HaiHa Le graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2003 with a B.A in Cinema Studies and Vietnamese Literature. She went on to study acting at the HB studio in NYC, and in 2005 received a Green Room Award nomination for her performance in Shrimp (Melb. Workers Theatre/La Mama). Recent theatre credits include: Letters From Animals (Here Theatre/The Storeroom), Shrimp (2007 Regional Arts Victoria Tour/VCE Syllabus), Make Me Cry (45 Downstairs).
HaiHa is a regular cast member of ABC’s new mini series Bed of Roses and SBS’s Kick. Other Film and Television credits include, City Homicide (in production), The Elephant Princess (post- production), Macbeth, A Nocturne, Stingers, Fergus McPhail, and numerous other independent film and theatre projects. HaiHa‘s short story is published in Black Inc’s upcoming anthology ‘Growing Up Asian in Australia’, edited by Alice Pung.
We interviewed HaiHa just after her return from Vietnam in 2008.
Peril: You have been an actress for some time now. Was it something you always wanted to be and was your family supportive?
HL: I wanted to be an actress from around the age of thirteen. It didn’t come from an innate desire to perform or entertain, I was actually painfully shy and quiet. SBS TV had much to do with my formative years, I remember secretly watching ‘World Movies’ and being horrified, inspired and enlightened, it was a transformative experience having lived such a hermetic childhood, I caught a glimpse of the wonderfully dark crevices of the human mind and experience. I thought acting is a passport into these worlds, which also allows you to make a safe exit, but then the world of acting itself is maligned with all sorts of insecurities and neurosis! So understandably my parents were vehemently opposed to my decision, I used to sneak out the bedroom window to attend acting classes at the Footscray Art Centre. I got caught eventually and banned from even talking about it, it was deemed such a lowly profession, perhaps on the same par as prostitution.
HL: I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema Studies and Vietnamese Literature at Melbourne Uni and went off to work at the Australian Film Institute for a little while, still not knowing whether to commit to acting, but still doing plays and short films all the while. So in 2003/4, I went to New York City and trained at the HB Studio, it was only during this time that I could fathom the level of commitment it was going to take and so I jumped in to the proverbial deep end. I think I’ve endured almost a decade of my parents insisting I get a proper job, but in the past few years they’ve seen the fruits of my labour in the form of TV appearances and newspaper interviews, a (sometimes) healthy paycheque, etc so they’ve come around, somewhat.
Peril: You have starred in a range of TV and theatrical roles. What has been your favourite role so far and why?
HL: Television can be quite daunting at times because of the lack of time for rehearsal, sometimes the only rehearsal you get is on set just before a take, so you have to be quite prepared and receptive to direction, it does feel a little bit out of your control because after your work is done it is sent through post-production and becomes something unrecognisable! I’ve been fortunate enough to have a regular role on two TV shows, Kick (SBS) and Bed of Roses (ABC), it does get easier once you’ve gotten into the groove, but sometimes they are more concerned that you hit your mark for the camera than your actual performance. Theatre is my training ground, and that doesn’t suggest that I view it as a means to an end. I find theatre terrifying and every time I approach a text I am anxiety stricken, and before opening night I can never fathom how or why I wanted to do the show in the first instance! Having never had formal training, I feel privileged to have worked with strong, visionary female directors such as Peta Hanrahan; who initially terrified me, she ran rehearsals akin to bootcamp, making us run around the block twice before each rehearsal and each run of the play, we had to read the script cover to cover before each show, even on closing night and we did trust exercises such as throwing spears aimed at each other’s head! I was nominated for a Green Room award in 2005 for Dominic Golding’s ‘Shrimp’, much (if not all) to her credit. The most challenging role I’ve had to date was in Kit Lazaroo’s play ‘Letters From Animals’ in which I played a double agent and a cockroach. The play had it’s own lyrical, complex language structure, and it made me very aware that English was my second language! The wonderful director Jane Woollard had a fascinating way of entering the text physically and aurally, we spent almost a week just speaking each line and feeling how it affected our physicality. I felt completely in over my head but I guess that’s a position you want to be if you’re to learn anything valuable. The most exhilarating thing about what I do is the people I get to collaborated with who stimulate, inspire and challenge me.
Peril: Have you faced special challenges in being a Vietnamese-Australian actress? If so what were they?
HL: I started out doing a lot of work at the Footscray Community Arts Centre (circa 2000) which was an invaluable rights of passage, most of the projects were topical and revolved around my Vietnamese or adolescent experience. Eventually however, it has been my constant endeavour to venture beyond this multicultural prism to explore universal themes that aren’t culturally specific. You can get upset about being put in a box or you can certainly utilise your stereotype to your benefit, it is such a fickle industry that you would face challenges no matter what your ethnicity, age or sex. Eventually though, to grow as an artist you can’t just be the novelty act. I’ve really only found the freedom to work beyond the multicultural stereotypes in my theatre work. Film and TV are still quite conservative where I’m usually only called in if the character brief specifies ‘Asian’, although it is getting better now, things are definitely changing and opportunities for Asian actors are increasing.
Peril: You have just returned from Vietnam after working on a film there. What was that like?
HL: I said to myself; I am going to Vietnam and not returning until I get any sort of acting work. Initially I was contemplating soap operas or ideally feature films, however once I got there it was daunting because if you’ve seen the quality of 99% of the productions you’ll sympathise. I also wanted to go back to Vietnam because it felt from the outside that there is a renaissance in film with foreign filmmakers and expatriates (Viet Kieu) returning to invest and develop in the film industry. I am greatly inspired by Tran Anh Hung’s body of work, the local productions are still quite primitive, with only 2007’s Ao Lua Ha Dong that had high production value, there was also The Rebel which was made by Viet Kieu’s (expats) who took out a bank loan to finance it, so the story goes. Anyway a friend of mine is a producer at Starfilm in Saigon who happened to have 40 rolls of 35mm film and a script for a short film about a Viet Kieu who returns with her boyfriend to the island of Phu Quoc. It was good timing.
Working on a Vietnamese speaking set was quite surreal, things were a little chaotic and unstructured, but there is a fluidity of operation that you have to learn to relax in to and trust that it will happen. Because there are no equity laws and no overtime penalties, we could shoot up to 20 hours a day with no break, you snuck in a break when you were waiting for a set up. I loved the sense of camaraderie, the crew and people in general seem to act on a moral code, if you gain their trust and win their hearts there is nothing they won’t do for you. The most rewarding part for me was to be able to work with real people off the street, an old man who sold lottery tickets, wandering all day and night barely making enough to feed his children, an old lady who sold newspapers on the same street corner for 20 years, and also amongst them, professional Vietnamese actors.
Peril: What advice do you have for Asian women who wish to do as you do?
HL: I still feel a galaxy away from where I would like to be in my career so I don’t really feel equipped to be advising anyone…but I guess it’s important we don’t position ourselves from the margins, we just have to think of ourselves as an actor and not put ourselves in to the Asian Australian category or any sort of category. You already have people doing that for you. I think acting is a skill that can always be improved, not necessarily an innate talent that you can rely on to get you through. So you just have get as much work experience as you can and a lot of that is unpaid work in the beginning, but you have the freedom to fail and experiment and also to find what works for you. Or you could spend 3 years in acting school, which I also find very appealing. Most importantly you have to let go of the safety net and get rid of ‘plan B’, it takes 1000% commitment, and a certain degree of ‘selective hearing’ and tenacity. You can often find yourself oscillating between wealth and poverty, exhilaration and deep depression, pride and humiliation, I actually don’t recommend it unless you are positive there is nothing else you’d rather be doing.
It’s also important that we can devise our own projects and write our own stories, films, plays etc., we know our stories better than anyone else. I think life experience is also important; you have to have something going on in your eyes and in your head. I think the most fascinating actors to watch are the ones who don’t need to do anything but they still omit humanity through their pores it seems!