I’m sitting in a cramped office with blue shag carpeting, facing a casting director who has called me in to audition for a TV movie. I’m reading for the role of a Vietnamese girl who has just gotten off the boat but is running a ranch in the Midwest with her best friend. Since the character is FOB, the description says “must speak with a Vietnamese accent.”
I launch into the scene and think I do a pretty good job. At the very least, I know I nailed the Vietnamese accent. But I look at the casting director after I finish the scene and she has an expression on her face like she’s just bitten down on an extra sour lemon ball. She says, “Your accent is very strange.”
I think, “Huh? This is how I spoke when I first came to America. This is how many Vietnamese people I know still speak. What is this woman talking about?” So I ask, “What do you mean, strange?”
She says, “I’ve never heard that accent before. It doesn’t sound like the accent in those old Charlie Chan movies.”
“That’s because that was Chinese. I thought you wanted a Vietnamese accent.”
“Well, not if it sounds weird like that. And the average person watching will never know the difference. So, can you do the scene again but with the more traiditional accent?” Just to make sure I know exactly what she’s talking about, the Italian-American casting director shows me how to do an Asian accent that sounds about as authentic as Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I say, “Oh. Yes, I get it.” I don’t, but I give it a try. Like she said, the average person wouldn’t know the difference and she has shown she’s definitely average.
I do the scene over, putting on the Charlie Chan accent while casting off a small piece of my dignity. She smiles. She likes it. I get the job!
I show up on the set, ecstatic. It’s one of my first jobs in Hollywood and I get to play the friend of someone who’s a pretty big TV star. I get shown to my “trailer,” which in reality is a small dressing room with my name on the door (I do get my own bathroom). I go over my lines, making sure I have them all memorized. Then I start practicing the accent. I know I got the job because I put on a bastardized version of a Chinese accent but now that I’m on set, I find it difficult to keep talking like that. It just seems so archaic and insulting to Chinese Americans and Asians in general. And I’m supposed to go on film—national television—talking like that!
I debate going back to an authentic Vietnamese accent. But I don’t want the director calling me weird and yelling “Cut!” to teach me how to do it “right” in front of the entire cast and crew. So I decide to try doing it with no accent at all. With all the things the director has to worry about and oversee on a film set, maybe he won’t notice that I’m supposed to sound different.
And that’s exactly what happens. I do my scenes in a perfect American accent and no one notices. I am relieved. I go through the rest of production without worries of insulting Asian Americans or sounding like I just escaped from a Fu Manchu film.
The movie premieres on a Monday evening in September after a lot of publicity. I celebrate by treating myself to a big chicken dinner at Denny’s. My parents get to see it first on the East Coast. When it’s over, my phone rings and my mother asks, “If your character is FOB, how come you have no accent?”
That’s because in Hollywood, very little makes sense. I chose an option for my character that was less logical but felt more dignified for me because dignity is also in short supply in this business. In the quest for jobs, actors will submit to all sorts of humiliating treatment. Everyone knows if they won’t do it, the next person will and that person will get the job. And there are so few jobs and too many actors competing for them.
A long time ago when I was new to L.A., I had an audition to play a hooker in a film.I went out and bought the cheapest-looking dress I could find at Ross.The polyester/spandex hugged me so tightly, I was practically having an affair with it.I squeezed myself into it, teased my hair a little and put on some red lipstick.I looked like a working girl who couldn’t have possibly charged more than $1.99 an hour.
I drove to the casting office on Hollywood Boulevard. Since parking is almost impossible on the boulevard, the closest space I could find was about two miles from the Mexican border. I then had to get out of my car and make the long walk to the casting office, teeter-tottering on high heels. Along the way, I encountered construction workers who whistled, passersby in their cars who honked, and real hookers who just glared, afraid I might steal some of their regular clientele. I had to keep reminding myself, “I have a college degree and come from a good home. And I need to invest in a trench coat.”
I finally made it to the casting office and did my audition. The casting director thought I was too clean; I didn’t look skanky enough to be a crack whore. He thought I looked like a nice girl who came from a good home, despite my cheap outfit. He saw the real me, so why was I so disappointed?
Because I wanted that part. I wanted my big break in a studio film by a famous director, I wanted to work, and I wanted my SAG card (membership in the Screen Actors Guild is imperative to getting any kind of decent job). I wanted to be an actress and at the time, I had no credits on my resume. I had just packed all my belongings into two duffel bags and flown out to Los Angeles to try my luck in show business. To everyone else, I was making a big mistake since I had graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in communications and had given up a job as an on-air TV news reporter for an NBC-affiliate. But in my mind, I knew no other way.
Ever since I was a four-year-old in Viet Nam, my mother had instilled in me a deep love for the movies. I wasn’t old enough to be in school and my mother was on maternity leave so she would take me to matinees at the Rex movie theater. I sat still for over three hours to see classics like Dr. Zhivago and Cleopatra, endured violent Bruce Lee movies and was exposed to films with sex and nudity that traumatized me (Viet Nam had no movie rating system to warn my mother of adult content). But the one film that probably steered me towards my future adventures in Hollywood was Love Story.
I remember being hypnotized by Ryan O’Neal’s blindingly blond curls and dreamy blue eyes as he looked at Ali McGraw like a lovesick puppy. I couldn’t understand English and was too young to read subtitles but I could tell those two kids were in love. My heart soared as I watched them play football in the snow and laugh as they roared down a highway in a convertible with their hair whipping wildly about them. And then my four-year-old heart broke when Jenny died. That aching theme song didn’t help at all. It hurt so much and Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver looked so sad that I just bawled. I sat there in the theater and cried as if someone had ripped candy right out of my mouth. I think my mother said something like, “It’s just a movie.” But I thought, “I want to move people like that.”
Fast forward twentysomething years. I’ve never played a prostitute nor do I want to anymore (I’m not sure how or if I want to move people in that capacity). I told my agent to stop sending me out for those demeaning roles and have sold that Ross dress on eBay (someone paid me $10 for it, which is more than I paid originally). Instead of repressing my dignity and my intelligence, I now use them, which has resulted in my playing the occasional teacher and a nurse or doctor about 17 times. I don’t think I’ve ever moved anyone the way Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw moved me, but I did do something which perhaps affected people in a different way.
A few years ago, I got a small part in Spider-Man 2. This was a huge deal for me since I idolize superheroes and used to wake up at 8 AM every Saturday morning when I was a kid to watch Superfriends on ABC (I preferred to sleep until noon most days so rising early was no small feat). My role in Spider-Man was a violinist who stood in the streets playing her violin and singing the classic theme song from the old TV cartoon, extolling the virtues of the famous webslinger.
When I auditioned for this part, my agent said I just had to know how to play the violin and all the lyrics to the old theme song. Check and check. I walked into the casting office at Sony Studios feeling pretty confident. All the time I spent watching those cartoons during childhood was going to pay off. And then I saw all the other women sitting in the room, waiting to audition for the same role.
They seemed superior to me in every way. Some were beautiful, with Snow White skin and shiny teeth. They were tall and statuesque. Some were warming up on their violins and sounded like they should play first chair for the L.A. Philharmonic. What the heck was I doing there?
I wanted to leave. I had no business competing with these beautiful, talented, tall women. It was a mistake for me to think I had a shot at this part when I was just a geeky girl who spent too much time in front of the TV watching superhero cartoons as a kid. I picked up my violin case and headed towards the exit.
But I stopped before I got there. It dawned on me that if the director wanted a competent musician to play this role, he had a room full of them. But what if he wanted something different? What if I showed him another choice, a musician who was good only in her own mind? Someone who could perhaps provide some levity in a serious action film? Besides, who else in that room could have possibly loved Spider-Man more than I?
I turned around just in time to hear my name called by the casting associate. I walked into his inner office and proceeded to give him a performance of a street musician who sang with a heavy accent and was completely off-key. I threw my head back and sang with my whole heart and in complete abandon. The casting associate slapped his hand over his mouth so he wouldn’t laugh and ruin my audition.
Two months later, I got the role. When the movie opened big and broke all sorts of box office records, I was stunned to read on Internet forums that people singled me out as being among their favorite parts in the movie. One man said he almost choked on his popcorn because he couldn’t stop laughing when I “sang.” One woman said she got to share a nice, big laugh with her children, a rare thing since they always disagreed on their choice of entertainment. One fan said he went to see the movie three times just to hear “that crazy Asian lady sing.” A movie memorabilia company even put me on a trading card.
Recently, when I experienced a slow period, I started questioning my career choice, something I do often when I don’t know when or where my next check is coming from. I had a phone conversation with my old college friend Mike, who’s an aerospace engineer, and I shared my misgivings with him. Is it time for me to get a real job? Should I do something that is more useful to society? He replied, “I work long hours and I’m sure my work helps people somewhere but I don’t get to see how I directly affect their lives. Your scenes in Spider-Man made millions of people laugh all over the world. Laughter is useful. You get to see and hear about your impact in people’s lives and I envy that.”
I clutched the phone hard and suddenly felt tears welling up. Without knowing it, my friend took me back to that time when I was four years old watching Love Story and wanting to move people. Instead of making them cry like Ryan O’Neal did with his limpid eyes, I apparently brought lightheartedness. I lifted people’s spirits for a few brief minutes in a dark theater. I had achieved a goal I set over thirty years ago without even realizing it.
There are times when I might even be affecting people by—dare I say it?—educating them. I try to alleviate ignorance towards Vietnamese Americans instead of suffering it. Once, I showed up on the set of a TV show to play a Vietnamese woman in 1975 Sai Gon who was a secretary at the U.S. Embassy, and the wardrobe person tried to put me in black peasant pajamas (the extras playing civilians were already dressed as such). I politely said an Embassy employee would never dress like that and asked for a more professional outfit. Not only did I get upgraded to a nice blouse and slacks, the director changed all the extras out of their peasant costumes as well so they could look more like city dwellers. Another time, I had a director who asked if I came from Ho Chi Minh City. I said, “No, I came from Sai Gon.” He asked, “Isn’t it the same thing?” I said, “No, Ho Chi Minh City is Communist and Sai Gon was not.”
I still have days when I think this industry is hard for any self-respecting person to work in, but I now believe acting will always be a part of my life in some way. I read somewhere that living out your dreams imperfectly is better than living someone else’s dreams to perfection. Yes, there’s rejection and ignorance and rudeness in show business, but I also find the beauty and joy in it. Someone once told me that actors are brave for stepping up into the light while everyone else watches from the dark. I don’t consider myself brave, but I do want to stay in the light.
Originally published on www.damau.org