Playing Olivia Chow in the CBC’s new biopic, Jack, Sook-Yin Lee is reserved, romantic, and 100 per cent clothed. Fans of the chronically subversive filmmaker and radio host may wonder if their girl is going soft. We spoke to the non age–specific Lee about why playing a political widow is way more challenging than getting nude onscreen.
Did you audition for this role or did they come to you?
I had read about it in the paper and I thought it sounded like it could be very compelling. As an actor, I don’t go out for most auditions. I pretty much only work on my friends’ movies when they ask me, but then my agent called. She had been out for dinner with the casting director for Jack, who wanted to see me. It was a strange process. Auditions are different now. When I went in, they were like, “talk to the director,” and he was Skyped in on a laptop from L.A.
When you say you don’t audition for movies, is that because you’re busy with your own projects?
I’m super busy with Definitely Not the Opera, and when I do have time, I want to work on projects I care about. Too often I’ve been in crappy movies. I’m the crack whore with the midget. There are so many issues with the mainstream movie and TV industry: Not only are there crap scripts, but the mood on sets is so depressing. A few years ago I made a conscious effort to say, okay, I’m going to do something different. There are not very many roles for women that are interesting—never mind Asian women.
Had you spent much time with Olivia Chow before you played her?
I’d seen her at functions and she’s also the MP in my riding. When I was making the movie Toronto Stories, I wanted to shoot in the ROM, which they don’t allow very often, and she went to bat for me.
How did you go about capturing her character?
For the movie, we only had access to her for one day because she’s so busy. She invited us—myself and the actor who plays Jack—to her home, which I was surprised to find was a few blocks away from mine. Olivia herself is a woman of few words; she’s a woman of actions. She tended to give short answers so I had to lean on my investigative experience as a broadcaster to get information.
Did you speak any Cantonese beforehand?
Well my parents spoke it in my house, so I know things from my childhood, like “shut up,” “eat your food,” and “I’m going to hit you.” For the movie, though, we had a translator, and I worked with a dialect coach. At first I wondered if I was going to be able to do this and then the woman who was working with me said, “Sook-Yin, you grew up with this. You know it in your bones.” Once I got it, I couldn’t drop it.
What did you learn about the relationship between Jack and Olivia?
They were so compatible and they never fought. Actually, she did tell me about the one fight they ever had—on a whitewater canoeing trip—but I think that was it. I’m sure they had trials and tribulations like any marriage does, but they seemed to just work shit out. And also there was the chemistry. When I asked her what she first liked about Jack, she said, “He was hot.” When they first met it was like a barn on fire. It culminated in some kind of hotel pool.
Really? You don’t see that in the movie.
I know. I wanted that to be in it, but there was a lot of stuff with makeup and wet hair. When Olivia told me the story, I was like “Oh my God, that’s so passionate,” and she was like, “What are you—a prude?”
You, a prude. That’s pretty classic. I was thinking this movie is pretty un-shocking as far as Sook-Yin projects go. There’s no nudity.
Nudity is still shocking. I find that shocking. It’s funny because a lot of people are asking whether Jack is my foray into the mainstream. I guess because it’s on TV people assume that it is lighter, but on all counts this was a very challenging project.
What did you think of Seth Macfarlane’s “WE Saw Your Boobs” song during the Oscars?
I thought Shatner overshadowed the boobs—he was a lot funnier. Was I offended about the boobs, though?
Yeah—there was a lot of backlash. Basically that he was taking talented actresses who gave great performances and reducing them to a set of boobs.
I wasn’t offended. I think it was probably done in the spirit of satire. I thought it was very strange that Michelle Obama was giving out the best-picture Oscar.
It sort of ties back to Jack. In previous generations, we didn’t want to see the person behind the mask. Like what did we really know about John A. MacDonald?
I think he was a booze bag.
Right, I did hear that. And now we have Barack Obama making the rounds on late-night talk shows and the first lady handing out Oscars.
Any chance you’d consider a Keeping Up with Sook-Yin reality show?
I’m not sure that there’d be an audience. Much as I like to communicate and reveal and express myself, I think having that all the time would be very annoying.
You’ve famously refused to reveal your age. What’s the thinking there?
I think because I didn’t, and then people wanted to know, it became, “Why do I have to tell you? Don’t I share enough?” It’s a complex thing. I have a fear of death. That’s probably what it comes down to.
Pub or club?
Tall vodka soda.
Early mornings or late nights?
Favourite junk food?
The White Album by the Beatles.
Concert you wish you’d been to?
Favourite colour gumball?
Jack airs on CBC-TV Sunday, March 10 at 8 p.m.