At Sundance, actress Tiffany Chu wants to help people feel less alone
As a kid, actress Tiffany Chu devoured Chinese songs and TV shows by the dozen. From Meteor Garden to My Fair Princess, Wang Leehom to Jay Chou, Chu got a crash course on the essentials of mid-2000s Chinese and Taiwanese pop culture.
“I was one of those kids who secretly liked Chinese school,” Chu tells me. “Even if I didn’t like the homework so much.”
Between stars like Fan Bingbing and Jolin Tsai, Chu got an education in acting, too, emulating actresses she’d seen cry on cue. “I’d be in the shower, and [start crying] and be like, ‘see? I can do it too!’” she says. “But I never had the courage to do something about it.”
Now, she has. Chu’s fresh off the first season of Artificial, Twitch’s first scripted drama and Emma Approved director Bernie Su’s latest work. Artificial is streamed live, and has a plot like any other television show. But thanks to an integration with Twitch’s chat room, Artificial’s plot is directly influenced by Twitch chat. Chu’s character, the robot Sophie, grows along with decisions Twitch chat makes, and the script changes based on each choice.
“There’s nothing that’s ever been done like that. It’s very hard, because people who know about Twitch, they’re like, ‘oh, that’s interesting.’ But they don’t understand how the show could be live and scripted or whatever [with interactivity],” says Chu. “As Bernie would say, there’s a lot of sci-fi shows like Westworld, but you only get to watch them and observe them. You don’t get to be a part of the decision-making.”
Twitch’s notoriously fickle chat caused some spit-takes, too. “There’s been a few decisions that surprised us. At one point, [chat] decided whether [the protagonist’s neighbor] Juju was a good friend of Sophie’s,” says Chu. “He’d been sharing information with her, talking with her a lot. So we thought, yes. But the audience said no. So as the actress, I’m going on the same emotional rollercoaster as the audience, because I don’t know what’s really going to happen, either.”
That rollercoaster’s continuing upward with Chu’s first Sundance Festival appearance this year, with Ms. Purple, director Justin Chon’s latest film. Chu plays Kasie, a doumi girl, or karaoke hostess, who reconnects with her estranged brother during her father’s final days. It’s almost the polar opposite of Artificial: whereas Sophie may learn to emote freely, Kasie has feelings to spare.
Having immigrant parents, Chu says she resonates with Kasie, especially her loyalty to her family. But beyond that, Chu’s interested in the conversations Ms. Purple can start. “I feel the film shows that everyone can understand what Kacie’s depression feels like — what everyone has in their lowest of lows,” says Chu. “There’s a lot of people where, if you just start the conversation, it’s already better for their mental health. I think this film opens the possibility for those conversations as a community, where we can share our emotions, where we won’t feel mentally alone.”
On the DIY films she made before acting
You know how Staples and Office Depot have sales? Me and my dad would go get folders and pencils and stuff, and he’d go back to Taiwan to donate the supplies that we got to a school for indigenous students. And I just visited, and I had a small camera that I had, and spent a day with them and recorded some random stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing — just like, a day in the life. And I talked to the teachers and students and edited the film using Sony Vegas. And I translated it, and broadcast it through [non-profit California TV station] CreaTV.
On her roles after Ms. Purple and Artificial
I want to do an action role, because I’ve been getting into martial arts lately. But I want to make sure it helps people explore their relationships and their identity, with their family, with their language, with themselves. Because I feel like, as actors, when you play a character, it’s art that you’ll see, that everyone experiences themselves on different levels. And through these characters, I learn so much from them that it gives me confidence to be more like those characters.
Because when you play a character, they’re 100 percent themselves. But in real life, we’re not 100 percent ourselves. And it’s because we grow up. There’s fear. And these characters, even if they have fear, they overcome it, and you see them tackle it in their own ways. And it’s a way for me and hopefully others to understand it, to look at it from a different perspective.
On how her role in Ms. Purple helps her look toward her parents
I’m very lucky and fortunate that I get to choose what I want to do, even though I am still struggling. But our immigrant parents came here when they could have just stayed with their family to try to do something, even if it’s for themselves. But because they have children, they’re doing it so that I have a choice of doing something I want to do. And they might not be doing something they enjoy, but they’re doing everything they can so that I can have a choice. I think [Kasie’s experience in Ms. Purple] is a reminder for everyone to be appreciative of their parents and the time that they have with their parents.
On whether Chu would stream on Twitch
The one thing I might do is mukbang. Because people watch that! And I like to eat, so.