Actress, artist, and writer Irene Tsu joins us on the podcast this week to discuss her debut memoir A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu. Irene tells us about her life and career as an actor, from a child dreaming of becoming a ballerina to working on sets in Hollywood with legends such as Elvis, Bette Midler, and Jeff Bridges. Irene also talks to us about her writing and publishing experience, the evolution of the film industry throughout her illustrious career, and what she’s working on next.
- Irene talks us about her life before Hollywood, growing up across different countries in Asia, auditioning for the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London, and moving to New York with her family
- She tells us how she got her start as an actor, what her career has been like, and how she has maintained a longstanding and successful career
- Irene discusses the changes she has experienced in the film industry, from being one of the only working Asian-American actresses to witnessing the evolution of diversity in the industry firsthand, as well as the influence technology has had on the craft of acting
- She tells us how her memoir came about, from writing down ideas on scraps of paper to publishing her book, and she explains her writing process, how she came up with the title for her memoir, and how she reconstructed her memories for the page
- Irene tells us what she’s working on next, including new writing projects and two new Netflix series!
A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu
Royal Ballet School
Martha Graham School of Dance
Watch Over the Moon on Netlix
Watch Away on Netflix
Watch Down and Out in Beverly Hills on Prime
Game of Thrones
Born in Shanghai, China to a banker father and a painter mother. The family left for Hong Kong where Irene attended parochial school and studied ballet. At 12 the family immigrated to New York City where Irene attended George Washington HS and Quintano’s School for young professionals and studied ballet and jazz at Carnegie Hall. She was a teenage dancer in Flower Drum Song (1961), directed by Henry Koster who gave her her first speaking role as a teenage prostitute in his next film, Take Her, She’s Mine starring James Stewart which launched her acting career.
Her career spans four decades in most of the popular TV series (50 titles) and 32 feature films.
Transcription provided by SpeechPad
Stephanie: Hey writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast, where we’re bringing you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts, I’m Stephanie.
Joni: And I’m Joni. On this week’s episode, we spoke to film and television actress turn memoirist, Irene Tsu, who has been working as an actress since she was a young child and she’s built up an incredible resume spanning over five decades and she’s appeared alongside legends such as Elvis Presley, Jeff Bridges, and Bette Midler to name a few. She’s considered one of the very first Asian American performers to break through Hollywood’s rigid diversity barriers and she’s played many roles that were not originally written for an Asian woman. Her new memoir, “A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu” recounts her Hollywood career. It’s full of juicy tidbits about her time working with Elvis Presley and basically what her career has been like. So, it was a little bit different for us but a really interesting conversation.
Stephanie: Yeah, if you’re a fan of old Hollywood and you kind of want an inside peek into what it was like to be an actress during those times, I definitely recommend that you check out her book and also listen to this episode because she goes into kind of her acting and what it was like being an actress during this time. And also, we talked a bit about writing because, of course, we do, so we want to hear about what her writing process was and kind of how she found her publisher. We really enjoyed talking to Irene and we hope you enjoyed this interview as much as we did
Irene: I have a college professor who always said that, “You know, you should write a book.” At that time, I was just an actress and I was studying cinema in his class. And I tell him, “Tom, I don’t know how to write, I’m not a writer, I can’t write,” so he just let it go. And many years later, I think it was like 2016 or ’17 or something like that and it was like about 12, 13 years ago, whatever time it is. So, he had me back in class to give a talk and so I gave a talk and then there was a question and answer period. And a couple of hands went up and so I pointed to one of the guys and he said, “I want to write your book.” I said, “My book?” He said, “Yes, that’s what I would like to do with your permission, of course.” And the other guy wanted the same thing.
And then Tom says to me, “Well, you see, you see, you have a book there.” I was just talking and telling them about my life story and everybody’s got a life story and everybody’s life story is interesting in some ways. And I was born in Shanghai, you know, during the time of peace, it was then the communists overan China I believe in ’49 or something. And I was just a little child, I was like three years old and I came out with my parents. Actually, with my mother, with my mother and sister and we landed in Taiwan where my father was working for the government then. And then I wasn’t there long, maybe a year, and then we moved to Hong Kong.
So, I spent, I would say, a good six or seven years in Hong Kong, growing up in my elementary school years. And Hong Kong, I don’t know if you know, it was a British Crown Colony at the time and it’s a spectacular place because it’s physically beautiful. So, what happened is that I started my life in Hong Kong and I always want to be a ballerina and I remember maybe at like eight or nine years old, I had begged my mom to give me ballet lessons. So, there was a school not too far from my house and I had talked her into taking me there and then I will take a bus back home. So, that was the arrangement and I just loved it, I just lived for my two ballet lessons every week. That was very cool.
And then there was also my aunt, I think she’s also taking ballet and was quite advanced, so then I would, you know, get to go to her house in the weekends and practice my low steps, you know, the ballet steps. So, I was just totally wanted to be a ballerina. Unfortunately, they had the sub-exams that was in the Commonwealth and it was put out by Sadler’s Wells who choose the Royal Ballet and it’s once every four years in the Commonwealth, so, okay, fine. But my teacher put my name into where I would practice new routines and the low, you know, ball work and stuff like that. And so, I went and I don’t know how I did, I was just so happy that it was over, you know?
A few weeks later, they told my family that I have been chosen to…the only person from the UK…or within that area, you know, Singapore and, you know, all the surrounding areas, that I was to go to the Royal Ballet. And then while my father heard about this, he was in another country so he flew in to have a meeting with them in a high rise building, we went there and I was petrified and my father, you know, had questions to ask. And they said that, “Yes, it’s very, very strict, your daughter will basically, like, going into a convent. She’s going to eat when we tell her to do, sleep when we tell her to do, and she’s going to, of course, have the regular school because she’s 12-years-old, and then also practice ballet five or six hours a day.”
So, he’s listening and listening, and then they said, “But not only that, but she has to measure up. In other words, physically, she has to grow to a certain height and weight that we require to be in the ballet. And by the way, there is no, you know, certainty that she would be a prima ballerina. No, that’s like, you know, something very, very special. And then after that, she will have to work for this Royal Ballet for seven years to pay back the training that we gave her.” Well, my dad heard that and says, “That’s like an indentured servant, you know, so that is not really going to, you know, work very well.”
And then besides, he looked at me, I was like a scrawny little 11 and a half-year-old, and he’s gone and said, “This kid is never gonna grow up into a ballerina that I think ballerinas look like.” So, you know, he just whispers something and then we left the office. And so, I didn’t get to go and my mother, of course, later said to me that, “You know, we are applying to go to the United States and we’ve been waiting for our visas for like seven years, you don’t know about it but, you know, we’re definitely going to take the opportunity to come to the States.” And so, that was my first heartbreak and I never really had intended to be an actor, by any means, or a writer, I was just, you know, wanting to be a dancer.
So, in my book, I think that I talked about having the first opportunity of becoming a dancer in my high school because a high school teacher, she was coming from the Martha Graham School of Dance and she was put on a school play and had asked me to be the understudy to the lead. And I said to her, I said, “Mrs. Levis, I don’t speak English that well.” So, she says, “Well, no, no, no, you don’t speak English, this character speaks with her feet, you know, she’s a deaf and mute.” It was called “The Finian’s Rainbow,” you know, a very, very old play.
And I said, “Oh, okay,” so she invited me to the rehearsals and so on and so forth. And I thought, “Well, maybe I could do this, maybe I could be a dancer,” because I am a very good mimic, so I’m, like, copying her steps, just marking the floors in a darkened auditorium. And so, I felt maybe I was kind of special, I’ve assigned to classes that are more coached, and she would always tell me to do that rehearsal, you know, stuff like that. And that’s how I kind of started into the entertainment, what I thought as the entertainment industry.
Joni: Yeah, your life could have been very different if you’ve gone to ballet school.
Irene: That’s right, I often thought about that. That was interesting, yeah. Even when I was, you know, working a lot in Hollywood, I thought about, “Wow, maybe my life would be so different,” but that’s how our life is.
Stephanie: And I’m wondering when you were writing your memoir, how did you decide which stories of your life you wanted to include in the memoir? I mean, you had a lot to choose from, so I’m just wondering what the writing process must have been like for you?
Irene: Well, I finally started writing because, you know, like, the urging of the college professor. And then my parents passed away about 11 years ago and I just found the passing of time…and I have a daughter who’s very young, she’s 23 now, and I thought, the passing of time when you lose your parents and you have that feeling, I think most people do. So, I moved down to San Diego at the time to be close to a boyfriend that I was dating. And so, I thought, “Well, maybe I should start here,” and I’m just writing down those scribbles in handwritten pieces next to bed, whatever I can think of, I’m writing it down on scraps of paper.
And then I went to some local community college and took some writing classes and I read some books about, you know, how to write a memoir kind of book. So, you know, I don’t know how other people do it but that’s what I did, just so very minimal. And I thought, “I’m not going to really write a literary book, I’m not of that caliber or anything,” but I just write like I talk. Basically, it’s a book about just like people, I would be invited to dinner parties or with friends or something and other people would always ask me, “Oh, so-and-so, did you know so-and-so and how long did you work with them or anything going on?” And, you know, where you’re trying to, like, draw little things out, you know?
So, I would be always telling stories like that, drawing little things out, you know, I kind of lead them on the hook a little bit, you know? So, the book is really like me talking to you, like to a friend or to someone that I am comfortable in telling them my story, my background, how I came out of China, and how accidental, everything was the accident. The very first job that I got, I guess it was a job, you know, it was a commercial. And I was standing in line with a bunch of high school friends at a very popular place in New York City, it may still be there, it’s called P. J. Clarke’s, so it’s a very popular place, you know, a burger kind of place.
So, I was like waiting in line and all of a sudden, this guy turns around and looks at me and says, “Do you speak Tahitian?” I said, “No,” I don’t know what he was talking about, you know? “Are you Tahitian?” “No, no.” So, anyway, he was kind of persistent, he said, “Well, we’re looking for a Tahitian girl to be in a commercial,” and the commercial was called Wish-Bone Salad Dressing and it’s a new product that they’re gonna announced called Tahitian Salad Dressing, whatever it is. And he said, “You know, you should come to my office and they will show you, you know, the script,” or whatever it is, you know, some pictures.
So, he gave me the card, so I passed it around to my friends, you know, and they said, “You know what? I think he’s a real agent, he’s on Madison Avenue. I mean, this guy is on Madison Avenue, you know, we need to go.” So, all the three of us, you know, piled into the subway and went downtown, then we found Madison Avenue, got to his place, and go, “Oh, my God, I think he is a real agent.” And there’s like, you know, posters on the wall, you know, Broadway posters and a lot of actors’ pictures. He said, “Where’s your pictures?” So, I said, “I don’t really have any pictures like that but I have some pictures,” just pictures that we took at the summer camp, a YMCA summer camp.
And he goes, “Okay, okay,” you know, so that’s how I…he gave me the storyboard and then I went to whatever the address was and I got the part. So, I had no idea if I ever signed a contract or if my mother did or if I was ever paid for it. I don’t know, all I know is I was supposed to show up there on a certain day, you know, like three days from now, and just read these lines. You know, you wait for your turn like in the storyboard, so-and-so says this line and you say this and so-and-so say that, and then you’ll look at this. Okay, so I went and did what they told me to do and nobody seemed to say it’s good or bad or anything, so, you know, I guess it’s okay and that was my first official job for, you know, Wish-Bone Salad Dressing.
Joni: How old were you then?
Irene: I was, like, 14.
Joni: Fourteen? Okay, so something that struck me when reading your book is how detailed your memories are even from a very young age. And I wonder, did you have journals that you were referring to, or were you talking to people from your past? Like, how did you remember so much in so much detail?
Irene: You know, it’s strange, people ask me that but I remember everything, you know? But now I have selective memories. You know, at my age, I can have selective memories. So, I remember everything but I first started writing the book when I came back to LA. and I went to see my professor again. So, he said that, “You know, in order to write your book, you need to look backward and you’re still looking forwards.” I said, “Oh, okay, whatever.” So, I went on IMDb and I looked at all my credits and I thought, “Oh, my God,” I think I have over 80 credits. Some of them I remember completely and some of them I can’t remember at all, you know, it was just like that.
And most of them I would…you know, if I looked at old films or something, if I recognize what I was wearing, then I know for sure it is, you know? But something like, “Oh, I never wore this, I had never even seen that costume in my life,” so it couldn’t be me, you know? But that’s how I started, going by the IMDb. And I went on Google, actually, and I thought, “Oh, my God, there’s all these pictures of me in Google, some of them are not even me and everything is wrong,” and, you know, just whatever, but you got to go with IMDb because all the credits are accurate and the days are accurate. So, I went there and reconstructed, basically, basically my film work.
And the backstory of us coming out of China was…you know, I did talk to my aunt since my mom and dad has gone. I talked to my aunt, a couple of aunts, and there was some stories that they were very reluctant to tell because we had a very hard time under the communist regime and so, I didn’t want to press it, you know, I just… I did have some help, I had a Chinese writer to help me with the backstory. However, after we went into it for, like, a couple of months or so, I read it and I just really did not like it because it’s his voice, it’s not mine. He’s a very angry Chinaman, very angry. He’s an amazing writer but he is so full of anger but that’s where he’s coming from. I don’t know if you guys were born in Canada or are you Canadian nationals, both of you?
Stephanie: I am, Joni wasn’t born here.
Joni: I was born in Scotland, so I moved here.
Irene: So, you were born in Scotland. Okay, so you’re an immigrant or did your parents come here first?
Joni: My mom was born here so I had citizenship, yeah.
Irene: So, your mom born here but your father was from…?
Joni: From Scotland, yeah.
Irene: Scotland, Scotland. Wow, that’s a place I really like to go to, it seems to be a lot of problems there for some reason, the small place, Scotland and Ireland have very distinct kind of, you know, tradition and heritage, the Scots, you know?
Joni: It’s a good place to visit, it’s good in August when they have the festival and there’s a lot of things going on, not this year but typically.
Irene: Yeah, not this year. So, when my publishers want to fast track the book, they know that it’s a good time to have the book out because it’s a good summer read, you know, it’s a very easy reading, summer, fun, glamorous kind of read and they’re just getting really good responses for it and I’m very glad because like I said, it’s my first book. And the backstory was the backstory, it was just the way it was, it happened. And, you know, coming here as a first-generation Chinese American are quite different. The reason I asked you if you were born in Canada or Canadian native is that there are so many different kinds of Chinese American or Japanese American over there, because we are like the first generation, so it’s very confusing, I really don’t know if I’m American or Chinese.
When I go to China, they definitely immediately know that I’m not Chinese at all, I can’t seem to meld into the crowd. I thought I was speaking quite good, I always make sure that I kind of blend in. I don’t. Well, I looked down and I had cowboy boots on, so that’s not gonna work. But somehow, you know, in just your mannerism or stuff like that, they just know. But then I’m in America and I thought I’m totally Americanized, obviously, you know, they think of me as, you know, Asian American, you know? Although in the film business now, the diversity is incredible. With every part there is, they cast any ethnicity and sometimes very overboard.
I mean, I was even up for a part of the warden of a male penitentiary, you know, and I was like, “Well, that’s really stretching the truth, how the hell am I gonna do this?” So, I looked around and there was like this big, husky type of woman, Hispanics or blacks or white woman that are fairly heavy. I’m 150 pounds and five foot three and here it’s like I’m trying to make myself bigger or something, or louder or stronger. You know, it’s funny but, you know, I got to do this the other way, you know?
Stephanie: So, you mentioned in your book that you typically…so you got roles that weren’t written specifically for Asian actors and I’m just wondering did you ever receive, like, negative pushback from that from producers or the audience? And how do you think diversity has evolved in the last…I mean, I’ve noticed that, like, just from my perspective, that it’s really changed in the last 10 to 15 years but I wonder since you’re, like, working in the industry, if you have a different perspective?
Irene: Oh, yes, it has, it really has changed quite a bit. You know, when I was working, there weren’t that many Asian actors or Asian Pacific actors and because they’re unable to photograph very differently, so I played a lot of Polynesians, you know, a lot of Hawaiian kind of roles, and, you know, Vietnamese, Japanese, whatever, you know? Whereas nowadays, there are so many Asian actors, maybe with more parts. So, it’s like, you know, the same thing. And at the time, I have to say that the reason I got most of those parts and not parts that are written for Asian was usually because of the director, okay?
I go and to see the casting person or the director, they kind of looked at me and said, “You know, I’m thinking about another part for you, you know, I don’t know what it is.” It was like I went and to see the casting director of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” which was a very hit picture, and she’s a big casting director, Ellen Chenoweth, she has cast just enormous amounts of films. So, she looked at me, I went in there for the Chinese interpreter part, which I thought that I can handle very well. So, she says, “You know, would you mind going to the bathroom and just take some of the blush down and some lipstick, you know? Yeah, I don’t want you to look too glamorous.”
“Oh, okay, fine,” I go to the bathroom, you know, wipe it off, come back in. And she says, “You know, you still look kind of too pretty, you know?” And I was kind of like, “Oh, shit, I’m not gonna get that part.” She said, “You know, however, I want you to come in to meet the director, Paul Mazursky,” who’s got huge amounts of credit, he was, like, just huge, you know, because he thinking to cast one of the other parts, the dentist’s wife, that’s the movie with Bette Midler and Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss. The dentist’s parts, it has to be other than just a white American, you know, some kind of ethnicity. “So, why don’t you go and meet him?” You know, that’s why she’s a great casting director, she thinks out of the box and she’s very creative.
So, sure enough, I went in there to meet him, read a little scene with him, and right away, I got the part and he says, “My God, you’re Sheila Waltzberg.” And that’s her name, Sheila Waltzberg who is like a Jewish woman, you know, a Jewish woman, so he says, “Oh, my God.” So, he took me around the office, he’s got a suite of offices on the same floor, you know, by my arm and just open the door, knock on the door and open the door and he’s like, “This is Sheila Waltzberg, Sheila Waltzberg, meet Sheila Waltzberg.” You know, and I was laughing and everything and it’s just…so that’s, like, one of the incidents. So, it happened on quite a few pictures where the director met me and thought that I would be more appropriate as another part. So, you know, it was lucky for me.
Joni: So, you were able to work successfully and consistently in Hollywood for your whole career. What do you think has contributed to your success and the longevity of your career?
Irene: Well, I did work tremendously, just non-stop working till about…I did take a break, you know, because I’m also a real estate broker, which I’ve been doing for 25 years, over 25 years because acting is always a block of time that you’re off, you know, you’re free. And I noticed that with a lot of huge stars, they are into renovating houses because it’s another kind of creativity. You know, Diane Keaton, I was told that she, like, did 7 houses in 14 years…I mean, 7 times in 14 years. And then there’s also Jeremy Renner, he does really expensive homes, like $10, $12 $15 million homes, Brad Pitt builds houses all the time.
And Cher, Cher does these incredible homes that are…I mean, because they got the capitol, so they can maybe get a little house and make it into a 50,000 square foot home and she has incredible taste and does very well. And that’s how I got my real estate license, not exactly to be selling real estate, but I just thought, “Hey, I really like to do some rehab, you know, and just change it.” So, I was not at…you know, during the time that I’m not acting, I will have a project to do, so to speak.
Stephanie: So, when I was reading your book, it’s kind of like you mentioned it was like…I was reading it but it felt like you were talking to me as a friend, like, you’re telling me your whole life story but I found the way that you were describing celebrities, it was always very respectful. And sometimes memoirs get a little too gossipy or they’re trying to expose like some big secrets but you didn’t do that and I thought it was like a very respectful way to talk about people. I was just wondering, was that intentional how did you want to discuss your celebrity interactions?
Irene: They were really truthful because, really, I have not found anybody that was particularly nasty to me, or I had no sexual harassment problems at all but maybe because I had done a huge body of work by the time I’m 21. And by the time I’m 21, I was dating Frank Sinatra, I did not date anybody else, so then nobody is going to judge you, that’s for sure, you know? So, then after him, I got married, so I did not really…I wanted to bring this up, you know, since that subject is just so, you know, everywhere and I want to say that I’m the one actress probably at one time who was sexually harassed during my whole career. And the time that I was sexually harassed was by some producer that I wasn’t even working for or even having the vaguest idea that I was going to work for him and he was very rude, I thought, you know?
But, you know, that just isn’t anything, I just said, “I’m not going to take a lunch in your motel room. What is this? I want to go and have lunch in the cafeteria or any restaurant, I’m hungry.” You know, I always starve myself so that I’d be very hungry for my meals, “I’m starved, you know, if we’re not getting out of here in five minutes, I’m leaving.” You know, if you just say it that way, I don’t think any guy is gonna push you down on the floor to do anything, you know? I mean, we can scream or we can kick or we can yell, you know? And I don’t know, a lot of these sexual harassment things are so…I don’t know if I’m saying the right thing or the wrong thing, you know, I don’t really follow it but all I know is that everybody then became sexually harassed. I can only speak for myself.
Joni: Well, it’s good that you didn’t have any of those experiences.
Irene: I know. I know sometimes it could be really, you know, just horrible but in my profession, which is sort of it could happen a lot. But, you know, the bottom line is that, I would tell my friends as I will tell you, it’s a huge money game, you know? Filming of a TV or a motion picture feature, it’s just so expensive, they can’t afford to hire somebody-somebody-somebody’s girlfriend or, you know, lover, and mess up the part, you see? They can’t afford it. They could have her walk around the background. The money is on the line, that’s what it is. The money is on the line. So, that’s all I can say for me, you know, everybody else may have different experiences.
Joni: Can you tell us how you came up with the name for your memoir?
Irene: The name came about as I was looking for a hope, you know? So, I am a watercolor artist and I love painting watercolor and my mom is a very, very good watercolor artist. Well, she doesn’t only do watercolors, she does oil also. She had went to a serious, you know, art school and she was also a…I believe she taught at the Art Institute in New York for a short time and then had a very prestigious place. For me, it’s like I’ve always wanted to do watercolor, you know, I’ve always wanted to do…I have no affinity with oils or anything because I like the fluidity of the watercolor. I mean, with watercolor, you have to start out with an intention and that intention is very, very…you got to be very clear because when you put down the first stroke, you can’t say, “Ah, shit,” [inaudible 00:30:01] you know, an inch and a half over, you know?
I mean, when you put that first stroke down is the art in itself. I mean, maybe that watercolor could be just one stroke, that’s it. And I learned from, you know, friends of my mother, teachers of my mother who does Chinese painting, and that’s even more so the putting down of their first stroke. And then watercolor, as you know, it runs, it bleeds, it doesn’t always…you know, I mean, you know, with practice and everything, you can control it a little bit better but it’s never going to be exactly that and that’s the beauty of it. And I thought that’s the way life is, it’s not exactly how we wanted, okay?
Do we have any control over when this pandemic is gonna be over? Not really, you know, the whole world is working on it. You know, I think it’s God’s time, it’s not on our time, you know? So, I think that “A Water Color Dream” is probably be hitting my nature and that, you know, sometimes you said, “Oh, dear, it came out pretty good,” or sometimes you go, “Oh, it’s terrible,” you have to flush everything out and start all over again. And then there are watercolor artists who really are very skillful and they try to work it like in oil, they even cut out little pieces and, you know, just do those little things. And I just don’t think that is going to do…you know, that defeats the purpose, the most beautiful one.
And now as we speak, I’m trying to use this time, positive time into doing some watercolor and I am writing, actually, I am writing something. I tell you what I’m writing, I’m writing treatments to scripts, because I have some great ideas in order to do a treatment. I can’t do a whole script, I’m not a screenwriter, but just a treatment, you know, because I’m watching some TV or a lot of TV and I’m thinking, “You know, what would be something that people want to see now?” And they could use the treatment.
Stephanie: What’s the treatment? What is that?
Irene: A treatment to a screenplay is usually like five pages and it’s like a synopsis, you know, you get the synopsis of what the story is going to be like. And usually, if you are…if somebody likes it, then they will option it and develop it into a screenplay but, I mean, that’s the ultimate. Of course, you know, they are just my little thoughts, my little thoughts, so I can handle five pages, you know? And if they should get along, then they should get along.
Stephanie: I was wondering how you found your publisher. Did they approach you or did you shop your story out to different publishers?
Irene: Well, it was very strange but I had the book almost done…I mean, halfway done maybe. Then my agent, my theatrical agent somehow has a connection to BearManor Media. So, he pitched it to BearManor Media and they were interested right away. And then it took about a year and a half, another half a year or a year to edit it and to really condense it, you know, because I don’t know if I should say it, you know, but being truthful that I am. I kind of really like Haiku kind of writing, I like the kind of down to the bone, I don’t like anything superfluous, you know, just additional, you know, kind of coloring, I just really like to cut it down to the bare bone, still expressing what you wanted to express.
So, I don’t know if this is my style or if it’s such a thing, or, you know, I know every writer is very different and there are such tremendous writers, good writers. I had just been turned on to “The New York Review of Books,” you know, there are some awesome, awesome writers there. And just getting that paper every month and then online, it’s just unbelievable, some of the words I’ve never even seen, it’s just so good. So, I’m, you know, basically optimistic and grateful for everything that I do.
Stephanie: It’s a good segue into your future projects that you have coming out this fall. So, you have two Netflix projects, you have an animated film “Over the Moon” that releases this fall, and then you’re acting in the “Away” series starring Hilary Swank. So, I’m just wondering, how has it been like working on these projects?
Irene: Yeah, it was very interesting. Last year, I did “Over the Moon,” which is a very big musical animation by Glen Keane, he is huge. He’s done “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas,” “Aladdin.” So, I was very happy that I’ve been chosen to play a part in there. It’s about a little girl who wants to build a rocket ship to go see her mom in the moon because she passed away and she firmly believes that she is up there. And I’m the grandmother and then there’s some other parts like aunts and, you know, different people. And I haven’t seen it, I don’t know the script, they are very secretive. I don’t know if you know in this career…or is it like books also? They don’t really let you…
Stephanie: I would say it’s not the same.
Irene: Not the same?
Stephanie: No, they want you to read the full book.
Irene: They want to read the whole book?
Irene: You know, when I went to the auditioning, they don’t even show you the title of the film.
Stephanie: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Irene: Yeah. So, the other one is called “Away,” and it’s a series, it’s a Netflix universal TV. And they got really lucky, that’s the one that I went to Vancouver and shot, right away the day before Christmas Eve, they closed down but they got 10 of them in the can so they were just doing post-production for the last few weeks. And I went to do in post because they wanted that Chinese dialect to be very, very Beijing and to our ears, you know, to the Westerners’ ears, I don’t know would it makes so much difference but that’s how they wanted it.
So, I can speak Mandarin but they have to have a dialect coach to coach me to say it just right and it sounds very different because where you’re just crowing your tongue, “[foreign language 00:37:21],” every word is like that, you know? So, we really have to pay attention to this dialect, I guess, because, you know, I think it’s…well, I know for sure that “Over the Moon” is a co-production because the contract I had to sign has a “co-studio” on it. So, I think it’s Netflix and, you know, co-production with a filming studio, maybe this one is also.
Stephanie: Have you noticed any major differences in filming projects from when you first started out to now? I don’t know if you’ll have an answer to this.
Irene: That’s a very good question, a very good question, I was so afraid that you’re gonna ask something like that because it is very different. First of all, we used to do the film in film, cans of film, okay? So, if you’re a big director, you usually get to do, you know, 10 to 1 or whatever, you know, smaller directors may get, you know, 4 to 1 parts. So, it’s on actual celluloid, you know what I mean? And now you can shoot 100 takes, it doesn’t matter, it’s just on, you know, whatever it is. And the lighting is very different. In the old days, we have tremendous amounts of lights. I mean, you really get a sunburn, you know, and makeup, you know? And so now it’s very natural just like how we are, you know, on tape…I mean, on…I don’t even know how to say it, it’s not on tape, it’s on…
Irene: Yeah. Yeah, you know, you can do it as many times as you want to, your makeup is much more natural. If you look at old films…and I think that they are playing so many old films nowadays because they have no product. So, some of the old films, you know, they’re definitely different, the acting styles are different. Acting is basically the same, it is what it is, but maybe the gestures, how people used to work, the Shakespearean and they have these big gestures because they came from the silent days, they have the gestures, there was no sound.
So, yeah, film has really progressed, like everything else, you know? Now, I think, I don’t know if I could call it an adult or whatever it is, you know, you see this kind of teenagers now, it’s just different now, it’s just different. I don’t know if it’s any better or good because you can do so many takes and then, you know, all the kids, they think that they are film stars because…right? I mean, they can do tapes of themselves and post it to Instagram, post it to TikTok or whatever, and it’s like they know how to enhance themselves and Photoshop, all kind of things.
Stephanie: So true.
Irene: So true, so true. You know, I mean, you guys are professionals, you know? I mean, all of a sudden, with a few, you know, TikToks, they think that they can be professional.
Joni: But what about things like special effects and CGI? That must be quite different over the years, even in the last 10 years or so?
Irene: Another great question, it’s amazing to me. You know, I’m not in the technical end of it, I’m only interested in the acting or the writing end of it. But yes, film is a very…that’s why it could be like how the ultimate art form because it involves so much technical things. Before we had CGI, my gosh, you know, like the movie that I did, “Green Berets,” and I saw it maybe like three years ago. And it was really just…they just put it down so bad because it was the only pro-Vietnam war movie at the time and there was a bomb scare even when we had the opening in New York City and I invited my parents and then we had to shuffle into a tiny little screening room to see the film.
But when you look at it now, you know what? It’s pretty amazing and it’s good, there’s no CGI in every footage you saw, the bomb and the helicopters and the trucks, everything was the real stuff, you know? And they have sets, there was just like miles and miles of sets, and soldiers and choppers and just everything, you know, with the war. And then I’m just amazed at what they do now and sometimes I don’t even want it that much, you know what I’m saying? There’s just too much CGI, too much, you know? And some of the shows I do like is that little girl with a dragon on her shoulder.
Stephanie: Oh, “Game of Thrones?”
Irene: “Game of Thrones.” Yeah, it’s amazing, it’s beautiful, even though it’s so dark and I can hardly see it.
Stephanie: Yeah, that’s true.
Irene: You know, I don’t think they’re saving on lighting but they wanted that look. I mean, I love “Lord of the Rings,” you know, I love movies like that to be that kind of CGI, but some of them feels like cartoonish to me.
Joni: And imagine as an actress, it must be hard to act without all of the…do you know what I mean? When they added in later? What is it like for you when they…?
Irene: Well, they added everything later so you don’t know because they have the blue screen or screen in the back of you, so they’re putting all of that stuff but they will tell you, “Okay, so you’re doing this and you’re gonna duck down now,” or whatever. You know, acting could be kind of a treacherous profession because…especially those action actors, I really gotta hand it to them because even with CGI and with everything, they have to do the motions, they have to do all of that, and there are explosive going in where are…you know, it’s dangerous. And I have to tell you the truth that the directors don’t care because they want to get the best shot that they want to, you know, but anyway…
Stephanie: I was watching the scene with you and Elvis Presley in a boat and then I think he’s singing to you, I’m not sure, but there’s everything’s going on on the sides and, like, you’re literally going down the boat and I was like, “I don’t think that would ever be shot like that today.”
Irene: What do you mean?
Stephanie: Like, it was such an elaborate set, there was no CGI, obviously, but I don’t…like, that wouldn’t happen, I think, today as it was shot for you?
Irene: Yeah, it was a big setup and they only did it a few times because, as you know, or as you don’t know, Elvis or Sinatra or John Wayne, they don’t rehearse, these guys, they don’t rehearse, so you have no idea what are you going to do, you know? So, they tell you, “Oh, he’s going to do the singing,” you know, and I never even heard of the song before, they never even played me the song, okay? So, as I said, I have no clue, so, you know, I would get my low scene and I would take the line of the boat. And you are absolutely right because we got to get all of that background people synchronized doing their drums and doing their dance or doing whatever it is. And it was quite involving, there must have been hundreds of extras and they were real people, not CGI at all.
Stephanie: I mean, it looked amazing.
Irene: Yeah, they shot it in the Polynesian Cultural Center, which was sort of like a Polynesian Disneyland kind of thing, you know, but they actually had real Polynesians from that country, I was told, that live there, that live there and work there. You know, maybe they…I don’t know, because then they perform their dances, they perform their fire dances, and they perform…you know, all those arts are so lost or beginning to be lost because I went back to Hawaii a year ago because I have family there and it’s very hard to go to a luau. You know, you’ve heard of luau? You know, if you go to a luau, you would see the native dance and you would have the kalua pig and you have some really horrible Hawaiian fruits. But I always enjoy the show because they put on a big show and they have their fire dancers and everything. Now, there’s maybe one show, one or two shows from the Hawaiian.
Joni: Yeah, that’s sad that things are being lost.
Irene: Yeah, so maybe this is the time that people are reading more, you know, because you just cannot be watching TV, you know, 29 hours a day. You just want to be reading something, you know, take your mind away from things and I think…I’m reading with my daughter and I think she likes mystery books, so we’ve gotten some mystery books, because they have no schools right now, so no job. I just want to say that whatever it is, we should live in gratefulness, you know? Because if you see…I watch BBC a lot and, you know, you see what’s happening throughout the world, we really are the lucky ones, you know?
Joni: Mm-hmm, absolutely. The message to finish on. Well, thank you so much for talking to us today.
Stephanie: Thank you for joining us today.
Irene: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. Nice talking to you both and namaste.
Joni: Lovely talking to you.
Stephanie: Namaste. Joni, you’re a yoga teacher.
Irene: I am a yoga teacher.
Joni: You are too?
Stephanie: So, Joni is also a yoga teacher, I do her class.
Irene: Really? Oh, my God.
Stephanie: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast. If you’re interested in purchasing Irere’s book, we’ll have a link to it on our blog and if you’re interested in actually seeing what her artwork looks like, she sent us a couple of pictures of her watercolor painting, so that will also be on the blog for you to check out.
Joni: This episode was produced by Stephanie McGrath and Joni Di Placido, editing is done by Kelly Rowbotham, music is provided by Tearjerker, big thanks to Rachel Wharton for her production support, and big thanks to Irene for being a guest today.
Stephanie: If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey today, sign up for free on kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.