Jenny Wu on performing the role of Liuli in Chimerica

Hello Asia editor Johnny Au sits down with actress Jenny Wu about her role in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica.

The Australian premiere of the critically acclaimed political thriller looks at the pursuit of the ‘Tank Man’ in one of modern history’s most enduring images. This touching human story is seen through the prism of modern US-China relations.

What happened at the premier of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica?

It was a very successful opening night. We had, I would say, pretty much a full house standing ovation both in the circle and the stalls, and four curtain calls. Which is very rare and highly impressive. In fact I was told that almost never happens. So I think the audience loved it! They loved all the wit and humour the play had to offer.

It’s a very funny play, actually. It’s not meant to be, obviously, a comedy but there is a noticeable smattering of jokes that kept it slightly light-hearted that breaks up the serious subject explored.

Haha, yes, there is a lot of humour in the human interactions. Human relationships can be at once funny and sad, and Lucy has managed to capture that very succinctly in her writing.

It’s very interesting because Lucy Kirkwood wrote the play in her 20s but the human relationships she explores in this play are very mature and complex. You almost wonder how does a 20 something year old have the life experience to depict such profound mature relationships.

Let’s talk about the audience that’s been coming to see Chimerica. I was expecting a full Caucasian audience but that hasn’t been the case. There was a great mixture of more different nationalities, which is a great thing.

I think a diverse story naturally attracts a more diverse audience. Many of my Asian-Australian friends have raved about it on social media after watching it.

I think both the entertainment community and the Asian Australian community are very proud that there is a play on the MainStage at STC with so many Asian characters on stage in important roles. The arts community are excited to see how successful diverse stories can be, and the Asian Australian community are excited to see a story about their culture.

Chimerica is a testament that you can have a superb show combining eastern and western characters. And it goes to show that STC is leading the path showing how successful this venture can be.

There was one night where Tony Cogin said to me as the call to stage was being made for Ms Chan, Mr Chong, Mr Wong, Mr Wu, Ms Wu for Act 1 Sc 8, he said, ‘isn’t it great to hear all Chinese names in principle casts being called for the stage,’ and it is, because that almost never happens.

So it’s rare, and it’s exciting at the same time. You feel it’s kind of like forging a new path. A lot of usual theatre goers are not used to seeing so many Asian actors on stage, but they are certainly embracing it. And then there’s the Chinese Australian community that are coming to the Roslyn Packer Theatre for the first time to watch a play, because they have a good reason to.

How did you get the role of Liuli in the first place?

Through audition. I was lucky in that I have worked with Kip Williams, the director before. I worked on his NIDA graduation production, also a great ensemble piece. So it’s really nice to reunite with Kip for Chimerica, and see how much he has matured in his work methods.

Tell me about your character. Tell me about Liuli. Tell me what drew you to her?

It took me a while to figure her out actually, I can’t say I connected with her immediately when I read the script, it’s almost jarring because the words she speak are English but her thoughts are Chinese.

She’s a romantic hero who is fighting for democracy. She’s steadfast in her belief of a bright future, and there’s a certain naiveté in her actions. And I like the innocence and purity of her relationship with young Zhang Lin, which is heartbreaking if you know the story.

We talked about in rehearsals that both Liuli and young Zhang Lin, are very Western in the way they think for that time. Very progressive, very forward-thinking, and radical. She was asking for Levis in China in 1989, jeans are a luxury, it’s unthinkable, it’s like wanting degustation every night. She’s asking for all these luxury things which would have been taboo back then.

She was ahead of her time in a lot of ways. Or, she was not just ahead of her time but the people around her would have been very much the same sort of mindset as well?

Definitely. There was a push for change. And that kind of idealistic mindset is intoxicating.

She was very steadfast on that too, I’d say, obviously being part of the hunger strike as well. She’s not just idealistic. She was very values-driven as well. It’s something that she really believed in, this cause?

Absolutely, she was the one leading Zhang Lin in this protest for democracy. At one point, Kip said, ‘Jenny can you hold hands with Charles and lead him onstage.’ I thought sure, thinking it was for aesthetic reasons, but of course knowing Kip, there’s always another layer to the story telling. She is leading him in this fight for change. And she is the catalyst leading the older Zhang Lin to fight against oppression.

I’m interested in your perspective on the older Zhang Lin looking back at his life and this event?

I think by revisiting the memory, he can finally put the past to rest. He is doing her justice by recording his memory. That memory haunts him, it’s like opening an old wound, it’s painful, and Jason does it so beautifully.

And it transpired on stage when he was looking back at his life, you could see him in the corner of the stage, viewing it as it’s happening.

I always forget I’m being watched, haha!

What also struck me as well is the imagery with the fridge, somehow related to the fact that Liuli still kind of haunts Zhang Lin for what happened. I just wanted your thoughts around those particular scenes with the fridge?

Everyone seems to be fascinated by that. Shakespeare compared women to roses, Lord Byron compared women to heaven, Kirkwood compared Liuli to a fridge, so it’s unusual. I mean in a way she is the fridge. The fridge is the symbolic Liuli. And the metaphor works on several levels, the fridge is electric, Liuli is electric, and Zhang Lin is also being electrocuted / tortured by this memory.

I mean it’s like Zhang Lin is defrosting this memory of Liuli, and the more alive she becomes, the more guilt ridden he gets, and that prompts him into action. And what a great imagery that he carried her home in a fridge, despite the fact that the fridge would be very heavy, but what a very unique way of falling in love.

It would have made a great story to tell your kids. “We met in a fridge store.” Talking about the play being part of your life, did you do any research for the character at all?

Oh, yes. I got in touch with Guo Jian, a Chinese-Australian artist who was actually part of the protest in 1989, and also there on the night of June 4th. We were very lucky that he came in and spoke to us twice about his experiences. I have also fallen in love with his artwork since.

He said that even if you see people around you falling, you are not totally aware, you still think it is like a dream, like you are in the movies, that you are a hero, and you are going to charge forward. He said he picked up a flag, and waved it like a romantic revolutionary, amongst the flying bullets.

Wow!

So that is Liuli. It’s surreal for her to see people running in the square. Her mind hasn’t fully registered the danger. She still thinks she can be the romantic hero.

What was it actually like working with the other Chinese/Asian cast members? In Australia obviously you never get this many in one room together, right? Especially for a play, too. Especially at Sydney Theatre Company as well, so this is really groundbreaking in a lot of sense?

Most of my scenes are two handers. You know although Chimerica is such an ensemble piece, many of the scenes are two handers, so it’s very intimate on a large scale.

It was wonderful watching the other actors work. And we have an amazingly supportive cast.

It was great to see Anthony Brandon Wong’s dedication to not just his character but learning mandarin lines, and to see Jason Chong inject sensitivity to his character rehearsal after rehearsal.

I’ve worked with Charles Wu before on ‘Australia Day’ and we had a great connection then. So it’s good to work together again. He’s incredible!

It’s funny you talk about ‘Australia Day’, because that’s actually what I wanted to lead onto. Are you happy with how ‘Australia Day’ turned out?

I haven’t seen it yet. I guess we’ll see, but Kriv Stenders is amazing in that he had this vision where everything’s very fluid, so the whole story moves in almost one long take. I said to Kriv, “You’re doing a Kriv Stenders version of ‘Birdman’.”

It was a technically challenging shoot. Bryan Brown told me that we as actors really have to look after the character’s journey and the performance in those long takes, because it’s easy to forgo performance for technicality. It’s like you’re dancing with the camera because the camera’s continuous, so you just have to give your performance whilst waltzing. It was quite a learning curve, and it was a great experience.

Have you done that before, something similar to a one-shot take?

Similar, yes. I mean, ‘Lady Bloodfight’ was one shot in many fight scenes. Chris was on the ronin, Chris Nahon the director. So he was continuously rotating around the action. But in the edit, there were still a lot of cuts.

I guess since this is your first STC production, do you see yourself going down this path of working in theatre again, doing more of these kind of plays?

If theatre knocks on my door, yeah for sure. This one’s been a really good experience, it is like a cinematic piece on stage, couldn’t have had a better show as my STC debut.

Well, Jenny, congratulations again.

Thank you.

Chimerica is playing at Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney from 28th February till 1st April. For more information see Sydney Theatre Company HERE

Photos courtesy of Brett Boardman and Sydney Theatre Company.