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.
Who is that hilariously goofy gravelly voiced man? Why, it’s none other than Greg Watanabe. Greg recently just wrapped up a San Jose theatrical production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face where he played the titular DHH character. I had the pleasure of seeing this extremely talented man act in No-No Boy, the first theater show I saw in Los Angeles.
From the get go, he not only has a tremendous aura of charisma and charm, but he is extremely passionate when it comes to social justice activism. With these two passions, he has combined them together for many projects he puts out for the company that he is part of, the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors. But let’s hear what this man has to say for himself!
Tell us about yourself! What are you most passionate about in this world?
I love theater, its collaborative nature, all the creative people and energy involved. I love the audiences’ willingness to support and participate and be a part of the communication and ritual of theater.
And I love that theater is essentially telling a story. And that sometimes i get to tell stories that resonate strongly with me, that have great personal meaning to me.
I love that there’s Asian American theater and that it attempts to speak to those both inside and outside the community about what the community is, it’s struggles, it’s triumphs. And even though it’s just one facet with it’s failures and biases, and weaknesses, participating in Asian American theater projects makes me feel like I’m participating in the process of community.
When did you know for sure you wanted to be an actor? What inspired you to become an actor?
In college I was an English Lit major and took an acting class. I immediately changed my major. I’m not sure I was ever really inspired to become an actor; once I began experiencing it, I knew that’s all I wanted to do.
When I started working at the Asian American Theater in San Francisco, and started working on plays about Asian Americans, I felt I really found something important to me.
And when I met all these other people who shared my passion and then some of us got together and started what would become the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, I really felt we were creating another generation of work. I was wrong, but still, it felt great.
When you act, how do you get yourself into character? We want to know! 😀
Well, there are a bunch of books written by much smarter people than me about building character, etc. But, for what it’s worth:
It’s all about the play and the story being told. Characters serve the story. As an actor, your understanding of the story and your visceral response to what’s going on in a scene will dictate the choices you make and those choices ultimately become your character. And over the course of rehearsal, you make discoveries, try new choices, take in the work of your co-workers, etc.
So I guess for me, getting in to character is something you do over a whole rehearsal period.
What has been your most memorable experience as an actor?
Hm. Probably because it’s a fresh memory, but playing ‘DHH’ in “Yellow Face” recently. I got a chance to work on a play that touches on so many aspects of my work in theater up to now. Issues of self-identification, the power and the pitfalls of the Asian American theater movement and it’s place in the larger Asian American movement, anti-Asian sentiment in America and ultimately, how personal it is, including our relationships to our family.
When it comes to auditions, what has been your most awkward/fail one you have had so far?
I was brought in for an audition and it became clear they thought I was Gedde Watanabe…
Acting requires a tremendous lot of work, both physically and mentally. How do you keep yourself active and level-headed?
I like to play basketball, but I’m not very good, so I get exercise and humiliation at the same time.
But, I guess the harder thing is to keep your spirits up when nothing is coming your way, when you see fucked up things like “the Last Airbender” or hear Adam Carolla doing his “ching chong, ching chong” bit on the radio. It makes you feel like: not only are a lot of people racist assholes when it comes to Asians and Asian Americans, but nobody seems to care that they are.
The only answer is to try and find projects (whether they pay or not) which feed your soul. There’s nothing like working with talented people you like, on material you love and believe in.
Does your Asian community play any determining factor in your decisions as an actor? (is. taking on roles that may be deemed “stereotypical”)
Yes. The more you experience of the community, the more you bring that to everything you work on. It becomes a part of you, and what you are is what you have to offer as an actor.
As for stereotypical work, or harmful, negative portrayals: sometimes it’s totally self-evident in the material, and other times it depends on how it’s treated. You just have to trust your instincts.
Who would you love to work with, whether directors, writers, or other actors?
Off the top of my head: I’d love to work with Culture Clash. I think there are such great stories out there that involve the intersection of the latino and Asian American community. And those guys are just so good at what they do.
Let your imagination run free. If you could create your own story you want to put on screen or on stage, what would it be about?
I would love to a major motion picture about the Asian American movement.
Where do you see yourself in the future in terms of what you would like to accomplish?
I just want to keep working. And be able to afford dental insurance.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring actors?
Only do it if you appreciate the process: the auditioning, the table work, the rehearsal, the tech, the repetition…because at the end of the day, that’s all there is. If you’re doing it for any other reason than enjoying the process itself, then you probably shouldn’t do it.
What is your favorite junk food of all time?
Chinese preserved plums. Peanut butter cups are pretty close though.