"When I perform, I’m making a political point whether I like it or not."
By Christina Schultz
In case you missed it, please read Part One of my interview with Lucy Sheen here: "Overcoming the struggles"
Now on to the final part of the interview.
Christina Schultz: How do you combat stereotypes?
Lucy Sheen: By not getting angry - it’s a waste of energy. No matter how civilized the societies, there will always be idiots who are prejudiced for no other reason than the fact that they are. All you can do is counterbalance that with the way you act as a human being and with the work you produce. And the work we produce in the arts has wide ramifications on society. Without culture, innovation, discovery, and without creative minds, society is stunted and stifled.
I have to challenge the two-dimensional characters, the Other, the foreigner with an accent selling knock-off DVDs on the street corner, which reinforces stereotypes. We are not allowed to be normal British citizens that happen to be East Asian. So when I perform, I’m making a political point whether I like it or not.
I was in an episode of the extremely popular British period drama series Call the Midwife (BBC 2012-; Lucy was in episode #6.3 in 2017). The East Asian character I played, although with an accent, was a well-rounded character, which is the exception to the rule. Her story was fascinating and heart-breaking. I think this is best way is to combat stereotypes: to share stories, showcase voices and offer perspectives that have not yet been seen or heard. And you should have as much integrity as you can in the work you do.
CS: What do you think about the idea of “inclusion riders” - there was a big buzz around it during the Oscars this past February - or diversity quotas in the film/theater industry?
LS: I’m split. Forcing quotas is always hard but look where we are today. We still do not have an equal playing field. There are all sorts of political, social, racial elements bubbling below the surface acting as serious barriers for artists of color, especially in the U.S. Looking at where America is now, it works like a charm. No one bats an eyelid when seeing a black, an Irish, a Latino person in major roles.
In Britain, we are still trying to get the major production companies to start writing and programming different storylines. There’s all this talk of diversity but you need writers who can access this. That’s not to say the white, middle class, Oxbridge male writers can’t do that - some of them can - but many of them can’t because it’s beyond their experience.
To change this we have to start nurturing and commissioning British East Asian writers. We need to be given a chance. Producers, casting directors, etc. need to be aware of modern cultural sensitivity issues. Whitewashing roles is just not good enough. And there were natural hurdles with such a small number of drama schools, there were only five back in my day, to get auditions. Now there are so many schools which allow more people to have a chance.
CS: What challenges have you faced or negative experiences have you had because you are a woman?
Obviously #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein created a global stir. In the UK, I was involved with the Royal Court Theater when they openly addressed the concerns of sexual abuse. That was also hot on the backs of Kevin Spacey and Max Stafford-Clark, a renowned director who co-founded the Joint Stock Theater Company and is also heavily involved with the Royal Court.
Working in the 80s was a different world, however. The casting couch was still very much in evidence. There was that awful feeling: Who do you tell? Where do you turn to? I had the added misfortune of being a Chinese woman who at the time was a size 8 [U.S. 6] with long hair. This fed into the Western male dream of the oriental submissive female, which then played a part in my theater work with some people trying to take advantage of me. But acting is still a difficult profession for females to get into and to hold their own. The majority of people in power are still older males. In theater, not even a third of directors are female, which is galling because there are so many talented women out there but the culture is still sexist and abusive.
CS: If you could give our readers some advice on how to fight against racism, prejudice, sexism and ageism in the acting business, what would you say to them?
LS: None of these things should stop you from doing what you want. You just need to develop loads of patience and diplomacy. It’s also helpful to look for other allies and to be careful about male bashing. You should stay true to yourself, however. Do your research and don’t be afraid of asking for help. Reach out to others who you admire and inspire you. Write to directors or editors. Put yourself on the line. Ask Can I shadow you? See as much as you can, read as many books as you can. Never stop learning and most importantly, don’t be afraid.
CS: That’s a lot of great advice. Thanks, Lucy!