Jenny Wu on differences in Chinese and Western film making and her diverse career so far

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Hello Asia’s Jocelle Koh chats with Chinese-Australian actress Jenny Wu. Born in Shanghai and raised in Australia, Jenny Wu has had a diverse career so far with major projects in China and Australia. A graduate of famed Australian dramatic arts institution NIDA, Wu has shown her on-screen and off-screen versatility with roles in martial arts flick Lady Bloodfight, assistant director in blockbuster Dragon Blade and numerous other roles. Jocelle talks to Jenny Wu about the differences with working in western and Chinese film industries, her career so far, working with big names like John Cusack and Adrien Brody, working on stunts and her upcoming projects.

Given the wide range of media projects you’ve worked on, you must have worked with both Chinese and Western directors. What was it like working with Chinese directors as opposed to Western ones? is there a difference in style/focus on aspects of directing?

I think every director has their own style, no matter where they’re from. And most directors I find, whether in China or anywhere else in the world, aim to make the best movie they can with the given circumstances.

Someone did say to me however while I was working in China, that directors are seen in the West as “directors”, where as directors are seen in China as “Gods.” And you very rarely contradict a God.

Born in Shanghai and raised in Sydney, I’m sure you have a deep understanding of both Australian and Chinese culture. As a Chinese actress do you feel typecast into certain roles throughout your modelling/acting career?

Sometimes it can be really discouraging reading a brief where it says heavy Asian accent, but I try to look at it positively. Being a “type” is not necessarily bad, it almost feels like if you were “typeless”, the industry wouldn’t know where to fit you. And I guess throughout your career, you expand on the “types” of roles you can play to avoid typecast. Unfortunately the Asian “types” on offer here are very limited.

In China, you are equally slotted into a “type”, but there are many more types on offer, the Chinese sweetheart (like the American sweetheart), the rich girl, girl next door, mafia boss, sidekick, metrosexual hottie, etc. All the same types as you would get in Hollywood.

One of the first things I discovered in China was that they didn’t know which “type” to put me into, and that made it hard for casting, I was like a square peg in a round hole, I didn’t fit so snuggly into a type. So I went about trying to convince them I can play that type. And sometimes it might be all in the look, making yourself look like that type, they need to see it to believe it.

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You’ve done lots of different types of films, including Wuxia-type flicks and film noir – where do your interests and ambitions lie in regards to filming in the future? Are there any genres you’d like to break into?

Good stories, great characters are the key, doesn’t matter what genre. Although I don’t feel I’m in a position to be choosy. I’d love to do a comedy, that’s always in the books. Or any films shooting in exotic locations I haven’t been to, I’m always game for that.

You’re somewhat of a diasporic character, having lived in Australia and China – do you feel that you bring something special to the table as an Asian-Australian?

There must be a group of us, that has one foot in each door, somewhat caught in between, doesn’t fully identify with either Australian or Chinese. It’s easy to see it as displacement, being lost, in search of an identity, but you really have to turn all that into an asset, not a liability.

I see myself as the bridge between the two cultures. I think so much emphasis these days have been put into making movies that cross over into both cultures, can still translate and be a hit. And I think people with my background are the next generation making those movies. We are in a position to crossover, because we don’t just understand both cultures, we are a combination of both cultures.

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What was it that first led you to decide to pursue your passion for the performing arts?

You know I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s so easy to get caught up chasing the dream, that you get derailed through all the highs and lows.

So it’s always nice to refocus. I want to tell stories that could change the way people see the world. I come from a conservative family, and I see the arts, movies, as a way to open people’s minds up, questioning morality. I want to be outlived by my movies. Plus I like being shot, I like it in front of the camera.

Working on set of “Dragon Blade” in 2015 you were able to rub shoulders with some of the biggest and best of both the Asian and the Western film industries, such as John Cusack, Adrien Brody and Jackie Chan. What was it like collaborating with them?

It sounds so out of this world if you put it that way, “the biggest and best of both the Asian and the Western film industries.” Well… it’s true, I got to work with the legends of cinema, and it was such a privilege to work with them early in my career. I learnt so much about filmmaking, it’s like years of film school training condensed into several months.

And it was crazy to think there I was teaching Latin song lyrics to John Cusack, and giving script advice to Jackie Chan. These guys are legends, I’m a small potato, and they valued my opinion… I thought the world had turned upside down.

How did you initially get the job of assistant director for Dragon Blade?

I guess because everybody else turned it down. I mean it was a very challenging gig, it was long, for about 7 months, and part of it spent in the harsh desert, so it definitely required commitment. I guess I was committed, and blindly faithful.

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We hear that you’ve also worked with Super Junior’s Siwon before. What was that like?

Siwon is very hardworking, very polite, and very good looking. When I first met Siwon, it was during preproduction of Dragon Blade, I stood outside with him and had a chat, but I didn’t know who he was. I know, I know, it’s embarrassing. It can be hard to imagine such a big star being really down to earth, but he is, and on top of that, very well mannered.

Which would you say is more fulfilling for you – directing or acting?

Hmmm…. very hard choice. Which is more appetising, ice-cream or cakes? You know they are both fulfilling in different ways. At the moment my focus is on acting.

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Your most recent role was that of a baddie in Lady Bloodfight and had to learn Kung Fu for the role. Are there any stunts that you wouldn’t try for any role, or are you up for anything?

Haha, I’m up for a lot of things, but safety is always a priority. I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, that’s when I find I do my best work. It’s in that unknown territory, somewhere I’ve never been before, where I’m no longer in control, that’s when the magic happens.

You jet-setting lifestyle has taken you all over the world. Do you miss home while you’re away filming? What do you miss most?

You know when you’re on a filmset, and the hours are long and the conditions are rough, you can’t wait to come back to the comfort of your home, but when you’re home, you can’t wait to get back out onto the filmset again because you miss the adventures and you miss the challenges.

It is always a good feeling when I’m about to land in Sydney. I’d look out of the plane window and see the sunny blue skies, no pollution, I realise how blessed I am to have this town as my home.

Are there any new projects coming up you’d be able to share with us about?

There are two things I will mention. I just finished working with Jane Campion, another cinema legend who I admire very much. Can’t say what it is, should be ready sometime next year.

The second thing is that you can first catch me in Secret City, where I’m opposite Anna Torv in the 6-part political espionage TV series airing on Foxtel’s Showcase channel on June 5th.

For more information on Jenny Wu:

Website: http://jennywu.info
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jennywuofficial/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennywuofficial
Twitter: https://twitter.com/JennyWuOfficial

Photo Credits (from top to bottom):
1. Ni Liang
2. Shane Kavanagh
3. Ben Mezzup
4. Jenny Wu
5. Alasdair Tallentire