Q and A with Fiona Choi from The Family Law

The Family Law  is a six-part television adaptation of Benjamin Law’s 2010 collection of personal essays on SBS. (Thursdays 8.30pm) The show focuses on his parents’ marriage breakdown and how the young Benjamin Law copes through humour. It stars Fiona Choi who plays his mother, Jenny Law. I had the pleasure of interviewing Fiona for Equity magazine 2016.

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Qu.1. When you were growing up in Australia, who were your role models in film and television?
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Fiona Choi:
Growing up in Melbourne during the 80’s & 90’s, role models were scarce. There was the occasional Asian actress who made it in American shows/movies, like Joan Chen in The Last Emperor & Twin Peaks, and later Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal and Ming-Na in ER; otherwise it was the Chinese actresses starring in the Hong Kong soaps my parents rented from the video store.  There was certainly no one on Australian TV that looked & sounded like me, so the whole idea of even considering a career in entertainment seemed so unattainable.  When I first started out, seeing an Asian on TV was such a novelty –  the big joke among my friends was that people would often come up to congratulate me for my work in All Saints or Miss Saigon or Blue Heelers, when it hadn’t been me at all, but another Asian actress.
Qu.2. What made you want to be an actor?
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Fiona Choi:
I grew up watching glamorous movie musicals and that’s what I wanted to do – dress-up, sing, dance, make people laugh and cry.  Then I discovered I loved to connect with people, to tell stories that make us realize we are all driven by the same needs, fears and desires.
Qu.3. How did you get started in your career?
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Fiona Choi:
I started my career in theatre.  My first big show after graduating from WAAPA was the musical RENT starring Christine Anu & Rodger Corser.  The show is set in New York City, and the original Broadway company was 50 percent African American, so ironically when it came to filling those roles in Australia/NZ they had to turn to Asians & Indigenous performers to create their ‘rainbow’ cast.  I have also worked for Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth, Melbourne Theatre Company and was in the original Australian production of Mamma Mia!  All these shows were specifically looking for multicultural casts, so I guess being an Asian actor has helped me as much as it has at times been a hindrance.
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Qu.4. Do you think diversity is becoming more apparent in the film and TV industry here in Australia?
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Fiona Choi:
Things are definitely moving in the right direction.  Early in my career I felt like I was truly going to fall through the cracks.  At first, I only got auditions for the stereotypical Asian roles – immigrant factory worker, prostitute, nerdy student – and when I did get the part I would always cringe hearing myself speak these preposterous lines in the exaggerated accent.  That wasn’t my voice at all.   But I never got the opportunity to audition for those roles I thought I was the right type for – the industry just couldn’t picture their main protagonists looking ethnic.  I was lucky to break out from those constraints occasionally – my breakthrough television role was a 6-week stint on Neighbours playing a character named Laura Wallace.  She wasn’t written as Asian at all, just an Aussie girl dating one of the main cast, and I was stoked that they didn’t feel the need to change her last name to ‘Wong’ or ‘Chan’ when they cast me.
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Today the big difference is the increasing predominance of creatives (writers, directors, producers) that are ethnic or understand & respect the multicultural voice.  That want to tell that story. People like Benjamin Law, Lawrence Leung  & Tony Ayres. Their voice is authentic, so not only are more shows being produced that speak about the multicultural experience, but the characters are well-written.  Even though Jenny Law speaks with a heavy Chinese-Malay accent, she is actually the most fully realised, three-dimensional character I’ve ever had the privilege to play.   I am truly looking forward to the next step though, to see Aussie actors of all colors play the main cast Detective or Wife or Love Interest without the need to even mention that they might come from a multicultural background.
Q.5. What do you do when you’re not acting?
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Fiona Choi:
When I’m not acting (or trying to find my next acting gig) I’m raising 2 sons so that keeps me pretty busy.  I am also a freelance casting director and director.   I do the occasional singing gig, and look forward to recording and touring with my music one day.
Q.6. What advice would you give to up and coming actors?
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Fiona Choi:
I would encourage up & coming actors to just be themselves, to find what is unique about you and be true to that in your marketing and auditioning.  Particularly for those from different multicultural backgrounds. I believe it’s our time on Australian TV & film – audiences are looking for unusual and authentic, so don’t try and mold yourself into an existing ‘type’ – create your own type.
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Qu.7. What would you like viewers to take away after watching The Family Law?
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Fiona Choi:
I hope that viewers from all backgrounds and cultures will laugh, cry and recognize their own crazy & love-able family in the characters of The Family Law.  Yes, the story is told through the adventures of a Chinese immigrant family, but at the end of the day their struggles and triumphs are universal and I hope this show points out just how ‘the same’ we all are.

 

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