Lynn Chen | “There are no rules when it comes to this industry, just as there are no rules in life”
The OA team recently had the pleasure of meeting with Lynn Chen for a superb dinner at the Larchmont Bungalow. You may recognize her as one of the lead actors from the award-winning romantic comedy, Saving Face. Lynn is a seasoned (yet so youthful!) player in the film industry, and she is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment. Apart from all her successful ventures in the film industry, she also maintains two active blogs (see below) about very important issues: food and body image. We are honored and more than excited to share her experiences and struggles as an Asian American actress.
- What takes up most of your time right now: Blogging - The Actor’s Diet and Thick Dumpling Skin – and film festivals. My movie “Surrogate Valentine” is premiering at SXSW, followed by SFIAFF, Dallas, and more. I also have a short, “Via Text,” that I star in and produced, premiering at the LA Asian Pacific Film Fest this spring.
- Guilty pleasure: Reading books from my childhood: Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and the Sweet Valley High series.
- Favorite color: Blue, navy blue specifically. It goes with everything – from hot pink to beige.
- Relationship status: Very happily married to my college sweetheart.
- Pet peeve: My pet peeve is people asking me about my pet peeves?!? I feel it focuses too much on the negative. I try not to complain about things, in general.
- Favorite food: This is impossible to choose – I will eat everything! But I’m particularly drawn to food fusions. For instance a brownie waffle? Meatloaf stuffing? GENIUS! Anything with figs or pumpkin or dates. And I’m not a food snob. I’ll eat Chef Boyardee out of a can.
- What you look for in a partner: Acceptance. It’s what I look for in any relationship; how comfortable I feel being honest.
- What kind of car do you drive: A Scion.
- Can you speak/read/write Chinese: I speak Mandarin like a 4-year-old: I can understand everything my mom says but nothing on television. I can write my name, “big,” “small,” and that’s about it. Forget about reading.
- Favorite Chinese movie: My most recent favorite was Ang Lee’s “Lust Caution,” but I also love Zhang Yimou movies – “Shanghai Triad” comes to mind as a one that I particularly enjoyed.
- Fun fact: I’m afraid of death by neck. As in guillotine, strangling, choking, hangings, vampires…
- OA – So no twilight?
- LC – No! it’s too intense I can’t watch any of that biting neck action.
- Funner fact: I love video games. I’m a pro at Doctor Mario, and Tetris. In college I played a lot of Resident Evil with my friends. I was insanely good at Crazy Taxi. In fact, I recently saw a Crazy Taxi arcade game at the car wash and was upset that I lost my skills. Once upon a time I was a Dance Dance Revolution fiend; it was my exercise.
OA: We know you were inspired to act at age 13 after seeing Joan Chen in “The Last Emperor,” did you take any steps to pursue acting at that time?
LC: Well I had already been performing before that, but my mom had introduced me to the theater world. I started very young, at the age of 5 on stage; it was after seeing Joan that I knew films were what I wanted to pursue. She was the first Asian movie star that I had seen. It was surreal getting to work with her on “Saving Face.”
OA: Your Mom pushed you?
LC: My Mom was an opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera House and my brother and I joined the Children’s Chorus. She knew I loved singing at a young age – I would perform “Annie” all around the house. It was a fun place to grow up, and also a good way for her to keep an eye on us!
OA: You’ve stated that you took time off from acting to pursue a double major in Women’s Studies and Music at Wesleyan University, what encouraged this decision?
LC: I enrolled with the intention of becoming a Theater and Music double major. However,I knew after one semester that I did not want to study Theater academically. My parents didn’t want me to just major in Music so I also chose Women’s Studies, after seeing Ani DiFranco in concert. She was THAT inspiring. I loved the message that she was giving –female strength and empowerment. So I decided to study it.
OA: Since you studied music, did you have a Senior Project?
LC: Yes, my Senior Project was a written essay and also a piano recital of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. I found their story to be interesting – he was a very famous composer, and his sister was considered to be more talented – but she was not allowed to have a career because she was a woman. I’ve always been drawn to stories of being told you can’t do something, just because of how you were born. Probably because I’m a minority.
OA: After graduation what brought you back to acting? Was there ever an “Ah-Ha!” moment when you knew you were going to do this full time?
LC: Once I graduated the first thing I did was get an apartment in New York – a closet in Manhattan. I got a waitressing job and went out on a few open calls. Faced constant rejection, got scared, and wanted stability — financial stability. So I picked up a “real” job, working at a school as an Administrative Assistant. I did it for 2 years. I was quite good at it, but it was a miserable time. That was really the last day-in-day-out job where acting was not a part of my life at all.
OA: So going back to your movie Saving Face, how did it feel for you doing a lesbian love scene on camera?
LC: It was my very first time doing any sort of love scene, period. The fact that it was with someone who I was really comfortable with (Michelle Krusiec) made it a lot easier. It’s really more the anticipation of shooting a difficult scene that gets me nervous, but once I’m on set, everything’s fine.
OA: Food tangent! We understand that The Actor’s Diet is your daily diary of what you eat and how the industry wants you to look for certain roles. A lot of the featured food appears to be from restaurants; do you cook?
LC: Yes – I have a whole recipe page on my blog! But I don’t consider myself a cook, rather, someone who puts flavors/ingredients together. (A dump-and-stir cook?!?) I watch an obscene amount of cooking shows. I also only make vegetarian meals, since my husband is one. However, I made turkey for Thanksgiving one year, and it turned out well.
OA: What’s the motivation behind the blog?
LC: I had already been reading food blogs for a year, and was inspired by them. Then, a few years ago, I took a year-long hiatus from acting. I thought that would be a good time for me to start one myself, and would hold me accountable to my eating disorder recovery. If I was broadcasting to the world what I was and wasn’t eating, I couldn’t hide.
OA: Could you touch more about your experience with eating disorders?
LC: I have been a binge eater my entire life, though I didn’t know that it was considered an eating disorder at the time. Using food to cope with emotions – good or bad – was something I grew up doing. It wasn’t until college, and later when I became an actress, that I began balancing out the weight gain and fluctuations with constant dieting and anorexia. I’m proud to say it’s been years since I’ve had a relapse. You can read more about it on my blog.
LC: It’s hard for any actor – Asian or not – to find work, period. I take what I can get, and a lot of my decisions come from where I’m currently at in my life. Do I need health insurance? Have I played this role already? Who is the director? Do I have to travel? Etc.
OA: What is one of the biggest challenges you face as an Asian actor?
LC: Opportunities are hard to find in general, not just for Asians, and not just for actors.
OA: Is it because of the economy?
LC: No, for anyone in show business, it’s always a struggle. Period.
OA: What characters do you like to play?
LC: In an ideal world, when I’m creating roles for myself, I try to find someone who is flawed, not there just to look pretty and perfect. I want someone who’s complicated, someone who has a real life to them. I don’t want them to be one-dimensional. When I’m given a script with not much info, I try to do as much homework as I can.
OA: What kind of homework?
LC: Its varies from role to role. There are some movies that I have months to prepare, and some where I have two days. First up is understanding the character and getting the lines down. If I have more time, I will do heavy research. I use the script as map and try to connect the dots. I spend a lot of time figuring out the back-story for a character, no matter how small the role. I use the Internet, I interview people with similar stories, and I watch a lot of movies. I feel that you never really know who the character is going to be until you’re on the set; it’s always something different than what I had imagined. No matter how much planning you do, you have to be open to change and present to what’s happening in front of you. You have to adjust accordingly. Kinda like life.
OA: How much do you identify with your Chinese vs. your American side? What does it mean to be Chinese American to you?
LC: Living out in Los Angeles these last five years, I don’t have much family on my side here; they’re on the East Coast. So I am not speaking or eating Chinese food like I was growing up. I feel very disconnected in that way. I feel bad that I have a food blog but I don’t eat Chinese food! But I am very involved in the Asian Entertainment Community. They are like a family, because we have common experiences, and I feel really lucky to be a part of it. The majority of my colleagues are Asian-American, and there is something really nice about that.
OA: Is there anyone you would like to work with as of now?
LC: I want to work with my friends! There are so many talented Asian-American directors doing great work – Michael Kang, Tze Chun, Jessica Sanders, Mora Stephens, to name a few. I would also love to work with Quentin Lee, Eric Lin and Alice Wu again. I’ve already been in two of Dave Boyle’s movies and want to continue collaborating with him; we understand one another very well. And if we’re talking reaching for the stars – Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, Ang Lee, Spike Jonze, or any of these directors who I blogged about before.
OA: What is this “Surrogate Valentine” movie all about? And do you have any upcoming projects? An Actor’s Diet book maybe?
LC: “Surrogate Valentine” will premiere at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin on March 12, 14, and 19. It is also the Closing Night Film at the SFIAAFF, on March 17th. The movie is about a singer-songwriter named Goh Nakamura (playing himself). I play Goh’s friend from high school, who he reconnects with, and makes him question whether he wants to quit the musician lifestyle and settle down. I am also hitting the film festival circuit with a short film that I made with my husband, called “Via Text.” And as always, there are numerous projects that are in the works, but nothing is for certain in this business. I also recently launched “Thick Dumpling Skin,” a community site for Asian Americans dealing with eating disorders and body image.
OA: Tell us about your typical Thanksgiving, turkey or duck?
LC: *Laughs* Both! Because we have such a large family, we have something for everyone – Chinese food, American, Jewish, Vegetarian…my husband and I alternate Thanksgivings now. So one year there is no duck, and the next, there is.
OA: What does your family think of this career choice, given the generation and cultural gap?
LC: Extremely supportive! Psychotically supportive. *smiles* They are, without a doubt, my number one fans and I couldn’t do what I do without their years of believing in me.
OA: Words of wisdom for aspiring actors and fans?
LC: There are no rules when it comes to this industry, just as there are no rules in life. Success is something you continue to redefine as you get older. It is not something that can be quantified. In this business, everything is fleeting – the good times, and the bad. You cannot control anything so just ride it out and be present.
OA: What keeps you going?
LC: The knowledge that everyone else is going through it, and that the ups and downs are normal. The sooner you accept that, the more comfortable things will be for you. You need to find your happiness from other sources, instead of putting it all on whether you’re working or not.
OA: How can we stalk you?
- YouTube: LynnChenTube
- Twitter: mslynnchen
- Website: www.lynnchen.com
- Facebook: mslynnchen
- The Actor’s Diet blog: www.theactorsdiet.com
- Thick Dumpling Skin: www.thickdumplingskin.com
Interview by Benny Luo
Photography by Melly Lee
Edited by Benny Luo
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