Exclusive Interview with Actress Esther K. Chae
By Steve Su
As a graduate from the Yale School of Drama, Esther K. Chae is a classically trained actress. In addition to having played the lead in numerous stage performances, Chae has also had major roles in hit television shows like N.C.I.S., Law and Order, The Shield, and ER. Chae is currently in New York performing So the Arrow Flies, a solo performance piece she wrote herself. Asian Loop recently had a chance to talk with this prolific actress about her background, her career, and this latest work.
Growing up, Chae has always been interested in the arts. Even at a young age, she knew she wanted to perform. "A lot of people was always asking me, what do you want to be?" Chae recalls. "And I would be like ballerina, U.N. official, diplomat, astronaut. Then I remember thinking to myself very clearly. Oh, I only have one life. There are so many things to do, I should become an actor, the most practical decision."
Chae received a Bachelor of Arts from Korea University, and then she earned her Master of Arts degree in Theatre Studies from the University of Michigan. From there, Chae went on to become trained as a professional actress at the Yale School of Drama, where she received her Master of Fine Arts in 1999.
Chae is of Korean descent and essentially grew up in Korea, but her story is unlike most Asian Americans. Chae was actually born in Eugene, Oregon. But at a young age, she moved to Korea with her family for her father's career. Leaving everything she was familiar with and moving to a foreign environment was a difficult transition.
But the difficult situation played a role in the development of her art. "I related to Alice in Wonderland a lot [at that time], and I wanted to put up a production of it," Chae says. She ended up writing a play based on her experiences, Ae-Ri in Otherland. She was eventually able to put a production together, although as a student at the time, she had very limited resources. The show, Chae's directorial and writing debut, was performed at the Yale Cabaret. Till this day, she fondly recalls a review her show received, "Ae-ri in Otherland is an interesting mix of humor, morals, and Samulnori that makes even Lewis Carroll [author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland] look a bit conservative." She adds, "I was very proud of that quote."
After graduating from Yale, the actress started her career in New York City theatres. Her talent eventually landed her lead roles in many stage performances, both in the U.S. and abroad. It was not always easy, though. "I've had so many existential crises as any actor and any artist does at one point," Chae says. There was one key moment that came to mind for the resilient actress. "I remember when I first graduated, I was cater-waitering and still attending rehearsals and auditions. It was the dead center of winter in New York City. I remember seeing my own reflection on the street, and I looked like a bag lady because I had all these costumes layered on me for auditions. And I just remember being exhausted." But deep down, Chae knew that she would not be happy if she did not follow her heart. "Once an artistic soul... It's like being in the Marines," Chae jokes.
Esther Chae (left) from Distant Shore
In 2001, Chae decided to look into more mainstream outlets like television and movies in Los Angeles. Although she had not intended to permanently move to the west coast at that time, her plans changed due to 9/11, which actually happened while she was flying to LA. It was difficult since all her friends and connections were in New York. But given the circumstances, many thought it would be best for Chae to remain in California and try to establish her career there.
Esther Chae from ABC set for Dirty and Dirtierer
After getting settled in Los Angeles, Chae realized that being an actress in Los Angeles is drastically different from being an actress in New York. Chae says, "They are two absolutely different entities. Everything was just a huge adjustment." Chae found that in Los Angeles, you need to produce at a much faster rate. But it also has its rewards. "I think on-camera TV work is extraordinarily exciting, because the turnaround is very fast. You get to see it immediately. And the reach is unimaginable."
Since then, of course, Chae has become accustomed to the both environments. She currently successfully navigates between the two cities working on various projects. "I am now at this very interesting point where I want to bridge the two and see what is available through my solo performance," says the aspiring performer.
Chae definitely finds that being Asian American has had an impact on her career in Hollywood. "They don't like to admit it, but it is all very ethnically specific," Chae points out. Because of this, there are many roles for which Chae is not even considered. But as with many things, Chae has a realistic perspective on the situation. "Actors have to know their type and how they are presented. I know that it has not been to my favor that I am in the category of a leading woman [appearance-wise]." She explains that such leading women roles are usually not open to Asian American actresses.
Regarding negative stereotypes in Asian characters, Chae has a refreshingly progressive attitude on the subject. "I think there needs to be all kinds, and I think it is a very exciting time," says the actress. She cites actors like Bobby Lee, who can be over the top. She also recognizes Sandra Oh, who started her Hollywood career as the quirky assistant in Arliss. Then there is Daniel Dae Kim, who plays a romantic lead role. If anything, Chae feels that many Asian American organizations can be too reactionary sometimes. "I think it's detrimental to us, and I think they don't understand," Chae states. "I think we have to move beyond that, and we are at a point where we can be beyond that."
Since she began her career in 1999, Chae has definitely seen more roles open up for Asian Americans in the last ten years. And even more importantly, she has noticed the trend of more Asian Americans behind the camera. According to Chae, "What's happened now is that there are all these wonderful Asian American filmmakers and trained writers." But Chae still sees a lack of proper representation at the decision making level. "It is so important for Asian Americans to participate on board member levels, voicing what they want to see, donating, and making powerful business choices."
Interestingly, Chae has found that her gender plays a much larger role than her ethnicity when it comes to impeding her career. Chae explains, "My ethnicity doesn't come first fold. I don't think about me being Asian or Asian American as much as that there are no roles for women." She reveals the disappointing fact that the entertainment industry in Hollywood is still very male-dominated, and she hopes to see greater female representation both in front of the camera and even more so behind the camera.
Out of all her works, Chae is most proud of her latest piece, So the Arrow Flies. It is a solo performance stage piece created, written, and performed by the polymathic artist. It is about a double agent named Catherine, a North Korean National Actor who is exiled to South Korea. She becomes an intelligence asset for Seoul and the FBI, but all the while spying for North Korea.
Esther Chae from So the Arrow Flies
In addition to Catherine, the show also features three other characters:
Korean American FBI Agent Park, Catherine's 12 year old daughter Mina, and Agent Park's elderly mother Mrs. Park. Throughout the course of the show, Chae transforms herself into the four different characters, each telling her own story from her own perspective. Chae explains, "These are all women of now with very different backgrounds and very different points of view of what it means to be a woman, Asian, and being a daughter or mother".
Chae's inspiration for the show did not come from a single source, but a culmination of experiences from her own life. For example, Chae and her family has always been politically and socially involved. So the basis of her show is something with which she is very familiar. Also, Chae has always been interested in the subjects of spies and espionage. She explains, "It's sexy. It's fun. It's dramatic. I feel like I relate a lot because I am so fluid in many cultures."
Once Chae had formulated the fundamentals of the show, the writing came very naturally to her. "The actual execution of the writing took only three days. Once it had percolated and was in me, the characters just started roaring and screaming," Chae says of the creation process
Despite the fact that it is a one-woman show, with a production like So the Arrow Flies, Chae still has to deal with expenses like hiring a director of operations and hiring a lighting designer. Chae is currently seeking a way to sustain the show for a longer run. "I would ideally want it to run minimally six weeks." Chae feels that this would be enough time for the show to get reviewed, build some excitement, and be recognized for potential honors. "This is not for my ego," Chae continues. "It really is important that there are official stamps [like these] for things to move forward." This storyteller truly wants to be able to reach as many people as possible with her work, and she needs the proper momentum to have the leverage and funding to improve the show and reach a larger audience.
Chae has also adapted So the Arrow Flies into a major film script. According to the writer, "it's a full on, full length, political espionage thriller. The format is absolutely different. The characters are there, but the storyline is very different." The script was a finalist for KOFIC (Korean Film Council)’s prestigious Director’s Lab.
In addition to her acting, Chae also actively speaks at various Universities and conferences. For example, Chae was a speaker at the 2008 International World Women's Forum in Seoul and the 2009 KIN (Kellogg Innovation Network) Global conference at North Western University. Depending on the audience, Chae covers a variety of topics such as Asian American identity, politics, and globalism. In one of her programs, she tries to help fellow thespians learn about the entrepreneurial aspects of being an artist with her presentation "I got my BFA/MFA. Now what?"
Min Jin Lee (left) and Esther Chae (right)
at the World Women's Forum
In addition to being in front of the camera, Chae would love the opportunity to do more behind-the-scenes work such as writing. "Writing is the creative side when you are generative, and you get to choose and do all the extraordinarily exciting [aspects]," Chae states. She continues, "I love directing as well, but I don't do it as much."
That doesn't mean Chae doesn't love what she is currently doing, though. "I think what I am doing right now is to be my version of my idol, Audrey Hepburn," according to Chae. "I feel very pleased when I realized that my artistic work has taken me around the world. I influence people not only through acting, but through teaching and other thought leadership work as well. A friend wrote me, ' You have chemistry with life, Esther.' I like that a lot."
Chae's accomplishments have already been widely recognized. In 2009, she was awarded the prestigious TED Fellowship for her work as a playwright and actor. This talented individual also received the 2009 Tanne Artist Recognition Award. And just earlier this month, New York Governor David Paterson awarded her the APA (Asian Pacific American) TrailBlazer Award for exhibiting exemplary leadership in her field.
Esther Chae (middle) from the Nigeria/NY Film
Academy Program Closing party
After our conversation with Esther Chae, it is obvious that this actress is so much more than just a pretty face. This capable and confident woman is truly dedicated to her art, and she takes a very practical approach to her craft. This allows her to clearly identify her goals as well as her obstacles. And once identified, Chae strives hard to accomplish what she sets out to do. As Chae put it, what you need is "resilience with grace."
Chae will be performing her show So the Arrow Flies from May 14 through May 16 at the Bennett Media Studio in the West Village area of Manhattan, New York. For more information about Esther K. Chae, So the Arrow Flies, or to purchase tickets, please visit Chae's site at www.estherchae.com.
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