Why would a summa cum laude, phi beta kappa UCLA grad defy her country's tradition of choosing "respected" careers like medicine and law and plunge head first into one of the most notoriously difficult (and just plain notorious) of all: Hollywood acting?
Gwendoline Yeo - actress, model, musician, and three-time pageant winner - rocks the Hollywood scene, on and off camera. Though a UCLA Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude recipient, this Singaporean performer finds her calling in the entertainment realm and pursues her dreams all the way to the top. She has appeared in the independent films, THE MIND'S EYE (Barry Simmonds), ISSUES (Victor Neschaut), GHOST IN THE MIRROR (Khan Bhui), and most recently headlined in THE PERFECT GIRL where she played the beautifully imperfect Perfect Girl. In theatre, Yeo was the winner of two DRAMALOGUE AWARDS. Most notably, she starred in Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST at East West Players playing dual roles of Miranda and Ariel. Off-camera, she does voice-over work for such animation series as SCOOBY DOO, FINAL FANTASY X-2, and X-MEN & WOLVERINE'S REVENGE.
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Interview with Gwendoline Yeo
October 5, 2003
Interviewed by Chi Tung
Transcribed by Karen Sakai
Chi: Could you start out by briefly introducing yourself, and tell us about your profile and your background?
Gwendoline: Well, I'm originally from Singapore, which is sort of like a lost colony, aside from mainland China, or Hong Kong or Taiwan. We are our own breed, I guess you can say, but there are a few Singaporean Chinese who are over here. I'm ethnically Chinese, but my nationality is Singaporean. I'm kind of an islander, so I get along with a lot of Hawaiian and Filipinos, because it's more like an islander mentality where I come from, so it's pretty laid back. We have an accent called "Singlish," and it's like "No, lah. Yes, lah. Are you serious, ya know?" It's kind of like that.
Chi: So, coming from this particular background, could you tell us how this diversity helped to make who you are, today?
Gwendoline: You know it's funny, I was reading up on fairytales last night, because I'm working on my one-person show. Have you ever heard of the "Little Mermaid"? Well, I was reading it, and I was thinking Singapore is very much like an underworld, kind of like a safe place where you can't lose your tail, until you go and walk on the water. Singapore is a really safe, clinical, smart environment. The "Little Mermaid" is one of my favorite fairytales, and it's about basically living in an underworld, like the Disney movie, kind of like that. You are in this safe underwater environment all the time, and it's pretty protective and it's an intellectual environment and it's very hierarchal. When you come to the states, it's like being exposed to a whole different world. When I came here, I was 12, and you really, if anything, you learn how to adjust quickly, and its mostly a difficult balance between maintaining your tradition and also being Americanized, which I'm sure a lot of American-born Chinese have the same problem.
Chi: Culturally, where do you think the performing arts fit within the Singaporean culture or lifestyle?
Gwendoline: I think that, marginally, Singapore is trying to work towards expanding its arts environment, but when you think of "Asian-ness," you don't really think of like, hip-hop. I don't know if you've interviewed Jin, the Chinese rapper, but it's sort of like, "When you think of cool, you don't think of Asians right?" - unless its martial arts and kicking ass, and that's sort of a Hong Kong predominance. So I think that Asians are trying to move up, like the Justin Lin's and the other Asian directors and celebrities, who are moving up, and that's good. I think that it's still marginal, but people are trying.
Chi: Do you think children are encouraged to express themselves through the arts, of performing arts?
Gwendoline: I haven't toured the children's system recently (in Singapore), but in my experience, growing up in the 80's, most of my curriculum was hard science and math, and everyone played piano - but it was like you were beaten into it. But, I think art is about imperfection. Instead, I think there is a real dichotomy. In Singapore and in Asia, in general, they're brought up believing that being perfect is the best thing to do - achieving, 100%, 99% and a half. So I think they don't equate. You know, when I was growing up, I had to get it right, and I think most of my journey, as an actress, an artist, and a musician, has been to be comfortable in my own skin. Not being perfect and trusting myself, that being who I am is perfect enough and I think that is the most important thing for any person. In terms of children, I think that Singapore, as a society, encourages children to maximize their brain capacity - and part of that is stimulating their left-brain and their right-brain. So when the kids play tennis, play the violin and do math and science, I think that all the stimulants are there, but I think that where they get to make the choice between arts versus math and science is where they have problems. I think that the government does give an opportunity to kids, to explore those areas, but there's also a devaluation of art, in Chinese society, in general. If you're an actress or musician, you think, "Well, if you're not rich at it, then that means you're not really working at it." I think it's always a tough struggle, so when coming to the states, for me, I was constantly walking that line, like a love/hate relationship.
Chi: So, going back to your decision to get into acting, because, like you said, it's unusual for someone to choose a career path that's strays away from education and sort of emphasizes the glitz and glamour more. What made you get into it?
Gwendoline: Well, I was a super, extreme, mega-gigantic nerd when I was growing up. I still kind of am -- I just don't look as nerdy. I think it chooses you. If I wanted to go into law, or science, I would have, but I would have to work hard at it. I could do it, but I think I have a personality where I have a lot of passion, and a lot of aggression, and anger and sadness and laughter - that I need to get out. The only place where it feels like you get complimented for being so emotional is in the entertainment field, where having an attitude gets you somewhere.
Chi: Has your family always been supportive of you, getting into the arts?
Gwendoline: No, what happened was, I graduated high school when I was 16, and I was bored out of my mind. Then I did the Miss Teen Chinatown Pageant, and that's how I kind of got started with all of this, though pageantry. I have no idea how I won that thing, but then I also won the Miss Teen China Town San Francisco Pageant. It seemed like a lot of the girls were prettier and happier, and I was just doing my thing, and I think it was because I was so relaxed about the whole thing, like I didn't care, that I just came across as being more relaxed about it. When I won that, a year of duties followed, so I think my parents started taking notice, especially when I won the Miss Asia America Pageant and finally the Miss Chinatown USA pageant in Ô98. I think the years of pageantry and the props that you get for it, and the prize money, and the community that it exposes you to, I think my parents just sort of said, "Oh, this is kind of cool, all right, as long as you support yourself, it's fine with us."
Chi: I've noticed that you perform the zither. Do you still do that, currently?
Gwendoline: Yeah, I would still consider myself a professional musician, as an instrumentalist on the zither. I went to the Conservatory of Music, in San Francisco, on piano, and I pretty much hated every minute of it, because it was again like "perfectionism" and "we're going to beat you into being perfect at this stuff." Now whenever I see a piano, I just want to make a face at it, but having that classical background helps. In anything that you do, with music, or the way you think, the rhythm of your life, just having that basis is awesome and being classically trained makes you come from a much more technical standpoint, which is cool. I picked up the Chinese Zither, because my brother was dating a girl who was in a Chinese ensemble, so I went to go check it out and thought, "This really rocks." I mean, who has ever heard of the Chinese zither, you know what I mean? It's like, you can't top Mozart, but I can bring a western point-of-view to an eastern instrument. I love combining it with different producers, and different beats and different things to kind of make it have an "east meets west" feel to it. I still play it all the time, but less live performances now, because it's a really expensive instrument, but I love performing it. People see and are like, "What is it about, what is it?" and I just love when the audience perceives it like that.
Chi: In performing the Zither, do you think it's a way for you to keep some of the traditions of Singapore, but at the same time, break free from the traditional mold?
Gwendoline: Yeah, that's exactly right, because I think that you struggle, in terms of growing-up, thinking that you have to make a choice between being Asian, or being American. I'm an immigrant, who wasn't born here, and I had a pretty strict upbringing, and my heart is still where I grew up, in Asia. I still like having a bowl of porridge, and going to Dim Sum on Sundays - that's just the way I am. Tea after 4am is the best nursing for a hangover, and that's always been the truth. But I think that somehow music just grounds me back, and it feels like I'm doing something right, and that I'm not being a traitor to my culture. Music, however as cheesy as it sounds, is a universal language. With hip-hop, sometimes it's "colored" with "color lines," a little bit, but now, with people bringing it in, you can see that it's becoming more of a universal language. Whether it's rock, or hip-hop or classical, it's going to bring people with the same mindset together, from all over the world. I feel that when I play the Chinese Zither, a white person could see that thing, which they have, and they'd be like, "What is that?" They wouldn't talk to me on the street, but after a performance we can sit down and talk for two hours about music. It's such an unspoken way of just not having to prove anything, and it has such a way with building that bridge that even Singaporeans, who come from a very judgmental, strict society, think that my shows are amazing. I think you're not dealing with minds, but you're dealing with the soul or the heart, like having a glass of wine and kicking back to something, it's cool.
Chi: The east/west balance that you mentioned is also very apparent in your acting, for example, when you performed with East/West Players in The Tempest, taking on two lead roles. Was this your first break?
Gwendoline: Hmm, that's a tough one. I guess you can say that there were a lot of actresses who wanted that role, so I see it as a great opportunity. I don't know if I can say that was my break because I'm still waiting for my break. I think it was one of those rare gems where all my talents were maximized, because Nathan Wong, the play's music composer, wrote the zither in for me, which was so awesome. Andrew Tsao, the Asian sitcom writer, directed us, Nick Erickson, who did all the choreography, was from Diavolo, and I also had a great cast to work with. I think more than anything else, this was the reason why we all came together -- because of all these high caliber people. For me, I've always been an actress, I don't know if it was a break or not, but personally doing that musically and just bringing it all together was just a cool deal. In Hollywood, it's all about the combination of the projects that you do, that's cool - like the team that you assemble, and I think it was a good team.
Chi: Were you ever conscious that since it was an all Asian group, did you worry that it would brand you as an Asian American actress rather than just an actress?
Gwendoline: I think that the only way to get noticed in Hollywood is to be in the most clearly branded niche as possible. So, if anything, if someone wants to brand you as an Asian American actress, say "yes." I mean, I think when you reach a level of success, you can say "Excuse me, but I'm doing my own thing," but it's good for me, because I'd rather people to be able to place me like that then to be some nebulous, enigmatic thing. I've heard of East West Players before, and I think that everything that they do is phenomenal! They are the foremost Asian American company in the United States, so it was a huge honor to play double leads.
Chi: Do you think you represent the new generation, or new mentality of Singapore?
Gwendoline: Um, I guess so, but I'm not saying that I can take full credit for it, alone. I think it's that it's a brave day, every day, doing this thing - it's a tough gig. Since I grew up in such a strict, intellectual place, and I'm still able to feel like I'm on a path that's mine - I think that's pretty cool. I also know other Singaporean performers, directors and artists who are here, and it's just this like gut thing, that's just like "Let's just do it." I think people that blaze a trail are the people who actually live the most sorrowful lives, because you have the most growing pains. But absolutely, I do.
Chi: Did you have any Singaporean predecessors in the acting business whom you looked up to, or idolized?
Gwendoline: Short answer, no. Singapore hasn't been around long enough to have foremost performers. We look at mainland China for performers, or Taiwan or Hong Kong for the Andy Lau's, what have you. I think that what I do look up to, which is so hilarious, is the Singaporean government. In terms of their work ethic, which is their persistence, patience, don't give up, don't settle to lose, win win win, let's go! That's all Singapore.
Chi: Are you committed to establishing your career in the United States, or do you have interests in pursuing a career in Singapore or Asia?
Gwendoline: I think that I want to succeed in the States and continue to purse projects here in the English language. When I can assemble enough people out here and in Asia to start doing projects, dually, then absolutely, I want to go back and shoot there and create projects like that. But I enjoy doing the American sitcom and I love American comedy writers - like Margaret Cho, she's the perfect example. I like making people laugh, and I think that I have an American sense of humor, so I think I'll stick around here for awhile.
Chi: What's the next challenge for Gwendoline Yeo?
Gwendoline: I was watching last year's Emmy's, and Jack Lemmon won the Emmy for the Lifetime Achievement Award and he said, "This is my work, but my wife and my kids and my grandchildren, you guys are my life." I think that the continued pursuit of being an actress, being a musician, being an entertainer - I think that's awesome, but this is my work. I also want to develop my personal life and have a family, and just be happy and have the other side of that, so it's not just work, work, and work. However, I do think that within the work environment, the more personal you can make it, the more fulfilling it is. You know, it's sort of ironic, I was doing a show, recently, and at this show that was in Crenshaw, there was one Chinese kid, at a school full of Hispanic and black kids, and a few white kids, and he said, "Do people tease you?" He was this little, Chinese boy, and I was like "Why are people teasing you?!" And he's like, "Yeah, because I'm Chinese." And it just broke my heart. But I think for him, to see an actress up there, an Asian face, with the slanty eyes, yellow skin, and kicking some ass up there, made him feel like he could speak out, and that makes me really happy.
Chi: What are you currently working on?
Gwendoline: Well, I just finished up a film called "A Day Without a Mexican," which is a comedy about all the Mexicans in LA being fumigated, and I play the news anchor person. It's really funny. I also just shot a couple of commercials, like for CompUSA, in the last month or so, and I'm working on a film with my boyfriend. Let's see, I've been working on my one-person show, and I was also on the first season of "Watching Ellie," the Julia Louis-Dreyfus' sitcom, which was cancelled. That's okay. I'm constantly working on new tracks for my CD stuff, so you know -just doing my thing, hustle, hustle, hustle.
Chi: Is there is anything you'd like to do in the near future, like any particular project you're really enthusiastic about?
Gwendoline: In terms of creating something? Yeah, I don't know if you've heard of KCRW, 89.9 FM, but it's like an MPR affiliate, and when I won Miss Chinatown USA pageant, with my zither background and also being an actress, and an artist, in general - I did a one-person show for them on the radio. It was a blast. So now, I want to take that radio version and expand it into a theatrical production, because I think that for the musical elements of that and the story elements of my life, hopefully people will give a crap and come, hang out and see it.
Chi: Other than acting, are there any other special interests that you have?
Gwendoline: Actually I think what's really cool has been doing voiceover work, and that just comes, I think just part and parcel with being comedic, and being an actress. I've been doing it for a couple of years, but I've done a ton of animation stuff, like this really, mean Japanese colonel in the new Scooby Doo cartoons. I'm also the new lead in Final Fantasy X-2, which it's coming out in December, so most of my fans are young, 14 year-old boys, but we encourage other fans of Final Fantasy too. I play Paine, the lead character and my favorite line is "Are you ready to feel the hurt?" I think that's about all she talks about - just being in pain and being hurt. I'm the voice of Lady Deathstrike, a character who's in the X-men and in Wolverine's Revenge games. So I get to do a ton of voiceover stuff, and that's been really cool - singing jingles and different things like that. I think the best part is being able to play as an actress and not worry about how you look. You're applying a different thing, and you're against a microphone, in a booth and you're making jokes, and doing improv. I've also done a few animation pilots for Klasky-Csupo, who did Bart Simpson and Rugrats, and I did this one called "Bench Pressley and Showgirl," and I'm Showgirl - and she's basically like an anal retentive, intellectual, biyatch ... well casted.
Chi: Ok, thank you very much.