Joan Chen's career has traversed the highs (The Last Emperor) and lows (On Deadly Ground) of the American film biz, but mostly she's known on these shores for her memorable collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor), Oliver Stone (Heaven & Earth), and David Lynch (Twin Peaks). The Chinese-American actress has also directed two films (Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl and Autumn in New York), with a third on the way, while continuing to act in American and Chinese films. Her latest is the American independent Saving Face, directed by Alice Wu, in which Chen plays a pregnant mother with a grown lesbian daughter. I spoke with Ms. Chen at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco, the city she has called her home for over a decade.
Groucho: Even your fans may not be prepared for how funny you are in this film. You're not known for comedy. Were you raring to go, or were you at all nervous?
Joan Chen: I wasn't nervous, because it's not the kind of comedy that's slapstick, that relies on me making faces. You know what I mean? It's situational. And I just have to recognize and catch the moments and really be truthful. And so that wasn't at all intimidating. I was so looking forward to it. You know, if it was a kind of comedy that really relied on my improvisation and rolling around and slapstick, then I'd be very nervous.
G: You've played a couple of mothers since becoming one. How has motherhood prepared you for roles like this one in Saving Face?
JC: Nothing else could have prepared me. Yeah. There is no theoretical study of motherhood. You know, before I became a mother, I did play a mother, but I was like—I was more thinking of my own mother [Ed. Heaven & Earth]. I was doing my mother. In this film, I still did think about my mother a lot. But I'm also a mother. And this protective instinct—I think I'm more of a mother than Ma. You know, she was almost like a kid. She was well-sheltered. But like Alice said, the very last moment, when she really felt her daughter's pain and wanted to just embrace her and, uh, just to help her, just to make her feel better, to ultimately realize you want her happiness, and that's all that matters. And that's what I feel, that I—you know, I have very strong feelings for my mother and my daughters, my everything—I mean, both my daughters. This kind of passion toward another human being, this kind of bond. And in Chinese language, children—there is a saying about children and mother. It's like, uh, your ten fingers to your heart, as if there [is] distance there, but if you chop your hand, it hurts like hell. This is the connection. And there is no—there is not another bond that's stronger. This is the strongest bond ever!
G: And this character, you mentioned, is sort of like a child herself—perhaps particularly in a rebellious phase, in a way, right?
JC: Mm-hm, mm-hmm.
G: I think she's lifelike because she's allowed to be complicated: she's secretive and she's daring, and she's also ignorant or unaccepting of her daughter. How did you see those contradictions and reconcile them?
JC: She came from her father. You know, she came from her father. She's not free from prejudice. And she—you know, she looks at a black person, and she's like, "Oh my God, he's so dark. He must be dirty." You know? It's like, "Give him paper plates." And, you know, she's ignorant. And narrow-minded in that sense. She's too sheltered, too protected, and never allowed herself to be exposed. But when she fell in love, I'm sure that changed her. Because she is doing something that she never imagined herself doing. And she couldn't accept it in herself. Of course, she couldn't accept, you know, her daughter being a lesbian. Her daughter was this perfect daughter. She's a doctor, she's pretty, she's filial. All she needed to be is getting married and having children. I think that is still the hardest thing to a Chinese family.
G: Well, and your parents were doctors. Did they eventually come around to your profession as an actress (or an actor)?
JC: They are incredible. They've always been the most open parents. They've never—they're just not like Chinese parents. They're not like Chinese parents. They're strict in a way: that if I lied, they'd hit me. You know, to me—they basically told me that was the worst thing you could do. And, of course you couldn't murder or steal, but other than that, I was free. I was very free. And they didn't give me any pressure.
G: Did you model this character on anyone in particular?
JC: Not anyone in particular, but I know people like that. I know people who stayed fresh off the boat somehow: y'know, as if they didn't enter into the society. They were still living in China somehow, though they're physically in America. There are lots of them. Lots of the Chinese women who live here for a long time don't speak English. They shop in Chinatown. I know these people.
G: Now is it true that you were discovered first at a rifle range and then in a parking lot?
G: Are those vivid memories for you? Do you remember those days in your life?
JC: Yeah, you know, I—when I was fourteen, I was on the rifle team and we were practicing, and these casting directors came, and they just looked at me, and then they asked me to go in to have a meeting in a studio. And then the director met me. And then they said, "We'll take pictures." "We sent them to Mrs. Mao, and we're gonna have her look at you." Then I waited and a call came. And I was cast. Just like that.
G: And was it Dino de Laurentis who discovered you in America?
JC: Yeah. Yeah. I was in the parking lot in Lorimar. I went for an audition for an Hawaiian character. And I got all decked out, made up and everything. I walked in, and they said, "Aren't you Chinese?" I said, "Yes, I'm Chinese". They said, "No, no. We're looking for Hawaiian." I was like, "Gee, you should have known that I am Chinese." So I didn't get to read. So they said, "I'm sorry. It's a mistake." And so I walked out in the parking lot. I was, like, feeling really dejected. And there came his huge, big car. And then he rolled down the window, and he said, "Do you know Lana Turner was discovered in a drug store?" I had no idea what he meant or who he was or you know. And then he introduced himself. And then he said, "If you have an agent, can your agent and you come at 2:00 in the afternoon to my office?" So I called my agent. And so that happened very—not very often, as a matter of fact. They'd been looking for this character for a long time. I didn't even get to audition. I didn't know about it. I didn't know about it at all. I never went on an audition—when they were really looking at everybody. I don't know how I didn't know. But (snaps fingers) just like that.
G: Wow. Your cultural upbringing included a luckily remote awareness of the hurtfulness of the Cultural Revolution. What was your understanding of it as a child, and what did it mean to you to tell the story of a sent down girl [in 1998's Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl]?
JC: It was sort of a collective memory of my generation. And my mother's generation. (Pause.) I'm very conflicted about my Communist upbringing. Um, of course, the Cultural Revolution: there [was] a lot of evil done to people. And at the same time, I'm nostalgic. Because there was an education. There was a movement. There was this—you know, when you're young, you're like The Motorcycle Diary [sic]. You know, there is romanticism in revolution. And a true revolution is always a romantic. And there were these beautiful ideals and ideas. And we were free of material desires. At least we thought we were. And you craved for Utopia. At least—y'know, that was all you knew. So I have nostalgia toward it. At the same time, a whole generation's youth is sacrificed. Sacrificed. And as far as I could remember, as long as I could remember, we were talking about this. You know. In the family secretly, how do we create a way so our children don't go? You know, many different ways. You know, all my girlfriends were learning musical instruments—forced to learn musical instruments because if they knew a musical instrument, they would be in the performance troupe. Even if they were sent down. Then they wouldn't be in the fields. Then they'd probably be treated a little better. That was the hope. And I remember, you know, both my brother and I, we said, "We don't want to." My mother bought us an accordion. I said, "I don't—I hate accordion. I don't want to do this." And my parents actually encouraged my brother, who is really a quiet, introverted artist, to become an athlete. And so he became a professional athlete before he graduated from high school. That way he would never be sent away. So he left to be a professional athlete in water polo and in rowing. And so that's—then it's me. And so at fourteen, when I was in the rifle team, they were thinking of this way and that way, and they knew I wanted to be in the army. And being in the army would be a treat because the army was much more disciplined. Much better treated. And so it would be much better than being sent down. So we were trying to think, y'know, how to get me into the army. Which you need connection—you need to work on it.
JC: And just when we were thinking of this as my only solution, the film studio came. And so I was the lucky one: one of the few that never got sent down. I knew plent—y'know, 75% of people my generation were sent down. So to me, there was an incredibly—I don't know. When I read that novella, I just felt—I don't know. I just felt that I—no matter how hard it is, I'm going to make this into a film. I've never felt this kind of urge before. And I knew that it was about my own survivor's guilt, and I also know this is the story of my generation. And I also had fantasies of it. Because young people long to go to the unfamiliar and unknown and far away. You know, the fear is there, you know. You hear stories of so-and-so died or so-and-so got pregnant orr so-and-so got punished and somebody came home. And there is always the—and you conjure up these fantasies. Because you don't get to go.
G: It's interesting, because acting, of course, is a way to explore those things that you don't necessarily experience in real life. And yet you found that avenue in—.
JC: (overlapping) In directing, also. Yeah, yeah.
G: In directing, as well. Yeah. The story was largely told in visual terms. How did you develop your visual language as a director?
JC: You know, I think a lot of it I learned from my brother. My brother is a brilliant artist. His oil paintings are really beautiful. And he was the one that taught me what to see—how to see. Colors, lights—he paint[s] with lights. And how lights can be so musical. And the movie that I'm going to make next is also—I don't like a lot of dialogue. I like the movie to be told without many spoken words. I just always felt that's the strong part of cinema. You know, for sitcom and for TV or for Broadway, it relies on dialogue. And film relies on audio-visual combination to express more subtly something unsayable. And actually to express it stronger. Actually, because the audience get[s] it subliminally. Yeah. I've always kind of, at a very young age, followed my brother around. You know, he would be noticing things. He would be looking at a cow and in the black-and-white hides—he would point to me, y'know, on the white there is—the bottom reflected the brown dirt, little green on the grass, and on the top, it'd be a little bluer—the sky—and he'd be seeing things that I wouldn't otherwise pay attention. He was a great influence. And I've worked with directors, good and bad, to look at the final results. And [on The Last Emperor,] Bernardo Bertolucci; Victorio Storaro [sic]—Victorio Storaro!—Enendo, the production designer; James, the costumer bring out the best visual[s] in the whole wide world [DP Vittorio Storaro, production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, costume designer James Acheson]. And for me, that was my best film school. 'Cause the film took half a year to make. And I wasn't even consciously paying attention. I was just often astounded. And it's amazing how much I've learned. More so than four years in college.
G: How did you land that role of The Last Empress?
JC: You know, I went on, for—I went on auditions for a movie called Year of the Dragon. I was pretty much fresh off the boat, and I had a little baby fat on me. I was a cute—really cute 22-year-old. And I thought, this was the only Chinese character I would ever find. And I tried so hard to—today I was like, "I don't look like a reporter. I didn't talk like a reporter." There was nothing right about me for this character. But I think the casting director saw my desperate passion. And she kept me on. I had like ten different auditions, screen tested with Mickey Rourke. And the casting director was right by my side, and she was giving me classical material to read for the director. She seemed to have found what I could do better. And trying to help me, y'know, not to do the script but to do some, like, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, whatever—other classical stuff that she'd prepared me in, then have me do it. Of course, I didn't get the part, but the casting director believed in me. And so it happened that she was the casting director for Bernardo. So as soon as I lost Year of the Dragon, she brought me to Bernardo. And she said to Bernardo, "You don't have to look any further. This is the one."
JC: And of course, he did look further, but, y'know, I had the advantage of being introduced by the casting director to the director in that strong a sense. And we clicked; Bernardo and I, we clicked.
G: Wow. Fortune has really favored you, it seems.
JC: Yeah. There are times that I felt very fortunate. No, but I lost—
G: Well, true.
JC: Year of the Dragon, and I, you know.
G: But I think you got the better film there.
JC: (Smiles.) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
G: You talked about your inclination to visual poetry. I think you found a good match in David Lynch. Do you remember what you and David talked about during the casting process?
JC: I think we chatted about something. I remember thinking, "Gee, you know, this is a different director. I think I have a chance here." Because the part is written for an Italian girl. I mean, I think it was for his girlfriend at that time and and then they kind of just separated and stuff, so it was written for her, you know [Ed. Isabella Rossellini]. But I said, you know, "I don't have a chance." But when I went in and we just talked, and, I felt right there—I said, "You know, this is a visionary that's open-minded, that's open to anything," that "I have a chance here." We didn't—at that time, I had no idea I was going to direct. I mean, I observed him, but I didn't really get to converse with him of film language. I remember one thing he did. (Pause.) He wanted some—he's very experimental, so he wanted to see what kind of expression I would get when somebody—when he was shooting my face, then he unexpectedly told an actor to come and whisper in my ears. Said, "I want to lick your cunt." (Pause.) But, y'know, my English wasn't that great, and I didn't understand it.
G: Uh-huh. (Laughs.)
JC: I didn't understand that sentence. I'm like (in a faint, innocent voice), "Well, what was that? That wasn't in the script or rehearsal. I don't—" (Laughs.) I didn't even know what that was! (Laughs.) But, anyway, that's his way of directing. Y'know, he sometimes just want[s] to see what kind of an expression this person will get! (Laughs.)
G: Right. Right. (Laughs.)
JC: You know? And I thought that was brilliant! Except it didn't work on me because I didn't get it. (Laughs.) Then I had to discuss with this actor—I said, "What happened? What is this?" "So you didn't understand?" I said, "No, I don't know what that is." (Both laugh.)
G: Do you remember, what actor was that?
JC: It was, what's his name? He was also a cinematographer that I worked with. He was a regular on Twin Peaks. He played with me—he is a bad guy. Is he—what's that older woman's name?
G: Packard, uh—
JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think they were lovers for a short time in Twin Peaks. So I forgot his name. I think they told him to come to me and give me that. [Ed. Ms. Chen and I figured it out after the interview: it was Richard Beymer, who played Ben Horne.]
G: Uh huh. How was that character presented to you? What did they tell you about that character when you were auditioning?
JC: Basically, she's this outsider. And it's a close-knit community with this one outsider. You know, it is sort of the same character in, um, David's other movie, umm, umm—. You know, that great movie. You know, the same actor!
G: Blue Velvet.
JC: Blue Velvet!
JC: It's almost like the Blue Velvet. There was this one outsider. In a little town. A little town. There was this one mysterious—you don't know where she—how did she land here? You know. It's almost that kind of a concept. That's how it's presented.
JC: But y'know—later on, though, I became sort of more and more evil. I think it has to do with my Chinese dragon lady thing, you know.
G: (Laughs.) The show and that character were full of secrets. How much did you know at the outset about where the character's going? Did you have a secret history developed for her?
JC: (Laughs.) No.
JC: No. Every episode you kind of find out something new about the character (laughs), you know? I'm in the same—I find out episode by episode. (Laughs.)
G: Right, right, right. Did you fully relocate to L.A. for the show?
JC: I was at that time living in L.A. It was actually the only time, I think. Yeah. I lived in L.A.: that was the only thing I did. Like, I worked a year in L.A. That was (pause) a treat. (Laughs.)
G: Some cast members expressed frustration because David went off to make films, and he wasn't—
JC: Yeah, he was—
G: Maybe as present as they expected. Was that a frustration for you or concern?
JC: I don't know. It wasn't. I wish when I was younger, I took my career more seriously. I wasn't. I was just, like, having a good time. At the same time, you know, after a year or so, "I've had enough of this." But I was having a good time.
G: Well, the show-runners weren't too bad, either, I suppose, right? Like Mark Frost.
G: Did you have any concern that that role would—because of her outward image—might fuel any stereotypes or typecasting for you?
JC: Yeah—maybe. Maybe, but you know, when I was younger, I struggled against, you know, I don't want to be pigeon-holed. And I, you know—. Basically, now you want to be pigeon-holed. It's your niche.
G: Mm-hm. (Both laugh.)
JC: It's your niche. You know, I fought against it, then I come back to say, you know, you can develop something within that pigeon-hole.
JC: Umm, yeah. You get typecasted. I mean, it's—y'know, there [are] only certain aspect[s] of exoticness that can be accepted by the main culture. And other than these elements, you become somewhat of a threat or something that's uncomfortable. Or maybe they mean it for you to be a threat. Then it's—you know, so there—you can only do these few elements, 'cause these are the elements that the mainstream Hollywood need[s] from the exotic. Now, looking back, I see it clearly. I wasn't seeing it clearly, and I fought against it. And now, like, the mainstream welcomes kung fu films—martial art films, right? So that's one type of Chinese-ness that's welcome.
JC: Not the other part of it. I mean, there is always this thing. I don't like it. But you see the—y'know, you know this is a fact.
G: Yeah. Those films have their own niche. Right.
G: Now that those films are hot, there's like—there's no room for another kind of film, yeah. You were also invited to participate in Lynch's film of Twin Peaks. Do you remember the scene or scenes that you shot for that?
JC: No, I wasn't in the film.
G: Well, but you—you did—did you not film scenes for it?
JC: I don't remember. I don't remember.
G: Because there's lots of talk about the footage we haven't seen from that film that might actually get released, and there was—somewhere it said that you had a scene with Sheriff Truman singing to you or something like that?
JC: I might get mixed up with something, but I don't remember being in the film.
JC: It's so long ago. I don't—I don't—.
G: Yeah. You played another reporter on television for Barry Levinson's show, Homicide.
JC: Oh my God! Yeah, oh. (Laughs.) You're thorough!
G: Oh, well. (Laughs.) Is that a role that—was there any thought to bringing that part back, and what was it like shooting that in Baltimore?
JC: I enjoyed it. But I think, you know, they were probably, um, testing to see if I could be a recurring, and of course, obviously I couldn't—
JC: Be a recurring. You know, I'm not the kind of character—I'm not the kind of actor that does this type of—you know, I need to have the drama happening to me, you know what I mean? So I am not the best girlfriend or lawyer or the reporter. I am the drama-queen type. You know. So it is somehow in my style, in my upbringing, in the way I look: I need to be the dramatic one.
G: Yeah. The prime mover.
JC: The dramatic one, yeah. So I—it's very hard—it somehow doesn't work that way. Unfortunately.
G: You mentioned you're developing another film to direct. Can you tell me anything about that project?
JC: Yeah! It's a film noir in Shanghai. In today's Shanghai. Kinda Hitchcockian.
G: Oh, nice. Great. I'll look forward to that. It's been a pleasure talking to you.