Betty Ouyang directs Hollywood film for Asian actress—herself

When Greta Gerwig was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards last year, her alma mater Barnard College at Columbia University, a private women’s liberal arts college in New York City, must have been seriously proud. Do you know which other actress, writer, and director is making the school proud? Betty Ouyang, a New York City native now creating in LA

Betty’s debut short-film, Father’s Day, was acquired for global pay-tv distribution by Hewes Pictures and has been broadcast or screened on 4 continents (North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa). Father’s Day was also nominated for the Golden Angel Award 2017 by the Chinese-American Film Festival in Los Angeles. Betty’s second short-film, Lala’s Love Lessons, is currently an Official Selection at Comedy World Network International Film Festival 2018 in Las Vegas, Changing Face International Film Festival 2018 in Sydney, Australia and Barcelona Planet Film Festival 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. Betty plans on developing Lala’s Love Lessons into a full-scale TV Series and global fashion-and-lifestyle brand.

Her trailblazing path, however, was not written in the stars (or college curriculum). It was the result of a chain reaction of challenges in the Hollywood system and her brave decisions.

You started your career as an actress. Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?

I remember when I first fell in love with acting. While studying at Barnard-Columbia, I fell out of love with journalism and in love with acting. I liked the rawness of it. We had a theatre group at Columbia called Asian-American Artists, and my final performance with them was in the role of ‘Bananas’ in John Guare’s play The House of Blue Leaves. I remember loving that feeling of perceiving the audience—hearing them gasp or laugh at different moments during the performance. It was a very spiritual and communal feeling.

Playing in college theater and making it as a career are two different things. How did you start out?

After graduation I had started acting by doing no-budget-theatre in NYC. I did plays staged in bars, public schools—you name it, I did it. I was hungry for experience. I worked with a theatre group called Immigrants Theatre Project, and we premiered original works at interesting spaces like The Lower East Side Tenement Museum and HERE in SoHo. I also did staged readings with groups like the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, The Women’s Project, and New Group. I was making practically no money off of acting at this time, but I remember feeling so happy and free to be doing what I loved. Eventually I went on to get an agent, got my SAG card, shot commercials and indie films, even worked on soaps. But I remember those early days of acting very vividly.

Betty at the West Coast premiere of the Oscar-nominated “Frozen River”

Then you’ve moved to LA How did you adapt to Hollywood life? 

My husband convinced me to move out to Los Angeles because he felt my range of opportunities would be broader. So we left New York and slowly adjusted to LA life. In LA the competition for even the smallest role was so intense. But to be honest, it was hard getting excited about the majority of roles that I was auditioning for in this sprawling city. I tried my best and prepared for every audition that came my way. But as time went by, auditioning was definitely feeling like a monotonous chore. The Actor’s Shuffle.

Several years after our move to LA, I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer. Losing her so unexpectedly triggered some major soul-searching. I started wondering.

“Am I really following the right path?” I thought.

We hear more than ever about the dearth of roles for Asian actresses. But getting out of the Actor’s Shuffle took a huge leap of faith. What triggered you?

Soon after my mother’s passing, came my day of ‘awakening’. Did you ever have that moment of realization, that moment when the career that you’d been pursuing for years, the Thing that had made your heart and soul sing for so long, suddenly felt not only pointless, but like a complete pain in the ass? That’s what happened to me one day as I was reading yet another e-mail from yet another agent telling me to go on yet another audition for yet another acting job that—if I was really being honest with myself—I could not give 10 hoots about.

I thought to myself, “Really, Betty?! You’re going to continue contributing to the catastrophe that is LA Traffic? You’re going to add to that awful smog? For a job you don’t even want? What’s up with that?”

That day I saw that I would have to completely remove myself from the actor’s shuffle to get to a happier place. For me, that meant taking much more responsibility for a more creative life. So I decided to write, direct, produce, and act in my first film, Father’s Day, which is about an un-model-minority-Asian-American family that is just trying to survive.

This was when you realized you wanted to move beyond acting?

You see, it wasn’t as though I suddenly hated performing. Far from it. It was just that as an Asian-American actor the number of meaningful acting jobs in film and television are ridiculously few and far between. I’m not one of those girls who would be happy just pitching products on commercials. Or delivering that one line on the latest crime show. The whole reason I got into acting was because I loved exploring and embodying complex characters. And when was the last time you saw an Asian-American in a complicated lead role in film or television? I think we have just one sitcom now with an all-Asian-cast. I mean, yikes!

a scene from “Father’s Day”

You couldn’t find what you want to buy in the market, so you made one.

I came to the realization that I had the ability to create much more interesting stories and characters than the ones I was reading. And I felt that the Asian-American Community needed more creators because it was obvious how rare it was to see an Asian-American cast in a lead role, especially since so many of our stories were being whitewashed in Hollywood.

The idea of family drama came naturally to me. I’m happy to share that since I first started writing Father’s Day, I have not once experienced writer’s block. I did not sign up for film school. I felt pretty confident from my years of acting and being on sets that I could create a heartfelt story—one tailored for a Chinese-American family. Once I made the conscious decision to start creating my own stories and characters, ideas have been coming at me, nonstop.

So what is Father’s Day about?

Father’s Day came from my yearning to tell a tale about unconditional love. It is a direct communication to my parents. Even though it is not 100%-biographical, it still contains many of my own thoughts, observations and anxieties. They say, “Write what you know.” But the cool thing was, as I was writing, it also became an expression of my love for my chosen field.

Seeing the completed Father’s Day was absolutely exhilarating. I can see why people become addicted to filmmaking. I feel like my films are my kids. I have to nurture and support each one of my kids!

You say ‘kids’ cause you’ve already made a second movie!

Yes, I have happily moved on to my next short film project, Lala’s Love Lessons. It’s a character-driven satire rather than a straight romantic comedy. Lala is a dancing Asian-American love-guru who dispenses really strange relationship advice. I started writing this film after I saw a posting for an HBO Comedy Contest. Comedy is hard and I really wanted to challenge myself. Plus, many viewers told me that they thought Father’s Day was very funny in spite of its circumstances. Though Lala’s Love Lessons was not selected by HBO, I fell in love with ‘Lala’ and her entire universe while I was writing. I’m currently expanding it into a multi-episode comedy series.

official poster of “Lala’s Love Lessons,” the second film by Betty Ouyang

There must be other Asian American actresses who are struggling in the same shuffle where you were. What words do you have for them?

Even in college, I thought that filmmaking belonged to the world of wealthy, well-connected men. They called all the shots. And I thought an Asian-American girl like myself—who had absolutely no connections in The Biz whatsoever—would have to be happy with any “crumbs that fell off the table.” Now I’m so grateful to live in a time when talented women like Lena Dunham and Issa Rae are showing us that taking full creative control—writing, directing, producing, and acting—is a pretty damn good decision to make.

In this journey, I would like to see more women and Asian-Americans take their creative destiny into their own hands. If you look at the sheer numbers, Hollywood works against women and minorities, especially Asians. So the more you’re able to say, “I don’t need you—Hollywood—to choose me. I choose myself,” the more powerful you will become. You learn so much by doing and finding collaborators. Get together with your friends. Read things out loud together. Start shooting stuff on your phone. Keep learning and growing. Oh, and most importantly, don’t forget to have fun! Because if you’re having fun, your audience will probably have fun too.

Thank you so much, Betty!

“Lala’s Love Lessons” will have its World Premiere at the MUMBLECORE Film Festival in West Hollywood on July 12, and also be featured at Broad Humor at MAX 10! in Venice, CA on August 6.

Youjin Lee

Youjin Lee is editor-in-chief of April Magazine, freelance writer, and South Korean private attorney. She divides her time between Asia and Europe, dreaming of writing a cozy murder mystery someday.

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