Ellen Wong, we’re crushing hard on you.
Chances are, like us you first got to know Wong from her breakout role seven years ago, when she kicked ass as Knives Chau on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now, she’s back in an equally ass-kicking role in Netflix’s newest hit GLOW, where she navigates the world of entertainment wrestling as actress Jenny (with the stage name Fortune Cookie) alongside a band of unlikely heroes.
On the heels of her standout performances on GLOW, Syfy’s Dark Matter and the upcoming Condor, Toronto-born Wong has been named as one of eight Rising Stars to watch by the Toronto International Film Festival.
Here, Wong gives FLARE a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like to audition in Hollywood and how she flexes her inner strength on and off camera. Oh, nbd but she gave us a sneak peek into Season 2 of GLOW too.
How does it feel to be honoured as TIFF Rising Star?
I feel very grateful to be part of the TIFF Rising Stars program. For a big part of my career, I was always the actor, saying the lines of my character and that’s where my voice was—but now, I’m starting to learn about my own personal voice as just me. And I think being part of TIFF Risings Stars is truly encouraging me to see where I stand, and to see what I have to say in terms of what kinds of stories I want to fight for and see more of—specifically more female-driven stories and more stories that explore diversity within the Asian identity. This opportunity has given me a platform to speak out in a different way, not through someone else’s writing but through my own truth.
Honored to stand with these incredible humans for #TIFFRisingStars2017. Thank you @tiff_net for supporting and cultivating emerging Canadian talent. I was emotional and blown away by the magical Canadian films selected for this year’s festival, has much to offer the global film market! Can’t wait to celebrate! #TIFF17 #2017TIFFRS
In terms of speaking your own truth, what did you think about your role on GLOW when you first got it? Were you worried you’d be playing a stereotype?
Of course, I was very worried about that because, you know, my wrestler name in the show is Fortune Cookie. When I got the audition, I started looking into the wrestling world and I learned that in the ring it’s all about stereotypes. You play this caricature of these stereotypes. But it definitely took some time even throughout the series to truly trust and understand and let go and say to myself, Hey, these creators are very aware of what they’re doing.
You know in that one episode, after everyone comes back from Malibu and they’re all doing the promotion. When that script came out, I’m saying lines like, “I’m fast like dragon and cute like panda.” And I remember reading them and thinking Hmm…. Honestly, there’s a little bit of discomfort in it because that’s definitely a stereotype, and I’m being put into a box where I don’t feel good. But then I also came to understand that that’s what my character is feeling too, and the creators are doing something different because they’re actually showing audiences both struggles: it’s not just being the stereotype, it’s really seeing the consequences of it too.
When those scripts came out, there was a huge discussion on set among all of us girls. It was a really deep and interesting conversation, and by the end of it we all knew that we were on a very special show that was trying to, with humour, comment on all of this. And that felt very special to be part of something that was responsible and aware.
In an interview with NBC News, you discussed the importance of a line from GLOW: “I’m Cambodian,” you said, correcting the producer who called you “oriental.” How did you feel in that moment?
I feel like just those two words “I’m Cambodian” are so important because they are part of diversifying the Asian identity. I think a lot of times people say, “We want more diversity on screen.” But what does that really mean? I don’t think it just means, like, Let’s have someone who is a minority on screen and there we go. I think there’s more responsibility to it.
So I thought that it was so important to be able to say those two words—despite being stereotyped as Fortune Cookie in the wrestling ring—because my character Jenny is not just some singular Asian identity. There’s so much more diversity in the Asian story, and Jenny is one of those stories, and I’m excited to play her on the show. I hope this can be an awesome example for how many other great stories we can show.
Some researchers talk about physical self-esteem; with staged fights, they say it’s not about how strong a wrestler is, but how strong she believes she is. Did GLOW have that effect?
I think that being on a show where there’s so much physicality always makes me feel like I am the most grounded because you’ve got to connect your mind with your body. What was really special was all of us ladies going through the same journey together. None of us knew how to wrestle, except Kia Stevens [who plays Tamee on GLOW and was a five-time Women’s Wrestling Champion in real life]. I was really scared about mastering all the moves, but it was really amazing because it became this experience where you didn’t have to be the best at everything. All the moves catered to our own strengths, which was cool because all of us were different, all of our bodies were different and all of us were capable of doing different things. And then on top of that, there was also the fact that we’re all wearing pretty much the same type of leotards. I think if it was just me alone wearing that in a cast of men, it would feel different, but because it was all of us ladies, it was like really empowering actually.
It was awesome to see the female friendships unfold on GLOW. Did you form any special bonds on the show?
Yes, definitely. We all became great friends, and that’s something we really treasure and don’t take that for granted. All of us ladies are on this one group chat together even though we’re all in different parts of the world now.
Your parents fled Cambodia in the late ’70s, and you grew up in the suburbs outside Toronto. How has your childhood influenced your work today?
Growing up, I definitely was not encourage to go in this direction. Because of where my parents are from, and what they had to do in their lives, I think they just wanted my sisters and me to have a sense of security and safety in life. Having lost family members and having to start all over again, there was no sense of security for my parents. It took me some time to really understand that was their fear, but it didn’t have to be mine. Growing up, I felt that their fears sort of transferred over to me, and there were a lot of times, even though I really wanted to be an actor, I had to keep it a secret. I didn’t want to say it out loud because there was a fear of failing, a fear of just the unknown. So it took me some time to really realize my journey, but it was something that I still felt truly connected to, and I have found a way to live that truth in my life through this career. I think that where I came from really gave me strength.
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When you visit home, where’s the first place you go?
I’ve recently discovered Joso’s on Avenue and Davenport. It’s this amazing seafood restaurant owned by this amazing family from Croatia. When you walk in there, it’s beautiful and colourful, and you feel like you’re part of the family.
Let’s talk about your role as Knives Chau in Scott Pilgrim. What was it like to kick ass on screen like that?
Honestly, it’s funny because Scott Pilgrim was the early part of my career and I feel lucky because I was able to play this character with a full arc, a character who was learning about herself and growing. It was really a coming-of-age kind of character, who was able to kick ass for herself by the end of the film, and I think that having that be one of my first roles definitely made me realize that roles like that for me don’t come around very often.
I definitely seek out those types of roles and try to find another version of being able to kick ass and to have an arc in my character. I feel that Scott Pilgrim has always instilled that in me. I try to find those kinds of roles, and I fight for them.
Can you talk about your experience in Hollywood going for roles?
Do I have days where I’m depressed and feel like I’m not getting to go out for things that I’d love to go out for? I have those days. But, I also feel very hopeful and feel like we are at a time where there is a need and want for diverse stories on screen. And by diverse stories, I mean certainly back to what I was saying earlier—it’s not just about filling that quota of having a minority face show up on the screen, it’s having a nuanced human being show up on the screen who just so happens to be a minority as well.
I think right now what is more important is visibility. The more visibility we can have on screen, the more we can start to feel like it’s normalized or equal to have those stories on screen.
When I think about my parents, would they have been able to fight for putting more diverse faces on the screen? I don’t think so. But now we’re seeing a whole generation of kids whose parents either emigrated or brought us up a country with a different culture, and we’re seeing that we can take a different path and we’re fighting for that. The next generation after me is going to have even more opportunities to tell their stories and hopefully feel like it’s easier and easier.
I doodled this when we were nearing the end of production on #glownetflix (I gotta work on my proportions ) Can you guess who is who? I’m most proud of Bash turning out to look like the 7up Guy with his hair combed Really this bunch so much! @glownetflix
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Any chance you could give us a sneak peek into what we can expect from Season 2 of GLOW?
All I know is we’ve been asked to go back for four weeks of wrestling training before we start shooting. What does that mean and what are we going to learn? I’m not sure. I’m definitely excited, and I do really hope that I can be more part of Season 2 and see Jenny’s storyline open up. There are so many amazing women on the show; I know everyone will get their time to tell their story in the most organic way and at the right time.
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