The Working APA Actor: Maya Erskine

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.

Here in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, East West Players (the nation’s oldest Asian Pacific American theater company) has taken Crimes of the Heart a beloved American play — and infused some new fresh light into it by having an all Asian American cast to play the roles.

Directed by Leslie Ishii, it opened on November 10th, 2010 and will be running until December 5th. A week before it opened, I got a chance to see a preview performance as I was curious what it was like having an Asian American cast play Southern belle characters set in the deep South.

While the show was thoroughly entertaining to watch, I was instant struck by the actress who played Babe as she stole the scene every time she uttered a line or made a subtle physical gesture. It became a quest of mine to find out who the actress was and to contact her. Once that was accomplished, I soon found out that she was an acquaintance of an old high school friend of mine back from Seoul, South Korea. Small frakkin’ world! This actress possesses grace and spontaneous energy that is hard to come by these days and with that being said, I am extremely honored to introduce you all to the one and only, Maya Erskine.

When you’re not acting, what else do you like to do?
I like to read, watch movies and watch TV … I’ll even watch an entire series in one sitting. And I love to eat! I love trying new foods, especially when travelling. I crave the luxuries of vacationing and travelling.

When did you know for sure you wanted to be an actor? What inspired you to become an actor?
In middle school, I joined an afterschool performing arts program just for fun. Growing up, I had always engaged in extracurricular hobbies or interests: I played violin, piano, soccer etc… I enjoyed those things but never kept it up enough to excel at any of them. I hated practicing, for example. It wasn’t until I started to perform in plays that I realized how much I loved doing something. And it was the one thing that felt effortless to do. One of the first musicals that I did, I played Diana Morales inChorus Line, and I remember during the performance while I was singing the song “Nothing,” I experienced something electric and I started to feel real emotions onstage. I had no idea at that age that something like this was possible onstage. I had thought of acting as being just make-believe and performing. But I discovered that real emotions could be triggered onstage and could cause things to happen that even surprised myself. I realized that the theater was a breathing and living thing. It was magical.

When you act, how do you get yourself into character? We want to know!
Well, a lot of different elements help to inform my character. The text, physicality, and certain moments I discover during a rehearsal period give me clues to my character. If there are holes in the script, I fill in the dots and make up my own history in order to justify why I do the things I do in the story. First, I determine what it is my character wants, and then I build actions from there to help my character get what she wants. Those actions then inform me of the type of person I am portraying. I think it is also vital to always bring parts of yourself to every character you play. That is what makes your portrayal of the character unique and interesting and real. A character’s arc is also extremely important. My training in theater was mostly based in movement, specifically Grotowski – using all parts of your body to explore and create your character’s outer and inner life. So a lot of times, I will use movement to find my character’s physicality.

What has been your most memorable experience as an actor?
I played Hamlet at NYU TISCH in my junior year. During one of the performances, I was backing up on the line “if, like a crab, you could walk backward,” imitating a crab … and I fell right into the lap of an audience member. Luckily, I had already been given permission by the director to do whatever I wanted when playing the role of Hamlet,  (as Hamlet is causing mischief and stirring up trouble in the middle of the play). So I grabbed onto the audience member and began speaking the lines to her about Polonious and it totally worked. It could have been an awfully embarrassing moment but it ended up turning into a bit, a wonderful moment of play.

When it comes to auditions, what has been your most awkward/fail one you have had so far?
I had to do a Shakespeare monologue and I had picked the monologue the day of the audition, attempting to memorize it hours before I was to speak it. I walked into the audition, opened my mouth and no words came out. I took a breath and tried again. I opened my mouth and no words came out…only a squeak of a sound. And then food began to come up so I ran out and threw up in the ladies room. It was terrible. But it definitely taught me to PREPARE PREPARE PREPARE!

Does your Asian community play any determining factor in your decisions as an actor? (ie. taking on roles that may be deemed “stereotypical”)
This production at the East West Players is the first real opportunity I have had to work with an all-Asian cast, and the East West Players forum gave me the chance to play a part I normally would not have been cast for: the part of Mississippi-born, southerner “Babe” in “Crimes of the Heart.” But director Leslie Ishii had a vision and the dramaturge’s research supported this notion of their being an actual, active and viable Asian community in the southern United States. So, while this “Crimes” has an all-Asian cast thanks to East West’s advocacy and orientation, director Ishii places the actors and the play in this imagined but very real community. We are not Asians in white-face, but Asians playing Asians, or more accurately, the sisters in the play are hapa.

What advice would you like to give to aspiring actors?
Well, I am an aspiring actor as well so I should follow whatever advice I am about to give- but do it for the love and joy of it. Do it because you MUST. It’s not brain surgery, so have fun.

Promote yourself! What new projects are you working on right now that you want people to know or keep an eye out for?
“Crimes of the Heart” at East West Players. Come see it! I am so lucky to be a part of this wonderful production. It is a fantastic cast.

Los Angeles peeps, want to see Maya Erskine perform? You can get information on how to obtain tickets by visiting the East West Players website.

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About Edward

Edward Hong is an actor and spoken poet. Passion to make a change in this world through the performing arts and activism defines his ongoing life and it is the struggle against all things unjust that gives him this passion to be one heck of a talkative, stubborn man. It, however, does not mean he strives to be a champion or role model of any community but to be the man who will be honest and say the things nobody will have the balls to say. He is the jester who is outspoken in what he believes in most passionately and therefore cannot be pinpointed that he will do what you expect him to do.
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