Perfect DNA that was somewhat about my parents but mostly about DNA and it was happening around the same time. So she put together some money and started shooting, and we did Flowers on Broadway, then she ran out of money.
I would so encourage Asian American women to get our stories out there. And say, “look, if I can do it, you can do it.” And it just takes focus and perseverance. I never thought I would be a producer of the film or write it.
So a couple years later I said we should finish the project, but I didn’t know enough. Maybe three years later she came to me and said she couldn’t do the project – she had other things pressing for her and had run out of money – so she handed me all forty hours of tapes! They were in my closet for a about a year or two until I ran into Christine Choy at a Memorial Service. I knew her because we were both sort of rabble-rousing young women in New York City in the Eighties. I said, “Are you still making films?” And she said “yeah, I’m also the chair of NYU Graduate Film Department!” (Laughter.) So I told her my situation with these forty hours of tape and she said to send it to her. She looked at it and said, “Wow, I don’t know who shot this stuff, it’s not very good, but you’ve got an amazing story.”
At the time, my parents were vaudevillians, and my father played The Palace, which was an old vaudevillian showplace in the city and he played the Ed Sullivan Show with my mother. So during the time that I was doing Flow Drum Song I went looking through the Ed Sullivan Show and found it, and when Chris saw that footage from the 1950’s she totally flipped. Chris and I went about raising money to put together what Sally had initially shot. And I had just finished doing a reading of my one-woman show at The Public, that we had filmed and she kind of wove it together. Chris went about filming more stuff and then this past year, Dreamville Entertainment, which is a Korean production company saw the footage and decided to fund our post-production. So it was really a labor of love for me. I had never written a screenplay or put anything together but Chris said I would have to write it, because I knew the story better than anybody. So we had an amazing editor and I’ve learned so much. I learned the whole process from Chris and it’s really brought together a whole group of people.
ASIANCE: How does your role as filmmaker compare to acting?
Jodi: I must say- it was harder than opening a Broadway show. (Laughter) I really am serious. And I always start laughing because a Broadway show requires a whole deal, getting cast, getting up there, facing the critics, the whole bit. And making this little film was harder than anything I’ve ever done. And it’s just because you’re kind of the one-man band. And Chris was in Shanghai for the opening of NYU in Shanghai. And we were editing in the States and it was all through email. She’d ask questions or say, “get rid of that!” It’s been really mind expanding for me. Chris actually said I got my degree in filmmaking and didn’t have to pay 40,000 dollars a year. And thank god but, anyways, it’s been amazing.
ASIANCE: What else have you been up to this year?
Jodi: During Cashmere Mafia I played Lucy Liu’s mom and it was shooting here in New York but there was the writer’s strike and unfortunately it didn’t get picked up. So that was unfortunate. But at the same time I had been going to L.A. to Eli Stone, which is another ABC television show that I’m recurring on as a judge. So I was acting while helping to produce this film.
ASIANCE: What do you want Asian-American women to take from your impact and the film?
Jodi: I would just hope, for me, the most important thing as an Asian American Actress, starting out as a classical actress then SUNY Purchase Conservatory, it’s always been about, I have a unique point of view as an Asian American. And no one else can say it the way I do. That has always been a driving force as an actress and now hopefully as a filmmaker.
And I think Christine, who really started way back, is a pioneer Asian American, woman filmmaker. I think she would have said the same thing, her films are unique and she can recognize the film as not only a woman’s story but as a daughter’s story. There was significance to the historical accent of the story. Not just Asian Americans but for the rest of the world. And I think that’s really important. I would so encourage Asian American women to get our stories out there. And say, “look, if I can do it, you can do it.” And it just takes focus and perseverance. I never thought I would be a producer of the film or write it.
ASIANCE: Congratulations. So what was it like, as you show in Long Story Short to grow up with such performing parents?
Jodi: I grew up backstage. And my parents were vaudevillians but also nightclub performers, which was the next stage of vaudeville, the nightclub circuit. It kind of died when television became popular because in the old days people had radio and then would go to the nightclubs for entertainment, or to the vaudeville theater.
In the 1950’s TV came but it wasn’t so common, one house would have it on the whole block and everyone would go there to watch television. By the 60’s most people had television in their house. So that was really the decline of the nightclub era, when everyone had a television. So I grew up in the nightclubs backstage as a real young kid! It was the greatest experience because I was there with all the performers and it was just the most natural thing in the world. So when my father got a call, and you’ll see this in the film, for me to audition, they were looking for Asian kids to audition for Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), because he used to be a Broadway stage director, my father said, “I have a little Asian girl who can sing and dance!” So I did my first Broadway show around 7. I didn’t think I was different from other kids but that was my thing. If your parents were doctors or had a Chinese restaurant or whatever, that would be normal, and it was normal for me to be backstage and with show people.
ASIANCE: Can you describe the nightclub scene and performance areas back then?
Jodi: My original memories were backstage at the Forbidden City nightclub (San Francisco), which is now part of the Chop Suey circuit. The Forbidden City was an amazingly glamorous place. John Wayne, Jack Benny, pictures of famous people on the walls, all these people had come up from Hollywood because it was just this gorgeous place. The entrance to the dining room in the main performance hall was circular, like in China they have the main hall as a circular entrance, to courtyards or whatever- tablecloths on the table, it was a nice look. You would have to go through the kitchen with all the cleaver-wielding Chinese cooks to get to the dressing room. You would go through there every night. I would go to the theater with my parents because I what I did a long time ago!
ASIANCE: What was it like to work with Margaret Cho, for example, and other famous Asian American actors on Broadway or television throughout your career?
Jodi: I really love Margaret. What I think is really interesting about her is she has a persona that the public knows. And it’s a great persona, very in your face and she stretches the boundaries. But she is really very sweet, I don’t know whether it is because I played her mother on All American Girl and it was a sort of transference like, “I better be good around my mother!”
Her persona was so out there but when she dealt with me it was different. We used to live near each other when we did the show in California but I haven’t seen her in a long time. But that’s who I know. She’s a lovely person. She’ll probably be like, “Oh you really blew my cover!” Another person I have to say because we all started together Tzi Ma, from Rush Hour, and David Henry Hwang.
Tzi and I were both in David’s first play. Tzi was in Dance and the Railroad, I was doing Family Devotion – David had these two plays in the Public Theater in the 80’s. We had such a long history together and I love these guys in different ways. Tzi is so in your face, a total activist! With the word Oriental, they would say, “You can’t call us Oriental anymore! We’re Asian Americans!” And that was kind of eye opening for me! And then to do Flower Drum Song with both of them again was a great experience and great times.
One of the problems for Asian American actors, like in Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger, is they go get Asian from Asia because we’re not Asian enough. And that’s so difficult. There’s the stereotype that we’re just not Asian enough.
ASIANCE: What would you do after a Broadway performance?
Jodi: Go out and eat! The after show! I have to eat because I don’t eat before a show. We do the matinee and I’ll eat a little bit, take a nap for an hour then do the second show. Even after one show I have to eat. I’ll eat around 4 or 5 at the latest because otherwise I’ll fall asleep. And you can’t really drink if you’re doing a show. Especially if you’re doing comedy, for me at least, I have to be so ahead of the game, energy-wise -ahead of the audience.
ASIANCE: What do you hope to do in the near future?
Jodi: I ran into Wayne Wang. I said, “When are we going to do a movie together?” I’m not talking about a big Hollywood movie. I want to do a really interesting part. It’s so rare we get to be the main protagonist in a movie. That’s why I do so much theatre. There are so many more interesting parts you get to play than on television.
One of the problems for Asian American actors, like in Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger, is they go get Asian from Asia because we’re not Asian enough. And that’s so difficult. There’s the stereotype that we’re just not Asian enough. I’m an actor. I can play whatever. For example with Snow Falling on Cedars, I knew a lot of Asian American actresses who were up for the part, she was a lovely actress from Japan but they had to teach her English. I have a problem with that. It’s outsourcing our jobs. Even Memoirs of a Geisha, it is outsourcing our jobs. They had to teach those girls to speak English and they were all Chinese actresses playing Japanese! It’s so crazy! It’s like it’s so screwy for the International market. It’s a Hollywood movie- use American actors!
So, anyway, I’ve gotten off on a tangent here but I would like to really, for myself, maybe I’ll get a Driving Miss Daisy part in the waning part of my life, maybe someone will write it… (laughter) I also am looking at producing more. Christine and I are talking about another project. Patricia Richardson, yes, the mom from Home Improvement is one of our producers. She’s an old friend of mine. And when she saw a rough-cut of Long Story Short and we had run out of money and were going to take it to Shanghai because Chris said we could do it for a fifth of the price, Patricia saw it and asked how much it was and she would give us the money. And she came on board as a producer and said if we took it to Shanghai it would be outsourcing our jobs. And though Chris speaks Chinese, the editors there might not be able to understand me. The narration is English here. So there’s a lot of stuff in the air, we’re going to the other festivals. We’re going to The Asian American Festival in DC at the Smithsonian and the Hawaii International Film Festival. It’s going to be a busy fall and then I’m going to L.A. for another episode of Eli Stone.
ASIANCE: So you’re excited for everything, and the film festival in NYC to top it off?
Jodi: I’m so excited! For the premier at Asia Society in NYC I was excited because it was in my hometown. I’ve been really moved the last couple of days. So many people from all different places and my life came out to support it and it’s emotional for me. For Chris too – because she really grew up in New York and had a huge network here as well.
ASIANCE: Any last words to tell the readers, from an experienced woman in the industry?
Jodi: We’ve just got to keep getting our voices heard. And these stories are going to evolve. I just want us to see us take a bigger place in American society. The African American society and Latinos are making great strides and there is a bigger market in the industry. I just want us to take our place as well alongside that. There’s this racism that is just under the skin. We’re still looked upon as “the other” by our friends who sometimes don’t see us. It’s a societal thing. And that is what we have to expose and break through!