tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS December 13, 2014 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: from the world of suzie wong to the joy luck club, she's played everything from a bond girl to the most powerful woman in china. legendary actor tsai chin. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. tsai chin, you are the grand dame of theater, of film. you have been in the james bond movie you only live twice and casino royale, the interpreter, memoirs of a geisha. probably most people will remember you from the movie the joy luck club. and because... in preparation for this interview i watched the joy luck club now three or four times.
what an amazing movie. the joy luck club really was an extraordinary movie. but for you as an actress, when it was, you know, a sliver of this extraordinary career... but what did that movie mean for you? >> i think first of the movie as a threshold, you know? it was the first movie ever that 99.6%, or whatever, they're all asians. this has never happened before. and it became a hit. not a, you know, blockbuster hit, but a hit. and so that shows that a lot of asians do have talent. and therefore, in a way, there's no excuse to say, "well, that's very difficult." for me, of course, it's life changing, because i was living in london then, and the hollywood door was suddenly opened to me. and people start... agents, for instance, you know, want to
represent me. and by that time, i was already, you know, no chicken anymore, small young chicken, no chick. you know, i'm in my 60's, early 60's. and so they said, "well, you can't commute, you know, like robert redford or anthony hopkins. you have to come to hollywood." so like a fool, and i'm a risk-taker so i came to hollywood. >> hinojosa: so even... because what people don't know about you is that you have this extraordinary career in the theater, and then you... you know, you make this hollywood movie. it's something of a hit. but you basically say, "okay, now i'm going to move to hollywood"? >> yeah. >> hinojosa: wow. and how did it go? >> well, you know, i could, you know, be a total failure, but the minute i arrived, somebody gave me a huge television series, okay?
pilot, one hour. >> hinojosa: okay. >> what is it? i remember. the guy who made magnum... >> hinojosa: p.i. >> huge, you know? and i didn't to go and see the suits, you know? >> hinojosa: you call them the suits? >> all the people that, you know, you have to go through to get a television series. so i thought that every actor gets a television series. >> hinojosa: just by arriving into hollywood? >> like, you know, that they... yeah, if they like you. so... but unfortunately, the... >> hinojosa: the pilot? >> the pilot didn't get... what you call it? >> hinojosa: picked up. >> yeah, picked up. and in fact, it's, you know, one of the few pilots of his that didn't get picked up. so, i mean, in a way it's quite good because i would probably be insufferable if... more insufferable. >> hinojosa: but now, people will also see your face, and they're going to say, "wait a second.
i know her from grey's anatomy." >> yeah, i mean, people in... the nicest part is not when people come and say "i'm your fan." in my profession, you don't know whether they mean it or not. but if you're, like, queueing up or something, some woman with a child, not in the business really like you, you know, like your acting, i find that very gratifying. and the other day i was having a bad day, and i was driving, and i was scolded by a policewoman for, you know, stopping at the red light too early. so the window was open, and suddenly a cyclist come up, obviously a film buff, you know, and, "oh," he said, "i really like your work." >> hinojosa: oh, my god. >> i said, "you made my day." >> hinojosa: sometimes people don't realize it-- actors love it when real people come and say... >> that's true. >> hinojosa: and i think in the movie, to go back to the joy luck club for a
second, because for me, now watching it again with my daughter, who is 11, it's one of those movies that you really... it should be required viewing for all american moms and their daughters, because it's such a universal story. and i know that you have done so much, but for a second i want you to stay with the joy luck club, because in that movie your character is given away as a child bride and loses all of her power. so as a woman who is so incredibly powerful in her life and in her career, what was that like for you to tap into that place of being a young chinese girl who is essentially powerless? >> well, you know, i chose to... i asked if i could play auntie lindo when i didn't even know... when i was not familiar with the script, because it was very instinctive.
but there are a couple of things about auntie lindo that i liked. first of all, she loved her mother. >> hinojosa: oh, adored her mother. >> i loved my mother. and when we did the famous scene in the beauty parlor, we did it for a long time-- a week or something, you know. and i asked them to play a line before we go into the scene, every time. something to do with my mother. so therefore the emotion will come automatically. and the other thing is, you know, auntie lindo is not a very... not an easy person. >> hinojosa: no. >> which i can identify with. and therefore i think she's probably quite interesting. >> hinojosa: you like tough women. >> i like tough women, being one
myself. yeah. i'm no shrinking violet. >> hinojosa: you are not a shrinking violet. you were the first person... let me get this right. werre you the first chinese person to study at the royal academy of dramatic arts? >> yes. >> hinojosa: the very, very first chinese... >> very first, and not only that. when i came out, i was suddenly... suzie wong and flower drum song both came to england and i got both. >> hinojosa: you were... >> i got both, okay? >> hinojosa: you were suzie wong, the suzie wong? >> i was also cast as... i was cast as the lead in flower drum song. so i had to choose between the two. how many chances does an asian actress have? and the two biggest show comes to town and i can't do both. anyway, first of all, i did not play suzie wong as a victim. i never play people as a victim.
it's just by instinct. >> hinojosa: you don't like to play the victim. so oftentimes there is a perception of asian women as the victims. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and you basically are saying, "that's not our story whatsoever." >> well, you have to... you have to trade in a sense. i'll give you a very recent example. i did television, which... the scene is... the woman has many scenes. and they want to shoot it the first day, and lots and lots of dialogue. and it's pretty... now, you know, people are much better. they don't stereotype that much. but then i notice there are two lines which i don't want this woman to say. so i got there the first day. they were very worried. they thought i couldn't remember all these lines. as it happens, my memory is still intact. so i sat the producer and
director... no, producer and writer down. she is a woman, which makes a lot of difference. i sat her down, and i said, "don't worry about the lines. i will now say it to you." i said the four scenes-- "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah," said it to you. oh, everybody got very relieved. "okay, okay." i said, "except, can i ask... can i request? i don't want to say these two lines, because i don't think it's very good for this character." >> hinojosa: you... in your history as an actress, there came a point when you said, "i will not play any stereotypical asian women roles." and what happened at that point? >> well, when that got to that, i had, first of all, lost all my money, okay? i mean, my life is full of drama, let's face it. and then i reached 40. and when an actress reach 40--
i think for a man, when he reaches 50-- that is a very difficult time, because you are no longer young and pretty. >> hinojosa: and people... you know, you were... you still are a sex symbol. >> many... yes, i was. >> hinojosa: there's an opening shot in the movie you only live twice with james bond, with sean connery. this is the 1960's, and you are in bed with sean connery, living it up. >> jessica: not only that-- suzie wang was a sex symbol. >> hinojosa: huge sex symbol. >> so everybody, you know, wore the same hair. and i was the first to wear fishnet stockings, all right? >> hinojosa: oh, my god. >> and everybody start to wear fishnet stockings in england, anyway. so yes, in a way, yeah, if you're a sex symbol, but i think for all actresses, after 40, do
you play mother or do you not play mother? you know, so that's when i... because of that, i went to university. >> hinojosa: you went back to school? >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and got a degree... >> because i want more power. i want to find... you have to change gear. you have to change gear. >> hinojosa: what did you go to study in the university? >> drama. and then i taught at tufts. >> hinojosa: oh, i understand. >> and they are very... they are very unusual, because i didn't have a b.a. i said "i can't do a b.a." i said, "i'm too old." who wants to do... oh, i don't know. you're supposed to do four subjects. >> hinojosa: when you are teaching young actors, as such a powerful woman as yourself, what is the message you want to give to actors? >> strength. >> hinojosa: but it's so hard. so many of these young people feel like "i'm not sure." >> that's when... i tell you, it was the most rewarding time of my life teaching these kids. i love to see these kids, you know, pimple and everything, and
not sure of themselves... >> hinojosa: and this is right here at tufts? >> yes. >> hinojosa: tufts university. >> after one year. i said, "i know you're not going to be actors, but i want you to at the end speak one speech perfect." and i said to them very... because it's very popular, this course. not... i have something to do with it, but only little. because they think it's very easy, you see? acting is very easy, you can get four credits. and i say to them, "first of all, i'm going to treat you just like professionals. everything's to do with professionalism. for instance, you come in, you don't throw your clothes all over the place. why? because when you start, you will be starting in some poor theater. you've got to look after your own costume." >> hinojosa: oh, i love this. i want to take a theater class with you. >> and then i told them, "i have to be honest. it may be politically incorrect.
the last two places will be reserved for an african-american and for asian. i don't care what you..." and they loved me for being very honest, you see? and i always remember once, there was a black... he was like 35 years old. he still talks about me. and he's always falling off seats, you know? and i said, "what are you trying to do?" and i just teach them just to be strong. >> hinojosa: i want to talk to you about... because for me, really, this has been one of the most fun preparations for an interview, because it took me into your life. and you wrote an amazing memoir, daughter from shanghai. and your memoir talks about the fact that you have a dad who was a star, a huge star in china of the peking opera. and your mom... >> my mom was very rich and eloped with him. in the '20s-- can you imagine? >> hinojosa: breaking all kinds
of stereotypes. >> and she could survive. she would have been... she was disinherited. she could have been, you know... end up terrible. but my god, she became... you know, so she can't act for nuts, but... >> hinojosa: but what happens... you have an extraordinary life. your parents decide to send you to great britain. your sister is studying at columbia university in new york city. this is in, like, the 1930's, '40s? >> my sister was the first... my eldest sister was the first student that went to america because of the japanese compensation. that money, you know. before my sister's generation, when you went to... chinese are regarded as either coolies or laundrymen. she was the first generation... you know, there is a joke, "knock, knock, there is a chinaman, no laundry tonight." "knock, knock." my sister's generation, "knock,
knock, there is a chinese. are you doctor so-and-so?" so there is this joke, you know? >> hinojosa: but i want to take you to... because, you know, your life, again, it's an extraordinary drama. but part of the drama is that you leave, you and your brothers and sisters, you leave, and your mom and dad stay in china. and then china goes under the process of a revolution, and your parents are still there. your dad is still a huge star. but then the cultural revolution happens in 1966. you're already living on this side. and this is the part that's extraordinary for me. because for eight years... >> ten. >> hinojosa: ten years, you lose total contact with your mom and dad. >> the bamboo curtain, so-called, came down. there is no communication. >> hinojosa: and it's not like you couldn't pick up the phone and call your mom. >> there is no phone anymore. their houses... just like dr. zhivago, the house is occupied by everybody else, and they
live in the... in the servants' quarters. >> hinojosa: what's it like for you to know that your mom and dad essentially both... both of them passed as a result of the cultural revolution? >> well, first of all, you didn't know, okay? you didn't know what happened. because until... at the end, when it opened up, you know. secondly, i used to have terrible nightmares. nightmares of my mother, giving her glass of water and the glass... iced water, full of ice, and the ice was made of glass and choked her. all these sort of dreams. and it did affect my life. on the best side, perhaps-- i tried to see the best-- made me better actor because, you know, everything i do and feel is
freely from the depth of my stomach, you know? >> hinojosa: you found out your dad passed by reading the papers? >> my father, find out by reading the new york times he's still alive. because madam mao uses him every time things are quiet as the main... put him onstage... >> hinojosa: scapegoat. >> yeah, yeah. and my mother, of course, already died, beaten many times by the red guards. >> hinojosa: and you lived through it, and then you decide... >> well, ironically, when they were doing it, i had the greatest time in england, don't forget, because it was the '60s. >> hinojosa: so you're having an amazing life as an artist. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: as a human being. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and your parents are living in hell. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: many, many years later, you are invited back as the grand dame, now seen again as the grand actress. you're invited back to china to teach. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: so now you're
teaching chinese young people... >> yeah, because they didn't have any university for ten years. they didn't even know who arthur miller is. they don't know who pinter is. the only person they knew, brecht, because brecht is east germany. at that time-- i can't do it now-- i gave a lecture for three hours. and at that time i could because i just came out of university, i am full of the human condition and this drama terminology, which i can't do anymore, you know. >> hinojosa: so at that point, did you imagine... did you think, "look, hollywood is on my radar, hollywood..." because now you live in hollywood. >> no, that was before hollywood. >> hinojosa: exactly, but were you thinking at all like hollywood might be something that... >> no, i never think hollywood might be something ever, because you have to understand, my... the actors in england, my time, they may want to go to hollywood... >> hinojosa: but they would never say so. >> they would never say so. it's like really selling
yourself. you see, so you never think about hollywood. and you never think about getting awards. now, of course, there is an award every year, right? i mean, not every year. every day, every day. >> hinojosa: every month. >> no, every day. you never think of getting awards. me? you know, little old me who is an ethnic actress? so, i mean, go to hollywood? oh, no, i wouldn't possibly sell myself. >> hinojosa: but in the end, hollywood has... if you... >> in the end, i mean, a lot english actors also in the end came to hollywood, all right? and new york actors who tried to be artists, they have to earn some money before they retire. so i always think china... china gave me my roots, and england nurtured me, and hollywood... america rewarded me.
>> hinojosa: interesting. so at this point in your career... >> you mean at this point? >> hinojosa: yeah, no. right now. i guess the reason i'm thinking about it is because again after seeing a movie like the joy luck club... oh, by the way, i did take out memoirs of a geisha and watched that as well, in which you are also extraordinary. >> well, nobody ever recognize... which is my intention, you know? >> hinojosa: that they don't recognize you from... >> nobody recognize me. >> hinojosa: well, everybody should go back and watch memoirs of a geisha. you did such a wonderful job. but when you look at hollywood, the fact that... the joy luck club came out in what, '97, more or less? late 1990's. it's been about ten years. >> no, '91, isn't it? >> hinojosa: really? so... >> no, '93. >> hinojosa: so we haven't had another movie with asian-american... asian... >> no. >> hinojosa: what needs to happen? >> because, you see, after joy luck club, everybody said, "oh, yeah, let's do more," you know? and then, you know,
you forget about it, right? and also another thing which amused me too, you know, you're hot only literally for a year. >> hinojosa: one year. >> yeah, i mean, literally. because next... because there is somebody else coming to it. and so... it's getting better, because the younger generation. and also, i think, you know, it's a demand and supply thing. in the beginning, there was no demand. and therefore, there was no supply. and it's a vicious circle this way. so the young actors now are better trained, i hope. there are still a lot of them here not stage-trained, which i find it really... because you don't last very long if you don't. i mean, sandra oh, for instance, she is a stage-trained actress. >> hinojosa: and you know what's so funny? i was with sandra oh maybe a year and a half before grey's anatomy. and she was a little bit frustrated as an asian
actress... she's canadian. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: she was saying, you know, "in the united states it feels like you are always seen through the prism of you're an asian actor." she said in canada it wasn't that way. and she was frustrated with not being able to kind of push through. well, now, sandra oh is a huge star. >> so we have her. we have lucy liu. but also we need a lot of people, you know, like latino. we need people behind it. >> hinojosa: yeah. >> behind it. but i will also-- at the risk of being unpopular, which i often become-- i think we can always blame other people, but asians, especially chinese-- i'll just say chinese-- do not support their own artists enough. >> hinojosa: when you said that, i... and you do. you say it very clearly. you say asian people in the united states are not supportive
of asian actors, asians in the arts. >> not the young people. they're doing it. they're very hungry. i'm talking about my generation. >> hinojosa: what do you think that's about? >> well, two things. one is they are busy surviving. >> hinojosa: yeah. >> working, you know? the other thing is-- this is my theory and i am sticking to it-- chinese have an innate disrespect for artists. >> hinojosa: i know, and when you when you said that i was like... >> because historically, an educated man, a cultured man, has to know how to paint, has to know how to write poetry, how to be... he has to know everything, but he does not earn a living by it. how does he earn a living? by being an official. or being a hermit. if you are earning a living doing these things, you are not an artist, you are a craftsman.
and craftsmen are treated quite differently. so even my father... my father was one of the greatest actors. of course, famous, blah, blah, blah. but in the end, even when i was a child, i would get children say, "and who do you think you are? you're just an actor's daughter." >> hinojosa: (gasps) >> but this is also the same, like 300 years ago in europe. >> hinojosa: well, let me ask you about... because we've got another minute and a half left. but i want to ask you about your next amazing project. because far be it for anyone to think tsai chin is not doing any work. because you are working hard. you spent a year filming in china a huge series called the dream of the red chamber. and it's a 50-hour series. will we ever see it in the united states? >> well, you can see it probably eventually when it comes on channel 18, that for sure.
and it will be subtitled eventually. >> hinojosa: and that experience of working, again, in china now... you know, kind of closure for you? >> yeah. and it's like... i am very sort of kind of boast, "now i will be in chinese television history." >> hinojosa: huge. >> and i think joy luck club will at least let me have a foot in american asian television. and i would like to put last plug that my book the daughter of shanghai will be a play written by... has written by david henry hwang. >> hinojosa: which is extraorinary. and will we see this on broadway? is that what we're hoping? >> i think hopefully off broadway at least. it's not commercial enough to get to broadway. it's not a musical. >> hinojosa: we could dream. >> yeah, we can dream. >> hinojosa: tsai chin, it has been a real honor to have you on my show. >> thank you for having me. >> hinojosa: you are an extraordinary role model, and we love you for being strong.
>> this week on overheard, film maker john sayles. >> gopher sisters i think was two ideas i've been walking >> funding for overherd with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community, experienced, respected, and tested. also, by hillco partners. texas government affairs consultancy, and its global health care consulting business unit, hilco health, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation and viewers like you. thank you. >> i'm evan smith, he's an academy award nominated writer and director whose credits include lone star, passion fish, the brother from another