Since graduating from the nation’s premiere acting school, Jenny Wu has forged a unique niche for herself in the Australasian sector as an actor determined to challenge the established stereotypes. The Chinese-born/Sydney-bred actress has crewed on an action blockbuster in the Gobi Desert; shot in the freezing chill of the northern Chinese countryside and on the steamy streets of Hong Kong; worked with two of this country’s most acclaimed directors; and, is preparing for her professional stage debut in a award-winning play being staged by Australia’s most respected theatre company. Ahead of what promises to be a rewarding 2017, Jenny Wu spoke with candour to SCREEN-SPACE about her craft, career and choosing the most challenging path as an artist…
SCREEN-SPACE: Having graduated from the the most prestigious training ground for actors in the country, what do you recall of your time at NIDA?
JENNY WU: The school is very strict, certainly sheltered, but you are very well looked after there. You don’t always get an idea of how tough the industry can be once you’ve graduated. The school is concentrating on your craft, so a lot of things the teachers say are very personal, the aim of which is to make you able to transform into as many characters as possible. But a lot of directors I’ve worked with want to see just ‘you’, a vulnerable you, not the technique you apply to become a character. I’ve spent a lot of time unlearning much of what I learnt at NIDA to get a job, then reapplying it, or combining it with my personal growth, when I’m on set or on the stage. You start to understand more fully what you’ve learnt at NIDA when you get out into the workforce and apply it in practical, working environments.
SCREEN-SPACE: Your studies in China led you to the set of Dragon Blade, the epic action film on which you served as Assistant Director, alongside filmmaker Daniel Lee and stars Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody. How did such a coveted role come your way?
JENNY WU: I was interviewed and months passed and I hadn’t heard from Dragon Blade, so I returned to Sydney only to get the call, meaning I had to fly back. When I arrived, I found out that they had only jotted one name down from all the interviews and that was mine, as I was the only one with the qualifications. I felt like I did a three-year film course in the seven months I spent on Dragon Blade (pictured, right: Wu on-set with actor John Cusack).
SCREEN-SPACE: Those years in China appear to have been both professionally rewarding and personally fulfilling, especially the role you played in Lin Bai Song’s rural romance The Promise I Made To You (那年我对你的承诺).
JENNY WU: My parents were ‘sent-down’ youth, city teenagers sent to the country to work as peasants as part of their social education during the Cultural Revolution. The Promise I Made To You is a kind of romantic comedy version of that experience, of two young people thrown together in the countryside and experiencing this incredible life-changing period with each other. I was able to visit northern China, a beautiful place that I had never experienced, and a place that my father had spent ten years as a sent-down young man. The movie resonated with my parent’s generation, as there a still a lot of them who recall the experience with very powerful emotions. Many did not return to the city, instead settling in the country and changing the course of their lives.
SCREEN-SPACE: Then you got mean and bloody as the lethal martial arts adversary in Chris Nahon’s US production, Lady Bloodfight, shot on location in Hong Kong. How much of that NIDA training were you able to apply to the action genre?
JENNY WU: (Laughs) It’s very much a knock’em’down, blood’n’guts type of role but she is still a fully-fleshed out character. I absolutely called upon my NIDA training to create a look and feel for this girl, who emerged as a punk-ish, streetwise, alternative-goth type of pickpocket who becomes a stripped-down and rebuilt martial arts weapon. Martial arts were new to me, so I had to put a great deal of trust in not only my amazing choreographer and stunt team but also my own instincts as a performer. I didn’t know I could be an action star before Lady Bloodfight. So much of the location work had to be in one, sometimes two takes, which makes you so aware of both your performance and the environment.
SCREEN-SPACE: In 2017, you co-star in two of the most anticipated local productions of the year, Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day and Jane Campion’s second season of Top of the Lake. Firstly, what insight into Jane’s technique can you offer from the set of Top of the Lake?
JENNY WU: Jane’s approach is to keep it simple, to not try to do anything. What she loves is actors who are really just ‘there’, who are living the role and living the moment. I interpreted that to mean, ‘Don’t act, just trust your own emotions and instincts and your body will respond to that truthfulness.’
SCREEN-SPACE: And what can audiences expect from what promises to be a confronting study of our society in Australia Day?
JENNY WU: It was the first script I’d read that had ethnic characters in complex lead roles, and that’s very exciting. I am very cautious that the roles I choose are not those that typically reinforce established stereotypes, like ‘the Asian doctor’ or ‘the Chinese computer nerd’. These are well-rounded characters in culturally sensitive and relevant narratives. Australia Day is going to redefine what an ‘Australian story’ is in this day and age and what it means to be Australian. My character is of Chinese heritage but her story, and the voice that it is told in, is very much from contemporary Australia. She is the new immigrant, defining her place in the country on her terms, and that will raise the question of what it means to be Australian in 2017. It’s a simple but quite radical approach and I don’t think any Australian artform has really approached it in this way (pictured, above: director Kriv Stenders, far right, with Wu and cast and crew on-set).
SCREEN-SPACE: And you take on another dramatic aspect of race and society when you make your professional stage debut in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, for director Kip Williams. Was it always your intention to go after roles that challenge racial boundaries and social issues?
JENNY WU: I think the play will inspire passionate discussion, which is one of the benefits of great art, in any form. It presents various viewpoints that offer a critique of both western and eastern cultures. I don’t mean to make any specific political statement, or statement on ethnicity, by taking on these roles. They are great roles that were presented to me that I find challenging and rewarding as an actor; they are characters with a purpose. I never intended them to define my point-of-view or dictate an agenda. When I approached them as characters, I did so by embracing their humanity, their vulnerabilities and insecurities, not as symbols for social change. My job as an actor is to make sure they live truthfully within the world provided for them (pictured, above: Wu with actor Jason Chong during Chimerica rehearsals).
Main photo: Shane Kavanagh.