Sometimes behind great actors there’s a great acting coach

About a decade ago, a number of Overseas Vietnamese film professionals began to make names for themselves here in the emerging local movie industry. They were directors, actors & actresses, and producers—many of them the kids of “boat people” families who’d grown  up to become film studies students and enthusiasts back home before fashioning careers out of their various crafts. In many cases, they contributed Hollywood-style filmmaking techniques and production values to local projects, invigorating homegrown cinema and presenting audiences here with quality Vietnamese language entertainment. The features that came out of that injection of Viet Kieu talent—from The Rebel and Fool for Love through to Once Upon a Time in Vietnam and Tam Cam—arguably hanged the nature of films produced in this country.

When Vietnamese-American actress Kathy Uyen told Oi Vietnam in our 2015 interview that she was going to be holding classes in acting techniques, there was a sense that she was getting ready to pass on the torch. Kathy’s early work in Los Angeles brought her leading roles in Vietnamese movies that transformed her into a local celebrity. Later on, considering that random parts for American-accented actresses were unlikely to bring her much professional longevity, Kathy won a new relevance for herself by writing and co-producing her own romantic comedy, 2013’s How to Fight in Six Inch Heels. Still a much-loved figure in local cinema today, her fresh role as a real-life acting coach could see her become an even more influential industry player than she has been so far—her recent work mentoring Kaity Nguyen, the female lead of the 2017 hit Jailbait, contributed to a cast performance that saw the film break local box office records.

We caught up with Kathy again this month to learn more about her ongoing coaching work, asking her if she’s simply aiming to establish confidence in aspiring actors—as it turns out, her approach is a little different. “Confidence is quite general,” she explains. “You need knowledge and a set of techniques to be truly confident as a professional actor. The craft of acting is an artform in itself, it’s something that can be learned. It’s not enough to be photogenic, charming and confident—although there have been some lucky breakthroughs with new actors who fit the part and have great instincts and charisma while reading and performing a script. But films are always shot out of sequential order, which makes it so difficult for an actor keep track of the emotional relationships in character, from fighting with a love interest to being madly in love, to shooting the scene of just meeting each other for the first time on the last day of shooting… and what if an actor is able to deliver an amazing heartfelt crying scene, and there’s a technical camera problem and the scene has to be performed again and again? Chances are that the anxiety of not being able to achieve the desired emotion and the repeated takes will eat that confidence away.”
What Kathy specifically teaches are techniques that can be used to awaken the desired emotions, reactions, and what  she calls “physical doings” most specific to the character in the script being rehearsed for. Her students are usually professional actors working a feature film, although her classes have also raised interest from people outside of the entertainment industry.

“Art imitates life,” she says, “we  can only write what we know, act with personalities and project emotions we feel most connected to. As regular people, we play different roles every day. Every moment we’re in a scene of life, trying to achieve our objectives, yearning for love and acceptance, to express our anger, to ask for forgiveness, or to let loose and have fun—yet constantly stuck with obstacles, or someone not giving in to our desired objectives, or not loving us back, or causing further frustrations. It’s this dramatic state of conflict that is interesting to capture and watch, the slice of life that we as artists strive to recreate in the medium of film.”

Learn to Act, Act to Learn
Kathy is currently engaged in writing a new script that will serve as her directorial debut, and preparing to act as a romantic love interest in a coming-of-age romance in the works. In the meantime, she still keeps up her acting workshops and coaching work, and is often approached by career actors who need help with a feature film. “I’m not teaching them charisma,” she explains, “they have their own, they’ve got their role on their own. I’m helping to give them a set of tools that they can lean on when they go to set, so that they can be more consistent with their acting.”

“I’m not encouraging actors to be ‘technical actors’,” she continues, “I’m encouraging them to learn the skills and techniques of acting so that they know how to study it, rehearse it, improve it and be prepared on set; so they can feel free on set. Once they’ve done their homework, built their character, done the necessary imaginative work, studied the script and scenes, understand their character’s emotional arc, and are familiar with their character’s objectives, obstacles, and relationships to those around them, then they have earned their confidence on set, and they can then let go of the technical knowledge and truly be natural and in the moment, having built the character from within.”

The one issue that tends to divide opinion about studying acting as a craft is the notion that it should be something natural and emotional, performed ‘in the moment.’ Kathy concedes that some actors she speaks with complain that they feel robotic after overthinking everything when they start learning, and that amateur actors are often afraid to practice a scene for fear of ‘using up’ their natural instincts. “I think that’s very inexperienced thinking,” she observes. “If we’re true professionals, we never run out of the ability to create, build and master our emotions, talents and skills on demand. In my opinion, that’s exactly what separates amateurs from professionals. With any new skill or new profession, it’s normal to experience discomfort or frustration in the beginning. For example, with exercise, it’s difficult and painful at first to know how to do a proper ab crunch. But once we learn it, we master it, we practice it every day and we can achieve an amazing set of abs in the end. After several months, we can do the exercise without thinking, and it looks effortless. Learning the skill is the first step, so that we can practice, so we can improve and perform effortlessly and naturally in front of others. It’s not enough to take an acting class to learn it; we have to practice it habitually to improve and try to master our chosen craft. Although I’ve been acting for over 15 years, I’m still learning each and every day and improving in my art.”

According to Kathy, general audiences aren’t usually aware that acting can be learned, or don’t know where to take a class or are otherwise afraid that the stigma of taking classes means they’re not confident enough. Kathy was a habitual participant in acting courses in Los Angeles with multiple acting coaches in all types of acting methods while taking film studies at U.C. Irvine—at the time, her acting classmates were all different levels of working actors, including stage, commercial, TV and film, all of who were still attending class to constantly improve their skills. “In a highly competitive industry, we can never stop learning,” she says. “I miss the culture of being among a professional community whose aim is to constantly learn, push each other to grow and challenge each other with new limits. I wanted to create that kind of safe environment for all lovers of acting, from beginners to advanced working actors, and create a strong community of likeminded professionals. Once we all have a common language of acting, we can feel free to rehearse together, share feedback, improve together, and push the level of acting performance to the next level. In the Vietnamese acting industry now, however, it’s quite uncommon to hear of actors rehearsing alone without the director. If actors don’t share a common language, how can they distinguish between a good scene and a bad scene? Actors who receive critique can improve and be more willing to practice and be more prepared on set—but we can only offer useful critique to each other if we’re knowledgeable of the vocabulary of acting technique. It’s about creating a language we can use to communicate with each other.”

The real question is the extent to which established Vietnamese actors really need the kind of coaching Kathy provides, and while few would argue that Vietnam has produced its share of fine cinematic works, the jury’s still out in terms of general performance quality—especially in commercial releases that aren’t attempting to stand out as long-term classics of their genre. While Kathy’s very cautious to pronounce judgment, she is the first to admit that part of her motivation in coaching is to play one small part in raising standards industry-wide. “I do hear it a lot,” she sighs. “They say, ‘Vietnamese actors are not good…’ I hear that a lot. Honestly, I’ve been constantly learning and improving my skills as an actor for years, and I feel great pride when I tell people I’m an actress because I know I worked hard for it. But when I moved to Vietnam and shared that with people, I didn’t feel the same consensus that they thought it should be something to be proud of. I feel that acting is not yet a respected career here in Vietnam. General audiences don’t see the value in enrolling their children in acting classes, for example—they just don’t feel it’s something that can be learned or worth paying money to learn. I want to change that, and I want to change public perception as well. Acting is the art of learning how to be aware, create and control your emotions, building emotional intelligence in how we connect with people and effectively communicate our emotions in the most productive way. It also changes your perceptions on how to react to other human emotions—and if we can really begin to understand what people actually mean to say, as opposed to stopping at the words they use, we can effectively communicate better. Wouldn’t it be amazing if one day people here chose to enroll their child in acting, because that’s going to give them the confidence to stand on stage, that’s going to give them the insight that they need to have their own meaning and purpose and story when they talk to other people, and they can channel positive thoughts and meanings to people, being present and having the ability to share engaging moments of human connection?”

In the end, Kathy is still driven by the same passion for the industry as she was when acting classes were part of her own daily diet. “If you really love the craft of acting, if you really want to be an actor, you’ve got to ask yourself, do you want to be famous or do you want to be an actor?” she says. “Because they’re two different things. Some people want to be an actor so that they can be famous. But if you want to be an actor because you love the art of acting, then you want to get better and you want to be amazing, you want to do amazing things in your career and you want to play interesting roles, and you’re going to keep wanting to work with directors and get better. And through your passion for acting, the fame will follow.”

Image Provided by Kathy Uyen