I recently came across a very thought provoking Buzzfeed article written by Elaine Loh, which featured her hilarious short “Accent For Actors: Finding Your True Self.” You can read the story and see this compelling short here. As an ethnic character actress, this short really hit home, especially given the trials and tribulations I’ve experienced in my veil wearing days as an actress. As it turns out, Elaine and I know a ton of people in common, and one of the actors in this short film (Ahmed Lucan of “Homeland”) played my husband in another short, so I sensed some synergy and reached out to Elaine to conduct an interview. Conducting this Q and A with Elaine was quite an illuminating experience. A magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, she had much to talk about besides her acting career and has some great insights about the industry in general, specifically self-producing, time management and focus, which made for a great interview. She is smart, honest, determined, energetic, and so focused on her career and her craft. I found Elaine to be very inspiring, and that truly is a feat, as I have interviewed many people in my years as a journalist in our fair city and how do I say this, but more often than not, I don’t carry these sentiments. So without further ado, let’s talk to this inspiring artist.
Q: Considering your educational background and having a father of Asian descent, how supportive was he in your career endeavors? I’m assuming he was more traditional and had certain expectations, especially given your Ivy League education? What about your mom?
A: I think all parents want their kids to succeed, and success as an artist is certainly not guaranteed. My mom is a first generation American (of Portuguese descent) and my dad was the first in his family to move to the States (from Singapore), so both of them were brought up to strongly believe in the power of education. I’m exceedingly grateful that this belief was ingrained in me at a young age and that I had the opportunity to go to an Ivy League school. But, part of what college teaches you is how to think for yourself and how to follow your own path. So although I am published in academic journals for the research I did post-college, and although I scored above the 90th percentile on both the LSAT and the GMAT, I knew that I would not be happy if I became a lawyer or a doctor or a professor or a banker, without first trying to be an actor. I knew that I couldn’t quit acting before I even tried. Luckily, my parents were willing to help support me financially while I established myself in Los Angeles – even though they couldn’t understand why I would give up comfort and stability to pursue this dream. My dad sent me an article in the mail about how people with their MBAs make more money. My mom once told me that it was tough for them to talk to my family in Asia whose kids were succeeding as doctors because they didn’t have much to say. I lovingly refer to my parents as “supportive but fearful.”
Q: I was really affected by your wonderful “Accents For Actors” short. Your timely short opens the discussion for all the rampant racism and extreme stereotypes that unfortunately exist in our industry. Please tell our readers about how you came up with it and how it’s like to produce your own projects.
A: As I mentioned in my Buzzfeed article, the idea for this short came up when I was writing for a Diversity Showcase for one of the networks. I was trying to come up with a way to include all of the actors (who were, of course, ethnic) and I thought it would be funny to showcase all of the racially insensitive or downright rude things we often hear when we audition or take meetings. The most relevant example of that happened to me about 7 or 8 years ago when I went on an audition and the casting director said to me, “That’s good, but could you be more Asian?” I replied by stating that I didn’t know exactly what she meant. She then said, “You know, talk like your parents.” This statement is ignorant in so many ways, but sometimes as an actor you don’t want to rock the boat – you just want the job! So, I did my best Asian accent and went about my day. Cut to a few years ago when I presented this sketch for approval on the showcase. I was told then that it would offend all of the casting directors/writers/producers who would come to see the showcase because it was basically telling them that they were racist and not doing their jobs well. The upside to this story is that a friend of mine who worked on the same showcase this year just told me that one of their favorite sketches is one that addresses this very issue of minority actors only being cast in minority roles, and that they think it is hilarious! I’m glad to hear that attitudes can in fact change with time because this change is something that I try to contribute to all the time – whether I’m producing my own work or just having a conversation with someone who has never experienced racism or who doesn’t even think that this type of casting is racist at all.
To address the second part of your question about producing your own work, I have to say that I truly love it. In fact, now I’m a little addicted to it and feel like I writing and producing all the time!! But it didn’t start out that way.
When I first moved to LA, all I ever heard was, “You have to produce your own content. It’s so easy. If you’re not producing your own content, you’ll never make it. Just throw something up on YouTube.” But to me, it wasn’t easy!!! I didn’t have any ideas to write about. I didn’t have any equipment to shoot with. I don’t like stupid people doing stupid things on video and I don’t see how that relates to acting at all. I’ve watched a lot of crap online that has a bazillion hits and I think it’s horrible. I don’t want to “make it” by making an idiot out of myself. So I struggled for years and years trying to produce content but not really being sure of what I was doing, and not even being truly proud of it. But, then something changed when I was writing for that Diversity Showcase that I mentioned earlier. Suddenly, I realized that I was funny. And, I had to churn out sketches week after week, so I got good at just sitting down to write and not caring about the final outcome. Some of what I wrote was good and some was shit (pardon my language, but there is no other term for what I wrote). But, in the end, it was all fun. And so, I started taking sketch writing classes at Upright Citizens. I loved it. Then, I started producing some of those sketches. It was not easy and it was not cheap, but as I said, I became addicted. I think I was addicted to the power that I had in my hands to control my own creativity and not to have to be fit into that small racial/ethnic box of utility roles. I was finally the lead. But not only was I the lead as an actor, but I also was the lead of the whole production!! I found the locations, I cast the other actors, I did the SAG-AFTRA paperwork, I secured film permits, I rented equipment, I found the crew members… it was an incredibly difficult and rewarding learning experience. To anyone that this comes easy to, my hat is off to you. For me, the passion for producing my own content was something that took time to go from tepid to boiling.
Q: Given the (Asian) accent you did in the short, do you often play those roles or more Americanized ones?
A: The Asian theater company that I once belonged to voted me “Most White”. And that’s me in a nutshell. Asian enough to actually belong to an Asian theater company, but too American to actually play Asian. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I learned an Asian accent (actually a few different ones, since as we know, “Asian” is a rather broad term) from a white man who taught accents and also accent reduction. I also studied Chinese and martial arts on the behest of my former agent. I don’t tend to book these roles often because there are people out there who are more authentically Asian than I am. Sometimes I am willing to do everything and anything to try and book a good role, no matter what it is. For example, I just auditioned for a Tina Fey movie that has an Asian prostitute in it that can’t speak English. Is that racist? Is that funny? I have no barometer anymore. And sometimes I’m in full rebel mode and I’m like, “Fuck the power, I refuse to be someone that I’m not!!” But, as I mentioned in my article, if Johnny Depp was playing Chairman Mao in yellow face and I was offered a role in this atrocious, racist movie (and it could happen, didn’t we learn anything from The Lone Ranger?), I would snap it up in a heartbeat because it would be a huge paycheck and a great credit on my resume. And therein lies the whole problem of being an actor in this town. We want it so badly that we can’t say no even when we should.
Q: You’ve had some great co-starring roles in well known TV shows on big networks. “Queen of the Co-stars” is a term I coined for friends in your predicament. How does it feel to be Queen and when will you relinquish your crown for “Queen of the Guest Stars?
A: When I first started acting, I found success relatively quickly compared to my white friends. Everyone would good-naturedly complain, “You’re so lucky you’re ethnic.” And you know what? They were right! When a new actor comes to town, he or she tends to book co-stars first playing utility roles like the nurse, the receptionist, the waiter. Makes sense, right? New actors, not a lot of experience, you don’t trust them to play the lead roles yet. And networks LOVE to fill their diversity quotas by casting ethnic actors in these small, not-too-easy-to-screw-up type of roles. So, ethnic actors often do get a jump start on booking their first TV roles. But, as the years have passed, almost universally, all of my white friends have had greater and greater opportunities and have completely surpassed me. I say this not to complain about them, I love that my friends are succeeding!! But I know fewer ethnic actors who have made the same leap. I am not saying that no ethnic actor has had great opportunities or that all white actors succeed. But, as someone down in the trenches, I can only speak from the patterns that I have noticed myself. For example, when I was looking for a new manager, I was told time and time again, “We already have an Asian girl.” What?! You can only have one?! Has that same manager ever said, “Sorry, we already have a white guy”? Absolutely not. I’ve also been told, “I just don’t see this character as Asian.” Huh?? Why not? And this was for a receptionist role!! It just happened to be one of the leads of the show and not a straight up utility character. So, I guess the long answer to your question is, I would love to give up my title of Queen of the Co-stars. But it is difficult to abdicate the throne when the general trend of the industry wants to keep you seated.
Q:You are so devoted in your craft it’s inspiring. Can you expound on your “Year End Wrap Up” post on your site, where you mentioned that you spent 761 hours on your acting career? (Gentle Readers…Here’s a direct link to the post http://elaineloh.com/2014/12/)
A:If I ever decide to stop acting, it will not be because I didn’t work hard enough. I refuse to let laziness or procrastination be my downfall. This is not to say that I don’t get lazy or that I don’t procrastinate. I mean, listen, I like to sit down and binge watch the Vampire Diaries as much as the next girl. But, I also do my Year End Wrap Up every year to prove to myself why I feel so tired, or so busy, or so lazy. Sometimes we do work without even thinking about it. So, my Wrap Up gives me a good estimate of how many hours I’ve spent in the year on my acting career. I estimate roughly 4 hours per audition (1 hour prep, 1 hour drive, 1 hour being there, 1 hour drive home). I keep track of how many hours writing, or in meetings, or on set… And this year I came up with 761 hours total for the year. That number didn’t really mean anything tangible to me until I broke it down by week. If you divide by a 40 hour work week, it turns out that I worked the equivalent of 19 full-time weeks on my acting career. That’s almost 5 months!! The reason this is remarkable to me is because I have a pretty time-consuming support job of tutoring (hey, Queen of the Co-stars does not pay her rent with just acting money). So, I track my time in order to reassure myself that I am working and that I have every right to sit down, breathe, take a break, and watch TV all night long.
Q:What projects are you currently working on?
A:I am incredibly excited about the current project I have in the works with my writing partner (a white man, just if you’re interested!). It’s called Gratuitous Violence and it is about a reporter who finds out about a planned school shooting. Instead of turning the students in, she decides to document it. The film is our statement about the vulgarity of the 24 hour news cycle and how news is consumed as entertainment. I’ve just watched the first edit and given notes, but we still have to do sound, color correction, music… Once it’s done, I can’t wait to start submitting it to festivals. We raised about $7000 and contributed about $8000 ourselves, so it has been quite an investment. Where Accents for Actors was released just online, this project is one that I hope to share with the world on the big screen. Until then, I’m still chugging away at auditions. I have an episode of Jane the Virgin which according to my IMDB calculations should air on March 2nd and About a Boy should air March 3rd coming out in about a month’s time. Both sets were fantastic to work on, but I think that Jane was the best time I have ever had on set. Gina Rodriguez had just won the Golden Globe a few days before and she was so humble, so giving, and just so real, that I was truly inspired. We actually talked about Accents for Actors and she laughed because she said she could totally relate. After all, Jane the Virgin has all minority leads and Jane herself is a very American character, even though her grandmother speaks in Spanish to her. This is the type of role and project that I aspire to and I truly commend the CW for realizing that people are starving to see themselves represented on television.
More info about Elaine at http://elaineloh.com/
– Vida Ghaffari