Monday, October 16, 2017

Seduced By Fame, I Too Once Aspired To Be An Actor

My first brush with Hollywood’s power & fame came in 1991. One day the receptionist ran into my office & said "someone from Hollywood wants to talk to you." At the time, I was working with at-risk Southeast Asian refugee youth & their families, as well as coordinating special events & communications at a nonprofit in San Francisco Tenderloin District.

I was thinking, "Well, I've been taking acting classes at the Asian American Theater Company & San Francisco State University's theater arts department. I haven't gone on auditions, but Hollywood's ALREADY calling? Nah!"

Turned out it was a representative of casting directors, two white women, who were working on Oliver Stone's upcoming movie, a biopic based on Le Ly Hayslip's "When Heaven & Earth Changed Places," the last of Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, after Platoon & Born on the Fourth of July.

Heaven & Earth movie poster
(Wikipedia cc 2.0)
They were looking for someone to help coordinate local casting calls, also known as open auditions or ‘cattle calls,’ in search of both actors & non-actors for about a dozen speaking roles in the film. The job would include securing venues to hold the events in San Francisco & San Jose, as well as outreach to the local acting & Vietnamese communities. In lieu of paying me & in exchange for using my workplace's space for the auditions, a donation was made to my employer, a Southeast Asian refugee resettlement services provider.

MORE THAN FOUR THOUSAND men, women, children, both actors, non-actors, showed up for three days of casting, Friday & Saturday in San Francisco & Sunday in San Jose. Nearly every local Asian American actor showed up, as well as who was who in the Vietnamese American community (artists, writers, performers, even some political leaders).

In addition to scaring up prospective actors for the film, I was put in charge of screening nearly all the non-actors. Even though my acting experience was limited to class exercises, improv & table readings, I ended up becoming a casting assistant right on the spot due to the overwhelming turnout.

On the first day, I often served as the ‘sparring partner,’ reading lines from the script for those auditioning to act against. Everyone who passed my initial screening was ushered into a room with either one of the casting directors & me or another assistant, usually behind the video camera. They were told that their auditions were filmed for the “director, Mr. Oliver Stone, to review.” Oftentimes the tape wasn’t even running.

All it took was “Give me all you’ve got” or “Action!” & prospective actors lost all their inhibitions & fear. I was punched, pushed, as called for in the script, by my fame-seeking fellow Vietnamese. I was shocked by their ferocity, how serious some got. A few women even showed some flesh. The casting directors, with long credits to their names, were nonchalant about it while my face must have turned blood-red.

Fame is a drug, and just an illusion of it is enough for one to lose one's senses. In these vulnerable moments, I can see how powerful men – Hollywood directors & producers -- could easily take advantage of up & coming actors & those seeking parts in major Hollywood films.

 Long Nguyen, artist & sculptor who ended up with a speaking role,
with Heidi Levitt, the casting director.
(San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 23, 1991)

When the casting call moved to San Jose on the third day, I was confronted by another facet of my very own community that I had not seen before. Every who was who in Silicon Valley’s Vietnamese community showed up. Due to an overwhelming turn-out, people were seated in the auditorium of San Jose State University, where the auditions were held. Like in previous two days, I was responsible for screening most of the non-actors, i.e., those who showed up without headshots taken by professional photographers & acting resumes or portfolios.

One of the casting directors took one side of the auditorium, I on the other, while the other casting director setting up a makeshift auditioning space upstairs, where those who passed the initial screening were sent.

As we started interviewing, I noticed that more people were lining up to see the other casting director than seeing me. Moreover, those who ended up with me simply asked if they could wait for “bà Mỹ” or “American lady,” meaning the white woman. They did not want to be screened by me, probably assuming I had no authority because I was neither white nor “from Hollywood.” Quite a few notable community members – journalists, writers, former South Vietnam government’s high-ranking members -- asked to be seen by “director Oliver Stone.” They wanted Stone to tell their lives’ stories, like he was about to do with Le Ly Hayslip’s. They came with scrapbooks, old photographs; their lives neatly organized in binders.
Annoyed, I loudly announced that Oliver Stone was NOT there & that we needed to keep the lines moving to ensure that everyone had a chance, adding, in Vietnamese, that they had a better chance with me than with the white lady. 

I did eventually meet Oliver Stone a few months later, during the "call backs" with a handful of hopefuls, out of nearly 5,000, at The Ritz Carton Hotel in San Francisco. Our meeting was rather awkward. Needless to say, I haven’t seen any of his movies since.

A few months later I had a much better experience with Hollywood when I was asked to help with local casting for The Joy Luck Club, directed by Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang, based on Amy Tan's novel of the same name. My experience with “white Hollywood” wasn’t that much better here either, even though Wang was so gracious & pleasant to work with.

This may have been my 1st quotable soundbite, in English.
(San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 23, 1991)

However, thanks to this gig, I was able to go back to Vietnam to visit my family for the first time in nearly 12 years. I got paid on Thursday, bought my plane tickets on Saturday & off I went on Tuesday.