Interview with Actor, Robert Wu
16 Jul, 2012
Robert Wu is a Chinese-American actor and writer living in Hollywood, Ca. He has had guest star roles in television shows like “Bones” (2009), “Seventh Heaven” (2007), “The George Lopez Show” (2005), “Num3ers” (2005), as well as played a memorable role in the independent film, “Baby” (2008) and played an important part in the documentary film, “Nanking” (2007). He also does voice-over work for the video gaming industry.
You can view more of Robert Wu’s work at: www.RobertWu.com
Dig In Magazine: Hi Rob, how have you been? It’s been awhile since we last chatted. What have you been up to and what types of new projects have you been working on these days?
Robert Wu: Great, been busy with a number of things. I’m in rehearsals for a play right now that will tour Los Angeles from Sept until possibly spring 2010. I also have been steadily continuing to work on various on-camera and voiceover projects. Plus, I am in the process of developing and writing an Asian triad gangster script with a producer friend of mine. But best of all, my wife and I are about to celebrate our two year anniversary with a camping trip. A woman who loves roughing it in the woods – what a find! Definitely a keeper.
DIM:You have a really broad spectrum of experience ranging from theatre and film/television shows to commercials, video games and voiceover work. What is your favorite medium for acting?
RW: I don’t think I have a favorite medium. For me, it’s about the role. I love to work on characters that are fresh and unfamiliar to me. I love to challenge myself with something that I can really sink my teeth into. Of course, in this town, unless you’re Brad Pitt, you don’t really get a choice most of the time. You take the work as it comes. A good working actor friend of mine says, “I do theater for my art, and commercials and TV to pay the bills.” But like I said, for me, it’s the role. There are some really inventive and creative commercial and TV projects out there right now. Theatre is so time-consuming and so hard to juggle with the other mediums that I will only take on projects now that I feel can really make a lasting impact on an audience and the world.
DIM: Tell me more about the theatre play you’re working on now.
RW: It’s called "The Last Appeal." It tells a very compelling story about five men serving life on Death Row, The play was actually berthed out of our church a few years ago. We formed a non profit theatre company and are now taking it on the road. It’s a wonderful tale of redemption, forgiveness, and hope. You can get more info at www.thelastappealplay.com
DIM: I heard that you’ve done some foreign film work. When you worked in China, did you have to study the language or did you already know Chinese from your upbringing?
RW: Haha, I’m what my family calls “hoy san doi” or “juk sen do”. That’s the slang term for American born Chinese. I think it means literally ‘bamboo boy’, like I can see through the bamboo stick but not all the way through. So I’m only partially knowledgeable on the language, culture, etc. I was raised speaking Toisan, similar to Cantonese. Practically everyone in Chinese television speaks Mandarin, so when I did my TV series there, I had an on-set coach. Plus, my step mother provided invaluable help.
DIM: Didn’t you play a Korean bad-boy on an episode of the television show, Threshold (2005)? I recall you had lines in Korean. How are you able to pick up foreign languages and accents so quickly and speak as if you are fluent? Did you ever take formal speech or voice lessons to prepare for your roles?
RW: Ok, here’s my process, if you want to call it that. When I find out that I have to read for a role that is not my native tongue, I call up a friend or friend of a friend who speaks the language in question and take them out for lunch or dinner, and I go with a tape recorder. I record them saying the lines and phrases and practice fervently before the audition. Now if I get the role, then I get way more into intonation and pace and intent and everything. Plus, there’s usually an on-set coach if the budget is big enough. It’s crazy, I’ve portrayed and spoken Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Japanese and countless other languages and dialects in voice and on screen projects. I guess maybe sometimes they do think we all look the same -I’m not complaining! How do I learn it so fast? That’s all God.
DIM: In the film, November (2004), you played opposite Courtney Cox, and you played opposite Glen Close in the television series, The Shield (2005), how was it working with such well-known Hollywood stars?
RW: As I continue to evolve as an artist, I’m trying to take people off pedestals and see myself as equal collaborators with them instead of stars. (Although my brother loves it when I bring home autographs and photos:) I had a recurring part on The Shield, and Glenn and I both started working on the same day for the season. I remember we were in the makeup trailer together and she was playing a CD that her partner made for her. She really is very charming. November was a very short shoot, they shot the whole film in 2 weeks. It was when 24p technology was just coming out, and you could shoot really high quality digital video really quick. I had about 3 meaty scenes with Courteney, but they all ended up on the cutting room floor. In fact, I didn’t even discover it until I saw the final cut at Sundance in 04. I had flown up there to promote the film, and it was quite a letdown when I saw the finished product. Greg Harrison, the director, apologized and told me it was a necessary edit for the story they wanted to tell. Same with Nanking. Two juicy emotional monologues… gone with the wind. It happens all the time. I’ve learned that in this town, you just gotta roll with the punches because sometimes it rains, and sometimes, it’s a downright desert.
DIM: What keeps you going when times are slow?
RW: I truly believe that you cannot make it in this town without faith. I used to say to myself and people that I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist. But I read in a book once (I think it was Michael Shurtleff’s Audition -which is a must read for anyone thinking about pursuing this career), that to be an actor is to be the biggest dreamer in the world because it’s the biggest long shot in the world. You have to be willing to give up control and trust that you’re being led to the roles that God wants for you. Sometimes, it’s painful because there are some roles out there that I really wanted bad.
But I can’t tell you the number of times I booked roles that I had no shot of getting or the number of times I skipped all the normal steps to get an amazing role. I remember when I booked a series regular role on an NBC pilot a few years back. To book a pilot in this town is pretty big. It takes an initial audition and then several callback auditions for the show producers before you even get to test for the studio and network. I had one audition for the pilot, and the next day, I was in front of all the execs and the president of the network in a table reading with all the other actors, who had been hired weeks prior. I was the only one there still trying to get the job! Well, I ended up booking it and shooting the next week, but I can tell you, it had NOTHING to do with me. Only God can break down doors and speed up time like that. The real faith comes in trusting that He’s always there, in busy times and slow times, and believing without a shadow of a doubt that He will turn the tides in your favor again.
DIM: You’ve had guest star roles on television shows like The George Lopez Show (2005), Num3ers (2005), Seventh Heaven (2007), Bones (2009), played an important part in the documentary film, Nanking (2007), as well as played a memorable role in Baby (2008), the independent film about Asian gangs. Is it difficult to work with such of broad spectrum of roles, going from television comedy and drama to dramatic film and even voiceovers for commercials and video games?
RW: I love it. Like I said, the richer and more diverse the character, the more fun I have developing it. In the theatrical production right now, I’m playing an atheist, who was framed for murder and is serving his sentence on Death Row. I’m spending all my time researching atheism online and watching prison documentaries on MSNBC. I’m having a blast! It’s like IKEA for me. You have this big box of all kinds of pieces and screws and everything, and you work on it, putting stuff together where you think it fits, and when you’re done, you have this finely crafted toilet paper holder!
DIM: What was your first role ever? How did you know you wanted to pursue acting as a career?
RW: I was not one of those people who just knew they were destined to be an actor since they were a wee lad. I got in very late in the game. I didn’t get my first role until after college. I graduated with my degree in Exercise Physiology and went back to City College in San Francisco to take my prerequisites for Physical Therapy school. I remember it was my birthday, and I wanted to shake up my life. So I went out and auditioned for a play, having never taken an acting class. I saw a TV program about Will Smith that day, and he said he prepared for his Fresh Prince of Bel Air audition by watching a few hours of TV, and I said to myself, “well, heck, I’ve been watching TV all my life, so I can do this!” I got the part and later the next year, I went on to reprise the role in a production at the Fringe Festival in Scotland. It was awesome. I gave up PT and have never looked back. Ok, “never” might be a little strong.
DIM: What was your training in?
RW: I am a major proponent of training, but I’m also very fond of the Mamet learn-by-doing approach. I’ve had a hodge podge of different types of training interspersed with lots of working breaks in between. Of course, when I first started and didn’t know my stage left from my stage right, I was knee deep in classes. I started at City College and branched off to American Conservatory Theatre and then improvisation at Bay Area Theatresports and then to LA with Second City, Lee Strasberg Theatre, and a bunch of individual teachers along the way. But I found that the teachers and the classes that helped me the most were the ones that helped me to discover who I really was and being confident with that and bringing that to the role. Personalization. There are anywhere from 20 to 500 people sometimes reading for the same part. The only thing that separates me from the pack is me. The real me and letting that light shine confidently. I’m learning and relearning that on a daily basis.
DIM: Is there any actor or director past or present that you look up to? And if you could work with any one in Hollywood right now who would it be?
RW: There are so many actors out there right now whose work I admire. Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr, Denzel, Will Farrell, Jim Caviezel, and the list goes on and on. But to be honest, I’m learning to use this acting thing right now as a means of self development. It’s in the area of auditioning for a job and not getting it where I’m trying to grow. I’m trying to see the big picture, to be less selfish. Instead of thinking about who are the big actors and directors I’m personally dying to work with, I’m trying to see who I am called to work with, who can benefit from working and collaborating with me and contributing my efforts there. I read an article in the trades when I first moved to LA about Don Cheadle and how when he first started to audition after college. He would see all the same regulars at the audition, and they would all selflessly support each other. He would be in the audition room saying to the casting director, ‘hey have you seen so-and-so for this role yet?’ He said that he knew not every job was going to be his, but the ones right for him would be. He knew that he was called to this world of acting and that eventually, he would be working on the projects that he was destined to work on, but in the meantime, he would just enjoy the ride and play nicely with the teammates he had along the way and help them to succeed.
I think God gave the best example of this selflessness in Jesus. He gave up everything He had to help others and trusted that God would take care of Him in the end. I love what Denzel Washington says, talking about the philosophy he learned from his mother. She says life comes down to four things: “the grace of God, the will of man, the hand you’re dealt, the way you play it.” There’s this cool quote that’s been ascribed to everyone from St. Augustine to Martin Luther to Tony Robbins. How awesome is that?! It goes, “Pray like it all depends on God, then when you are done, go work like it all depends on you.” Sounds like a pretty peaceful way to live.