An actress, a writer, a director, and a producer, Joyce Wu seized a racist industry by the nose and said “Enough!” Tired of seeing the same stories and stereotypes being thrown on stage and on screen, Wu is currently working on The Real Mikado, a coming of age comedy about an Asian American actress who moves back to the suburbs in Detroit and is tasked with saving the local theater. A stranger to neither success nor hardship, Wu discusses what it means to be both Asian-American and a woman in theatre and film.Head First Into the Deep End: An Interview with Joyce Wu
by Jo Chiang
Q: How did you first get into theatre and film?
A: Theatre and film were always things I fantasized about but never knew how to go about doing. My parents had very conventional jobs and I grew up in the Midwest so I didn’t really have any exposure to either industry. During undergrad, I dropped a philosophy class on Kant (I can’t remember why) and it just so happened that a friend was dropping a playwriting class, so I took her spot. The class was taught by this amazing playwright named Oyamo, who ended up recommending me for a scholarship to encourage me to keep writing. I ended up producing and directing the play I wrote in his class when I studied abroad and I was hooked.
When I moved to New York, I started a theater company with some friends. We did crazy things to raise money for our shows and we put on some pretty daring things. During that time, my day job was working as an office manager at an architecture firm. One day, an independent film producer called asking for permission to shoot inside the office after hours. My boss agreed but said I’d have to stay and supervise. I was thrilled. It turned out that the director of the film was also the head of directing at NYU’s grad film program. We talked a little about my experiences and he encouraged me to apply. I told him I had never made a film before but he said that all they cared about was finding good storytellers so I gave it a shot and I got in.
Q: You’ve written, directed, and produced plays, you’ve worked on television, and you’re currently putting together your first feature film The Real Mikado. Has your identity as an Asian-American impacted your experience in these different industries in different ways?
A: As an actress, the kind of film and television parts I auditioned for and sometimes got cast in were all pretty insignificant and were almost always some kind of demeaning stereotype (prostitutes, massage parlor workers and the like.) I’ve been lucky enough that I live in a country with reasonably free speech and have had the resources and support to make the kind of theater and films that I want to make. I’ve been responding to the lack of roles I had as an actress by writing, directing, and producing the kind of nuanced, complicated roles that were usually reserved for my white counterparts. But it remains to be seen whether or not my work will eventually break through into the mainstream. I would love it if you could flip on a TV or stroll into your local multiplex and see Asian Americans on screen as protagonists in their own stories. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe that is all possible. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.
Q: So many stories and roles available for Asian-American women are stereotypical at best and highly offensive at worst, yet working artists still need to pay the bills. How do you find the balance between fighting against poor representation and making a living?
A: It’s a personal choice. I try not to judge other people’s decisions about their careers. Honestly, the whole notion of “selling out” is such a privilege. I hate that it’s never acknowledged as such. I’m the child of hard-working immigrants. The idea of turning down paying work is a difficult one for me to understand and yet, I do because I would hate if something I did caused someone who was racist to affirm their beliefs or even worse, a young Asian American person to feel ashamed of who they are.
I know plenty of actors who have been able to parlay those kinds of roles into a career that enables them to play better ones. Lucy Liu is a perfect example. If she had decided she wasn’t going to play dragon ladies out of principle, she might never have been in a position to play Watson on CBS’ “Elementary.”
Q: What’s the most frustrating experience you’ve had as an artist? What about the most rewarding?
A: The two things were one and the same. I was at CAAMfest, an Asian American film festival in San Francisco, to screen the first ten minutes of my film The Real Mikado as a short and to pitch the feature for the chance at a grant. I’d spent two years trying to stay positive and excited about something that had been rejected by so many different non-profits, producers, festivals, and labs. I was quite simply defeated from all the rejection and exhausted from spending years trying to convince people that my film was worth making.
Even though I gave it my all, I didn’t win the grant (that went to a wonderful documentary), but when I finished, a throng of young women from the Center for Asian American Media student delegate program came up to me and told me how excited they were about my film. They asked to take pictures with me and for advice on how to be an actor and whether or not I would watch their videos on YouTube and give feedback. One of them exclaimed, “Everything you said is what I feel!”
I had been feeling so defeated and so trivial that I failed to remember how powerful movies can be in shaping a person’s imagination and sense of self. These young women are yearning for the same thing I did and do: they want to see themselves as protagonists in their own stories; they want to go into a theater and see themselves on screen. That interaction gave me the courage and confidence to keep going. I’m starting production in just a few weeks.
Q: What advice would you give you and up and coming Asian-Americans who want to go into the arts?
A: Just go out and do it. The thing that held me back the most early on in my career was my own self-doubt. I was terrified of failing or looking stupid and I ended up doing both by being so insecure and fearful. I shouldn’t have been so afraid. Don’t get me wrong. You will inevitably face a tremendous amount of rejection and criticism but who cares? It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be an artist. Most people can’t or won’t so just making something and putting yourself out there puts you in a category worthy of admiration.
Jo Chiang is a Theatre major at Barnard College and the Social Media Coordinator of the Asian American Film Lab. When she’s not poking holes in the wall of the kyriarchy, she enjoys sipping tea and wearing combat boots.