The Working APA Actor is a bi-monthly interview of Asian Pacific Islander American actors in the entertainment world, whether it be theater, film, television, or commercials. It is an inside look at these actors exploring their passion in their craft and how they balance their personal lives with their work. But more importantly, this column is dedicated to knowing these busy actors a little better as individuals.
For this week’s edition of The Working APA Actor, I am pleased to introduce you all to a wonderful friend of mine who many of you may know very well. She is none other than Kristina Wong.
To describe her accurately is a feat that only Kristina Wong herself can do with justice, but what I can say with the utmost confidence is that she has an unending passion to create new works that explores at every uncomfortable spot within herself that she can muster.
This fearlessness has made me a huge admirer of Kristina’s work as well as herself (to which she may disagree profusely on) and as she begins her tour in Texas for her premiere of Cat Lady, I leave you all with her words in how she became the performing artist and the woman that she is today.
Tell us about yourself! What are you most passionate about in this world?
I’m Kristina Wong. I’m a solo performer and writer. I sometimes make films and act in other people’s film and theater projects, but I’m a lucky lady who gets to make a living doing her own shows! While technically, I reside in Koreatown [in] Los Angeles, I’m often roaming around the country touring my one person shows. One of my more well known shows is Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that I’ve been touring all over the country since 2006. That show was about the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women.
I gotta be honest, I’m not sure what I’m passionate about these days… When I was younger, I thought the life I have now of traveling to awesome cities and blowing people’s minds as an indie artist was the most awesome life possible, but it’s pretty exhausting and a wee bit hard on my personal life. So I’m definitely in a transition time of figuring out what other awesome things there are in life besides making art. See the description of Cat Lady below…
What is Cat Lady all about and how did you come up with this show?
Cat Lady explores the (sometimes hilarious) existential loneliness I experienced making and touring my last show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the last four years. Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a funny show considering the sobering topic, but still, it was a very hard four years for me. Especially because I’d travel so much of the country alone and soon got used to saying the words “suicide and depression” like they were two of my best friends. I’d come home to my cat Oliver who’d spray because I’d abandoned him. And meanwhile, all my friends on Facebook were turning into wedding and toddler photos. It was so weird; I was literally living the same script over and over again while the rest of the world moved on to “real life.”
I got into reading Neil Strauss’ The Game and watching VH1’s The Pick Up Artist which follows aspiring pick-up artists on their journey to “manhood.” I was struck by how so many men in the pick-up artist community are Asian and how they literally had to adapt characters and pick up scripts to survive socially.
Making the show has been so process intensive. In the show, I actually pull text straight from actual pick-up artist training videos, e-newsletters, and blog entries that are used as a lot of the dialogue in the play. As part of our process, I’ve spent time interviewing professional pick-up artists, attending their seminars and reading more “lay reports” than I care to remember. I also hired DJ Fuji, an Asian American “dating and life coach” to teach us pick-up in a 14 hour crash course bootcamp.
What is your favorite junk food of all time?
I was going to be sassy and say “cock” but I don’t even like cock, so I’m going to go with In-N-Out’s grilled cheese animal style! Though, I guess In-N-Out grilled cheese animal style could be construed as being the same as “cock.”
When did you know for sure you wanted to be an actor? What inspired you to become an actor?
“Actor” is a bit of a dirty word in Hollywood. It just seems to invite snickers to call yourself an “actor” in this town, especially if nobody has never seen “your work.” I cave in easily to LA snickers (Hey! “LA Snickers” should be the name of our basketball team!) and in general, identify more as a “performance artist”– it sounds sexier, if not completely confusing.
But it’s true, I make my living, pay my mortgage and thrive almost completely outside Hollywood as a performance artist and writer. I did want to be a Hollywood actor when I was in high school. When I got to college I discovered there was this whole subculture of solo performers who wrote their own work and I realized that was way more interesting to me than sitting around at a cattle call to book roles that weren’t that interesting to me. I especially was excited by artists like Denise Uyehara, Leilani Chan, and Anna Deveare Smith who were making their own work. And operate outside the system that would have only put them to work in very specific and limiting ways.
Do you think there is a difference between being an actor and being a performing artist?
Yep, one waits tables, the other gets grants. Well, that’s not totally true. They both wait on tables. To me, “Performing artist” sounds more genre-fluid and more creatively generative than “actor.” I’m sure there are actors who will disagree with me.
When you act, how do you get yourself into character? We want to know!
Most of my shows are me playing versions of myself or archetypal extensions of my identity. This sounds really bad, as if I just run errands onstage— but really, it’s much more thought out and crafted than that. I create my shows in pretty intense development and rehearsal periods where I constantly play with ideas of persona and how we consciously craft persona. I usually spend the day of a big show doing nothing but meditating, relaxing and going through lines because for 80 minutes I’m a human roller coaster that can’t hit the pause button.
In my last show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I explore the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. I play a character named “Kristina Wong” who insists that she was not herself depressed or suicidal and that her research of the show was done by research of other women. Basically the show collapses on itself and Kristina isn’t sure how to carry the plot forward. This plotline came out of my development process which was really agonizing and I felt like I was succumbing to some serious depression.
What has been your most memorable experience as an actor/performing artist?
I was on a two week residency in Minneapolis doing Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Pangea World Theater thought it would be a great idea for me to do a high school matinee. I didn’t even know it was legal for me to perform for high school kids. I did a performance for this charter high school in Minneapolis full of smart kids. It was mostly white kids and a few stray Asian girls. One of the Asian girls was in the front row and I teased her (as I do during my shows). Later that weekend, I did a non-high school performance and that girl came back with a whole row of her Asian friends. She could have been out at the mall or joining a gang, but instead, she brought her friends to see my show, presumably because it touched her and meant something to her. I was honored.
When it comes to auditions, what has been your most awkward/fail one you have had so far?
Ohmigod, I think all auditions are awkward for me which is why when I do book, it’s always for the awkward/ weirdo roles.
Many years ago I was auditioning at one of the networks and thought that I’d strip down to a unitard and do bad cheerleader hands while in the room. I don’t even think the sides called for this, but in my crazy head thought, “Well, I can see it in this script and I’m going to bring it to the role.” It didn’t go over at all. But rather than excuse me, they just kept me in the room. The casting director sort of nodded her head after in deep reflection/ horror. She asked a very irrelevant question: “Do you own that unitard?” Then she took another minute to take me in silently while I stood there with the unitard crawling up my ass. Then she nodded and sent me on my way. Needless to say, there was no callback.
Acting requires a tremendous lot of work, both physically and mentally. How do you keep yourself active and level-headed?
How do I keep myself level headed? I don’t! That’s what Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about!
But for reals, I think it’s important for sanity sake to have time off, time with friends, and time where you do nothing that has to do with artmaking. With theater, schizophrenic schedules are a way of life. I have months where I work insanely, other weeks where it feel like nothing is happening.
It’s really tricky to keep up a good physical routine because I tend to work at home A LOT and realized I was going crazy because I was having days where I didn’t go outside at all. I started doing yoga regularly this year which has been tremendously healthy and I feel like my body has been in better shape than it’s ever been in my adult life. In general, I set an hour aside each day to do some kind of physical activity. I usually take weekends off from doing anything but somehow still end up at a computer answering emails.
Does your Asian community play any determining factor in your decisions as an actor (ie. taking on roles that may be deemed “stereotypical”)?
I’ve played variants of Japanese schoolgirls at least five times, a happy Eskimo, and an oversexed Korean landlady in commercials and other film projects— and I’ve been ok with it. I used to be super paranoid about coming across as a “stereotype,” but I’ve stopped looking to Hollywood for progressive ideas… And I look to theater and independent artists for them. Hollywood is a paycheck and not where I go to exercise my politics. My work as Kristina Wong is where I exercise my politics and ideas.
I am usually not in positions where I’m up against a wall having to take the role of a massage parlor girl. I tend not to be very good at auditioning for something like that. I think because my handjob technique is off.
Where do you see yourself in the future in terms of what you would like to accomplish?
Cat Lady will be my sixth full-length theater show. It’s safe to say I’m exhausted from working live so much and I think a lot of the themes of Cat Lady come from how exhausted I am from putting my life onstage when my life has become about me being onstage. I’m by no means retiring from live work, but I am interested in seeing what kind of damage I can do outside the analog space of theater. The work I do is incredibly physically and emotionally demanding and while I love traveling, the combo of making theater while traveling has really taken a toll on my body and personal life. So I’m looking forward to making more video work happen and chipping away at the beast that is Los Angeles. I’ve been doing some improvised web sitcoms which is really well suited to how I work because it’s so hard for me to turn the writer off when I act— so improvised shows get me to do both at once.
I’m also very excited that Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a broadcast quality concert film and that audiences who I’ll never get to meet will get to see my show!
In my personal life, I’d love to spend more time at making my home. I have yet to get any art on these walls of this home I bought last year. It’s kind of ironic that in public, I present totally vivid ideas to my audience but in private, I still struggle to figure out what kind of picture I want to look at while taking a crap.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring actors and performing artists?
My best advice to anyone wanting to move to LA to pursue their dreams? Take Fountain.