Joan Chen: No More Concubine, Dragon Lady Roles

Joan Chen was only a teenager when she was awarded China's equivalent of the Oscar. Americans know Chen best for her roles in the TV series Twin Peaks and the film The Last Emperor. She is honored at this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Chen talks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with those who have made a difference through their work.

With us today, award-winning actress Joan Chen. She was born to two physicians in China and wound up becoming a star in two countries. Only 19 when she took home the Chinese equivalent of the Oscar for best actress, she was hailed as the Elizabeth Taylor of China before she moved to the U.S.

There, Americans got to know her as Josie Packard in the TV series, "Twin Peaks" and as Empress Wan Jung in the film, "The Last Emperor." It was best picture at the 1988 Oscars.

Here's a scene from that movie where she's talking to Emperor Pu Yi, who was played by John Lone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LAST EMPEROR")

JOHN LONE: (as Pu Yi) Do you know what it means to be an empress? You are an empress.

JOAN CHEN: (as Wan Jung) Why do you not make love to me anymore?

LONE: (as Pu Yi) Because you have become an opium addict. Opium killed my mother. Opium destroyed China.

CHEN: (as Wan Jung) You can buy opium anywhere in Manchuco(ph).

MARTIN: Joan Chen has not only achieved acclaim as an actress. This year, she is the honoree at the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, which wraps up this Sunday. And Joan Chen joins us now.

Welcome and congratulations on this - only the latest honor.

CHEN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Of course, we want to talk about your career, but I would like to ask how you were bitten by the acting bug and, as I mentioned, that both of your parents were physicians in China and that you all lived at the time of the cultural revolution, which was a very difficult - very, very difficult time to grow up. I wanted to ask how you got interested in acting.

CHEN: Never in my wildest dreams when I was an adolescent that I thought I could be an actress. I dreamed of getting into a uniform. I loved uniform. I wanted to be a parachuter or go into the Navy or Army. In first year of high school, we had rifle team and I was chosen to be in the rifle team and I was doing pretty well. All of a sudden, Shanghai film studios sent some casting directors to my school and they picked me out. That was how I was bitten by the acting bug.

I think any kid would want to just leave school and go into the movies, but it wasn't something I ever thought about before they appeared in my school. And they asked me if I sang or danced or performed. I said, no. I never did that. And they said, what could you do for us? And I was the best English student in school. I listened to the radio broadcast to learn English and I could recite Mao's work in English, so I recited for them. They couldn't understand a word, but they were really impressed. So they had me.

MARTIN: What did your parents think about this, if you don't mind my asking?

CHEN: You know, they were very relieved, actually, that I was chosen first year in high school to leave school because, in Shanghai, when you graduate from high school - in some cities, when you graduate from middle school - that you would be sent down to remote areas to be reeducated. And so they were relieved that I could stay in the studio.

They were doctors. They probably wished I could be a doctor, follow in their footsteps, but at that time, that was the best future for me.

MARTIN: It was a time when - people who don't remember - that artists, intellectuals, anybody who was perceived as, you know, part of the upper class could be persecuted, really, kind of on a moment's notice.

CHEN: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, as it were...

CHEN: It was a dark time in China.

MARTIN: Shortly after that, you were picked to play a peasant girl, if I can use that term, in the film "Little Flower," and it earned you the Golden Rooster Award for Best Actress, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Oscar. And I wondered - what did that recognition mean to you at the time? Did you think it was like, well, this is funny, you know, or did it open things up for you in some way?

CHEN: I was just a girl and, all of a sudden, overnight, I was a best actress. And I felt very strange. I didn't trust it. Of course, I was happy. Who wouldn't be? But that happiness is not like the one that you see onstage on the Academy Awards stage, you know, so full of tears and very complex through years of struggle and finally get the recognition and I didn't really fight that hard for it.

I did feel unworthy of it and I felt - and from that moment on, for a long time, I felt like, every time I get certain recognition - I was like, oh, my God. I keep fooling these people. They didn't know, you know, that I know nothing, that I'm not a good actress. I'm not a good filmmaker. That's how I felt for a long time. And I felt insecurity. For no good reason, you put me on a pedestal and so much love, adulation came my way. It was scary. And I felt, then, for no good reason, it could all be taken away. I didn't feel secure enough to want to continue on that path.

MARTIN: How did it happen in the U.S., then, that you became - you came to the U.S. at some point to study, right? Or...

CHEN: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CHEN: Yes. And my parents were sent by the Chinese government. My mother was one of the very first to be sent to the U.S. to do research work to study. That was before China and U.S. even reestablished embassies in each other's country. And so she came here, and after a few years, she felt that it would be a good place for me to come and study. So I came to the United States to study.

MARTIN: And then, as - do I have the story right, that then the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, saw you walking across the parking lot, and that led you to play a concubine in his film "Tai Pan." Do I have that right?

CHEN: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Because of serendipity again, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHEN: Yes. It's totally...

MARTIN: I've got to follow behind you in some parking lots, because you keep getting spotted for amazing things.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And then, of course, you - the role that was a film event, there's really no other way to describe it - Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," which won, I think, like, nine Academy Awards.

CHEN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Looking back on those roles, on the one hand, you know, a great opportunity, but then in subsequent years, people go, oh, that again, the concubine? Like, this year, you know, with "The Help" making a big splash at the Academy Awards, people go, oh, the maid again - that. I was curious about your thoughts about those roles then and your thoughts about them now.

CHEN: You know, when I first read "Tai Pan," I was like oh, my God. This woman is ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHEN: It's absolutely ridiculous. But I wanted to play it because they are so few leading parts. I mean, she was a submissive concubine, but she was the leading lady. And so I felt like so far from what I feel a Chinese girl would be me. It's totally a Western version of Chinese-ness. It's not at all authentic. I honestly didn't know how to play it.

During my first couple of interviews, like auditions, they were frowning and just felt I wasn't somehow Chinese. I didn't fit in that mold of what they feel the Chinese girl should look, because I came from the communist China. The image is a little unfamiliar to what, you know, all these concubines or dragon women should appear to them. So I quickly transformed myself into that look, which the film industry in America would accept as a Chinese person. And "Tai Pan," the character in there was one of those.

I'm sure I had my version of sexiness because it's innate, it's our primal instinct, but I wasn't doing that. I was imitating a sort of Chinese sexiness of the concubine, completely copying. Daryl, our director, he was in his 60s, I think or close to 70, and he was doing it for me. Now, looking back, it's so laughable, but I was earnestly copying him.

MARTIN: And the irony didn't appear to either of you at the time, I guess.

CHEN: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You're just like, OK. This is what you want me to do. And what about "The Last Emperor"? How about that? What was that experience like?

CHEN: It was really wonderful. And Bernardo is such a great director, a poetic director, well-learned, so much better read on ancient Chinese literature than I did. And the whole team was first-rate. It was a wonderful interpretation. It's a piece of art.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with the award-winning actress Joan Chen. She's a trailblazer for Chinese actors trying to make it both back home and in the United States. And also, she's being honored by the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. It wraps up on Sunday.

I don't know that everyone knows, though, in addition to your acting work, that you also have directed. You directed the movie "Xiu Xiu" in 1998, which was shot kind of underground in China.

CHEN: It was underground.

MARTIN: How would you describe - underground?

CHEN: Yeah, it was underground because I shot without a formal permit.

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about that project.

CHEN: It was a very close friend of mine who is a great author in Chinese language. Her name is Yan Geling. She wrote the novella based on a story of her girlfriend. When she was a teenager, she was in the army, but in the performing troupe. She was a dancer. And so she met these people who were sent down to raise horses for the cavalry in that region. And so this was a story that she wrote, and I read it. It resonated strongly with me, and I remembered I would have been sent down if I didn't get picked by the studio. So I realized, then, it was a story millions - close to eight million children were sent down. And so it was the story of my generation. I...

MARTIN: How were you able to operate without being detected by the authorities? Or do you think that they actually kind of knew that you were doing this and just chose to turn a blind eye? I mean, as famous as you are - you're famous both in the United States and in China, obviously, from such a young age. Well, what do you think in hindsight?

CHEN: Where I shot was extremely remote, but when I did my interior in Shanghai, I built the set in Shanghai Film Studio. And the studio head back then - he retired now - knew little bit. We were friends, and he was helping me. So I would take my crew into the stage, like, around 6:30, 7 PM, and then work until the morning. And so - but even then, before the last two nights, I was called into the office, and the head of the studio said, you know, I need you to strike the set because somebody from Beijing did come to visit and they saw your set and they were very suspicious and they felt you were doing something. So they said you need to leave, because we would be in trouble if you didn't. And I begged, and I said: Just one last night. So we crammed two night's work into one night and finished it.

Yeah, I was so single-minded and so compelled to do the story that I just, you know, didn't consider all the consequences at all.

MARTIN: Do you feel that it was worth it?

CHEN: It was worth it, because it was a period that I was desperately seeking authenticity. I was playing horrible parts in, like, "On Deadly Ground" with Steven Seagal or "Judge Dredd" with Stallone and some other small, obscure dragon woman characters. And I just felt - you know, I didn't feel authentic as an artist, and I was craving to do something meaningful. So it was worth it. But would I do it the way I did, against the rules and the laws? I probably wouldn't. I'm more mature now. I do think of consequences. And also, only with your virgin work would you be this courageous.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you were starting today, do you think you'd have had more choices? Do you think that younger performers of Asian descent have more choices than you had, or not?

CHEN: Obviously, yes, there are more choices. Times are different, and I think people are now ready to accept different versions of being Asian. Back then, it was really one single story: You're either an exotic flower, vulnerable, must be saved, or you're a, you know, concubine that also must be saved - the white savior mentality. But today, you know, the Asian-Americans, as well as Asians appearing in films, are more diverse. And so today is a little better.

I mean, the fight continues. You know, we want to create as many versions. The more different versions that we present, then the less chance for stereotypes.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask - as we mentioned, this is a Wisdom Watch and just looking back over the scope of your very interesting career, do you have some wisdom to share? I'm thinking of perhaps someone who wishes to follow a career in the arts as you did, but really, to whoever might be listening to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHEN: I think, you know, just don't listen to any advice. You know, you may ask advice from your parents, from your friends or people you respect and admire. But really, only way to know is to ask yourself. You know, you ask yourself: Must I do this? When you're all alone in the deepest night, you ask yourself: Must I do this? And if the answer is yes, I must, then you have to live your life accordingly. Then you adjust yourself and do whatever is necessary, all the sacrifices.

But show business is a little funny, because if I want to be an engineer and I'm not particularly well-endowed in the business of engineering, if I worked really hard and I just really wanted and worked hard, I will become an engineer. But, you know, you might work really, really hard and never become an actor or an actress. So you have to ask yourself. Only yourself can answer, because if you truly want something, you will make all the sacrifices, then you for sure will be that.

MARTIN: Joan Chen is an award-winning actress. We caught up with her in San Francisco, where she is the honoree at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which concludes this weekend. And we caught up with her, as I said, in San Francisco.

Joan Chen, thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations to you.

CHEN: Thank you, Michel. It's nice to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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