Emmanuelle Khoo – Film and Entertainment Editor
Continuing our exclusive five-part interview series on British-Chinese talent in the entertainment industry, Nee Hao introduces our second actor, Alex Chang.
Instead of running along the safe career path, Alex Chang chose to pursue his passion and love for the performing arts. After training at the Academy of Live & Recorded Arts (ALRA), this 24-year old British-Chinese actor has made various appearances in commercials, stage performances and more recently, films. He has worked in various roles, as the lead in TV comedy “Pete and Whitely”, as starring cast member Xiuquan in post-World War ii period drama “Pao” (ongoing), and has just finished filming educational documentary on the Chinese Labour Corps.
Holding triple citizenship in UK, China and Hong Kong, Alex knows what it means to be both British and Chinese. He is a strong advocate of diversity in casting and understands the up-hill battle British-Chinese actors, like himself, will have to face in order to be heard in the industry. Although he initially suffered a setback during his GCSEs, Alex continued believing in perseverance, passion and hardwork. Now, this exciting actor is the Ambassador for the new Drama & Performing Arts Academy at Exeter College & Exeter Northcott Theatre in 2017. He is also one of the founders of Break Point Theatre, a company that gives support to young actors in addressing sensitive issues through the arts.
How did your interest in acting begin?
It was rather unexpected but my interest in acting emerged after my GCSEs – the period in my life where I was trying hard to fit in rather than focus on my studies. In order to boost my grades, I enrolled into college needing to do a BTEC First Diploma. I was steered into taking the standard and more stable Asian career path (e.g. lawyer, stockbroker or doctor); nothing new when it comes to traditional Chinese families! However, along the way, I chose to do Performing Arts, which I had a genuine interest in. Being in character became a wonderful outlet of self-expression. From then on, I knew I wanted to get better and learn more about the arts, so I took on the National Diploma. By the end of 2nd year, I knew I wanted to go to Drama School so I worked hard to make that happen.
Could you tell us about your first casting experience?
In my first casting, I had to dance in front of a rolling camera; all this whilst being told to imagine I wore skin-tight pink leather jeans. My mission was to seduce and impress the ladies in a nightclub, dancing whilst Gangnam Style (PSY) was blasting out of a speaker. It was for a fairly big commercial and needless to say, it was an experience. I remembered calling my agent straight after and I asked, “Are they all like that?”
Who inspires you the most and why?
Al Pacino has a huge influence on me. I admire everything he does from his movies, his theatre work to how he carries himself as a human being. There isn’t any other actor who has earned the respect of the industry as much as him. The key word here is “earned” because he did not have it easy. Just look at how he was treated in The Godfather!
Tell us about the challenges you face as a British-Chinese actor in the entertainment industry.
The main issue is that the roles are not being written for us and when they are, a lot of British East Asian actors do not have the “star power” to convince the decision-makers upstairs that they can sell the project. Aside from a few big names, British-Chinese artists are typically not trusted enough to undertake important roles, which is sad. I know a lot of talented individuals here in the UK that can get the job done, but unfortunately do not get the opportunity to do so.
However, I do feel that it is getting better in the UK, but a lot of work needs to be done in order to convince everyone (from casting directors to producers) that British-Chinese actors have much to offer. What we can do is to keep learning, training and improving twice or thrice as hard, be absolutely stellar so decision-makers have no choice but to cast us.
Celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell), Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange) and Emma Stone (Aloha) recently came under fire for playing explicitly Asian characters (Motoko Kusanagi, The Ancient One and Allison Ng respectively), and thus contributing to a long history of “white-washing” in Western film industry.
However, Ed Skein’s move to reject the role of Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character in the Hellboy franchise, has drawn much praise from fans. In your opinion, do you think Skein’s stance has changed anything and what does it mean for East Asian actors in the long run?
I think it has changed things indeed! It has highlighted a certain degree of ignorance that comes with being unaware or negligent towards ethnic minority cultures. Generally, diversity is an idea that is universally agreed, and that projects should reflect our society in an accurate and indiscriminate way. In reality, some groups do feel threatened by this foreign “Other” and therein lies something that has to change. An increased diversity in the arts will ultimately benefit everyone. With more idealistic and exciting roles to offer, diversity means everyone of any race can be part of a project that holds a mirror up to society.
Tell us more about your involvement in upcoming historical/educational documentary on the Chinese Labour Corps, a forgotten group of Chinese labourers who served the British government to during World War I to free troops from front line duty by performing support work and manual labour.
I got the role via a kind recommendation from a friend, Daniel York. I guess the project took off when the director got in touch and, discussed the role and project in detail. I played Yang, the Chinese Labour Corp’s interpreter. The way I wanted to approach the character was to understand in what circumstances and to what purpose Yang would go to Europe to fight a war that is not theirs. I am passionate about both the project and subject matter addressed in the documentary. It is only fitting that the Chinese Labour Corps be celebrated and respected for their contribution in the war. The shooting schedule was tight but I had such a good experience.
Out of the roles you have played, which character do you most empathize with in relation to yourself as a person?
I played the lead character, Pete Cheng in a really fun series called “Pete & Whitely”, where the story always begins behind the bar counter at a Chinese takeaway. I love the show for its satirical nature that is based on day-to-day encounters and dialogues. Pete and I share many similarities, including the environment in which we grew up. Acting as Pete had its déjà vu moments as the character reminds me of my own interactions as a boy in my family’s store.
Other than acting, you are also one of the founders and directors of Break Point Theatre, an emerging theatre company in Exeter. Can you tell us more about how it came about?
Break Point Theatre came about when I was doing a performing arts BTEC course in Exeter. It frustrated me that young people did not have a lot of opportunities to delve into and to respond to sensitive issues via the arts. It was fitting that our first production, “Flush” by David Dipper was performed at a fringe venue (Etcetera Theatre), which gained positive reviews whilst putting across the question to the audience on their moral views. I was later asked to mount a production for Ignite Festival (Exeter’s Festival of Theatre) so I directed a 3-in-1 piece, which garnered positive feedback and full houses. I am looking to start the next project soon.
One last questions, any advice for East Asian actors who wish break into the entertainment industry.
I honestly just say go for it. Diversity is a relatively new thing but the more of us there are, the greater the chances we will have our stories told! You can be part of a wave of young East Asian actors that can change perception through entertainment, which is a beautiful thing in itself. That, coupled with the fact it is mighty fun – what are you waiting for?
To find out more about Alex:
US Management: Bohemia Group www.bohemiaent.com
Represented by Winterson’s Management www.nikiwinterson.com