OtherAsians features Michelle Krusiec
This was a really fun shoot I had with photographer Melly Lee and the team from the OtherAsians.com
This is a repost of their article. Thank you OtherAsians.com! I’m sorry I gave you such a strange quote – I always think it’s good to have a sense of humor in life.
She pulled off the timeless tomboy lesbian role with grace and sexiness alongside OAer Lynn Chen in Saving Face, and you’ve recently seen her tongue-in-cheeking with Chevy Chase in Community. Regardless of the medium—film, television, theater—accomplished actress Michelle Krusiec has the ability to unrelentingly mesmerize her audience with a pureness and truth that stems from her courage and willingness to be vulnerable. Impressive resume aside (not to mention learning fluent Mandarin through the roles she’s played), Michelle has an exceptionally unique story to tell, from her eccentric adoptive mother to traveling the world over before she turned 21 to her interesting take on stereotypes. Oh, and her house is a museum of unbelievable artifacts including a Louis Vuitton suitcase from the 1890′s. Fierce? That’s just how Michelle rolls.
- What takes up most of your time right now? Work. No, actually, blogging! In my mind, it feels an hour but then four hours later, it’s still going. I’ll blog really late and then the next morning when I have a fresh eye, I’ll look at what I blog.
- Guilty pleasures: Organic anything. I used to roll my eyes at organic, now I’m…a believer.
- Your go-to food: Pho.
- Relationship status: Engaged.
- Pet peeve: Rude people.
- Can you speak/read/write Chinese? I can speak Mandarin, write my name, and do pinyin.
- If you could be in any commercial, what would you be selling? I would love to do something like one of those Beyoncé ads. You know the one where she’s practically naked but you can’t tell, so you keep watching thinking you’re gonna glimpse nakedness but it’s all tricks and lighting. If you’re going to do a commercial, then you gotta go for it!
- Favorite Broadway musical: I would have to say Les Miserables because I’ve always wanted to sing that song, “On My Own.”
- A fun fact: I actually cuss like a sailor.
- Funner fact: My mother, when she was pregnant with me, was approached by an old man who told her that if this child (me) was a girl, she was going to travel to many countries (which I did with the Travel Channel), was not going to be her daughter – was going to belong to someone else (I was adopted), and was going to grow up in America and be successful.
OA: How did you discover the beauty of acting? Was there a moment in your life that marked your decision to pursue this art form?
MK: I have a distinct memory when I was four of watching television and hearing music and dancing to it. I think ever since becoming an actor, I’ve been really drawn to that memory because, at first, I linked it to wanting to be a dancer and that’s true too. But also, from when I was really little, I always had some connection to performing and I remember my grandfather would chase me around the house with these slippers because all I would do is jump on the bed, watch TV, dance and sing. So that’s my first experience of performing. Then, when I was fifteen, I auditioned for a magnet school and I got into their drama program, that was when I started training as an actor and realized, “Oh, I really, really do love it!” When I was growing up, my parents both worked – my dad was in the navy and my mom was a bartender. I stayed home by myself a lot of the time and I didn’t have anyone who could pick me up from school to do extracurricular activities. I had to find something to do that was very self-sufficient. Because the magnet school had a bus system, it was sufficient for me to use without needing my parents to drive me here and there; it was my creative outlet.
OA: How much of your technical training (Virginia Tech, Oxford, Larry Moss, etc) prepared you for this industry, and what lessons did you learn by doing?
MK: I studied Shakespeare at Oxford for a summer but really, I attribute a lot of my training to Larry Moss. Everything I learned from studying theater in college and in drama school taught me discipline and how to cultivate being an artist. Larry taught me by inspiring me. I learned acting technique yes, but he teaches actors to empower themselves and his gift as a teacher is to be able to work with your instrument and not every teacher can do that. But I’ve studied from a lot of people and learned from all of them good and bad. I am always looking for a gym to work out in because that’s key for me. In terms of lessons learned, I was never coddled as a child and to a certain extent I had to grow up very quickly to look after myself, I think that prepared me, oddly enough, for Hollywood and the toils of this profession. In the early part of my career, I learned by trial and error, sometimes to my chagrin. I wish I knew then what I know now about trusting myself, but I think it’s life experience that’s taught me the most. It would have been hard to tell that to myself back then because I would have said “yea, yea, I already know.”
OA: Walk us through your process of bringing a character to life from script to stage. Are there certain “acting methods” you use, research you do, or do you jump into a moment with whatever raw emotion you feel?
MK: Right now, what I’m interested in is trying to find more joy in my work. I do a combination. I research. I generally try and listen to my instincts on what’s drawing me to a character; maybe there’s something in my life that’s similar to what the story requires. I may take the approach where I personalize it a little more. Each role is very different because sometimes there are certain roles that you don’t really have to do much research on. But I tend to gravitate towards material that is more challenging and complex, so it often requires a combination of research and I tend to add in my own odd things. I’ll do dream work or exercises that are crazy out there but that’s just my way of having fun with it. To me, it’s more about my curiosity and where that leads me. When I first started, I really had no technique. The way I approached things was really cerebral, and now that I’m much more comfortable in my own process – I am able to do things off the beaten path. When you’re first starting off, you have to follow certain guidelines so you don’t get lost but now I try and let go of technique whenever I can.
OA: You have not held back as an actress, fully committing to whatever role you are playing, be it an uptight overachiever, a topless lesbian scene, or showcasing your different moaning skills. Where do you find the courage to make yourself completely vulnerable to an audience?
MK: I think life tends to make you into a fortress. And if you’re lucky to choose a career that allows you to be vulnerable and actually celebrates that or hires you because you have that ability, that’s a real blessing. I think because I know that acting is a gift, I feel privileged to be an actor, then that’s what I really have to do – I have to deliver that vulnerability. To be a performer or an artist or an actor, part of the vulnerability is your approach to the work. If you don’t have that, you’ve already missed the point of being an artist – you have to be vulnerable to be an artist.
OA: Borrowing from a question I was asked at OCA’s Changing Media Images of Asian Americans Symposium at UCI, what is better: having stereotypical Asian roles or no roles at all?
MK: That’s hard. Well, I think it’s just better to be working towards something and cultivating your own journey. There is no perfect road but definitely no roles at all lead to nowhere. I’ve played my share of stereotypical parts but I’ve always tried to bring more nuance and richness to the parts I play regardless of stereotype. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not but luckily, I’ve never been pigeonholed as any one thing. However, I always feel the burden of the community. I know we are underrepresented. A question like this is really about shame because I think this question reflects exactly what we feel we are given. No opportunity or crappy opportunity. I don’t believe this is the way to look at the problem of under-representation though. You can’t view yourself as a gun for hire, it’s a long running marathon, so everything is case by case. It’s never just one or the other, it’s richer, deeper and more complex and if that’s how one frames our problems, we’ll never make real progress. We can’t work with generalities or nothing at all. So I try not to get caught in the mind trap. When I was in Dumb and Dumberer, I accepted the role and made a case to the director to change the name of “Ching Chong.” I was not successful and to this day that director will most likely never work with me again because I didn’t play nice, but I learned a hard lesson on that film. I couldn’t fight for the change I thought I could because I had no power and I was miserable as a result. But I didn’t give up being an actor, so it taught me about my own determination and that I have to really think about the roles I take and how it’s going to affect me.
OA: You are one of few Asian American actresses to successfully immerse yourself into mainstream entertainment. How kind has Hollywood been in terms of providing dynamic roles for Asian Americans and minorities in general? How far have we come, and how much work is ahead of us?
MK: I think we need to write more. We need to write more of our own stories. The problem I find is that there aren’t enough writers writing for us and Hollywood’s going to keep doing what Hollywood wants to do. There will be success stories like Maggie Q and Jamie Chung and they will create more opportunities for all of us just because they have visibility. In terms of richness of storytelling and opportunities, that will require more imagination and more creativity on our parts and we’re going have to be the ones to get behind that. People like Maggie and Jamie can only do so much. It’s really not up them to suddenly pave the way; they’re just actors taking jobs. Often times, I find that people look to actors or people who are more high profile to change the playing field—that’s going to take time and Hollywood is not very innovative. Sorry. Artists are. I think we’ve made much better progress though. The Internet has completely changed the playing field, which I think is wonderful. But if we’re talking about systemic change, that has to be done with a different kind of thinking. It’s a paradigm shift; it’s not about what we are given, it’s about what we are willing to create and put out there. Everybody is a critic, but we all have to be thinking, “Well if I’m part of the system, what can I do to make the changes I’m looking for?” If people can start implementing in their own lives, the changes they would like to see, things can be shifted and progress can be made. To me, there’s more nobility in people putting themselves on the line and being vulnerable in whatever capacity they are working as – whether it’s a photographer or in marketing, whatever it is that makes you remarkable — will have an effect in the world. If you incorporate this new approach in thinking, that becomes systematic change, and then the paradigm shift happens. It’s the matrix!
OA: Made in Taiwan, written and performed by you, has garnered an impressive following and incredible reviews. Are there thoughts of further expanding on the one-woman show?
MK: Right now, I’m trying to adapt it as a pilot. I’m writing that as we speak. I’m putting it out there so I can be accountable in case I don’t finish. Made in Taiwan is a live show, and is fully and finally developed now. It’s taken a while. The show runs about 70-75 minutes. Apart from my work as an actor, I’ve always seen the show as my way of reconnecting. Now that it’s done, my mind is sort of free and I’ll continue to perform it at colleges or wherever it’s commissioned. We’re looking for a repertory run so if you know of anyone…. When you perform a solo show, it’s very different from doing a play. Part of the telling of a solo show is unique to the performer. I use the show as an exercise to gauge where I am as a stage performer. When I finally figured out the piece, I was able to say, “It’s complete.” I really needed that because I now understand what the piece is about, why I wrote it, and now I can move on.
OA: You became bilingual in Mandarin later in life—how challenging was it to learn a new language and to apply it in your acting?
MK: It was really challenging on “Saving Face” because I was so new to the language. Alice Wu, the director, has a really strong ear. And when I couldn’t be understood, she would let me know. When you’re conscious of your sounds, you’re out of the moment – for an actor, that’s a killer. So I found that the most challenging aspect of the film was trying to speak Mandarin while being present and also being skilled enough to improvise with Joan Chen, who is fluent because all her lines were Mandarin. If she ever wavered from anything or she felt like improvising, I always wanted her to feel like she could improvise with me as an acting partner. It was pretty intimidating.
OA: Zoom Hunting, a feature thriller, is your Taiwanese debut. Are there thoughts of taking your acting career abroad?
MK: I would love to – I’m definitely conscious of wanting to work in Asia more and pursuing that. I’m increasing my fluency and developing projects with that audience in mind. That’s definitely a territory I’ve been wanting to go into for awhile. It’s just a matter of going there, living there, and taking that world very seriously. I don’t think I felt completely comfortable just abandoning ship in Hollywood but I do feel like I’m starting to learn more about working in Asia. My brain is definitely churning ideas, but it’s also a different kind of experience to work there. ‘Zoom Hunting’ gave me a small taste but I’d love to do more.
OA: You have quite the unique personal story as well. Tell us about your experience being raised by adoptive parents and how that has shaped who you are.
MK: I was born in Taiwan. My father’s older sister, who is my biological aunt, adopted me. I moved to the United States when I was about five. My biological family remained in Taiwan. I reunited with them when I was 12; I’ve been going back to Taiwan since the age of 12. I have two sisters and a brother there, and I have two brothers in America who are really my cousins because they are the sons of my aunt. I have one other sister who was given up for adoption and lives somewhere else in the world, possibly Japan. I don’t know her at all. It sounds complicated to explain over here but it all seems to make sense to everyone over there. My mother in America made me very aware of my family in Taiwan and reminded me of all the opportunities I had for coming to America and the education I was receiving. She always made me remember it to the point where I felt a little too much pressure to achieve. In that respect, I often feel like I wish I had a “normal” childhood. But, as a result, I think I’m really grateful for what I have. It has shaped the person I’ve become. I go back to Taiwan and I want to be a part of my siblings’ lives and help them in a way that is more than just a passing sister that kind of exists in America. So, on one hand, I must admit, it’s a little stressful. But, on the other hand, I feel like it is the reason I work so hard. For most of us, our strengths are also our weaknesses and vice versa. I think that my mother in America was intending for me to understand how special I was to be able to go to America and to be allowed a freedom of choice in what I wanted to do with my life. Whereas, my family in Taiwan, I don’t think they had as much of a choice. So this point of origin of being from two families, two countries, two potentially different outcomes has always been a part of my identity. It is both my remarkability and…my neurosis.
OA: Your mother bit you…please elaborate.
MK: Basically, I was coming home late at night from an acting rehearsal from a theater show I was doing when I was in high school. My parents had a pretty volatile marriage and they were not in a good period when I was in high school, so anything that provoked my mother during this time could prove fatal. I came home and I left my keys in the house; it was midnight, so I had to ring the doorbell. She never remembered that when it goes “ding dong,” it was the front door and, when it goes “ding,” it was the back door. So oftentimes, I would ring at the front door and she would go the back door. And then I would go the back door and she would go the front. It was this fiasco. So on this particular night, by the time she got the door open, she was pissed. She asked, “What are you doing home so late?” And I said, “I was at school for the theater.” She started screaming at me and at that point I was like, “That’s it… no more. I’m not taking it anymore.” Now you have to understand there was lot of tension building up in our relationship prior to this night. So I turned around and walked away, and that completely pissed her off. So she started running and I started running. She was running barefoot in her robe and I went across the street to the neighbor’s, but I was wearing these shoes that I loved and it was so worn that the stupid heel was broken. And when it hit the grass, it kind of got stuck, and my mom pounced on me. She bit into my leg – like chomped into my thigh — she was not afraid. The next day, my leg was black and blue. Looking back, it’s a great story to tell but now, I think it’s so odd that that was my mother. My mom never apologized – in fact, I had to apologize to her for pissing her off. It wasn’t until years later that I asked my mom why she bit me. And she answered, “I didn’t want you to leave. I didn’t want you to go and leave me. I felt alone. So alone. I knew around that time you were going to be leaving home soon.” She was simply terrified of being left alone. It led to a real revelation about my mom and how vulnerable she was at that time and how I dealt with it. And that’s what my story is about. My show – it’s about uncovering and understanding certain moments in your life. It’s definitely a coming of age story.
OA: What does being Asian American mean to you?
MK: I feel like I am lost between two cultures. I don’t feel completely American; I don’t feel completely Taiwanese. I feel somewhere in the middle, but I don’t know where. When I go back to Taiwan, I feel at home but they still see me as American. When I’m here, I feel American but I’m Asian American and we’re still trying to figure out what that is. So, because of my own struggles with that, going back to Taiwan and forming a relationship with my siblings. It’s still exploratory and unknown to me. I’m still trying to figure it out and I think they’re still trying to figure it out too.
OA: Words of wisdom for aspiring actresses and writers:
MK: Listen to your heart, listen to your instincts and listen to your stomach.
OA: How to stalk Michelle Krusiec:
Interview by Julie Zhan
Photography by Melly Lee
Edited by Connie Ho
Makeup by Ivy Choi