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A multi-faceted performer, Sook-Yin Lee remains true to herself, both onscreen and off. Ana La O' talks to the actress about her brave, provocative new role in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus.
Shortbus star Sook-Yin Lee doesn’t mind getting down and dirty. The Canadian-born radio personality turned leading lady once stumbled upon a piece of plastic plumbing tube as she was passing through a construction site. While most of us wouldn’t dare to touch what would probably be labeled as trash, Lee picked up that plastic tube, reveled in its musical possibilities and proceeded to blow into it. That’s the thing about Sook-Yin Lee: she doesn’t seem to be afraid of the grit -- or the controversial, for that matter. And if she is, she’s certainly open-minded enough to give it a chance for art’s sake.
When writer and director John Cameron Mitchell asked Lee to perform un-simulated sex and masturbation as a lead actress in his latest film Shortbus, Lee was up to the challenge. “It’s really telling to reveal characters through the way they make love or fuck,” says Lee. Not only was Lee delighted to reunite with Mitchell -- she played Kwahng-Yi in Mitchell’s 2001 cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- she was also thrilled to push mainstream cinematic boundaries. Her employer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, however, was less than thrilled. They almost fired Lee from her radio gig, Definitely Not the Opera, when they found out that Lee’s upcoming film was definitely not PG. (Shortbus, which remains unrated, contains “sex scenes as graphic as a hardcore skin-flick,” according to The New York Times.) CBC only let Lee keep her job after renowned artists such as Francis Ford Coppola, Julianne Moore, and Yoko Ono spearheaded a letter campaign defending Lee’s artistic expression and criticizing the CBC’s actions of censorship.
So with a little help from her high-profile friends, Lee was able to keep her day job and juggle it with her duties as Shortbus’s Sofia Lin, a pre-orgasmic sex therapist, whose lovably neurotic antics leave us simultaneously laughing and gushing. On her quest to achieve an orgasm, the uptight but determined Sofia learns to loosen up, befriends a dominatrix, and gets intimate with vibrating egg. Lee is raw and captivating as her on-screen alter ego, and her convincingly awkward performance likely stems from the actress’ personal experiences as a self-proclaimed “nerdy outsider” in Canada.
Sook-Yin Lee grew up in the Canadian suburbs, putting on backyard plays and dances for the neighborhood kids. The expressive child, however, grew more and more introverted as familial drama at home intensified. By age fifteen, an overwhelmed Lee left home to live with a group of misfit artists in Vancouver. It was there that the muted teenager shaved her head and regained her voice and sanity, screaming political punk songs and making films. “Art saved my life,” Lee explains. “I think I was destined to be a communicator.”
Lee continued on to explore communication on various fronts after her bohemian artist days. She has been the lead singer for the indie band Bob’s Your Uncle, a host for Canada’s MuchMusic television and CBC radio, and a writer and director of films. Up next, Lee plans to focus on her first feature movie Year of the Carnivore and finish up her new album Lovebolt, a collection of what she calls “my version of a catchy song.” Lee is a bona fide multi-hyphenate, who always seems to have more art brewing up her sleeve.
But these projects are on a temporary hiatus as Sook-Yin Lee tours and promotes Shortbus. APA caught up with the actress just hours before she headed out to Chicago for a film festival. Lee graciously opened up about facing Sofia Lin as well as herself, unclothed and uninhibited.
APA: The Shortbus characters and script were created by Mitchell and his cast. How much did you know about the film when you were cast?
Sook-Yin Lee: I knew that John wanted to create a narrative about the search for love and connection that pushed the boundaries of on-screen sex. He wanted a movie where the sex was real -- and defied pornography and the wave of underground European and American cinema that has been using un-simulated sex in recent years. As opposed to those movies that are quite serious or have a lot of violence towards women, he wanted to do something that was more life-affirming, that explored sexuality in a way that he has experienced it in life. It can be funny sometimes, or completely awkward, nerve-wracking, all those different things. He wanted to make a comedy, and I loved that idea.
APA: How did you feel about doing the un-simulated sex and masturbation scenes? Were you ever nervous?
SYL: In the very beginning, on a theoretical level, I was so excited about the project as an artist, but when it came down to it, it was very anxiety-filled for me. There are many different difficult passages that I had to work through. Even when we [the Shortbus cast] avoided talking about our anxieties, John would say, “Come on, let’s talk about them and process them.”
APA: Kind of like therapy sessions at the Shortbus rehearsals…
SYL: Yea, and I gave him a long list of things that I wouldn’t do, and we were never forced to do anything that we didn’t want to do. The movie took a few years to develop. The only way that I could do the sex was because there was a lot of friendship and camaraderie built between myself, the actors and John, so by the end of the whole process, it was like I was working with a group of my closest friends in a very small set.
APA: Mitchell held an open casting call for actors. What was on your audition tape?
SYL: I gave him a video tape to audition and it was essentially about me as Chinese Canadian kid growing up in the suburbs where there weren’t many Chinese Canadian kids except for me and Bev Wong up the street, and how it was to feel disconnected from my community, my schoolmates, my family, and myself, through puberty and not knowing how to really be in the world sexually and with my body. So that was my story, and also it was about my final ability to have an orgasm and finally connect with myself in that way.
APA: Having grown up as one of two Asians in your community and feeling alienated because of it, was it important for you to do this film because it pushed the boundaries of how Asian women are portrayed in the media?
SYL: Well I really don’t think of it like that. I think of it terms of my experience. I know that a lot of Asians will be able to identify, but I didn’t really go into thinking that this is an important thing for Asian Americans or Asian Canadians. It was an important for myself. The interesting thing is when you do very specific, personal stories, they end up being universal, and a lot of people can identify with it.
APA: Sofia Lin seems to have elements of you when you were younger, but she’s not a sexually awkward teenager….
SYL: John really loved that story [Lee’s audition tape story], but he took it in a totally different direction. Instead of it being a teenage coming of age story, he thought, What if we amplify this? What if it’s a sex therapist who is an expert in her field whose secret is that she has never experienced an organism and she’s been faking it with her husband and he’s starting to catch on? And that’s where we meet Sofia Lin at the beginning of the movie.
APA: In an interview with John Cameron Mitchell, he mentioned that you had a hard time connecting with the character. Is that true?
SYL: I do connect with the character because I created the character, but the character is a collection of some of my most embarrassing attributes combined with an entirely fictional awkward character. It was difficult sometimes. Every actor wants to look good, together, beautiful, cool, and Sofia is the opposite of cool, and certainly, I was the opposite of cool growing up. I think a big part of me identifies with the loner outsider, so in terms of having to wrestle with my character, there were times when I was like “Can I look better?” Or I’d be like “This is not me!” And John would say, “You created her. You be nice to Sofia.” And I realized she is part of myself that I find very difficult to accept, and that at the end of the day, I have learned to love.
APA: Was the process cathartic, having to face all those insecurities?
SYL: Absolutely. I mean that’s a big part of why I was attracted to this role and being part of this exploration because I’m not totally together in terms of being a sexually connected person. And I thought in a fictional situation, I could explore some of these areas in the context of making art. I could go to places that were difficult and deep for me, but at the end of the day, it didn’t have to permeate my personal life.
APA: Now, the film was brought to Cannes. What was that like?
SYL: We were happy because we were going in there like “The Bad News Bears.”
APA: Why is that?
SYL: We were shocked to be part of the official selections, and we were staying at what I call, Athlete’s village, a kind of dormitory for actors, and we were walking around real wide-eyed. We knew that it was a very sophisticated cinesque crowd at Cannes. We didn’t know who it would go over, so it was very heartening to see in another country, amongst a totally other culture. People loved it, and they ended up giving us a prolonged fifteen minute standing ovation and following us onto the streets afterwards.
APA: Had you seen the movie previously?
SYL: Actually the first time I had sent the movie in its entirety was at Cannes.
APA: What was it like to watch yourself on screen?
SYL: It’s a huge screen. It’s like a jumbotron, and I don’t really enjoy the process of watching myself act, clothed or not clothed, so it’s like staring at the mirror, and it makes me self conscious. So I was ducking my head, every time I was on screen. Especially the sex stuff, I remember turning to John and saying “My gosh, there is a lot of sex in this movie,” and he couldn’t stop laughing at me.
APA: Have your parents seen the movie?
SYL: No. My parents are banned from the movie. My parents are very supportive of my involvement with Shortbus. My dad always said, “Hey you know what, if everything falls to pieces, you can always come back home. You got to do what you want to do, and don’t let anybody sway you from what you wish.” My parents got divorced, and there was a sort of horrible Chinese feud in the aftermath, so it had been many years since I had spoken with my mother. But I visited her in Vancouver in the summer and I told her about the movie, and she was not shocked at all. She was excited and interested in hearing about it. She also has been doing a lot of work with street kids, and her kids have done way more stuff than I had ever done. It’s so great to meet your parents as an adult.
APA: What have been some of the audience responses you’ve gotten about the film?
SYL: When I was doing a Q&A in Toronto, there was a couple at the end of the movie, and the woman was sitting on the man’s lap and I said, “I love that Shortbus has this affect on people.” And then afterwards, they came in to congratulate me, and it was Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams! They’re just such fine actors, and they’re both Canadian. And I really love that it seems to be striking a chord with all different kinds of people. I met a woman who was 65 years old and really loved the sense of community that she felt when she walked away from the film. When I was in Vancouver and a lot of Chinese people came out, there were these two guys after the movie—they looked like my cousins— and one of them’s got a Sharpie and is asking me to sign the still of me having an orgasm. I was like how did you get this?!! I’m just amazed that more people weren’t more freaked out about it.
APA: You thought there was going to be more controversy surrounding the movie?
SYL: I didn’t know what to expect, and it is very encouraging to hear people go, “Oh yea.” Sex is really the lens through which people discover their characters. It was never supposed to be the thing that people fixate on. It’s really telling to reveal characters through the way they make love or fuck. So much can be said about a person that keeps their socks on. Or a person who prematurely ejaculates and runs from the room. Or the woman who breaks out in a rash, or the woman who can’t stop laughing when she’s being touched. Sex in and of itself is not particularly dramatic.
APA: What was it like transitioning from being a radio personality to a lead in a film?
SYL: I do a lot of things. I make music. I write and direct my own movies. I’m a broadcaster. And everything boils down to a love of communication. In my family when I was growing up, there were some really hard passages that I had to go through. Especially when I was a teenager, I had some real difficult breakdowns that caused me to be unable to communicate. And for somebody with the desire to communicate, being essentially a mute was hard for me, and so I think I turned to art as a way of self expression, In many ways, art saved my life.
APA: You mentioned making music. You’re in the middle of recording Lovebolt your new album. How’s that going?
SYL: I try not to pressure the process of making music because I have other pressures. I just like to leave my art free. It’s a collection of songs—you know when I was a teenager, I used to sing a lot of songs, I actually used to scream a lot of didactic political punk songs, and I had a shaved head, and I was the one that would run around with eyeballs painted on my bald head or I’d be dressed as Martian, doing stuff like that— but these days, I’m just compelled to write love songs. Love in all its wonderful, horrible beauty.
APA: Is it another indie album?
SYL: It’s hard to describe. It’s really spare and minimal, and I also like melody, and in a strange way, that somehow makes it a catchy song. So it’s my version of a catchy song, but I’m sure other people will still call it outsider music. I love taking sounds from one context and incorporating it in another context. I use a lot of found objects in my music. Like there was one time that I came across a plumber’s plastic tube at a construction site and my impulse was to put it against my lips and blow through it, and it makes really amazing sound. In my strange, primitive way, I organize sounds and sing songs. I play a lot of instruments, but I don’t sit around and practice my chops.
APA: You’ve hit almost every medium of art, but after getting so much positive feedback on your performance as “Sofia Lin,” are you planning to shift gears and do more acting?
SYL: I’ve been offered some scripts, but I can’t say that they’re good scripts. I think I have to write my own character next, or I will have to be blessed to find a great script. It’s really hard going from this ideal situation where the actors were co-creating the story with the director. John and I really hit it off. For Hedwig, I showed him some television comedy sketches where I was in different characters and he found them really funny, so he gave me the part right then and there. That doesn’t usually happen. Usually you have to go through the call back process and you feel judged the whole time.
APA: What are some of your other upcoming side projects?
SYL: I’ve just written my first feature movie. Instead of the improvisational nature of Shortbus, this is a very specific script and it’s called Year of the Carnivore. Whenever I try to write something funny, it ends up being kind of sad, so it’s got a bittersweet feel. It is kind of a coming of age story about a girl who is completely embarrassed by herself and trying to figure out how to love and be loved.
APA: Is the character based on your experiences growing up?
SYL: Yes and no. I’ve used some of the stuff that I am completely familiar with and then fictionalized other aspects. And then there’s another movie that is burning inside of my brain to get out, so I have to find some time to sit down and write it.
Date Posted: 10/25/2006