Interview with Jacqueline Kim: Artist, Actress, Asian American Geek Girl Icon

Guest Post by Sarah Kuhn

In 2015, I wrote my very first piece for Angry Asian Man -- The Final Frontier: Captain Demora Sulu. The piece was all about how I've been obsessed with Demora, Starfleet ensign and daughter of Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), ever since she appeared in Star Trek: Generations, and how I felt like it was finally possible to dream of a future where an Asian lady captains her own starship. (And hey, that future came true! Big, beautiful shout-out to Michelle Yeoh's Philippa Georgiou!)

Four years later, thanks to LA's extremely interconnected Asian American creative community, Jacqueline Kim -- the actress who brought Demora to life so memorably -- read my piece. (Yes, I died.) And then we met in person. (Yes, I died all over again.)

It's hard to put into words what it means to sit across from the woman who played two of the most iconic Asian female characters in the geeky franchises of my youth. In addition to embodying Demora, Kim made a big impression in the epic Xena: Warrior Princess two-parter "The Debt" as Lao Ma -- the ruler, telekinetic, and general badass who becomes Xena's mentor. More recently, she delved into an indie brand of sci-fi with Advantageous, a Sundance hit about a woman contemplating transferring her consciousness into a younger body in order to give her daughter a better life.

But when I tell her I truly believe she inspired a generation of Asian American geek girls, she seems surprised.

"What an amazing thing," she muses. "I totally identify with being a geek girl."

Kim doesn't do much acting anymore -- these days, she's a multi-disciplinary artist with a wide range of passions that she speaks about with thoughtful eloquence. But next week, she'll be returning to her roots as a guest of the Official 2019 Star Trek Las Vegas Convention -- only her second Trek con ever.

In honor of this momentous occasion, she sat down with me to talk about Demora's legacy, Asian moms, and how she expresses her own geekiness.

Sarah Kuhn and Jacqueline Kim

How does it feel to be told that you inspired a generation of Asian American geek girls -- what does that spark in you?

I guess humility -- and I'm not trying to sound Asian. [laughs] I did grow up in the Joy Luck Club [era], where it felt like all these female authors were coming forth and exploding. And now there's you!

It's exciting -- I would love to meet with them and know the extent of what that means. Does that mean a particular genre or geek girls in every direction?

I can tell you what it means for me. I've always had a hard time believing something's possible unless I see it. So to see an Asian American woman centered in these kinds of big sci-fi/fantasy franchises I loved was a big deal. It told me: You're important. You can be part of this story.

Yeah... [nodding thoughtfully] I remember that film about Chinatown with Mickey Rourke [Year of the Dragon], it's really bad -- it was about gangs in New York's Chinatown. But I remember seeing a female Asian reporter [played by Ariane Koizumi] and thinking, "Wow, it's okay for her face to be that big on the screen and she's not incurring slurs, people aren't saying weird things." That's pretty huge. I'd been through so many situations where people made me aware of how I looked. And to see that up there is important.

You mentioned you identify as a geek girl -- what does that mean to you?

Having my own interests, developing more as an individual than a group-oriented kind of thing. I was a latchkey kid, so I had lots of solo time alone while my mom was at work and my father was out of the country. I did lots of things at home and found my own interests and followed them and didn't really think about whether somebody else would find what I was interested in interesting? I loved musical theatre, I loved theatre in general. I loved TV, I would wake up every Saturday morning at 6 am and just watch hours and hours of TV. And I loved to roller skate, loved to move my body.

We moved from a lower middle class suburb of Detroit to an upper class, super posh suburb and my sisters' and my lives changed so much in that transition. We were so much happier in the lower middle class suburb. I grew up on a block where every house was a different ethnic, religious, racial background. Kids would approach me on the playground and do the slanted eye thing and make fun of me -- but then I would be allowed to beat them up. That wasn't out of the ordinary, whereas when you moved to the upper classes, that's not really the way.

When you say you were "allowed to beat them up," do you mean that was just an understood rule of the playground?

Yeah -- if someone's gonna fuck with me, I get to fuck with them. We played a game called Boys Chase the Girls -- but of course, at a certain point, I just turned it around to Girls Chase the Boys. And I would get them -- I don't know if I would really beat them up, but I would definitely get them and jump on them. I remember being told in elementary school -- we were given a lecture by [a teacher] that we had to change that behavior, and that conversation has stuck with me forever. I remember sitting there, watching the boys running in the background -- the teacher's giving us this lecture, speaking in this quiet voice, and she was basically saying: Girls are quiet. Girls are more reserved. And I remember thinking, "What is she saying?" She was basically telling me I couldn't play that game anymore. So years and years later, I've been fighting to find communities where as a female I can express different aspects of myself without being reined in.

Star Trek: Generations

Speaking of powerful women, let's talk about Demora Sulu. How did that role come about for you?

I'd just arrived to Hollywood maybe one or two months before that audition. I'd been in a theatre company in Minneapolis, and I'd been advised by one of the directors there to try film because he thought my work was on a smaller scale. I remember at the audition for Star Trek, I was sitting out in the hallway -- audition situations are so bizarre, you almost feel like you're at the wrong place. I remember sitting in there with [casting director] Junie Lowry-Johnson and feeling really charged and relaxed and ready. There are some days when you feel like something's going to happen.

Did you know what a big deal that character, Sulu's daughter, was?

Not really. My sister was and is a huge Trekkie, so I remember seeing the colors of the screen through my periphery and hearing the dialogue and the music and the action my whole youth.

I was just hoping I would be okay on film. And it was hilarious if you watched me acting the scenes. People were putting makeup on me all the time and I actually thought that they were intentionally distracting me or something, because I'd never seen myself on a screen. But the director, David Carson, was amazing and he helped me tailor and make my performance suit the format. He would say, "Okay, so that was for an audience of 300. Let's go for 30." And then he'd say, "And then let's go down to one person."

He also said something about the lens that I really loved -- he said it was like a proscenium, like the theatre, where I'd just come from, and to just really let it pick up what it needed to pick up. And I would say that for my entire career as a film actor, which I don't do anymore, that's served me to a great extent. First of all, knowing that someone was patient enough for the performance to reach where it needed to get, but also learning how to let the camera see you -- which, as an Asian American, it's not easy. I can see it when I watch other Asian American actors. We don't know whether to show the face of presentation or the face of subjectivity -- like, being in the character.

Can you dive into what that means?

For some reason, Asian Americans don't often get the opportunity to be in front of the camera as themselves. We're still cycling through stereotypical, less dimensional writing and trying very hard -- this really touches me -- to satisfy people. That's more about presentation -- fulfilling that. We're always trying to fit in and we're always trying to not take space and we're trying to represent our entire families and generations, instead of just being this being. I'm a being first, and at some point in my film work, I began to just really love letting the camera see all the awkwardness, all the negotiation, all the veils of that. And that probably came with getting to see so many great performances, but also just growing into my own skin -- literally.

Let's talk about Lao Ma, your character in Xena. This is another tentpole Asian geek girl character from the Demora era. How did that come about?

It was a complete mystery. There was a time when I was very active, and things were coming to my agents. This came to us and they said, "They want you to do this." I said, "Where is it being shot?" They said, "New Zealand," and I was like, "I'll do it!" [laughs]

It was originally supposed to be a feature -- it was a two-parter -- and it was just super fun and awesome. And working with Lucy [Lawless] was so liberating, because she is game for everything and super professional and funny and smart. Truly.

Xena: Warrior Princess

I think you said they originally wanted you to do an accent, right?

Yeah, we were all [at the table read] and I'd gone through a long series of flights and costume fittings and other things. We sat down, the whole cast, and there were some Asian Kiwi actors in the room and I think I heard them speak before I spoke and they were doing…oh, god, I don't want to be telling tales, but they were doing a kind of canned Asian accent. It came time for me to speak and I just was super neutral and kind of quiet and I just read my lines. And not very long into it, one of the [actors] said, "Is Jacqueline going to be speaking like that?" And I remember saying yes. And the producers were like, "Let's take a break." [laughs]

We gathered in the back room and they said, "We didn't really get a chance to talk about this, but we were hoping you could do" -- and I think this is where I made a decision -- "some kind of accent." Coming from the theatre, having studied British accents and Welsh and all of these different dialects, I was like, "You guys aren't really very specific about this. If I'd had time to really learn this, then maybe I would do it." They were like, "Well, then can you just do a British accent?" I was like, "That's just weird! Is Xena doing a Greek accent?" I remember feeling a little scared, because I was holding my ground and I didn't know whether they'd say, "This isn't going to work." But they didn't.

I love that you did that, because this character felt to me very Asian American -- it felt like a fantasy superhero role for Asian American geek girls.

So they didn't feel -- did you ever have a sense that they were embarrassed of the Asianness about it?

No -- I mean, I felt the opposite, I loved that they weren't trying to hide that she's Asian or say it's uncool to be Asian. She's Xena's mentor, she's the coolest person there! She has specific cultural markers that make her undeniably Asian, but the lack of that kind of broad, generic "Asian foreigner" accent we all grew up hearing in pop culture made her feel like a character I could actually be -- very Asian American. Why are you surprised at people liking that?

Well, I would just think perhaps the geek girl population wants to see more imaginative, iconoclastic portrayals come forth, versus a woman in a red robe from the land of Chin doing martial arts and healing with Reiki. I would feel like that's a trope -- is that a trope?

Hmm, I don't know, I think because of the way you played it, it did not seem that way to me.

That's really cool! A latchkey kid from Detroit playing this... [laughs] No, I think what you're saying is important -- if that comes into the flavor of it, then that's exciting. If the Asian American aspect somehow gets in there, how does that happen? I think it has to do with just relaxing and trusting yourself to be part of the characterization and allowing that to happen -- because when you fight it, people take that it in, too. It's also exciting as an American-raised kid to touch down on qualities you may possess but aren't asked of, like being able to break stuff with your chi or fly through the air!

I wanted to talk about something else I've heard you say -- sort of on the topic of representation and what we do and don't get to play. It was something like: when you first came to Hollywood, you had an agent who told you the best you could hope for was the best friend role...?

Because I'd been raised in the theatre, I got to play some of the best roles that have ever been written for a young woman, like Nina in The Seagull or Sophocles' Electra. So when I came out here, I was hungry for that kind of depth. My agent and I kept doing these courtings where we'd go out for lunch and I'd be treated like I was fabulous and I'd be like, what's next? And at a certain point, he said, "You know, we really hope for you to be like the featured best friend." And inside, I just kind of like [mimes wilting]... the paint just started dripping down the walls. And I thought, "That's not what I want to do."

I had a call after Charlotte Sometimes came out and I was nominated for a Spirit Award, it was a talk with some agents in the most powerful agency in Hollywood and there was an Asian American agent on the line basically saying to me, "What are your goals?" I said, "I want Catherine Keener's career." And she said, "That's not possible. We think outside the box, but that's just not going to be possible. You want something that's not possible." I said, "Actually I'm on my way there, but thank you very much for being honest with me." I got off the phone and I was like [mimes crying]. I mean, you know, when you stand up for yourself -- and part of this is being Asian American, you're like, "Oh, shit. Now nobody wants to be with me!"

The road was really long and really tough -- pushing myself into the next level of playing the heroine or the protagonist required a lot of elbow grease on my part, and [on the part of] a lot of collaborators I worked with in theatre and film later. I can talk now because of the indie successes I've been a part of -- but dude, that's years and years of working with low income and nobody knowing what you're doing. I just got used to nobody knowing what I was doing and just developing what I would develop -- which I think is also geek woman, right? Total geek woman.


Total geek woman! And speaking of indie successes, can we talk about Advantageous -- you were not only the star, but you also co-wrote with director Jennifer Phang, produced, and did so much behind the scenes.

Working in other capacities on Advantageous was part of a progression that was happening for me across a few other indies where I was brought in to act, but ended up producing and collaborating on the writing -- Red Doors, Charlotte Sometimes. I had already taken film studies in LA and was making short films and writing my own features. But to be working in so many capacities on Advantageous made me relax as an actor, because I often had little time to prepare, and there were so many logistics to coordinate moment to moment. I think I gave a major bit of my strength for that story, that film.

What was it about that particular story that resonated so much for you?

The project began shortly after my own mother passed away, which made it more symbolic and significant for me. My own mother's life and the sacrifices she made and her kind of domesticating herself versus, like, really shining has moved me and has been a motivator behind a lot of my work.

And I myself was aging out of Hollywood, in a way. I think somebody outed my age on IMDb and they wouldn't take it down and I was without an agent -- by choice -- and I'd been getting calls from casting directors directly for years and all of a sudden that stopped. So the relevancy of the theme of the film was right up there in my life. A big inspiration for me was Kurosawa, I feel like he made really implausible things plausible. So I'd say to Jen every day we were writing, "How do we make it plausible that a woman would do everything in her power for her daughter to have a life that was out of her reach, to have that chance, but then leave that daughter [behind]?" It was like a mathematical equation that seemed impossible. I was excited by that.

That's interesting you say that, because I think there's also something to the idea that the concepts of sacrifice and doing things out of extreme love would resonate especially hard for girls with Asian and Asian American mothers. It certainly resonated for me, watching the movie, I absolutely bought that sacrifice. I wrote something kind of along those lines in I Love You So Mochi -- there's a massive fight between a Japanese American daughter and her Japanese mother, and then they don't speak to each other for almost the whole book. Her mother can't really talk to her about all the sacrifices that prompted the fight, and the deep love they come from. Some people thought that wasn't believable, that her mom just wouldn't talk to her for so long -- never Asian American daughters, though, they totally buy it. I'm like, it's based on an actual fight I had with my mother!

I think that's honorable of you to spin that in such a positive way, because I think Asian mothers can be incredibly hard on their daughters.

Oh, yes. It's based on that, too!

I mean, the silent periods? All of it. And it reflects how they've been treated, but at the end of the day, they're kind of passing on traumatic tactics, which we have in us, sort of in situ. A lot of the work of my adult life has been trying to de-armor those tactics.

I also relate to that very much. Let's talk about the post-Advantageous life. You've moved away from acting and into other forms of art. What prompted that?

I'm a visual artist now, I'm always cheering for the independent voice. The uncompromising voice that dares to bring up opinions that people don't agree with and pushes.

Making Advantageous and probably making a couple films before that, I just found myself looking around when we were shooting and feeling frustrated with this kind of neverending trying to chase a story that was written three years ago -- and we're still trying to produce it. I absolutely applaud people who do that, but there was so much happening in the day to day, living in Los Angeles for twenty-five years. I was starting to understand this housing crisis that was happening. That's a major focus of my work -- I have an article this month in Contango Journal about a solar lantern pilot project I did with homeless youth last year. That's part of my social practice as an artist.

If I had the dream job, it would be helping people convert public spaces into conducive environments for people who don't have homes. That's my passion. And then my secret love is composing music, which I did in Advantageous -- I composed that piece that I play, I kind of snuck that in there. I think everybody evolves. We're definitely living in a time when people are embracing their multiplicity, their complexity.

Can you talk about one of your recent art projects -- you've created a line of t-shirts that say: You Came From A Vagina.

I recently did a residency in my own apartment. My last roommate moved out, and I'd lived cramped in that apartment with roommates for years. I reached out to my friends and community and GoFundMe and they all rallied to my side and I got a residency for six months with my studio subsidized. One of the projects I developed was…around the time when Trump was running for president, I envisioned meeting him and shaking his hand and when he looked at me, I wanted something that reminded him of the truth. That this body [gestures to herself] that he might have a thousand derogatory names for and he may disregard in terms of his legislation, this body was the body that he came from. So I have this t-shirt that reads, You Came From A Vagina. I just thought, "Oh, why don't I make this t-shirt." Why don't I create what I'm calling an action piece where it can speak and start conversation -- that might even make the wearer uncomfortable! But might move things to the next step. That's how I met you!

Okay, let's close out with a little more Star Trek. What would your ideal Trek be now?

My Star Trek in the future would be a silent -- like a wordless Star Trek. I think that would be exciting to watch, it would almost be like slow motion ballet. People really being together on that ship. I mean, maybe it would be so boring [laughs]. But maybe at the same time, people could meditate to it, they could go take a shower, take a nap, come back to the show. It could be its own thing, like Demora's version of Star Trek -- eight-hour blitz of silence. I'm pitching that.

Please do. And finally, what do you think Demora would be doing now -- what happened to her after we last saw her?

She went into therapy. [laughs] I think it would be really cool for Demora to exist on a higher level on a ship -- but how about a non-hierarchical ship? Wouldn't that be kind of exciting?

I don't know where Demora ended up, but reading your piece about her was really -- what's the word? Scintillating. It was just so exciting. Because you don't know when you're playing something that you're actually sparking imaginations of other people and other scribes. People who are going to really take this to another place.

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels -- a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers' Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog's best books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection. Other projects include a graphic novel about Batgirl Cassandra Cain for DC Comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Additionally, Sarah was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award. She has also written assorted short fiction, non-fiction, and comics about geeks, aliens, romance, and Barbie. Yes, that Barbie. A third-generation Japanese American, she lives in LA with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures. You can visit her online at heroinecomplex.com.

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