Joe Ngo will make us a little less lonely and heal you in D&D

This interview was originally published in the February 2, 2018 issue of The Slant. Want Asian American news, media and culture delivered to your inbox every Friday morning? Subscribe today!

In 6 Questions, we ask awesome Asian Americans the same 6 questions every week, and give them the chance to ask another one.

This week, we interviewed Joe Ngo, an actor, writer and musician who has performed on major stages all over the U.S., including Baltimore Center Stage and ACT Theatre in Seattle. He received his training and earned an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a B.A. from Cal Poly University in Pomona. He is originally from Monterey Park, California and is based in New York.

We caught up with Joe over Skype.

1. What did your parents want you to be?

JN: I don’t think they ever had any expectations of what they wanted of me when I was growing up. Like really, I don’t think they had any expectations of us.

My family was über poor. Like, super, super poor — they came as refugees without choice, from Cambodia. So I think as refugee parents, they were happy if we had jobs and lived a basic life. I think it’s slightly different than, for example, immigrant parents in general. ’cause I never got “be a doctor! be a lawyer!” I got “have a good life, be happy, work is good. Work is important.”

And I think I led them to believe that I was going to be an architect for years. I was really interested in architecture. I took a bunch of drafting classes all through high school and let them believe that I was going to college. And I was like, “yeah I’m going to college!” And I was like, “to be a theatre major!”

But up until I went to college, they were like, “he’s studying architecture! He’s even going to architecture school.” This school that’s known for architecture — Cal Poly Pomona.

It’s odd, because like my brother — my brother, he’s the most practical. He works for Toyota. And he was a screw-up when he was a kid. He was like, kind of a screwup, and was like, “I’m gonna take a job!” and my dad was like, “I don’t know why you need a job!” And now he’s the most successful. He still works pretty much for the same company.

2. What gets you excited to create your work?

JN: Mmm. I’ve always had this lingering thing — I think we live in a different world, and as I get older, I think the question is more relevant. But when I create theatre, I tend to believe that it is an act of removing loneliness from people’s lives. ’cause I tend to believe that human beings are just innately lonely. And I’ve felt that way myself for many years.

And I think now, in the world, we are sort of extra lonely. I don’t know if that’s fully the case. But it feels like we’re further away from each other socially or not able to fully engage with each other in some sense.

But I’ve always felt this innate loneliness in myself. And as an actor, I think I create my work to sort of remind other people, like, “Hey! I’m lonely too, and maybe we won’t be so lonely if we do this together or if we’re making work together. Or if we’re together in this space and sharing a story that brings us together.”

I think I started doing theatre ’cause I’ve always been a goofball, a little bit. But I never stood out. And I think it was actually sort of a way to kind of play out things that I wanted to play out, that I wanted to be big about, that I would never do in regular life. Like I was actually pretty shy in the day-to-day. I was a very backseat person, and I think theatre gave me a place to be bigger than myself.

As I progressed as an actor throughout the years, I realized that, for myself at least, in order to be a better actor, the closer to myself I had to be, instead of hiding away in the shell of whatever else that I was creating. And it actually became part of my life’s work or something to strive for that. To actually give more of myself as a performer in that way. To be honest and to be genuine, authentic.

3. What do you do when you hit a creative block?

JN: So I would say that I am both a writer and a performer. Not so much a writer, but I perform a lot of stuff. And I find that for both those circumstances, I usually go back to the start. What I do is, if I ever find myself in a pinch, [if I ever feel] I’m not figuring something out, I try to always go back to the basics and think about “how do I build this back from the ground up?”.

And it’s just a simple way of refreshing stuff that I may have overlooked. I tend to think if I hit a block, it’s usually because I’ve jumped over some other point. That I think I’ve got to the idea of something before I’ve really thought of where that idea stems from. So I’ll try to retrace my steps in things like that.

But in terms of working as an actor, I hit a lot of blocks. It’s hard to make money as an actor, you don’t get a string of roles, you have to take a lot of other jobs. And that can be incredibly frustrating. But the thing I tend to keep in mind is that we all have to start somewhere. And I always think about, well, there was the time that I had nothing. Like really, really nothing.

And I always am starting from the beginning. It’s a process of reminding myself that I’m always at the beginning of something, no matter where I am in the process. It keeps me both grateful for the thing I get to work on next and driven towards finding the next thing. To know that this thing will end, but also there will be another thing that I will get to look forward to. And so I make it so that work begets more work. Just trying to push myself in that eternal sort of engine.

As a kid, we never starved, but my parents were so insistent that hard work got you everything. I’m not going to say I’m a believer, but I believe in hard work. But I understand circumstances in people’s lives, too.

4. What’s something you’ve been really into lately?

JN: Ummm …

TS: Brooke told me she was really into Halo Top, so …

JN: (laughs) Halo Top?

TS: Yeah, she talked a lot about Halo Top.

JN: I don’t even know what Halo Top is.

TS: It’s like that healthy ice cream.

JN: Oh! (laughs) Right, I think I read that. Oh, man. Okay. What am I into?

You know, I’ve been into — the one thing I get to do, besides, like, work a lot or whatever, is listen to a lot of podcasts. And I really like “Black on the Air” by Larry Wilmore. That’s one of the ones I look forward to every week. I listen to my news ones, and I listen to a few other select podcasts.

TS: Give me your list!

JN: Well, I usually listen to a few very political, left-wingsy stuff.

TS: I think we’re all pretty liberal here, so go for it.

JN: So I listen to the Young Turks. Democracy Now when I don’t want so much opinion. Democracy Now — I think I get it from them the most straight. Like, they don’t bullshit about the world being in crisis. They’re just like, “20,000 people died in Iraq today.” And you’re like, “dang, okay.” And she’s like, “that’s just one of the stories we’re gonna talk about today. We’re going to talk about Black Lives Matter and how many people died to gun violence in the United States.”

So I don’t mind that, but the one that brings me a little humor and joy and allows me to think about how I wander through life is Larry Wilmore. Because he has such an interesting perspective — both being really smart and liberal-minded and progressive-minded, but also not completely like, “throw it all out!” He has this bright way of thinking and it’s all interview. And he has this genius way of drawing out the secrets of people’s cores when he speaks to them.

I love that about how he speaks to people. Like even if they’re not consciously — he’s almost, without knowing — he’s like a secret Terry Gross. I think he — if he wanted to do that for the rest of his life, I would just listen to “Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air.”

5. When did you first feel successful?

JN: Success is — man, I don’t feel all that successful. I might feel some success when I complete Cambodian Rock Band, I think. I always am — maybe this is the flaw of where my character comes from, but I don’t feel all that successful. Like I strive to be successful, and I know how to define that success. But it’s not a success of fame, but [rather] the success of perpetual work. Like that would be my ideal success.

And I guess at some point in my life I have felt successful when I have been able to, say, work at the same time and do a ton of theatre. I guess that would be my definition of success. And I have felt that at some point. But currently, it’s a real balancing act, because I’m in a different place. Like I’ve moved to New York two years now, and New York is tough. So it doesn’t feel like I’ve gotten exactly to that point yet here.

But I would say like, I am, uh, stable. (laughs) I am feeling in a very stable and grounded environment now, and I guess I would call that a decent amount of success. I’m excited that we get to do this play though that brought us together, Cambodian Rock Band. I’ve been working on it for so long.

TS: How long has it been?

JN: Lauren [Yee, the playwright] and I met a few years ago. Like 3 years ago. And we started — I first worked on her play, King of the Yees, as like a reading workshop thing. I worked on it with her in Seattle, and I worked on it a bunch of times. And she had brought this play up, because she knew my work. And she was like, “hey, I’ve been thinking of writing this play about this rock band. It’s Cambodian themed.” And we met and we read this character, and I thought he was sort of the B-character. Sort of like a very small friend character.

And I read this character, and the more I read it, she was like, “oh, I think you have an interesting take on the role.” And then I was like, “well, this is great, because it’s like the story of my family.” She was like, “what do you mean?” And I was like, “my parents are survivors of the Khmer Rouge!”

They survived, you know, they weren’t in the death camps, the killing fields, where a lot of people died. But they survived, and Lauren was like, “tell me about that!” And I was like “I’ll tell you about it!”

And since that day, since that happy thing, we’ve been at this play. And, how do I say this? Some of the play is built around characterizations of my own story that I’ve provided and given into that world that she wanted to create.

TS: This is going to be a really casual question next.

6. If you were a dog, what breed would you be?

JN: Oh my god. Uh … I’d probably be a pretty happy dog. So it would probably something like … man. I might be a Samoyed. Like a big fluffy white snow dog. I just think they’re so funny and sweet and like … dumb.

Like it depends on how you ask that question. Like … if I was a dog? Or if I wanted to be a dog? Maybe if I wanted to be a dog, I might want to be that.

TS: But you’re saying there are two different answers.

JN: But if I was a dog. Man. Maybe I’d just be like — I’d probably just be a bulldog or something. (laughs) And I would say that because bulldogs are accustomed to — they used to be a ground working dog, like head to the ground. Like, “just gotta muscle through things.”

TS: It all comes back to the hustle.

JN: Yeah, ’cause I think in general, my personality is like: “work is good! Doing stuff is good!” People are like, “that’s not very exciting.” But yeah, you gotta do it. You gotta do it when you gotta do it. So I think I tend to be more like, you know, some kind of dog that needs a job. Like a shepherd or something

BONUS QUESTION from Lysa Chen, D&D Adventurers League admin: What class would you play in D&D? Who do you think reflects who you are as a person?

JN: Okay, I am so excited to answer this question. You don’t even know.

First I would start off, not only have I played D&D, but I was the Dungeon Master. I was always the DM in my group when we played every Friday. So I played all the characters. But when I did play before that, I always found myself, oddly, for whatever reason, aligned to cleric. I don’t know what it is, but they’re defensively tough enough characters, and they can heal, and there’s always something about that.

Like there was something always too narrowly focused with classes like fighter or magic users. Cleric felt more human and balanced to me. Like a character that is both defensive and could fight, but then could heal.

But they also had this weird restriction — I’m talking about 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. They had a restriction where clerics could not draw blood, so you could only use blunt weapons. So I was always sort of fascinated — like, I can’t use a sword, but I can use a flail, or I can use a mace, or I can use a warhammer. I would always think of myself of, like, “I am gonna be a shield and a warhammer. I’m gonna heal people.” I don’t know, there was something about that

TS: What race would you play?

JN: Oh, I always used to play a halfling. Or I would play a gnome sometimes. And then sometimes — I would always stay away from elves, ’cause people always love elves. Not a fan.

There was always something about halflings, like the Lord of the Rings kind of thing. Like, they’re courageous at heart. Small and durable and they have a courageous heart.

TS: What do you want to ask the next guest?

JN: If you could have one free small thing every day, like a cup of good coffee, a new/fresh pair of socks, but doesn’t accumulate, and cost less than say, 3 dollars … what would that be?

Joe Ngo is a writer, actor and musician based in New York City. You can find him online at his web site. He’ll also be onstage from March 4, 2018 to March 25, 2018 at South Coast Repertory in Cambodian Rock Band, written by Lauren Yee and directed by Chay Yew, with music by Dengue Fever.