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Ada and Arlene are proud of who they are. You would be too, if you boasted a package complete with smarts, beauty, humility and diehard ambition. Now if only Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito had looked like thisÖ
Yes, Ada and Arlene Tai are twins. And no, theyíre not just another Maxim gimmick or Coors Lite punchline, but two all-purpose, do-it-all talents with aspirations of taking the entertainment industry by storm. While the Hong Kong-bred, Michigan-molded duo may have earned their stripes by funneling through all the requisite paths to visibilityóappearing on glossy covers (Asian editions of Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, and Elle, among others), product placement ads (Guinness Beer, Ericsson Cellular) and bit parts in studio blockbusters (Rush Hour), they also possess a rare quality which far exceeds mere showmanship and spotlight-gazing--artistry. Their 13-minute self-produced, self-written, self-acted short film Rock, Paper, Scissors caused quite a stir at the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, directly resulting in their breakthrough roles as the Siamese sirens in Tim Burtonís latest Cirque du Soleil, Big Fish. Without lapsing into formulaic Hollywood fare, Ada and Arlene are poised to become the new-gen of female Asian American entertainers who buck the trend of hell-on-wheels dragon lady and/or demure, self-flagellating housewife. -- By Chi Tung
Interview with Ada and Arlene Tai
Date: April 24, 2004
Interviewed by Jennifer Chong
Additional research and contributions by Ada Tseng
Transcribed by Chau Nguyen
APA: Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background.
Ada: I think that the introduction should be similar because weíre twins. We were born in San Francisco, raised in Hong Kong, moved to Michigan, and now weíre in LA.
APA: How did you girls get started in acting and modeling?
Ada: We always wanted to be in the entertainment industry ever since we were in Hong Kong, but as Asian parents are, it was a little scary for us to come out and tell them. So, we really didnít tell them until we came across someone out here in LA--out in the street, who asked us if we would be interested in doing commercials. Normally, I think we wouldnít listen to him or do anything because you meet people on the street all the time and you donít know how much of it is really true, but I think since it was the two of us, we werenít as fearful. He introduced us to a commercial agency, which we signed with the first day we met them. Weíve been with them for a long time, and then of course, we moved on from there.
It took awhile to know what we were doing in the audition room, but once we got the hang of it, we started booking commercials and then we started doing modeling for different campaigns. Sometimes they would want Asian twins so we were considered, but other times, we would do it by ourselves, individually.
We also did products and editorials, or fashion spreads for here [U.S.]. We also did some magazines in Asia. We did a lot more editorial things out in Asia, such as the Asian copies of Cosmo and Elle. We did some of that, and then now we are more focused on doing feature movies and just more acting than modeling.
We just want to immerse ourselves in the entertainment industry where people are creative and have a vision that might be different from anyone else. We just want to be with people who have that so it doesnít matter whether itís a commercial, a feature, or TV. As long as weíre surrounded by people who are like that, I think weíll be happy.
APA: What was it like growing up in Michigan and then making the transition to Los Angeles?
Ada: I think we couldnít wait to leave. I think it has its pros and cons.
Arlene: It definitely has its pros and cons because I think growing up in such a small town, we really got to be kids. I think in a big city like LA or New York, kids are not kids. Girls who are eight or nine years old walk around as if they were sixteen. I think because we grew up in the Midwest, we had a wonderful upbringing and close family ties [such] that we were able to really just explore and be kids and goof off and do what kids normally would do.
Ada: Adding to what Arlene said, another pro was that we really got to know who we were. We came from a small town. When we went to school there, there was just one high school in the entire town and there were only two traffic lights. We really got to know who we were. We were really able to find out [who we were]. We werenít influenced by a lot of things. We didnít have that much peer pressure. We really got to explore and really just say, ďyou know what, we got to know who we were and weíre happy with that even though we were the only Asian family there.Ē There wasnít another Asian family in the entire town. We were the only Asians in the whole entire school so we really had to learn who we were. We had to deal with a lot of that stuff. We have supporting parents that we talk to all the time (almost everyday), so we have really good strong family values from them--a strong foundation.
APA: You two earned a business degree from USC. Has this academic background been useful after graduation?
Arlene: No, not really. [Laughs]. I wish I could write to them and get my money back. I think it sounds conceited to say that we went to USC and a private school. Itís about getting your fingernails dirty and really just doing it. All this expert stuff is all great and dandy, but if you really went out and tried it, you might not even be successful.
Ada: It sounds good if someone asks you where you went to school and you said USC, but if you watched The Apprentice, the smart guy got fired first. It really doesnít matter if youíre out there in the world because it matters who you are. If you know that, then it doesnít really matter what school you went to. But I did okay.
Arlene: On the other side, just to give the university a positive note, I think that going to school does in some sense help because you do build a very good solid friendship outside of your family. I think because everyone is an undergrad together and you go through the same four-year program, you really build a solid family of friends who can help you a lot in the future. For example, if everyone in your film school continues on, you can help each other on future projects. So, there are good points about going to school.
APA: Why did you decide to depart from business and jump into the entertainment industry?
Ada: I think we just started realizing what the fun life to live is. We didnít want to be afraid of not telling our parents that this is what we really wanted to do, so we stuck up [for ourselves]. I think that that guy kind of helped us along in terms of suggesting that we do commercials. That gave us an added acknowledgement that maybe we should do this. So, I think from that, we kind of started being more brave and telling them [her parents] thatís what we wanted to do.
APA: You two share the same career and you even finish each otherís sentences, but presumably you two are not identical in every way. What are the major differences that distinguish the two of you?
Ada: Iím funnier. [Laughs]. I donít know, but itís a question that we get asked quite often. I donít know, what do you think?
Arlene: I think thatÖI donít know.
APA: I read somewhere that one is more shy than the other, is that true?
Ada: I guess most people would say one is more quiet or shy than the other person.
Arlene: But you know what, whenever you compare, one will always have to be more [something] than the other; we canít both be the same, so I guess it just depends on the time of day, the month, and the year.
Ada: In terms of major differences, that would be more [of a question] for our friends to answer, I guess. I think if you needed cheering up, or if youíre down and you need someone to boost you up and make you feel better about whatever is happening in your life, I think they will call me more than Arlene.
APA: Do you agree, Arlene?
Arlene: I agree. Itís definitely Ada because she is a cheerleader. Sheís very good at helping people with their issues and problems, and very supportive and caring in that way--thatís why I love her as a sister.
APA: What are some of the qualities that you admire about each other?
Ada: The sensibility that she has regarding other people.
Arlene: She is just really very sincere and always thinking about others before thinking about herself. Itís a really awesome quality, and thatís not something that you get very often. She is someone with a true heart.
Ada: I paid her to say that. [Laughs].
APA: On to your most recent endeavors--Big Fish. This highly acclaimed film is just filled with highly competent, not to mention famous people like Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange and Danny Devito. How was it like working with a cast of that caliber?
Ada: Oh my gosh, it was like a dream come true. Are you kidding me?
Arlene: It was really a delight. Youíre on set and theyíre just people; theyíre just actors, like everyone else who are actors. They were very generous and giving. We all just had a wonderful time in Alabama filming this film.
Ada: I think it was really like a dream come true. When you step back, youíre just like, ďOh my gosh, I canít believe that these are the people I know now, and these are the people that know me by name.Ē But, when you are in that moment and in that minute, it happens so fast. All of a sudden youíre talking to them, and the next thing you know, youíre friends. Itís just one of those things that happens in life. When youíre in it, you donít realize whatís happening, and only when youíre finished with the project do you step back and realize, ďWow, I just talked to Danny Devito and he knows me by name.Ē If I saw Danny at a party, he would absolutely come up and say hi. I mean, itís still odd to me that I have that kind of connection with some of the people on the crew because I would never imagine that I would know them that well.
Arlene: I feel extremely blessed to be able to be part of this wonderful project and [to] be able to be part of all these other peopleís lives for a short period of time.
Ada: And, weíll always be together in the film.
APA: Letís not forget about Tim Burton, whoís one of my favorite directors. He's directed two of my favorite films, Edwards Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. What did you learn from this experience, working with such a gifted director?
Arlene: For me personally, what I learned from Tim and from his crew --because Tim is extraordinary in his vision but he also has this amazing crew that helped him in that vision like the set design and costume design--what I got from this is that anything is possible. Whatever you dream of or could dream of is possible-- they proved to us that they could do it.
They made this amazing script into a great movie. These people are tremendously gifted and talented and that was what was so inspiring to me. They fight for what they want and they really go out of their ways to fight for little things because they really, truly believe that it will add value to the project.
Ada: They donít leave anything unturned.
APA: There was a scene in the movie where the both of you performed a duet. Were you two actually singing?
Ada: No. Danny Elfman, a composer, whom weíve talked to on the phone--he had one of his singers do the singing.
Arlene: We honestly didnít even get the music to this section of the movie until a week before we shot the film.
Ada: But, I think people think I really did sing. I guess itís good; all that worked out.
APA: Even though you two didnít actually do the singing, are you girls planning to pursue a singing career?
Ada: No. I donít think anyone really wants to hear us sing. [Laughs]. [Maybe at] Karaoke bars, but thatís as far as that will go. But I mean, Iíll play a singer in a movie or something, but [I wonít go] as a far as a record deal.
APA: Okay, last question on Big Fish--during the film, the two of you were conjoined at the waist. Although this was a beautiful and surreal illusion, it must have been quite uncomfortable. Could you describe how this illusion was created?
Ada: Yes, it was very painful. Her hip bone was hitting mine and they had to cut the main corset that we had to wear. It was sewn up with wires and a metal plate. While we were singing, it ripped at the seams. The costume designer was sick of sewing us up so he decided to do the little metal bracket thing on us. We were quite confined after that, but they were nice. They gave us a board--it was one of those leaning boards that people would use back in the Ď40s and Ď50s. Itís for people who are all dressed up and you lean on it, so itís called a leaning board. It would take the weight off your feet a little. They did a double leaning board next to each other so we would have something to lean on because as you can imagine, there was no way we could sit and get up because there were no chairs big enough for that. So they were nice to give us that board so we had something to lean on.
Arlene: But once the costume was in, it was in. The only time we got it off was when we were finished.
Ada: We didnít drink any water; I was so fearful. The first time we put it on, I didnít want to have to use the restroom.
Arlene: I remembered thinking, ďI didnít go to the bathroom all day.Ē It must have been so bad for me, but I was obviously trying to get the work done. I was doing all this stuff and I didnít even think about it, but of course, as soon as I did [think about it], I had to go. It was definitely pretty tight.
APA: You guys were literally tied to one another. Did this experience bring you guys closer in any way?
Arlene: Well, it got Ada frustrated with me because my head was swinging into her face.
Ada: There were some tense moments when we rehearsed the dance and that was a little bit more difficult because first of all, we had to learn to do the dance. Then, we had to be (tied) hip bone to hip bone. When youíre that close and youíre trying to learn the dance, the hair and everything is all over the place. It was a little frustrating to learn how to dance with somebody so close to you. Imagine when couples dance--they already have a hard time getting the footwork and everything, but imagine when youíre tied hip bone to hip bone. We were also trying to do what the choreographer was giving right there on the spot.
Arlene: It was a little challenging but once we got it, it was fine.
Ada: And after a couple of weeks of putting on this outfit, we were hopping around all over the place.
Arlene: We eventually got used to it but it was the initial day of actually trying it on that we were like, oh my gosh, I need some personal space.
APA: As you two may know, there are many stereotypes associated with Asian women, such as the exotic seductress stereotype or the martial arts genius. It seems that Asians get representation only by virtue of these limited roles. An example would be Lucy Liu. How do you feel about Hollywood perpetuating these images?
Ada: I feel that an Asian female can play any part, but I do feel that they are starting to get better at it. In regards to Lucy Liu picking those parts, maybe she wants to. I donít know her personally but Iíve met her a few times. Iím not really sure because I think she has enough power to get parts too. She is definitely at the forefront in terms of Asian American actresses, so she definitely has power to choose what she wants to do. For me, I think Hollywood is responding, although maybe not fast enough for us.
Arlene: You have to give them credit. They are trying, but of course, we all would want it to be faster. Itís relatively new for Asians to even be in this type of environment so I think theyíre responding at just about the right pace. I do notice a lot of changes already in modeling and commercials. I see a lot of Asians in commercials and in TV. Pretty soon itíll roll over to film work. Itís just a matter of time. People just need to settle down a little bit and itíll come.
APA: I understand that you two have made some progressive steps toward combating the limited types of representation Asians are given. Like in one publication, I read a quote from Ada that said: ďIím trying to make it so itís possible that we can have parts where you can have an Asian supporting actress, or Asian lead, or story about an Asian person, that has nothing to do with the fact that she is Asian, but the fact that she lived here in America.Ē I found this statement to be very profound. What are your strategies for bringing about this change, or how would you implement this?
Ada: Well, I think itís through creating. Arlene and I wrote and produced a short film that had nothing to do with Asian females; it had to do with twins because thatís something that we are. I think that it is all about just continuing to make films about people. And, speaking from my conversation with you so far, it has been about just being who you are--being people who live here.
I guess my strategy in achieving that is being committed to doing great work because I speak for both Arlene and myself when I say that weíre both committed to doing amazing, creative, out in the frontier work. Hopefully that will really attract people, and hopefully those parts have nothing to do with whether or not we have an accent or whether or not we just came from Hong Kong. I think in order for Hollywood and people to really see who we are as talented artists, we really need to see them as artists first so they can say, "You know what, they are talented artists. We can put them in this and we can put them in that.Ē But, until they start seeing who we are, we are not anywhere.
Arlene: We are just what we are put out there to be like.
Ada: I hear a lot of people say, ďThere are not enough parts, there are not enough parts.Ē Iím just thinking, you know what, we just have to keep doing great work so that the parts will be available because Hollywood is not stupid; they are not that dumb. They make a lot of money and if there are talented people, they will write for you.
Arlene: There is no doubt in my mind that there are parts that work out there.
Ada: If we as a culture can be committed to being amazing artists, then there will be amazing parts for us. They might be of Asian descent or they might not be, but whatever it is, itíll still be great work.
APA: You girls have been in the entertainment business for quite some time now and have matured in more ways than one. For instance, youíve learned the value of being true to yourself. Have your standards for accepting roles changed now that both of you have accumulated so much experience and knowledge?
Arlene: I think at the beginning, we just werenít really true to ourselves--thatís one of the problems of being an actor or actress in Hollywood. Youíre always trying to please other people. Youíre trying to please the casting director; youíre trying to please the agent; youíre trying to please the manager; youíre trying to do whatever it is they want you to do instead of being committed to being really great artists or being really great at what youíre doing at the present time. You have to get away from pleasing everybody because I think once you try to please everybody, you get lost as to who you really are.
APA: So are you saying that you girls donít do that anymore?
Ada: I think that we are definitely getting there. I think there are still moments when meeting somebody Iím like, ďOh my gosh, what are they going to think of me, or oh my gosh, I said something dumb and what are they going to think when I say this or that.Ē I think there are definitely [those] moments, but we try to not let that control who we are.
Arlene: I think itís human to feel that way. Itís kind of like youíre not sure of what they think-- thatís just human, but just donít let that run its course and ruin your day.
Ada: I think we just go, ďOh okay, thatís how I feel.Ē We donít let that control our conversation with them.
APA: Just out of curiosity, do you find that it is easier to get roles when you the two of you are paired up as opposed to when you seek individual roles?
Ada: I think that when weíre paired up, there is a definite advantage because they are looking for twins.
Arlene: It just eliminates competition. We do work well together. We have good chemistry when we work together and I think people can see that, so that helps too. Eventually, weíre not always going to be together and weíre definitely going to do other things [separately], but when we do get called in together, our chances are a little higher.
Ada: Weíre both happy that we got cast for Big Fish. It was a project that we will definitely remember for a long time.
APA: You both have advocated the importance of Asian Americans being an inspiration to others and you two have undoubtedly demonstrated this, meaning that you are an inspiration to other people as well, but who were your inspirations?
Ada: I have so many. My family is an inspiration to me. Even though they are not in the entertainment industry or anything like that, they are inspiring to me because of who they are to me. What they stand for is a glowing love. They are there for me no matter what. They are going to talk to me if I didnít get this [role], and they are going to think Iím wonderful even if I didnít get the part Iíve always wanted. I feel like in Hollywood, you get a lot of rejection and you get a lot of people who feel like youíre less than them because you didnít get something. Thatís why itís great to have family who really love you because you are you.
In terms of what you are actually looking for--in terms of actors, I feel there are so many that itís endless. One that comes to mind at this present moment would be Meryl Streep. I think she is an amazing actress and sheís always done great work. I think she is really true to who she is, and Julianne Moore as well. Every time Iíve seen her (Moore) onscreen, sheís really been true to her craft. Itís amazing that she is able to bring out a lot of her emotions in difficult scenes.
Arlene: Another one that comes to mind that is very inspiring, even though she is not an actress, is Oprah Winfrey. I think Oprah has done a lot for the community and for the world. She stands for a lot of things to a lot of people, and because of where she came from, I also just find it very inspiring. You know, you really can do anything you want.
Ada: Anything is possible in this world. Itís amazing to be alive and to cherish every moment that weíre here.
APA: Do you guys have any inspirations specific to modeling?
Arlene: Modeling is fun. We have cool clothes that cost a lot of money.
Ada: I love fashion, so modeling is great because you get to wear these amazing outfits and jewelry and just look fabulous for the time being, or for the hour that you are shooting. I would like to one day have my acting craft be well known enough so that people would ask me to be their spokesperson like Catherine Zeta Jonesí Verizon--where I would be an actual person that the public would know, acknowledge and respect. And if I endorse a product, that they would want it also. I think that would be what Arlene and I would want in the future.
APA: What motivated you two to write and produce your own project? Did it have anything to do with the lack of multidimensional roles available to Asians?
Ada: I think it did. I think we just wanted to write something for ourselves because we thought, well you know what--we can! Weíve written enough scripts, and at the time, we were pretty naÔve. We didnít know all that it took to really make it.
Arlene: I think a lot of times in order to get anything done, you have to be a tad bit naÔve.
Ada: To tell you the truth, if I knew all there was that had to be done for this short film or any film, I would have talked myself out of it. Iíll be like, ďOh my gosh, itís so much money. Oh my gosh, itís so much work. How am I going to get this? How am I going to get the crew?Ē I would have literally driven myself insane. I think being a little naÔve helped because I had no idea what was going on and I was so into it.
Arlene: It was a blessing in disguise.
APA: So bottom lineóbeing naÔve sometimes is a good thing?
Ada: Oh yes. It was stressful, I have to admit. We had to learn about film school all in one week. It was stressful, but we learned a lot and Iím glad that people have liked it. Weíre really thankful for that.
APA: Speaking of learning, what did you learn from making your first short film Rock, Paper, Scissors that helped you prepare for your current project?
Ada: I think itís great for all artists to do itóto write something and put it up no matter what the format. I guess when youíre an actress, you feel your part is the only part, but the whole point of the project is for everybody to come together and make the project work. I guess what it really helped me with was not to be so stressed about every little thing, such as my acting, where a particular word had to be said like this, or I have to bring out all these certain things to everything.
Arlene: I think that by doing Rock, Paper, Scissors, it made me respect the other departments that go along with the film such as the art department, costume, makeup, hair, the producers, the directors, and lightingóall the other nuances that go with making a film. I have such great respect for them because I know how hard it is. Weíve taken part in a lot of different things by doing the short film. I really do give a lot of them kudos for what they do and I donít think I really did that before.
Ada: I think before, we were so focused on just our parts, so I think it really taught me to really see the whole picture and [see] how everything comes together. I think thatís what I learned-- not to be so stressed about every little thing and every little word.
APA: So it was an eye-opening experience then?
Arlene: Yes. Before we did this short film, we had no idea of all the work that you have to do to make any project of any sort happen.
APA: After reading your biographies, it appears that you two have done it all. You two have appeared in magazines, commercials, movies, etc. Both of you lead illustrious modeling careers, and both of you write and produce films. First of all, congratulations on all your achievements. What do you guys plan on doing next? Do you have upcoming projects?
Ada: Itís funny that you said that because we have meetings set up for developing a TV series. Weíre going to many meetings and just getting out there and creating the work.
Arlene: I donít really know if itís going to go through or not, but I just know that weíre committed to making things happen.
Ada: Thatís something thatís on our agenda. This Thursday, we are hosting the VC (Visual Communications) film festival. We just got back from Barbados doing a commercial.
Arlene: Weíre just going to do what we have set our minds to, which is just being committed and being inspirational to other people. I think our commitment as artists is to do great work and let people in Hollywood know that Asian Americans can be amazing, fabulous actors. It just isnít Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos that can act. Asian people can act too. We can be funny. We can be just like anyone else. We just want to surround ourselves with creative people so that we are continuously doing work that inspires the people around us.
APA: Going back to the TV series, can you tell me a little about the subject matter for the series?
Arlene: It will be a little bit like Rock, Paper, Scissors. Ada and I have tried to come up with a treatment or some sort of an idea, maybe possibly even a movie, or making a feature length. Recently, I met with people who really liked Rock, Paper, Scissors and would really like to take that on, so we started brainstorming and we came up with a few ideas that might work. It definitely was better than what we had come up with [ourselves] in the past.
Ada: I think maybe it has something to do with everything. Thereís always a building block. Rock, Paper, Scissors itself was great and people enjoyed it, but it wasnít enough for people to take notice of us. I think once we did Big Fish, it was a bigger step, and people started to notice [us] more. They were able to see our other works and realize, ďWait a minute, you know what, maybe we can do something.Ē We want to get people interested in us and maybe develop something for it. But in terms of specifics, we canít really say anything right now.
APA: Thank you so much for your time.
Ada and Arlene: Thank you.
Date Posted: 8/20/2004