Extended interview with Ellen Wong: On GLOW, women in film & typecasting
I interviewed Ellen Wong for Metro News and the article came out today. But Ellen had a lot more to say so I thought I'd post most of the interview in Q&A format. She discusses how her parents disapproved of her acting career at first, as well as being continuously asked to play the "bubbly sidekick" and how she broke out of that stereotype with her role in GLOW, a new Netflix series about women's wrestling.
How did you start out acting?
I always knew that I wanted to be an actor. I think I always knew that I needed to express myself in some way and to tell a story. It took me a while to really go, 'Yes, I’m going to focus on acting' and do it because my parents were really against it. I think them coming from their background, very traditional, there was a lot of fear of failing before even trying something. I think I ended up adopted those fears, but I totally understand where they’re coming from. They were refugees. They escaped Cambodia in the late 1970s, came to Canada, and so there was a lot of trying to figure out who they were and start their lives over again with nothing. Starting from scratch. So there was a lot of fear in the family in terms of taking a risk, pursuing a dream.
How did your parents react at first when you said you wanted to pursue acting?
My parents would always say things like, 'Were not from a class of people who can dream. We don't have that. We don't get that opportunity.' I know for myself it became very hard because acting started feeling like a secret for me because I felt like i was never openly telling people that’s what I wanted to do. It actually took a backpacking trip in 2011. When I graduated from university, I went to South East Asia, Cambodia being one of the countries I backpacked through, and just having this moment where I was seeing my parent’s home for the first time, and seeing where they’re from, and really truly understanding why they have this perspective of ‘We don’t get to dream, we don’t get to take a risk in life and be happy, we just have to have this stable job,’ because that’s actually good enough.
And I understood it because this was a country that was still trying to find its own footing and it’s openly – there were children begging for money, there were families out on the street, people just living meal to meal. I realized, ‘OK I really truly understand where my parents are coming from but at the same time they took this risk and here they are in this whole new country on the other side of the world that allows you to dream actually.' Because even if I pursue my dream and fail at it, I still have a roof over my head, I still have a meal... I came back and sat my parents down and had this talk with them and said, 'If you can’t support me or say anything encouraging, I want you to not say anything at all.' And I gave them a year, and I said, 'Give me this year to do what I need to do because if you don’t give me that space to do it I will resent you for it.' And that’s kind of how it all started. I booked Scot Pilgrim that year and i just kept doing it.
How does your background influence the roles you play?
That trip to Cambodia... I’ve been a few times even after that. I’m always trying to bring that story - not the story of me travelling there - the Cambodian story, to the screen also through my work because it really did inspire me fight for something.
How are your parents now?
My parents are very excited. They’re very supportive and extremely encouraging. Say I’m having a bad day or upset about an audition or something and I’ll tell them about it and they’ll say the most supportive things to me to the point where I’m so confused because that’s not what they used to say and I'm just like ... and I’ll actually get upset cause I’m like this doesn’t make any sense, you’re supposed to say that. It’s almost like I’m calling them to hear them say, 'Well it’s time to quit, it’s time to move on,' you know? They say the opposite of that so it’s really a funny journey that we went on together in terms of learning how to support one another and being understanding of one another.
Why is GLOW so relevant today?
Without getting too much into politics, the things that come up in GLOW have always existed and I think that it’s interesting that it’s coming up now, a show like that, because I feel like there is a movement. People are actually saying, ‘Hey we need to exercise our right to free speech and actually say something and not just sit back and not do anything about it.’ I think it’s a really interesting time to have a show like this that is commenting on, with humour, on the things that women, minorities, have been sort of dealing with for a very, very long time, and they’re still dealing with. For me even, when I got the show, i remember also having this fear when I was looking at the breakdown and reading the script and going ‘How aware is this show of what they’re really saying? If I’m playing Fortune Cookie, is that because there’s a true awareness.... Are were really making a comment on this stereotype or is it done blindly without realizing there’s a bigger meaning behind that? It took a lot of talking with the creators, who were so open and generous, and I found that to be incredibly inspiring because a lot of the times you can feel like you’re not being heard in this industry so coming across, getting to work with Liz and Carly and having them be so open and wanting to listen was a shock almost but so welcomed and humbled by it, and grateful.
What was it like to work with a crew of about a dozen women?
Getting to talk to all the other woman on set, like all the girls that I got to work with every day, I love them so much. It became this really safe space where we all were freely open and talking about what we were feeling whether it was in our personal lives but also within the characters and I remember the episode where we have to sort of be our characters for the first in front of Bash (Chris Lowell) and Sam (Marc Maron) and we were all having this conversation of ‘What are we saying?’ Like to say something like ‘Hey i’m fast like dragon and cute like panda’ and for Suni, she’s this character where ... she’s a terrorist Beirut and you have Kia Stevens, her character where she’s playing Welfare Queen. You better believe we were having some big and deep conversations behind the scenes. I think that’s part of it. We realized that it’s not just about doing it. It’s about having the conversation. That’s just as important. It brought us comfort to be be able to get together and to know that we were all coming from the same place with it. And then to know that there was this support from all the girls and the creators. There was this understanding, total awareness of what we were really trying to comment on. It gave all of us that boost, that courage to be able to really go for it and play that stereotype. But then it’s also because we then get to play those characters outside of the wrestling character and you get to see who they are and what they really feel about these stereotypes they’re playing. Thats really unique and special about the show.
Even that day when we were doing the promotions, some of us could have gone home. But everyone stayed and watched everybody do it. It was so special because you could really feel the team behind it. The encouragement and the power. It was really special special to do that because you feel like you’re amongst people who really care about all the same things that you do.
Are you shocked by the reaction from fans of the show?
It’s funny because I’ve been doing press for it so i’m living it. I love talking about the show. It’s an interesting thing because I feel like it’s been such a part of me for the last year now. It’s always felt like this prominent thing in my life. I’m not sure I’ve noticed a shift or change in how it’s been perceived. But I definitely do feel through the interviews that I’ve done that there is a real celebration for a show like this. I think the show is a celebration because it’s unique and special. What I love to hear is hearing from guys, hearing that they love women so much and that they can really feel they got emotional with the bond and the care and the special care that you could feel and the chemistry that you could feel amongst these women in the show. That makes me happy and that was something I didn’t expect. It just kind of happened and it made excited that women are starting to be – it’s like people want to see more women on screen. People want to see more diversity on screen. People want to see women kicking ass, also coming together, learning from one another, growing. I think that’s all been very exciting.
What's it like to be named a TIFF Rising Star at this year's festival?
I feel very honoured to have been selected because the other actors that I got to meet, they’re so lovely and I’m so excited to see their movies and on top of that I just feel that based on everything we were talking about earlier, I think that there’s a lot of fear in myself to have my own voice and to actively talk about things that matter to me as a human in this world. It’s our work, as an actor for me, in some way there’s an activism in there. You’re trying to reach the world with a story, an understanding, an expression of you. At the same time be relatable or touch the people who felt like they haven’t been touched or heard. I think that for a big part of my career, I have just been doing and saying what’s on the page as an actor, but I feel more that I want to what can come out of me just being me and being less afraid of that and speaking for myself and not through a character. I feel like a program like TIFF rising stars is such a supportive environment and a safe place for that. They’re putting us in a position where we’re going to meet so many other filmmakers, and just to be part of the festival and to speak from ourselves. There’s something in that and I’m not sure what it means yet because I’m exploring it. But I want to be less afraid of exploring it.
How do you pick roles and avoid typecasting?
I definitely am active about making sure I don’t play the same role all the time. It’s something I’m very aware of. It comes from me as an actor wanting to try different things, put on different shoes. But it’s funny because after Scot Pilgrim I definitely was getting the same type of roles. The bubbly sort of sidekick or the nerdy friend or the hacker genius. I was like what? If there’s a role like (my character in GLOW), that comes with getting to see their backstory and it feels nuanced and there’s layers to it, I’m excited. I try to always look deeper than that, rather than playing this archetype on the surface. But that’s my own agenda with my career and what I want to do so I’m very active about it. Are there stereotypes? Yes. Do I have days where I feel frustrated about it? Yes. I think that we’re at an exciting time actually. Don’t think the conversation is how bad it’s been for us, but about looking forward and thinking about how it can be. I’ve seen so many asian faces on the screen that I’m excited and thrilled because it just means that we’re chipping away. We’re getting in there. That’s very very exciting. I don’t want to be negated the actual stereotype either. I think it’s a constant awareness of trying to... I think there’s a level of awareness that always has to be there so you don’t fall into playing.
We’re going back hopefully for GLOW (after TIFF). I’m developing a film with Bruce McDonald and I’m working, writing a bit more now also. I was definitely trying to find my voice in other places too, and not just through this one vehicle of acting. I think I’m at the very beginning of that and I’m not sure where it’s going to lead or take me, if it’s going to even work out, but i think that’s part of the journey. You don’t know until you try. We get to have that. We get to try that. We’ll be okay if it doesn’t work out and it’ll be great if it does, also!
[This interview was edited and condensed.]