Be­hind the Scenes

Some­times be­hind great ac­tors there's a great act­ing coach

Oi Vietnam - - Cover Story - Text by Michael Arnold Image Pro­vided by Kathy Uyen

ABOUT A DECADE AGO, A NUM­BER of Over­seas Viet­namese film pro­fes­sion­als be­gan to make names for them­selves here in the emerg­ing lo­cal movie in­dus­try.

They were direc­tors, ac­tors & ac­tresses, and pro­duc­ers—many of them the kids of “boat peo­ple” fam­i­lies who’d grown up to be­come film stud­ies stu­dents and en­thu­si­asts back home be­fore fash­ion­ing ca­reers out of their var­i­ous crafts. In many cases, they contributed Hol­ly­wood-style film­mak­ing tech­niques and pro­duc­tion val­ues to lo­cal projects, in­vig­o­rat­ing home­grown cin­ema and pre­sent­ing au­di­ences here with qual­ity Viet­name­se­lan­guage entertainment. The fea­tures that came out of that in­jec­tion of Viet Kieu ta­lent—from The Rebel and Fool for Love through to Once Upon a Time in Viet­nam and Tam Cam— ar­guably changed the na­ture of films pro­duced in this coun­try.

When Viet­namese-American ac­tress Kathy Uyen told Oi Viet­nam in our 2015 interview that she was going to be hold­ing classes in act­ing tech­niques, there was a sense that she was getting ready to pass on the torch. Kathy’s early work in Los An­ge­les brought her lead­ing roles in Viet­namese movies that trans­formed her into a lo­cal celebrity. Later on, con­sid­er­ing that ran­dom parts for American-ac­cented ac­tresses were un­likely to bring her much pro­fes­sional longevity, Kathy won a new rel­e­vance for her­self by writ­ing and co-pro­duc­ing her own ro­man­tic com­edy, 2013’s How to Fight in Six Inch Heels.

Still a much-loved fig­ure in lo­cal cin­ema to­day, her fresh role as a real-life act­ing coach could see her be­come an even more in­flu­en­tial in­dus­try player than she has been so far—her re­cent work men­tor­ing Kaity Nguyen, the fe­male lead of the

2017 hit Jail­bait, contributed to a cast per­for­mance that saw the film break lo­cal box of­fice records.

We caught up with Kathy again this month to learn more about her on­go­ing coach­ing work, ask­ing her if she’s sim­ply aim­ing to es­tab­lish con­fi­dence in as­pir­ing ac­tors—as it turns out, her ap­proach is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

“Con­fi­dence is quite gen­eral,” she ex­plains. “You need knowl­edge and a set of tech­niques to be truly con­fi­dent as a pro­fes­sional ac­tor. The craft of act­ing is an art­form in it­self, it’s some­thing that can be learned. It’s not enough to be pho­to­genic, charm­ing and con­fi­dent—although there have been some lucky break­throughs with new ac­tors who fit the part and have great in­stincts and charisma while read­ing and per­form­ing a script. But films are al­ways shot out of se­quen­tial or­der, which makes it so dif­fi­cult for an ac­tor keep track of the emo­tional re­la­tion­ships in char­ac­ter, from fight­ing with a love in­ter­est to be­ing madly in love, to shoot­ing the scene of just meet­ing each other for the first time on the last day of shoot­ing… and what if an ac­tor is able to de­liver an amaz­ing heart­felt cry­ing scene, and there’s a tech­ni­cal cam­era prob­lem and the scene has to be per­formed again and again? Chances are that the anx­i­ety of not be­ing able to achieve the de­sired emo­tion and the re­peated takes will eat that con­fi­dence away.”

What Kathy specif­i­cally teaches are tech­niques that can be used to awaken the de­sired emo­tions, re­ac­tions, and what she calls “phys­i­cal do­ings” most spe­cific to the char­ac­ter in the script be­ing re­hearsed for. Her stu­dents are usu­ally pro­fes­sional ac­tors work­ing a fea­ture film, although her classes have also raised in­ter­est from peo­ple out­side of the entertainment in­dus­try.

“Art im­i­tates life,” she says, “we can only write what we know, act with per­son­al­i­ties and project emo­tions we feel most con­nected to. As reg­u­lar peo­ple, we play dif­fer­ent roles ev­ery day. Ev­ery mo­ment we’re in a scene of life, try­ing to achieve our ob­jec­tives, yearn­ing for love and ac­cep­tance, to ex­press our anger, to ask for for­give­ness, or to let loose and have fun—yet con­stantly stuck with ob­sta­cles, or some­one not giv­ing in to our de­sired ob­jec­tives, or not lov­ing us back, or caus­ing fur­ther frus­tra­tions. It’s this dra­matic state of con­flict that is in­ter­est­ing to cap­ture and watch, the slice of life that we as artists strive to recre­ate in the medium of film.”

Learn to Act, Act to Learn

Kathy is cur­rently en­gaged in writ­ing a new script that will serve as her di­rec­to­rial de­but, and pre­par­ing to act as a ro­man­tic love in­ter­est in a com­ing-of-age ro­mance in the works. In the mean­time, she still keeps up her act­ing work­shops and coach­ing work, and is of­ten ap­proached by ca­reer ac­tors who need help with a fea­ture film. “I’m not teach­ing them charisma,” she ex­plains, “they have their own, they've got their role on their own. I'm help­ing to give them a set of tools that they can lean on when they go to set, so that they can be more con­sis­tent with their act­ing.”

“I’m not en­cour­ag­ing ac­tors to be ‘tech­ni­cal ac­tors’,” she con­tin­ues, “I’m en­cour­ag­ing them to learn the skills and tech­niques of act­ing so that they know how to study it, re­hearse it, im­prove it and be pre­pared on set; so they can feel free on set. Once they’ve done their home­work, built their char­ac­ter, done the nec­es­sary imag­i­na­tive work, stud­ied the script and scenes, un­der­stand their char­ac­ter's emo­tional arc, and are fa­mil­iar with their char­ac­ter’s ob­jec­tives, ob­sta­cles, and re­la­tion­ships to those around them, then they have earned their con­fi­dence on set, and they can then let go of the tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and truly be nat­u­ral and in the mo­ment,

hav­ing built the char­ac­ter from within.”

The one is­sue that tends to di­vide opin­ion about study­ing act­ing as a craft is the no­tion that it should be some­thing nat­u­ral and emo­tional, per­formed ‘in the mo­ment.’ Kathy con­cedes that some ac­tors she speaks with com­plain that they feel ro­botic af­ter over­think­ing ev­ery­thing when they start learn­ing, and that am­a­teur ac­tors are of­ten afraid to prac­tice a scene for fear of ‘us­ing up’ their nat­u­ral in­stincts. “I think that’s very in­ex­pe­ri­enced think­ing,” she ob­serves. “If we’re true pro­fes­sion­als, we never run out of the abil­ity to cre­ate, build and master our emo­tions, tal­ents and skills on de­mand. In my opin­ion, that’s ex­actly what sep­a­rates am­a­teurs from pro­fes­sion­als. With any new skill or new pro­fes­sion, it’s nor­mal to ex­pe­ri­ence dis­com­fort or frus­tra­tion in the be­gin­ning. For ex­am­ple, with ex­er­cise, it’s dif­fi­cult and painful at first to know how to do a proper ab crunch. But once we learn it, we master it, we prac­tice it ev­ery day and we can achieve an amaz­ing set of abs in the end. Af­ter sev­eral months, we can do the ex­er­cise with­out think­ing, and it looks ef­fort­less. Learn­ing the skill is the first step, so that we can prac­tice, so we can im­prove and per­form ef­fort­lessly and nat­u­rally in front of oth­ers. It’s not enough to take an act­ing class to learn it; we have to prac­tice it ha­bit­u­ally to im­prove and try to master our cho­sen craft. Although I’ve been act­ing for over 15 years, I’m still learn­ing each and ev­ery day and im­prov­ing in my art.”

Ac­cord­ing to Kathy, gen­eral au­di­ences aren’t usu­ally aware that act­ing can be learned, or don’t know where to take a class or are oth­er­wise afraid that the stigma of tak­ing classes means they’re not con­fi­dent enough. Kathy was a ha­bit­ual par­tic­i­pant in act­ing cour­ses in Los An­ge­les with mul­ti­ple act­ing coaches in all types of act­ing meth­ods while tak­ing film stud­ies at U.C. Irvine—at the time, her act­ing class­mates were all dif­fer­ent lev­els of work­ing ac­tors, in­clud­ing stage, commercial, TV and film, all of who were still at­tend­ing class to con­stantly im­prove their skills. “In a highly com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try, we can never stop learn­ing,” she says. “I miss the cul­ture of be­ing among a pro­fes­sional com­mu­nity whose aim is to con­stantly learn, push each other to grow and chal­lenge each other with new lim­its. I wanted to cre­ate that kind of safe en­vi­ron­ment for all lovers of act­ing, from be­gin­ners to ad­vanced work­ing ac­tors, and cre­ate a strong com­mu­nity of like­minded pro­fes­sion­als. Once we all have a com­mon lan­guage of act­ing, we can feel free to re­hearse to­gether, share feed­back, im­prove to­gether, and push the level of act­ing per­for­mance to the next level. In the Viet­namese act­ing in­dus­try now, how­ever, it’s quite un­com­mon to hear of ac­tors re­hears­ing alone with­out the di­rec­tor. If ac­tors don’t share a com­mon lan­guage, how can they dis­tin­guish be­tween a good scene and a bad scene? Ac­tors who re­ceive cri­tique can im­prove and be more will­ing to prac­tice and be more pre­pared on set—but we can only of­fer use­ful cri­tique to each other if we’re knowl­edge­able of the vo­cab­u­lary of act­ing tech­nique. It's about cre­at­ing a lan­guage we can use to com­mu­ni­cate with each other.”

The real ques­tion is the ex­tent to which es­tab­lished Viet­namese ac­tors re­ally need the kind of coach­ing Kathy pro­vides, and while few would ar­gue that Viet­nam has pro­duced its share of fine cin­e­matic works, the jury’s still out in terms of gen­eral per­for­mance qual­ity—es­pe­cially in commercial re­leases that aren’t at­tempt­ing to stand out as long-term clas­sics of their genre. While Kathy’s very cau­tious to pro­nounce judg­ment, she is the first to ad­mit that part of her mo­ti­va­tion in coach­ing is to play one small part in rais­ing stan­dards in­dus­try-wide.

“I do hear it a lot,” she sighs. “They say, ‘Viet­namese ac­tors are not good…’ I hear that a lot. Hon­estly, I’ve been con­stantly learn­ing and im­prov­ing my skills as an ac­tor for years, and I feel great pride when I tell peo­ple I’m an ac­tress be­cause I know I worked hard for it. But when I moved to Viet­nam and shared that with peo­ple, I didn't feel the same con­sen­sus that they thought it should be some­thing to be proud of. I feel that act­ing is not yet a re­spected ca­reer here in Viet­nam. Gen­eral au­di­ences don’t see the value in en­rolling their chil­dren in act­ing classes, for ex­am­ple—they just don’t feel it’s some­thing that can be learned or worth pay­ing money to learn. I want to change that, and I want to change public per­cep­tion as well. Act­ing is the art of learn­ing how to be aware, cre­ate and con­trol your emo­tions, build­ing emo­tional in­tel­li­gence in how we con­nect with peo­ple and ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate our emo­tions in the most pro­duc­tive way. It also changes your per­cep­tions on how to re­act to other hu­man emo­tions—and if we can re­ally be­gin to un­der­stand what peo­ple ac­tu­ally mean to say, as op­posed to stop­ping at the words they use, we can ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter. Wouldn't it be amaz­ing if one day peo­ple here chose to en­roll their child in act­ing, be­cause that's going to give them the con­fi­dence to stand on stage, that's going to give them the in­sight that they need to have their own mean­ing and pur­pose and story when they talk to other peo­ple, and they can channel pos­i­tive thoughts and mean­ings to peo­ple, be­ing present and hav­ing the abil­ity to share en­gag­ing mo­ments of hu­man con­nec­tion?”

In the end, Kathy is still driven by the same pas­sion for the in­dus­try as she was when act­ing classes were part of her own daily diet. “If you re­ally love the craft of act­ing, if you re­ally want to be an ac­tor, you’ve got to ask your­self, do you want to be fa­mous or do you want to be an ac­tor?” she says. “Be­cause they’re two dif­fer­ent things. Some peo­ple want to be an ac­tor so that they can be fa­mous. But if you want to be an ac­tor be­cause you love the art of act­ing, then you want to get bet­ter and you want to be amaz­ing, you want to do amaz­ing things in your ca­reer and you want to play in­ter­est­ing roles, and you're going to keep want­ing to work with direc­tors and get bet­ter. And through your pas­sion for act­ing, the fame will fol­low.”

Kathy, right

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