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Though in person, she's not the naive, accent-ridden newlywed seen in Mail Order Wife, Eugenia Yuan is nevertheless a woman of many tongues. And talents too. Some of which include: Making us laugh. Making us cry. Making us wish we were on the National Rhythmic Gymnastic Team instead of writing leads for APA. Ok, so only the last part's not true...
A relatively new face, Eugenia Yuan was actually a member of the U.S. National Rhythmic Gymnastics team for several years, before she eventually followed her mother's footsteps into acting. Her mom is renowned Hong Kong martial arts actress Cheng Pei Pei, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame. But Eugenia rose from underneath her mother's shadow, making a name for herself when she won the Hong Kong Oscar for Best Newcomer, in Peter Chan's film Three, playing a naked corpse in the bathtub. She was also the star of the recent Charlotte Sometimes and will be seen this year in the multitalented cast of Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha. APA had the pleasure of speaking to Eugenia about her first foray into comedy and the brand of sick, twisted humor she's especially proud of, in her new movie Mail Order Wife. She plays a mail order bride from Burma who comes to the U.S. looking for a new life but gets more than she bargained for, including a love triangle with the filmmaker making a documentary of her husband's search for love through catalog. -- Ada Tseng
February 28, 2005
Interview with Eugenia Yuan
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Transcription by Chi Tung
APA: How about you start by introducing yourself today.
Eugenia Yuan: Hi, I'm Eugenia Yuan and I'm starring in Mail Order Bride...[corrects herself] Wife.
APA: Did it used to be called Mail Order Bride?
EY: It did. Now it's called Mail Order Wife.
APA: Because in the press kit, parts of it say Mail Order Bride and other parts say...
EY: Because there's another movie called Mail Order Bride, so we couldn't do it again.
APA: So what attracted you to this project?
EY: I've always ben doing drama and I've always wanted to do comedy -- dark comedy is the type of comedy that I wanna do. And I thought it was really interesting because it was sort of improv format and you could sort of play around with it, and the directors were really cool and we all really got along really well and our sense of humor was the same -- kind of sick. But we all clicked, but i thought it was great because the character, it might seem like she would be someone...she comes out on top, which is the twist, and I thought that was really cool. I've always liked to play characters who at first seem to be weaker, and you worry about them or you think they're not going to be strong but in the end, they turn out to be the strong ones. I like that.
APA: How did you prepare for the role? Did you do a lot of research?
EY: No. The funny thing is that at Q&A's, at festivals and stuff, that's always a big question, do the directors...the big joke is that they pride themselves on how little research they do. [laughs] But for this character, no I didn't, because I speak with an accent and I've been training for that all my life because I've been the clown in my family and I always did that. But in the movie, that's my character, and if I came from America and never spoke before, that's just how I would speak. I'm not making fun of her, that's just the way she talks.
APA: I was actually gonna ask you about the accent since you don't have one...
EY: I loved it.
APA: Did you have to work on how to make it more comedic?
EY: Nope. I just spoke it the way I heard my mom speak and I think it just came out that way. And it was the best time I've ever had actually; if I could get a character who always spoke with an accent, it would be so much fun; you're not making fun of it, it's just the reality of the character. It was so fun for me, if I got to do an English accent or an Australian accent, I would love to do it.
APA: How would you describe your character? At first, she's kinda the sterotype...
EY: Well, that word "stereotype," it's always...it's a fact, there are mail order brides, they come over here, not just from China, from Russia, everywhere. My character is from Burma and I come here and everything is a new experience and what I want is a better life and that's what everyone wants. It doesn't matter if you're already living here, or if you're not, and at first it seems like her situation is not such a great one, because the husband who bragged about being a macho man with a great job and a great car turns out to be not so great. But just like any other situation or relationship, I think you kind of have to roll wtih everything and deal with everything, she has to balance what she wants more: does she want to live in America more, is that important, and what will she take in doing that. And gradually I get to the love triangle thing where the filmmaker is documenting our experiences -- the mail order bride experience with my first husband Adrian -- he gets involved and he draws that fine line where the filmmaker gets too involved with the film.
APA: Yeah, the film is shot kind of like a documentary...
EY: Yeah, they're known for doing documentaries, Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko are great at what they do; the thing is they were saying sometimes when you're shooting a documentary with real people and it's not working the way you want it to, so it's easier to get actors who have to do what you want them to do. So it is shot like a documentary, so like some for some people...my father, he's never watched a docuemntary, so it's like: "what is that camera action," and it's kind of odd, but it's a different genre and great that way.
APA: Is one of the goals of this to trick people into thinking...
EY: Yeah well, we don't wanna say it's our goal, but a lot of people are fooled till the end, until I walk out and they're like wow, she's here, and it's funny or it's funny to see at what point someone realizes that it's fake and most people, if they think it's real, they get kinda mad, and the women especially -- and the men too -- they get really mad, they hate him or that guy. But then when they realize it's fake, they loved that they were fooled and enjoyed it. When we asked people if they were really pissed off, if that makes them not wanna see the movie and they're like "no, we're gonna tell our friends," cause it's fun and it's a great movie, and it's really dark, you don't know when to laugh; it's the type of movie when sometimes you're uncomfortable laughing.
APA: Since it's like a documentary, it seems very natural. Was a lot of it improvised?
EY: Yeah, there's a lot of improv, but with improv, you think you don't need a script, but that's not true, there is a script, but there's a basic thing of where you wanna get to. But the improv is great; there are scenes like the pig scene and things like that which makes it even better. But you really have to get along with your other actors and understand and trust and keep going. That's what was great; I loved improv.
APA: I was gonna ask you about the snake scene actually...
EY: Yeah, we had a real snake.
APA: Did you really feed it?
EY: Yeah, it was really bad. That and the snake is huge and I'm not a big fan of snakes and they can't feed it...it eats like once a week, so it's hungry and I'm there. And I had to take a picture with it around me, holding it before we feed it, so I was really scared of that. And I had to hold the rat, which I had never done before -- it was spinning, because it was scared, and it started pooing all over -- then i had to feed it, and that was disgusting. The worst part was that the next day they were like, "it was kind of dark, we might have to do it again." No!! But we didn't, thank god. But yeah, the snake was real.
APA: So the filmmakers are known for being shocking and blatantly offensive in their humor. So do you think that they're trying to make some sort of social commentary or is it more about making people laugh?
EY: Yeah, they're not about social commentary; if anything, they're making fun of themselves or documentary filmmmakers perhaps -- I'm not really the person to say what he was trying to do -- but it's really the shock value. They love shocking people and getting that response; it's their sense of humor, it's great, it's twisted.
APA: One of the producers said that the film "pinpoints the malaise of the American male." Do you think there's truth behind that...
EY: I think it pinpoints the malaise of any male, not just American or whatever.
APA: Do you think men are really like that?
EY: Sadly, maybe. [Laughs] I should hope that they're not, but I think that it shows what women can drive men to do.
APA: In what way?
EY: That they could be so upset that they need revenge or else they can't complete that circle and can't move on. And they go crazy -- I guess everyone in relationships go crazy, but...
APA: You like doing comedy?
EY: I love dark comedy. It comes out of pain, it's not slapstick -- which is fine, I like all that -- but it's really great to for once be sitting in a theater watching a movie that I'm in and hearing people laugh. It's so great, so fun to hear them enjoy it. It's nice -- not really nice -- but in my other movies, this film I did called Three, I'm sitting there and everyone's bawling their eyes out. That's great too -- because I got that reaction -- but to hear people laugh, it's so great, you know?
APA: As an Asian American actress in Hollywood, do you still find yourself typecast?
EY: Well, it's always gonna be hard. I don't really like that terminology, Asian American, because I feel like to make yourself an Asian American, you're putting yourself in that category, you're saying this is all I am, and the more open-minded you are, the more open minded others will hopefully see you as. And I think the roles are getting better, and the truth is, I'm Asian, I am Chinese and when you look at me on the screen, that's what you'll see -- you won't see a white person. Which is fine, that's what I am, and hopefully there'll be more characters that are just Chinese, not Asian American, not whatever -- I don't like that classification, I never liked it.
APA: You grew up here, right? In Inglewood, right?
EY: Not Inglewood -- I was born in Inglewood -- I grew up in San Marino.
APA: I think you've said in the past you've always found yourself acting in Hollywood, as opposed to Hong Kong. Growing up, were you really Americanized?
EY: Well, I grew up here, so I am Americanized, but my mom is a movie star in Hong Kong and I did two movies in Hong Kong. My first one, I got an Oscar for it, and I love certain directors who i would love to work with again -- like Peter Chan -- and I like artsy movies, and I don't see too much of that in Hong Kong, so it would really depend for me on the director and the script and the roles over there, because it's not that important for me to have a career over there. I want to have a career over here, because I live here and I'm used to it here, and I've grown up here, and not because it's bigger or anything like that. But I've gone back to Hong Kong and I've done movies there, and to stay there, I'm not comfortable, I'm not used to it. But it's interesting because everywhere I am, I'm seen as a foreigner -- over there, I'm seen as a foreigner, something different, over here, obviously I'm not white. But you wonder if there is a, "does she look Chinese enough?" and it's odd because who decides that, because I am full Chinese.
APA: That's kind of odd, someone telling you you don't look Chinese enough.
EY: Well, I'm pretty sure I am. [laughs]
APA: I read you know a ridiculous amount of languages. How did you learn all of them? Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian...are you learning French?
EY: I've been wanting to learn French, I've started many times, but I haven't had time to continue. But I speak all those languages because my mom used to say, "you're really smart and you wouldn't want anyone to say anything about you in another language." So I would just pick it up, and that's why I know three dialects of Chinese -- cause I have relatives in Hong Kong or whatever -- and Spanish I took in high school and I always spoke it with people I knew. And Russian -- I was a a rhythmic gymnast on the national team here and my coach was Russian and all my teammates were Russian, and then I trained in Russia and then I studied Russian here, in school at UCLA. So there was a time when I was training seven hours a day, and you only see your teammates and your coach more than everyone else, and I was dreaming in Russian, and that was crazy.
APA: How long did you do that for?
EY: I did rhythmic for six, seven years, but I did regular gymnastics before that, and I did dance since I was four.
APA: Was it intense?
EY: The rhythmic was intense becuase I was on the national team, and it was all about training and I trained in Bulgaria for two summers and I spoke Bulgarian at the time, and it's really similar to Russian, but now I can't remember it. But that taught me a lot.
APA: When did you decide you wanted to become an actress?
EY: I kept trying to fight if off because my mom was and everyone was saying, "you're just acting cause of your mom," and I wasn't sure and because I was a rhythmic gymnast for so long, that was kind of my title: Eugenia, rhythmic gymnast. And then you don't do that anymore, and you're lost. I didn't have an identity anymore, I didn't know what I wanted, I didn't have that feeling anymore, why I did anything. And I kept fighting off the acting thing, and I did choreography and so forth, and then finally I did Charlotte...one day I decided I wanted to see if this was for me, and I started off with Charlotte Sometimes, and since then I found what is me and what's natural and what I love. I love it so much, I feel lucky that I found something that I love. But it's about how many opportunities will I have to do what I love, but it feels right, it's not hard, it's not scary -- auditions suck --but doing it never scares me; when I'm there, I'm never scared, and that's when I know it's right.
APA: So you just finished shooting Memoirs of a Geisha.
EY: Yeah, it was great. Rob Marshall is an awesome director. And I got to play with Gong Li, who is my favorite Chinese actress. Gong Li is amazing, she's everything, you're just around her, she doesn't have to speak a word, you just get that intensity. And she's like my idol and to play her best friend and to become friends with her and to learn from her, to be around her was just wonderful. That was great.
APA: What else can we expect from you?
EY: I hope, good things. [Laughs] I'm going through a TV pilot season now and I really hope to do a lot of films on a variety of characters so you know me as an actress. I'm not concerned about being a pretty thing or a kickass girl or martial arts, stuff like that. I can do martial arts, but I would rather not be pigeonholed. I just want to play characters that are gritty and dark and well, I wanna keep acting.
APA: Thank you.
EY: Thank you.
Mail Order Wife coming to theaters:
March 11 — NYC
March 11 — LA
March 25 — San Francisco
March 25 — Austin
Date Posted: 3/10/2005