Julia Nickson made her screen debut in Rambo: First Blood, Part II, opposite Sylvester Stallone back in 1985. She’s part of a generation, a small clique of Asian female working actors that included Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom, Tamlyn Tomita, Vivian Wu and John Chen. Her resume includes several films, including Life Tastes Good, Sidekicks, K-2 and China Cry; three major miniseries, Noble House, Around the World in 80 Days and Genghis Khan; as well as some of the most recognizable TV series of the last three decades – The Division, Nash Bridges, JAG, Walker Texas Ranger, SeaQuest, Babylon 5, Star Trek and
Magnum PI. The Singaporean born actress is beautiful, talented, and yes, wise. For more details, read on.
ASIANCE: So Julia, how are you?
Julia: Hot. [She laughs] Temperature wise. That isn’t necessarily an egocentric statement. [And yes, it’s a hot day in LA. When we first put make up on her, it was literally melting off].
ASIANCE: So you’ve got a couple films coming out, right?
Julia: I do, I have a film called Half Life, which has been very successful on the festival circuit, and it just closed the Los Angeles Film Festival. I also just finished Dim Sum Funeral.
ASIANCE: What is Dim Sum Funeral about?
Julia: It is about an Asian-American family whose mother has just passed away and they come together for a traditional Chinese funeral and have to embrace the Asian side of their heritage as well as try to get along with each other, which is no easy feat.
ASIANCE: Who’s the creative team? Writer, director, actors, etc.?
Julia: Written by Donald Martin, directed by Anna Chi, from a storyline that she has been working on for several years, starring Russell Wong, Kelly Hu, Bai Ling, myself and some really wonderful Vancouver actors.
ASIANCE: And what is Half Life about?
Julia: Half Life is a story about family dynamics, children trying to make sense of a world that seems to be on the verge of chaos. I play a single mother, raising two children, who is unable to really find herself amidst the stress and strain of work and motherhood. And I turn to a young man for some kind of high, some kind of temporary solace.
ASIANCE: Sounds like a great part.
Julia: She definitely is, as one reviewer said, a bitter, fading beauty, trying desperately to hold on to some vestige of former self, having lost her identity and living this sort of Half Life herself. It’s a story of her struggle to find some kind of meaning as mother, at the same time her children are immersed in a loss of their father, as well as all the confusion children must feel these days when there are so many elements coming at them. It’s a very powerful film filled with purity, filled with spirituality, if you choose to see it, and filled with inspiration.
ASIANCE: Looking forward to seeing it. So let’s see, you were born in Singapore.
Julia: Born and raised. My mother is Singaporean; my father was a British soldier. How they met, I don’t know, probably at a party. I never asked the specifics, but they got into a little “trouble” [she laughs]. It was a very shocking, looked down upon event for an Englishman to be involved with an Asian woman, equally for both sides, so there was a lot of talk in the beginning that I should be given away, put up for adoption, but my mother and father decided that they would prefer to get married. I moved to England at an early age, six months. My father unfortunately passed away when I was seven, during the time we were in Africa. We had emigrated there looking for a better life, and after he died we moved back to Singapore where I was raised until I was 17.
ASIANCE: Was it hard growing up hapa?
Julia: It was interesting in Singapore, as hapas, or Eurasians, or children of white men, as we were called. We were definitely considered freaks, someone to look at, point at and talk about in public [she laughs]. So I often felt… it didn’t feel, what’s the word?
Julia: I didn’t feel discrimination because my stepfather’s wealth protected us from that, and I had a very upper middle class, or wealthy background, growing up in Singapore. But it was amusing, to say the least, and unfortunately for me, I learned to shut people out very successfully as I walked down the street. Which didn’t make me very observant in many things, because I kind of created a cocoon to live within, so I could ignore the voices in Chinese that were speaking about me. And it took me a long time later to just observe people and to observe behavior and allow myself to be open for scrutiny.
ASIANCE: When did you come to the United States?
Julia: I moved to Hawaii for a university education. [She laughs] It’s not academically a place one goes to for school but I really wanted to keep amongst the Asian community and the mainland was kind of a scary place for me and I was alone, only 17, and I didn’t have any family anywhere in the US. Hawaii seemed like a safe place to go, and it was hot… temperature wise. Mostly, I like hot. Maybe not quite as hot as today!
ASIANCE: Is that where you started your acting career?
Julia: I started modeling and doing community theater, but I had such a passion to become more than just a model. It was so important to me to find some sort of creative expression, outside of being beautiful, and I remember every moment of my waking day was filled with that intention and pursuit. And finally, after about three years of really longing and hoping and doing everything I could in Hawaii, to accomplish something, no matter how small, I was cast in Rambo First Blood Part II.
ASIANCE: So that was your big break?
Julia: It was a very unusual event to happen. I went to the audition, kept it completely secret from everybody.
ASIANCE: It must have been wonderful, a huge opportunity, yes?
Julia: [She laughs] As… as mortified as I can be at seeing the film today, at that time in my life it was a very important milestone.
ASIANCE: Hey, a break is a break.
Julia: A break is a break, especially if you can manage to make a break out of a place where nobody ever expects something like that.
ASIANCE: Did life change after that?
Julia: Well, it went up and down [she laughs]. (Yeah,) I moved to Los Angeles, and I dealt with the experience of being one of many, trying to scrape some kind of career together, and I have to say, in the “80s and “90s I was very successful. And really only until I hit 40 did things start to slow down for me.
ASIANCE: A lot fewer parts in that age range.
Julia: Yeah, it’s interesting, there was a very dramatic shift in the way Asians were cast in the last ten years. And it went from being ethnically diverse, where having some kind of interesting exotic look, was enough to fill a role, to it becoming very specific, and you had to be ethnically correct for casting. And I understand why, but it left some of us, or more specifically, me, on the sidelines. I had built my career on playing a variety of ethnicities, from Mongolian and Indian to Vietnamese. Suddenly, I didn’t fit anywhere. Right now, I can see the tide has changed a little, and so I’m looking forward to a kind of renaissance.
ASIANCE: How tough was it to find roles when you first came to LA?
Julia: I would say there were probably five or six girls, and we competed regularly against each other, and we pretty much had enough to go around during that time. It was a very small group – “ Joan Chen, Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita, Vivian Wu, myself… and then Lauren [Tom] joined the group, but of those six, pretty much we were the ones that the roles went to. And everyone was very focused, worked very hard.
ASIANCE: It’s a great group.
Julia: Definitely. You know, I don’t know that younger people know much about the history of Asian artists. I once asked a young person, who was teaching acting, “Do you know Nancy Kwan?” And he said, “Who?”
ASIANCE: Wow. Was it an Asian person?
Julia: It was an Asian acting teacher. But he was young, so, you know…
Julia: That’s why I mention these names, because actors should know who their predecessors are.
ASIANCE: I completely, completely agree… So, when you look back at the artistic journey, how do you feel about it?
Julia: I’m very sad about the state of the industry.
ASIANCE: For everybody, or for Asians specifically?
Julia: For everybody except stars. And unfortunately it’s a microcosm of society where the wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few. And unfortunately, if you look throughout history, it’s the beginning of the decline of that civilization. I very much see our industry in a decline. And until that changes, people in the business just don’t have the delight and the security and the rewards that they used to have.
ASIANCE: To be artistic.
Julia: … .and that really hurts me, because I come from a time when a mid-level actor could pay their mortgage… what was the other question you asked? I could go on and on about this…
ASIANCE: Oh yeah, about the artistic journey.
Julia: The artistic journey in terms of independent film is wonderful, and is a by-product of what has happened. People can’t make big movies, so they strive to express themselves creatively through an indy film. And stars, big stars have embraced indy film, because it’s the only way they can score a different kind of role than something that is required to be commercial for the studios. So that part of it can be rewarding. I’ve always supported indy films, I’ve done three and two have premiered at Sundance. I’ve always supported indy films. And currently, indy directors like Quentin Lee, Philip Kan Gotanda and Jennifer Phang have been the most open minded about crossing lines on various Asian ethnicities. But for every actor, an occasional studio film brings some measure of comfort. I think as an actor who is now on the cusp of 50, it remains for us to define what our journey will be, because we can’t accept the limitations of the industry. I take hope that in doing smaller, more innovative theatrical pieces, just being insistent that we are not going away, that we’re going to rage against the dying of the light, and with our intention and our passion behind us, then it’s very hard to be at the effect of an industry that is seeking youth and beauty and glamour. (The irony is not lost on me that I and others benefited much from that in my early days but now it is about endurance and staying power.)
ASIANCE: You were married to David Soul of Starsky and Hutch?
Julia: I was. We had a creative time together. We both worked a great deal.
ASIANCE: How did you meet?
Julia: We met in Hong Kong filming a pilot for Aaron Spelling. We actually explored the globe together, had extraordinary adventures, in the Galapagos, the Saharan Desert, the Negev, Europe, Asia. We have a beautiful child, China, who is now in university in London. We divorced in 1992, but we’re friends. We don’t see each other much because he lives in a different country, he’s been in London for ten years.
ASIANCE: What else would you like to do acting wise?
Julia: I would love to do more theater. I felt as if I couldn’t when I was raising my child, it’s too many nights away, and when a kid is growing up in a big city, it’s just not a good idea, nannies don’t provide what they need. And I’m very proud that I raised a child who is mentally sane [she laughs], extremely creative, and knows exactly what she wants to do in life.
ASIANCE: She’s a writer?
Julia: Yes, and a singer/songwriter as well with a very unique voice, and has extraordinary poetic abilities… but now is my time to be selfish.
ASIANCE: Well, you’ve raised a child and she’s off to college.
Julia: Yeah, and I’m proud to say I’ve been globe trotting this last six months, Vancouver, London, Sundance, Seattle, San Francisco, but I’d really like to do a one-woman or two person show and take that on the road, experience what it’s like to have different audiences view it, and hopefully to write my own piece.
ASIANCE: Do you have an acting technique, approach?
Julia: I have had varied acting teachers, and it’s very interesting, sometimes it’s like five different coaches telling a tennis player how to serve five different ways. You very often will spend periods of time being clueless about acting because you have information that you don’t know how to incorporate into what you’ve already learned.
ASIANCE: I’ve been through that.
Julia: So after 23 years of having people teach me various techniques, now I don’t listen to any of them [she laughs]! I’ve now managed to take what I like out of the best of my teachers, and I still like to think that I’m very grounded technically, as an actor. And one of the few Asian film actors, I believe, you know there’s not many of us, that are very comfortable on stage.
ASIANCE: That’s true.
Julia: And so, my time for studying is now in a quiet period and I’m just enjoying bringing together all the different techniques. And the best is when you are acting and you have the chance to do three or four completely different takes of something.
ASIANCE: Do you have any advice for younger Asian actors.
Julia: Yeah, sure. Someone once told me she was going to do “a little bit acting”. And I looked at her and laughed, and I said, “There is no doing a little bit of acting.” So I don’t care if you have a day job, that is very necessary at times, but if you’re not absolutely 100% consumed and driven and extraordinarily focused with all aspects of the film industry, then don’t even bother. That’s my advice, and I don’t care who you study with [she’s smiling as she says this], or what you do, or what venue you choose to express yourself in, but you must be totally immersed in it.
ASIANCE: You mentioned you are a scientologist. Do you want to talk about that?
Julia: It’s so misunderstood, so I think that’s why people are very leery of it, but we’re really normal people. Most people don’t know I’m a scientologist. I find it helps me make better decisions. It helps me think more clearly.
ASIANCE: How did you come to it?
Julia: As most actors do, through people in the industry.
ASIANCE: Just out of curiosity, how does it help you with your decisions?
Julia: Because one learns conditions, human conditions, and one learns about tone levels of personalities, and the artist is often prone to a great deal of suppression. It’s a normal part of being an artist. To be able to learn something and to have it cold, as a truth for you, enables you to, when confronted with certain situations, to identify them. Identify them and to be able to be non-reactive to the extent that the energy that you then put out, is always going to be positive because order will always supersede disorder.
ASIANCE: Can you explain the tone levels in a bit more detail?
Julia: Well, people have different tone levels. They can be apathy, boredom, anger, enthusiasm, and if you can spot a person’s tone level you can then relate to them in a way that they can understand. Then you are able to establish communication. It’s not about judgment, it’s really about understanding where they’re coming from so you can find a way to communicate and get your point across and share a point of view. You see, if you can actually say, “God, this person is really angry, and look at them, with knowledge, then you just hear they’re angry without really taking it in yourself. And if you react with a little boredom, which is a lower tone level, you will see their antagonism fades quite quickly. Then you can really establish a communication with them, as opposed to being emotionally thrown and responding in a way that might be a non-optimal solution. Or you can simply use the moment to run like hell, depending on the situation (LOL).
ASIANCE: When did you become a Scientologist?
Julia: 1995. And sometimes I don’t take courses, we actually take courses, and I don’t study for a couple years because a lack of discipline will overcome me. You know it’s an interesting thing about your mind; it doesn’t really stay the same. It evolves, I mean devolves, I made that word up, or it sort of moves on a downward path [she laughs]. And so then I decide, okay, it’s time to start learning things again. To be a student is a very important thing in life. All the great sages understand this. Scientologists are students, and they believe they are students of life. I find they have an extraordinary knowledge of the physical universe, and the relationship between the mind, the body and the spirit, and they find answers to questions that many are still searching to understand. There is a scene in Half Life, where one can see the words from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “What if your body is just thought itself.” For me, it is an important theme in the film. We all know miraculous things can happen just from thought alone. I like studying the mechanics behind it. Knowing how the mind works leads to better decisions. Finally I got back to your question.
ASIANCE: What do you think are the biggest influences in your life? People, events, ideas… anything that shaped you.
Julia: I just wrote an article about my sixth grade English teacher because he… he moved me so deeply. Because he found such a playful way to teach us. Involving us in things that weren’t necessarily seen as educational by institutions, but were still about learning, such as bridge, and heraldry and chess, he taught us all this in sixth grade… [Julia becomes teary-eyed as she recalls her experiences] I’m sorry… I wrote an article about him for my alma mater, because I looked him up on the internet, and I found that he had passed away wh he had rescued someone from drowning…
Julia: Or attempted to rescue someone from drowning in Bali, and it was so in keeping with how he lived his life, to be of service to others. And he always did that in school, he was always trying to help in the classroom or on the playing field, where he was also a coach. He moved me. So he was probably the most inspirational person in my life, just because of that pivotal time when I was just becoming a teenager, he opened the door to a world of play, and that’s really what acting is. And it was immediately after that year, during that summer, that I decided, as I watched my first epic movie, which I’m not even going to give the title of, because it would sound so corny – “
ASIANCE: Oh, you have to tell me.
Julia: No, I can’t! But it was a very big, academy award winning, epic film, with a lead character that was so much bigger than life! And I decided, what if I did that? What if I could actually become that person, you know? And so I credit him with making that decision, of having that thought, during that period of my life. His name was Mr. Eric Cooper.
ASIANCE: What do you do when you’re not acting or working?
Julia: I take dance class now. I stopped dancing for a long time, and I realized it’s so connected to who I am; I don’t do well without it. I take jazz and ballet. I go hiking with my doggie.
ASIANCE: Any major part of your life I missed?
Julia: No, I just think that honestly I wasn’t born to be a mother, so I had to learn a lot of skills to cope, had to focus a lot on things that didn’t come naturally, and now, having triumphed over it, I feel there are still more exciting adventures ahead. One of them being able to share my experiences as an actor, perhaps as a teacher. I love teaching kids. I did for a couple years and I’d love to go back to that. Sort of like a continuation of what my teacher Eric Cooper gave to me.
ASIANCE: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing Half Life. Thanks for your time and your thoughts.
Julia: My pleasure.
Photography by Ming Lo
Styling by Julia Nickson
Make Up by Darnell Anthony
For more on Julia Nickson:
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.