Remember the Japanese American nurse in ER? She is Lily Mariye, best known for her role as nurse Lily Jarvik on the award-winning TV series “ER” for 15 seasons, for which she won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series four times. She is successfully making the transition from actress to director; framing her directorial works with her experience as an actor. Her feature directorial/screenwriting debut is “Model Minority”, a story that shows a grittier side of growing up bi-cultural in multicultural LA. “Model Minority” begins with hapa-sister, Kayla and Amberlyn Tanaka; played by Nicole Bloom (PROJECT X) and Courtney Mun. Director Mariye brings to the screen their daily struggles as the sisters try to keep their family together. Their mother, played by Jessica Tuck (TRUE BLOOD) is losing a battle with drug addiction; and their drunken father, played by multi-award winning Chris Tashima, is rarely around, and barely pay the bills.
Born in Las Vegas, Nevada, she graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Theatre Arts. She has appeared in many films such as “Extraordinary Measures”, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”, “Mighty Joe Young”, “The Shadow”, “The New Age”, and “The Doctor”. Lily has guest-starred in over 25 TV shows including “Shameless”, “Judging Amy”, and “Ally McBeal” and is an award-winning theatre actress, performing in New York, Los Angeles and other regional theatres around the country.
Her feature script, “The Shangri-la Café”, won Best Screenplay for the Page International Screenwriting Awards and the Ohio International Independent and GAFFERS Film Festivals, was short-listed for the Sundance Feature Film Labs and is the basis for her first short film endeavor, which won her a grant from AFI’s prestigious Directing Workshop for Women (13th Cycle).
Her award-winning first short film, “The Shangri-la Café”, was the official selection of over 25 film festivals, including the BBC British Short Film, Seattle International, Palm Springs Short Film and the L.A., N.Y., S.F., San Diego, Chicago and Houston Asian American Film Festivals. “The Shangri-la Café” won the Best Short Film Award, Moondance International; Best Screenplay Award, Brussels Independent, as well as being broadcast on PBS as part of Asian Heritage Month and Colorvision: Up and Coming Filmmakers of Color. For her work on this film, Lily received the National Organization for Women’s Filmmaker of the Year award.
The Shangri-la Café
Lily also directed four short films for INSTANT FILMS, an independent film project held every two months in which eight short films are written, shot, edited and screened in 48 hours.
A resident of Los Angeles, Mariye lives with husband, 3 time Grammy-nominated Verve recording artist, saxophonist Boney James, who also contributed to the soundtracks for “The Shangri-la Café” and “Model Minority.”
L.A. teenagers survive the treacherous world of peer pressure, drug dealers, juvenile hall and dysfunctional families. Kayla, an underprivileged Japanese American 16 year old, endangers her promising future as an aspiring artist when she becomes involved with a drug dealer.
ASIANCE: What made you want to direct since you were always an actress?
Lily: I first was interested in directing when I was doing the television show ER. There were long hours on the set, 14-16 hours a day. I noticed one of our actors with the director behind the monitor. I said what are you doing? She said, “I’m shadowing Christopher Chulack.” (who is one of our directors). “I’m following him around to learn how to direct”. I said, “I want to do that too!” I asked our producers if that was possible and they assigned me to Lesli Linka Glatter who is a DGA winner for Mad Men and Jonathan Kaplan, who is a very well known feature director, who directed The Accused.
As an actor, I was one color, but as a director you get to play with all the paints. I just love it.
I started following them from pre-production, to shooting, to post production and just asking the crew a lot of questions and what it takes to be a director. I just loved it.
I received a flyer in the mail from AFI (American Film Institute) about a directing workshop for women. I brought it to work and brought it to Lesli Linka Glatter and asked if I should apply for this. She said, “Yes! Absolutely you should do this!” It turns out, she took this workshop about 15 years previous to that and had won an Academy Award for her short program that she directed in the program.
So I applied and got in. I directed my first short film, which was The Shangri-la Café. I went to all the festivals and won a bunch of awards. It was selected to be one of four short films on AFI’s first DVD called, “Celebrating AFI”. They went through 20 years of their short films and chose mine as one of 4 films to be sold on this DVD, which was a huge honor.
There were 8 of us in the program that year. I didn’t know if I was going to like directing. Some of the women went on to find out that didn’t like directing and became novelists or pursued other avenues.
Honestly, I didn’t know if I was going to like directing or not and once I got behind the camera and started directing, I realized that I just really loved it.
As an actor, I was one color, but as a director you get to play with all the paints. I just love it. I love everything about it, pre-production, post-production. I’m just grateful that I got to it again.
ASIANCE: I was watching it so late, but I had to stay up to watch the ending. I thought, “Oh my god, how much more can this girl go through?”
Lily: HAHA I have seen that happen so many times. There are just problems and dysfunctions in a family and they are held together by a very fine thread. When that thread starts to unravel, things happen fast. I wanted to tell a little bit of reality. That is how life is. Things happen unexpectedly.
ASIANCE: Sometimes it’s hard to come back after you’ve fallen so hard. The more you keep falling, the harder it gets to come back up.
Lily: I do think it’s possible to come back from dire straits to a good life. So I hope if people can come away with that from my film that would be great….just knowing that there is hope.
ASIANCE: What did you want audiences to take away?
Lily: That there is always hope. Also, like you, people watch it with certain expectations but are surprised. I think that is often where ignorance, racism or bigotry starts, from expectations or not being familiar with people or certain aspects of life. Once you are exposed to it, you can understand it in a different way and you can accept it in a way that perhaps you hadn’t before.
ASIANCE: Sundance Feature Film Lab featured you as a finalist four times but you didn’t win. How did you manage to keep on going?
Lily: He who is still standing wins. Being an artist is all about persevering and understanding that people are chosen not necessarily for their talent or what they look like, but they just might not be right for the role. I let my expectations go, not obsess about it and then go on to the next one. Know that whatever is intended for you will come to you. I think I took that with me into the process of being a film maker. You do your best and let it go. You can’t try to control the outcome of the situation. All you have is control over you. Doing what you love and pushing forward. Having a full life outside of what you are doing, so it doesn’t become everything.
ASIANCE: Great advice!
Lily: You should always have recreation and hobbies and friends. A full life. Our lives are about having balance and a full life of interests.
ASIANCE: Do you ever think “Model Minority” will make it to a mainstream festival?
Lily: I hope so. I went to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. That was amazing. We won a few awards. It’s my hometown. We recently went to the Las Vegas Film Festival. That was great. I’m just beginning to get into the film festivals. I’m hoping to show at Asian American Film Festivals and some non-Asian Film festivals.
ASIANCE: Another film by an Asian American woman director is Janet Yang’s “Shanghai Calling”. Are you familiar? Do you know each other?
Lily: I know who she is. I’m not friends with her but would love to be friends with her. I think she’s amazing. A lot of these films here (Asian American International Film Festival – NYC) were in the LA Film Festival too. The other film I was interested in was “Seeking Asian Female” and “I’m a Ghost”.
We’re all following each other around.
ASIANCE: Is there anyone that you would like to work with?
Lily: I would love to work with Ken Watanabe. I think he’s an amazing movie star. I think Ryan Gosseling is amazing. Emma Stone is amazing. Of course, there is always Meryl Streep. There are just a bunch of amazing actors out there that I would like to work with.
ASIANCE: Are you working on another film?
Lily: Well, I’m starting to write my next feature. I started out my life as a dancer. I was in a small ballet company. My first little SAG gig was “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. So I’d like to make a film about what it’s like to be a young artist and the kind of sacrifices you have to make. So I think my next film is going to have a lot of dancing in it.
Then, I was just hired by DGA ABC Disney Director’s Program! 15 of us were chosen to hopefully direct some ABC/ABC Family and Disney Television. It’s a diversity program because the statistics for women of color and women directors for television are appalling. The DGA and ABC are really dedicated to trying to put more of us in there. I was very honored to have been chosen to be part of this relatively new program, so I’ll be shadowing some ABC shows and television.
I’m really excited. It’s an amazing group of directors. We’ve bonded and have become close. We’re not in competition with each other. One of us does well, we all do well. We’re all cheerleaders for each other. It’s an amazing group of women and men cheerleaders.
ASIANCE: Did you learn anything in the process that you can share?
Lily: I got stopped by the police twice while we were filming on the street. I managed to get us out of a ticket. Somebody called and didn’t like what we were doing so our permit got yanked. You just have to be there and be brave. You have a film to make. Maybe the only thing I wouldn’t do again is wait too long. You have to just go out and do it. That would be my only regret, not doing it sooner. Now, I know that lesson, so I’m ready to do my next one.