Tai­wan-born ac­tor stars on US TV se­ries

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By CHINA DAILY

Yun Jin Kim as the in­tel­li­gent doc­tor on Grey’s Anatomy, Ellen Wong as the driven high schooler in The Car­rie Diaries, Lucy Liu as the poker-face lawyer in Ally McBeal …

While Asian ac­tors tend to be cast in roles that fit the Asian stereo­type on Amer­i­can TV, Tai­wan-born new­comer Es­ther Chen man­aged to break free from the type­cast­ing and land a role not typ­i­cally given to an Asian.

Chen just made her tele­vi­sion de­but in the US as a po­lice of­fi­cer in the crime se­ries Re­drum, ( which is “mur­der” spelled back­wards), on In­ves­ti­ga­tion Dis­cov­ery chan­nel.

“For po­lice of­fi­cers, I thought per­haps they would go for white peo­ple. So I didn’t re­ally think I had a chance,” said Chen.

Be­fore au­di­tion­ing for Re­drum, Chen was very in­se­cure about her looks — not about whether or not she was pretty, but rather whether she fit the Asian stereo­type.

“When I first started, I was ex­tremely con­cerned that I would be hard to cast be­cause I don’t look very Chi­nese,” said Chen, who is of­ten mis­taken for a Latino mixed blood for her rel­a­tively darker skin and big eyes.

“But I was fully pre­pared for the role,” she said, “and acted calm and col­lected as the role re­quires. I guess af­ter all it’s about how you can de­liver the char­ac­ter, the whole pack­age, not just your looks.”

Born and raised in Tai­wan, Chen said her ca­reer in Amer­i­can show busi­ness has been a lucky co­in­ci­dence. Tired of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in Tai­wan, she moved to the US sev­eral years ago to con­tinue her high school ed­u­ca­tion and has lived here ever since.

Talk­a­tive, con­fi­dent and switch­ing com­for tably be­tween Man­darin Chi­nese and English, Chen said she had planned to go back to Tai­wan af­ter col­lege and help her mother teach English through the­atri­cal per­form­ing. But her mu­sic teacher pushed her to pur­sue a Mas­ter’s in ed­u­ca­tional the­ater at New York Univer­sity (NYU), which set her on the road to act­ing.

“At first I couldn’t un­der­stand a thing be­cause those read­ings for the­ater and plays were so dif­fi­cult,” Chen said. To gain more the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, she stud­ied act­ing at Michael Howard Stu­dios dur­ing grad­u­ate school.

“It was tough but very re­ward­ing,” said Chen, whose train­ing help land her roles in movies and mu­si­cals af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Last year Chen made her de­but as Gigi in the ac­claimed Miss Saigon at the Sond­heim Center for the Per­form­ing Arts in Iowa. Im­me­di­ately af­ter that she got the role of the wicked witch in Shrek the Mu­si­cal, pro­duced by the same com­pany.

“I was ter­ri­fied com­pet­ing with all those ta­lented and ex­pe­ri­enced pro­fes­sion­als, es­pe­cially the dancers, but I guess even­tu­ally my abil­ity to in­ter­pret the char­ac­ter helped me get the role,” Chen said. “I’m lucky that my di­rec­tor thinks that story-telling is above all.”

Lan­guage is another hur­dle for Chi­nese ac­tors en­ter­ing show busi­ness and must be taken se­ri­ously. But for Chen, it is an ob­sta­cle she has long since con­quered.

“My friends in the States were sur­prised when they heard me speak­ing Chi­nese. Many think I am a na­tive [English] speaker,” she said.

It’s not a mat­ter of per­fect pro­nun­ci­a­tion or gram­mar, Chen em­pha­sized. What it takes is to think in the English men­tal­ity and un­der­stand the lo­cal cul­ture, id­ioms and val­ues to mas­ter the lan­guage.

Oc­ca­sion­ally Chen needs to pick up new ac­cents to bet­ter in­ter­pret a char­ac­ter. When she was pre­par­ing for a role in Neil Si­mon’s The Star-Span­gled Girl she had to speak like some­one from the Amer­i­can South.

“Com­ing from Tai­wan,

I have spo­ken Chi­nese, Tai­wanese and Ja­panese since I was very lit­tle. Then I learned English and French, so I’m not afraid of new lan­guages or ac­cents,” Chen said. “You just have to be very ob­ser­vant and have good ears.”

Look­ing ahead, Chen is de­ter­mined to con­tinue her act­ing ca­reer in the US.

“In Tai­wan it’s a pop­u­lar­ity con­test. Peo­ple be­come pop­u­lar not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause their artistry is bet­ter, or their artistry makes peo­ple think more, or be­cause it moves so­ci­ety for­ward,” said Chen. “So I guess it might not be as free as it is for me here in the US.”

Chen’s next project is Hedda Gabler by the Nor­we­gian play­wright Hen­rik Ib­sen.

“I’m very ob­sessed with this char­ac­ter. The more I dig into the play, the more I learn and the more pos­si­bil­i­ties I never thought of open up,” she said. Zhang Yang con­trib­uted to this re­port and can be reached at yangzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa.

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