Justin Chon’s latest film, Ms. Purple follows Kasie — an L.A.-based karaoke hostess. The family drama, which involves a comatose cancer-stricken father and an estranged brother, as their sister Kasie fights to make ends meet, offers an introduction into Koreatown’s doumi life.
Ms. Purple offers an incredible platform to newcomer and lead actress Tiffany Chu, who imbues Kasie with a tactile emotion that reflects the character’s struggle and her familial responsibility. Ms. Chu joined me to discuss her exploration of Kasie and how the character informed portions of her personality and experiences.
During Q&A of Ms. Purple, it was mentioned that you were cast through Facebook. How did that come about?
Alex the producer had posted on a Facebook group that they were looking for an Asian actress, and I just sent over some photos, and then..we… auditioned!
How much were you told of the project in the initial Facebook posting?
They sent me a storyline. Like, it was about a brother and sister and that was pretty much it. The whole audition process was improv, at first. So it was me going in and doing some improv with Teddy — who plays Carey my brother in the film.
Speaking of improv, you stayed with Teddy in an apartment for five weeks. What happened over the course of those five weeks?
So a lot of the times we’d go over the script, go over certain scenes, and we’d improv those scenes. We’d also hangout and walk through Koreatown, just like how Kasie and Carey would because that’s where they grew up. Being not from L.A., that was important for me to kind of understand, walk around, and take it all in.
A lot of it, was also talking with Teddy: memories we might have when we were younger. Also, a lot of the work — besides us just rehearsing — I was at home working on the character, all day and all night. So once I got home, it was just visualization, listening to a lot of music. Everyday while driving to set, I would listen to two particular songs: one was “Cherry Hill” by Russ and “LSD” by Genius feat. Sia, Diplo, and Labrinth.
It was really random. I would listen to those two songs and I would listen to classical music because Kasie played piano. I play piano.
Oh! I was wondering if you actually played because there’s a small snippet where Kasie plays.
I did. They just cut that out. But yes, I do play piano.
In the original edit was it an original or cover that you played?
So that song — leading up to when you see me play piano, that was the song I played.
I also play [not in the film] a Chinese instrument: erhu. A lot of people think it’s a Chinese version of a violin, it has two strings and you put it on your lap. So, I play that.
Going back to improve, I was wondering how much improv was happening on the set itself?
A lot of times [Justin Chon] would want us just to do our own thing, then he would have Ante [Cheng], our DP, follow us.
Obviously, a lot of scenes had ideas of what they were supposed to be. As long as that meaning carried across, it was fine.
So we did so many different takes, and based on editing, whatever made the cut made the cut.
The film is so stylistically sleek, there are a lot of portions between you and Teddy where there’s almost no talking. It’s just montage.
A lot of times between sibling, from what I’ve learned because I’m an only child, things between family and close friends…you just don’t need to talk!
What kind of research did you put into Kasie’s lifestyle and work as a Karaoke hostess?
I did a lot of research. I read articles. I watched videos. I talked to people. But [Justin] really wanted me to be really close to the character as much as possible. And so really encouraged me and pushed me to really experience it.
So I did experience a karaoke for a night.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. You never really know what it actually is until you actually do it.
It was unsafe. It was not pleasant, but it definitely helped me understand what Kasie’s schedule and lifestyle would be like.
At Sundance, there’s been an influx of Asian-American cinema. There’s also the success of Crazy Rich Asians. It feels like Asian-American cinema is beginning to grow in a way that African-American cinema has expanded over the past couple of years. As you’re auditioning for parts, how much are you seeing of that?
I’ve definitely seen an increase, and it just goes to show — hopefully when you watch Ms. Purple — just because we’re a different skin color doesn’t mean that we have dissimilar stories or struggles. We all still feel the same.
I like that this film opens up the conversation, and hopefully they’ll be able to understand what Kasie is going through. And it’s like, I don’t have to be Korean to understand what Kasie is going through.
And as you were discovering Kasie’s perspective within the character, what were some of the things you latched onto?
I think most importantly, it’s family because that’s what Kasie is deeply rooted in. That’s, me personally, what I’m deeply rooted in. Family is really important to me. I’m an only child.
My parents, they’ll do anything for me just like many immigrant parents — so, I’m grateful for them.
What films do you like and what type of films do you want to make?
There was one film that was referenced to me while making [Ms. Purple], Pure with Alicia Vikander.
I think the film, because it closely follows what Kasie is feeling and what she’s going through, that in the end: when all the women come in to beat Tony up, it’s very symbolic of you’re not the only one going through this.
We live in what our mind thinks is reality. A lot of the times, if we get stuck in a spiral, you just need to know that there’s a community out there. You’re not the only who’s going through this. Because we all have struggles.
Things that I want to work on, I think if there’s any action stuff. I love working out. I’ve recently gotten into mixed-martial arts. It’s what helps me battle with my demons. I would love these introspective characters. It teaches me to appreciate loved ones more and your family more. Because like Kasie, you may not get that chance to spend with your family.
Kasie is isolated for much of the film, and there’s the large scene you describe where the women beat up Tony. What was that scene like when you were filming it?
A lot of that was more technical, visually, how the girls would enter in.
Filming for me, that was something that was actually easier. But I think for Kasie, the character, it was as if she took a stand and she knows her self-worth.
You spoke about demons earlier, I just want to circle back as to what you meant by demons?
I think for Kasie, and what I like about acting, whatever the character is going through; their arc, their highs, their lows, everyone is going through something. But they are that character. So me learning from all these characters, helps me to learn their confidence, learn to be a little bit stronger, and face my fears.
The same fears that Kasie has, that is the same fears that I may have or someone else may have. They can relate to it.
When you’re doing a part like Kasie, how much do you inject yourself or do you keep your distance?
Throughout the whole process, it was really hard for me to let go of the character because Kasie is such a heavy part.
I knew how to separate myself. Acting is acting. Obviously, a part of you — of every actor is there — but I was very lucky to play this part to show that everyone is relatable. I’m very fortunate. Some people like Kasie, that’s their reality. It makes me appreciate everything more.
Images ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’