Sunday, February 26, 2012

Steph Song, Soaring Star

Find Everyone's Gone Green on Video

Steph Song, Soaring Star

(from 4/11/07)

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About a week before the April 13th New York premiere of “Everyone’s Gone Green,”, the publicists for the award-winning Canadian romantic comedy said I could interview the film’s male star Paolo Costanzo, male director Paul Fox, male writer Douglas Coupland, or female lead Steph Song, who just happened to have been voted the “Sexiest Woman in the World 2006” by Asian FHM readers.  Now, that’s the very definition of a no-brainer. 
Naturally I spent a lot of time leading up to the interview looking at Steph Song’s pictures online, but, she’d be happy to know, I in fact was won over by her thoughtful, graceful performance in the film-festival favorite. And my reasons for wanting to interview her changed as I researched her unusual background and read interviews she had done with the press in Asia.  She was intelligent and funny, didn’t give standard responses, seemed a bit rebellious, and had a cynicism about Hollywood and stardom that I shared.  She spoke four languages: English, Spanish, Hokkien, and Khymer, which she learned in order to play a Cambodian prostitute in the acclaimed CBC miniseries, “Dragon Boys.”  She once hosted a 26-part television series on the environment, “Earth Pulse.”  Plus she loved good books, Zhang Yimou movies, and John Coltrane, Ray Charles and Nina Simone.  Sure, she was the sexiest woman on the planet, but she also seemed like someone I could hang out with.  In fact, amazingly, in one aspect I could identify with her.  My father was a biologist and hers was a geneticist and we two shy kids spent our youths moving to many different locations and trying to fit in.  Obviously our paths had to cross.

Danny Peary: Where did you live while growing up?
Steph Song: I was born in Kuching, Malaysia.  When I was around two months, my parents moved me to Canada.  We first settled in Edmonton and then moved elsewhere.   When I was five we went to Colombia in South America, and lived in Cali for about four years.  Then we moved back to Canada and lived in Saskatchewan, first in Regina and then Saskatoon.  Then when I was fourteen we moved to Brisbane, Australia.  That’s where my father is now.  My mom lives in Melbourne.  After all that time, they divorced.  I was very happy when it happened. Trust me, kids would much rather be from a broken home then live in a broken home. 
DP: Because you moved so often, you repeatedly were the new girl in your neighborhood and in school, and the only Asian.  You have said it was very difficult.
SS: Yeah, I was incredibly shy and was always trying to fit in, but never did.   That was the sad part of my childhood.  When you’re a child, you want things to be stable.  I was watching my young cousins the other day and realized they watch the same Disney cartoon over and over and over again because it’s safe, they know what’s coming next, there aren’t going to be unpleasant surprises.  Children want the security of knowing what is happening next.  When you spend your entire childhood moving around like I did, you learn never to expect what’s familiar to be there when you turn around.  Mom and I counted that I went to something like fifteen different schools before I even was in grade nine.  That’s a lot of schools and trying to fit into a new group of friends.  And then the second you start feeling comfortable, you’re off again.  Then you discover a whole new set of bullies in your new school and just when you made your peace with them you’re off to meet another set of bullies.  It’s not such a great way to grow up.  But as a result I learned to adapt quickly.
DP: I would imagine that your unusual background and perspectives set you apart from other actors. Do you find that the actors you meet on and off the set aren’t at all similar to you? 
SS: I only like talking to actors on the set.  When you’re working with them you have to be so honest that you cut through the bullshit and get to know the real person pretty quickly. You need to communicate with them as actors.  I don’t really like talking to them off the set.  Off the set, they are a different breed.
DP: As a young girl you saw the Gene Wilder version of “Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory” and first thought about becoming an actress. When did you first act?
SS: When I was six.  I pretended to be Wonder Woman—wearing big tin foil—and I jumped off the garage roof and broke my collarbone.  I’d charge kids to watch me, and mom said I made some money.  Later I appeared in high school plays.  But I was always being passed over for the lead roles because I was Chinese.  So I only got to play the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” and supporting parts like that.
DP: You didn’t immediately pursue acting as a career, but instead got nursing and journalism degrees at the University of Southern Queensland. Everyone asks you about your nursing degree—because you’ve said you’d love to put give injections, do ultrasound, or take blood pressure on “ER” or “Gray’s Anatomy”--but what about your journalism degree?
SS: In actuality, I wasn’t so much interested in journalism as English literature.  I got both degrees, mostly to please my parents.  They didn’t want me to be this bum on their couch who was trying to act or go into art direction, so they said I needed something to fall back on.  My mom has a master’s in political science and my dad has a PhD in genetics, so they are incredibly academic.  Being the eldest of three children, I was expected to get some kind of degree.  I didn’t really want to spend my whole life studying, so I started off in English literature, which mutated into journalism.  And I also studied psychology, which turned into nursing.
DP: How does psychology turn into nursing?
SS: I loved studying psychology, but I learned that it didn’t really give me a practical skill.  I decided that instead of being able to psychoanalyze someone, it might be better to learn some medical jargon and skills.
DP: I’m sure that studying psychology eventually helped you with acting, right?
SS: No. Psychology didn’t teach me much, nothing I wouldn’t know anyway. 
DP: So actors don’t have to be psychologists to play their characters correctly?
SS: No, they have to be incredibly good liars. 
DP: But don’t actors usually state the cliché about how they “are searching for truth.”
SS: Yes, that’s one way of looking at it.  But there are times when you are under the gun and the whole crew is waiting for you and the director is telling you to perform and you don’t really agree with what you’re supposed to do, so you kind of fake it.  You do it the best you can.  And that’s when it’s not the truth but pretty much a lie. 
DP: It doesn’t sound like you really enjoy being an actress.  In fact, I read where you advise young girls that unless acting is their life’s calling, they should “avoid it like the plague.”  Is that how you really feel?
SS: There are moments in filmmaking when I feel like I’m going against the art I should be practicing.  But most of the time I really love it.  “Everything’s Gone Green” was a wonderful experience for me. 
DP: Ming’s corrupt boyfriend Bryce (JR Bourne) talks about a “moral free zone.”  I’d think that when one makes movies, it’s hard to stay true to yourself, especially if you, like Coupland’s Generation Xers, haven’t yet defined yourself.  So is “selling out” t a worry for you like it is for Ming and Ryan (Paolo Castanzo)?
SS: It is a worry that you won’t find those truthful moments in this profession.  The moments you do get to work and perform can be so few and far between, and then you have to sell out to do them, so when do you find your personal reward?  There’s a sorrow that comes with this profession.  It’s not all going to be this wonderful search for truth or whatever.  The reality might be that you’re in the fourteenth straight hour of filming and the director is dying to get a scene over and done with and you don’t really understand how to do something truthfully so you’ve got to scrounge around and dip into your own little bag of tricks to come up with something quickly.
DP: Are you easy to direct?
SS: You’d have to ask Paul Fox.  I think it’s different with every director.  It depends on their directing methods. If you tell me to say my line and then stand there and blink my eyes and then smile and say my other line and have a teardrop, yeah you might encounter a bit of resistance from me.  They’re asking you to trust them, so why can’t they trust us? But if the director has a clear vision then it’s my  responsibility to respect that vision. 
DP: You now act all over the world for different directors.  Where are you a citizen?
SS: I have citizenship in Australia and Canada.  I have a U.S. Green Card and various working visas.  Also I have a permanent resident card of Singapore, where my man and I have a house. 
DP: It was in Singapore that you first really made your mark.  You were on nine television shows in three years.  How is that possible?
SS: I wasn’t the lead in all of them.  I played supporting roles, too.  Of course, it’s strange if you compare it to the U.S. or Canadian standard.  To do that many series is ridiculous.  But the way it works in Singapore is kind of like the old studio system.  You’re contracted to a studio and they will put in front of you a whole slate of things you need to fulfill: two lead roles in either a sitcom or drama or miniseries, then you need a couple of guest star appearances, and you need a couple of recurring roles.  “So here’s a whole slate of what we’re doing this year.  What would you like to do?”
DP: Your biggest show was an English sitcom called Achar!  It was a huge hit in 2003 and you were the female lead and became very popular.  So how come you aren’t contracted to still be on it, as you would be in America?
SS: I didn’t want to get tied into a series so I did it just for one season.  They weren’t smart enough to option me for four years.  I was asked to come back, and if I had been really gracious I could have done a couple of more seasons, but I said, “No, I just have zero interest in it, sorry.”  That didn’t really bode too well because it was the surprise hit of the season. They didn’t offer me more money, but it wasn’t about money.  I had done three-camera, big exaggerated sitcoms already and it had been fun for awhile, but I couldn’t imagine doing another thirteen episodes, let alone for another four years.  It’s not that I’m ungrateful, but my idea of comedy is very different.  At the end of the day I didn’t think those sitcoms were very funny.  I find Doug Coupland’s writing very funny.  I giggle during a lot of parts of “Everyone’s Gone Green.”
About two years ago I decided not that I had hit a ceiling in Singapore, but that I should look elsewhere for work.  Acting is kind of a young person’s business—you have to be full of energy and ready to take on the world with a great deal of perseverance.  I thought while I still had some energy in me I would see how far I could take this, as opposed to just being comfortable.  So I decided to look outside of Singapore, and what I found was “Everything’s Gone Green.”  So I went to Vancouver.  And after I made the movie, I got another project, then another project, and then another project.  So I’ve been really fortunate.
DP: You stopped working in Singapore, but you are still a star there.  Last year Singapore FHM voted you the “Sexiest Woman in the World.”  Is that a big thing that affects everything in your life or something minor?
SS: It made me scratch my head a little bit!  The reason is that in the last project I did in Singapore, I played a nagging, complaining, whining wife who was eight-months’ pregnant.  I was barefoot and ugly most of the time.  I don’t know why Singapore would reward me with that.  It was kind of funny.
DP: Maybe they’d seen the pin-up-type pictures and magazine covers you’ve done.
SS: I had a writer friend quite a few years back who worked for FHM.  He asked me if just for a lark, “you’d consider doing something in your swimmers?”  I said, “Okay,” just for fun and maybe so I’d have something to show the grandkids when my boobs are down to my knees.  I didn’t think anything of it after that.  Then the new editor of FHM called me up and asked, “Do you think we could get you back in your swimmers again?”  I said, “Absolutely not.”  Then he said, “But our readers voted you No.1.”  When he told me this I was in my boyfriend’s underwear, eating Doritos on the couch; I hadn’t showered all day and had popped a couple of pimples.  I laughed to my boyfriend and pointed at myself and said, “Hey, Number One!” 
DP: Do you have to keep your movie agent from pushing you as a sex symbol?
SS: I don’t have to keep him in line or anything, but I do tell him not to use the FHM thing so much.  Because the times it has come up in interviews is far too many, and it’s not really what I want to be known for.  He’ll say, “Well, just use it as a stepping stone!”  But I think it’s a stupid thing to put out there when I’m trying to get movie roles.
DP: When did you make “Everybody’s Gone Green?”
SS: I read the script in April of 2005.  And we shot it that June. 
DP: In Australia, you once anchored “Earth Pulse” for the National Geographic Channel and have said you’d like to do more environmental television from the other side of the camera. When you heard the title “Everyone’s Gone Green,” did you think it was a movie about the environment?
SS: No, I knew it was about money.  I recognized the title from a very obscure New Order song.  It was a side B side, back when there was vinyl.  I had no doubt the title came from that song.  “Girlfriend in a Coma” came from a song by the Smiths, a band Doug Coupland was inspired by.  Doug is into all that alternative British rock music of the eighties.
DP: Had you read his books already?
SS: At the time I had read “Generation X” and either “Shampoo Planet” or “Girlfriend in a Coma.”  Plus I had a boyfriend who was a huge fan of his, and he would listen to the Smiths, and tried to find his place in the world by staring at his naval, which is kind of typical Coupland.  So I was familiar with Doug’s way of thinking. 
DP: Did you audition to play Ming?
SS: I did.  I had to audition for Paul Fox. I did the scene in which Ming and Ryan talk by the lake. Then Paul requested a meeting.  So we sat down and talked and he found out where my head was at and how I thought of Ming.  Then he said that there were a lot of similarities between me and her, “but I think Ming finds where she wants to be and you’re still searching to get to that place.”  That was a hard thing to agree with--but I did. 
DP: The tagline for the movie reads: “’Everything’s Gone Green’ is about when you get older and you feel certain doors closing very quickly on you.”  But is that what the film is about?
SS: I read that quote for the first time after the movie was made. When I had read the script I didn’t think it was about a certain time in your life ending, as that quote implies.  It was kind of a coming-of-age film but not so much coming to a certain age but coming to a certain state of mind and certain state of self-awareness of where you stand morally and what you can and can’t live with.
DP: What comes after that tagline in the production notes is: “’Everything’s Gone Green’ comically illustrates how hard it is to know what’s real in a world filled with fabrication and hidden agendas.”             
SS: That makes more sense.  I think the city of Vancouver pretty much set the tone for the film.  As Doug makes clear in his script, Vancouver has sold out with the big skyscrapers on prime real estate that no one lives in; and with American films and TV using her beauty yet not saying it’s Vancouver.  That’s selling out, saying “it’s not cool, but we’ll take the money anyway.”
DP: What do Canadians think of we Americans disguising their cities as our own and making films there? 
SS: I don’t think people in Vancouver resent it at all.  It’s an industry and a lot of people depend on American dollars coming in.  It affords a lot of people a livelihood and life style.
DP: How does Ming fit into this?  She has a scheming boyfriend, whom she is clearly better than but condones.  And her job is to make what’s on film appear to be different from what it really is.
SS: She’s pretty much done looking in the mirror and seeing that she’s sold herself out.  She’s taking these small, belated steps to get to where she needs to go.  She’s a little bit jaded and she’s a little bit sweet, she’s smart and funny, she’s kind of real.  She is strong but not in the classic sense, not strong like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, or Diane Keaton.  She’s strong, I guess, in that she’s indifferent toward men.  Not that she really does anything dramatic, but she drifts out of one relationship, with Bryce, and isn’t keen to get into another one, with Ryan.  She thinks that’s going backward.   She’d like a decent fellow, but doesn’t care if one doesn’t materialize. 
DP: Does she fit somewhere in between Bryce and Ryan, acting as their conscience?
SS: In a way she’s a bit of moral touchstone for Ryan.  But she has to fix herself first, that’s her priority.   She can’t tell him to not sell out before she changes herself.
DP: Ryan and Ming “meet cute” by a beached whale. At the time she is with Bryce and has sold out her values but she starts to change upon meeting the nice Ryan.  And in time their roles will be reversed as Ryan starts hanging out with Bryce and has his values corrupted. So the scene has deeper meaning later on. Was this beached whale scene in the script?
SS: It was.  That’s a very intimate moment in the movie, getting to know a complete stranger and divulging your innermost thoughts.  I thought it was clever to begin the relationship that way.
DP: One of the interesting things about this movie is that at a time you are being promoted as one of the sexiest women in the world, there are no sex scenes with you.
SS: There’s not even a kissing scene! 
DP: I found it peculiar that they didn’t want in any way to exploit the attention you were getting.
SS: I found that great!  There were no discussions about it.  That’s the way the script was written.  You know you don’t have to show characters kissing or rolling around in the hay to show intimacy.  The intimacy comes across in a different way—viewers will see it in the beached-whale scene and the lake-side scene, where we bare our souls to each other.
DP: Ming and Ryan bare their souls to each other.  Have you ever bared your soul in a movie, as I have read you want to be able to do as an actress?
SS: I think I did it to a degree in this movie.  And there’s an untitled film I’m working on in China that lets me do that. 
DP: “Everything’s Gone Green” is being promoted as your “breakthrough” movie. You’re next release, in September I think, is “War” with Jet Li.  Is that a big movie for you?
SS: “Everything’s Gone Green,” to me, is bigger.  But “War” is big in a different way.  My dad and I used to watch Jet Li movies together, so when I called him to tell him I was going to be in a Jet Li movie, he thought that I had arrived!  It was a good experience making the movie, which was titled “Rogue,” until another movie used that title.  And Jet Li is a really nice fellow.  He has a real sensitivity as an actor and really cares about what he’s doing.  He studies the script intently, and he’ll fight to have lines or scenes cut out if they aren’t keeping with the character.  So I was really impressed. 
DP: Where are you in your career?
SS: When you start off in this career, you pretty much have to take what you’re given and try to make the best of it.  As I get older I can be more selective.  I don’t necessarily want to do material that speaks volumes to people.  It’s more about trying things I haven’t done before and finding challenges. I just formed my own creative-content group.  Check it out: Islandfilms@net.  I source material that I’m interested in and I’ll try to get films made that are good stories.  Sometimes they’ll have a role for me that I’d love to play but if I’m passed over for it, that’s fine because it’s still a great story that deserves to be told.
DP: Are there particular Asian actresses whose career paths you admire?
SS: There are actresses whose careers I’ve followed.  Sandra Oh, for instance.  She has been busting down doors for other Asian-American actresses.  God bless her, I love her.  And I love Gong Li.  But not in English, only Chinese!
DP: I know you don’t love Hollywood films but to advance your career to where you want it to be eventually, do you expect to go that route?
SS: I think Hollywood is part of a machine that I just don’t believe in anymore.  If we’re talking about films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” then I’d love to do a “Hollywood” film.  But if we’re talking about “Mission Impossible 2,” then no, I don’t care for that.  My agent would kick me for saying that!   But that’s how I feel.

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