Celia Au spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about portraying Nina Wong in new Gravitas Ventures film ‘In A New York Minute’.
Nina’s inner despair shows the happy reflection we feel obligated to mirror to the world is often as fragile as glass. The surface ready to break with the slightest drop, never to be put back together again.
This Celia Au interview contains spoilers for the film, ‘In A New York Minute’.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT (NIR REGEV): I’ve always felt there’s more to a person’s karaoke song choice than they let on. Something beneath the surface.
With Nina, there’s pain whispering from her eyes with every lyric. But it’s strangely soothing like the eye of a tornado. How do you feel about the moment?
CELIA AU: You know, you are actually right. Mandy (Ximan Li), the Director, she said that they picked that song because of the context of it. She wanted me to feel that hope is gone, things are leaving.
Nothing’s really going my way. After Mandy picked that song, we ran through it over and over again. She was trying her best to capture the feeling & essence of the song with Nina.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Nina’s entire family treats her as lesser than. As if she doesn’t own her own life… Just leasing it. How do you feel about this portrayal?
CELIA AU: I really like that part of the storyline because I feel there’s a lot of step children out there with that experience. Not every step child of course. I have friends where their parents are amazing to them but you’ve heard horror stories about parents mistreating them and giving a voice to those people and knowing that they’re being heard, it’s great.
So they can feel, ‘Oh man, we’re not alone.’ And there are stories like Cinderella, right? Her step sisters are treated way better than she is because that’s not her real mom. Yeah, in this case, Nina’s brother gets everything and she’s okay with that.
She’s like, ‘I’ll make my own money. I’ll make it myself. And I’ll try to do everything on my own.’ But even though she does everything and gives money back home, it’s not enough for her stepmom.
All Nina wanted is to finally say, ‘Hey, let me live my own life!’
She’s trying to do her best, but getting berated by her stepmom (Yan Xi) constantly. And her dad (Fenton Li) doesn’t stick up for her.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: After Nina sees what happens to her friend in the karaoke bar, convulsing, it’s an ominous sign to never go back.
But even after quitting, she inevitably finds herself back to end the month. Then again in despair. One time too many. Do you see the karaoke bar as Nina’s self-inflicted jail sentence?
CELIA AU: I love that you’re finding all these nuances! It’s so great. Yeah, I mean the karaoke bar is in a way, the only way she can make a living for herself and fulfill her need of having money… And saving up and paying for her dad’s medical bills.
Nina feels it’s ‘The fastest way that I can make money.’ And at the same time, this is kind of like a trap for her.
She’s trapped because she can’t really leave and have a normal life. Nina’s gotten accustomed to making fast, easy money and so has her family. Then when Ian (Tam) offers her a future together… Finally, she sees a glimpse of hope.
That’s what she started struggling with. Finally, this life that Nina has always wanted, a family of her own, something that’s solid. It feels so sorry going back to the karaoke bar for the fast money after that.
But Nina has this constant kind of struggle, where she sees the stacks of cash in her closet as fulfilling. ‘Oh man, I’m building something’ Feeling like is seeing more and more bags than Ian can possibly provide her.
But Ian loves her. She wants to put that fancy, rich lifestyle down for a moment. Ian is very steady, solid. He’s starting his own business so they can build a life together.
Ian knows that she works in that karaoke bar and he’s trying to tell her, ‘Hey, this is a way out for you!’
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Why do you feel Ian was able to accept Nina despite knowing more or less what she does at the karaoke bar?
CELIA AU: Well, the backstory we have is that Ian also works at the bar, he sees what these girls go through as hosts day in and day out. So Ian doesn’t just see them as hosts but rather the human side of them… What they’re going through, what they’re fighting through, and why they’re ultimately there.
There’s more empathy… I actually like it a lot when you see that. Society paints hosts a certain way, how you view them, what they are. And then in this story, you go a level deeper and see they all have their own struggles.
They all have their own demons that they’re facing and they’re trying to do better. It’s a chance for people to understand them.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Were Karaoke bars originally set up with this kind of ‘business’ in mind?
CELIA AU: So from what I hear from my parents, karaoke originated with live singers and that attracted a lot of gangsters to the bars. Then the gangster were like ‘I’m looking for a pretty girl.’ And since they have power over people because of their position in the underworld, girls would need to flirt with them, be nice to them, to survive at work.
There’s these hostess bars where nothing is sexual, it’s just girls that sit and drink with the guys, like how you see in the film. But then some places took a step further where if you offered the girl enough money, not to the company or to the host for like their personal transactions… Then they go home with the client.
That’s been a stigma that people used to say about going to hostess bars. That you’re probably looking to to take a girl working there home. It’s a thing throughout ethnic Asian history.
There’s a lot of that in general in Asia. Like I see it in Korea, Hong Kong, China and Japan as well. It’s lonely people looking for companionship.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: What kind of hostess research did you undertake for the role?
CELIA AU: I watched a lot of films and documentaries. There’s a documentary called The Great Happiness Space, it’s heartbreaking. It’s from the male’s perspective and then later changed to the female perspective, both being hostesses, males and females.
I re-watched it during the pandemic. I did a lot of references to older Hong Kong films Mandy (Ximan Li) mentioned including this one called Port of Call.
It’s a crime mystery, Hong Kong film from 2015. Mandy was like, “I want you to feel what Jessie Li’s character is feeling, what she’s going through.” And she was a murder victim, a 16 year old murder victim, the story is all about what led her there. A detective piecing everything together in his investigation.
I remember watching it and Mandy didn’t tell me that it would be a scary film. I was watching it in a hotel as I was shooting Lodge 49. And I was scared to sleep!
Yeah… It was a great film that scared me for two nights straight as I was shooting in Atlanta. That’s the one main film that Mandy said, “I really want you to do a character study for this.”
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING: ENDING DISCUSSED BELOW
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: In a way, Nina is never fully removed or recovered from an attachment to things. Though sentimental, it’s fighting over Ian’s necklace that leads to oblivion. Do you feel sometimes people lose sight of the bigger picture when rage takes over?
CELIA AU: Well, I think the necklace is her last symbol where she’s connected to her mom, her real mom. Her birth mom. And it’s like taking away the last piece of herself that feels grounded and real. Losing that basically throws her in a downward spiral.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: The moment where Nina lies on the pavement after hitting her head shows real human fragility. Everything we hold dear can end with one wrong push. What does that mean to you and what was it like shooting the scene?
CELIA AU: Yeah, logistically it was actually raining that day. I remember they said we’re gonna shoot the scene in this alley. And I thought great, an alley in the middle of Chinatown, oh man.
They’re like, don’t worry we’ll clean everything. It’ll be fine. And I said ‘Okay, sure.’
Then Nic (Tom) and I talked, who played my little brother. The girl that plays his girlfriend asked, ‘Is it okay if I push you?’ I said ‘Yeah, I’ll fall myself so I have more control.’ Literally right when we were shooting that scene, Nic went in and touched my head, and he started to cry for real.
He said, “I felt like I just hurt someone that I didn’t wanna hurt.” The emotions and everything came onto him even after they called ‘Cut!’ after he runs off in the end. He told me I felt really sh****, like a terrible person. I told him, it’s okay, it’s a movie.
And he said but everything just feels so real right now. He’s one of the kindest people. And he was like, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t remember how close you can see, but there’s a tear that fell out of my eyes. It just came naturally.
I felt “I don’t even know why there’s a tear coming out right now. Just feeling all these weird emotions.” And then there’s also rain.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Was In A New York Minute intended to shine a spotlight on how sex workers are treated? I mean, when Nina’s friend is convulsing, those that drugged her barely seem to care and the same when Nina is left on the pavement
CELIA AU: That’s a good question for Mandy, I feel it’s showing for the guys, the girl is more of a toy. She’s not considered to be a person to care about. It’s something to keep them happy for the night or a couple of hours, keep them company.
In the end, when you see Nina lying there all alone, after everything she’s fought so hard for to be with Ian… She’s still ultimately by herself, and left in an alley to die like that.
I feel my interpretation, is society views Nina as just another escort or whatever. So they don’t think about how or why she died, where these people are coming from or even really what happened to them.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: The Visa situation is a big theme during In A New York Minute for two of the film’s story arcs. How do you feel about the dynamic between Nina and her stepmom regarding it?
CELIA AU: It goes back to everyone wanting to come to America no matter where you are. You can be from anywhere in Asia, Europe, Africa, any continent and feel “Oh my God, I made it!” I can follow the American dream.
There’s a belief that being in America is better and there’s more opportunities, a brighter future. So Nina’s stepmom is always reminding her she owes her because they brought her there.
For Nina, that’s a dark cloud that hangs over her on top of her all the time about her stepmom. ‘Hey, we got you a visa! You need to do X, Y, and Z for me!’ Nina’s stepmom always talks about the Visa fees over and over again. No matter how much Nina tries to help out financially, it’s never enough for them.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: My last question… What do you have to say to your Lodge 49 fans who miss you?
CELIA AU: Tell them, I miss them! I actually talk to some of them on Twitter a lot. There’s this whole Lodge 49 gang.
It was such a special group of people working on that show. The whole cast were friends in real life and supported each other. I miss everything about it.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Thanks Celia!
CELIA AU: Thank you!
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Celia Au starred in two seasons of AMC’s TV show Lodge 49 as popular character Alice Ba. Au is also well known for playing Ying Ying in Netflix series Wu Assassins. The rising actress was born in Hong Kong and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
Fun Fact: The New York City star once aspired to be a Power Ranger as a child.
‘In A New York Minute’ Trailer
In A New York Minute releases on digital platforms on May 3, 2022. You can pre-order the movie now on Apple TV.
“Based on a Chinese short story, In A New York Minute takes a slice-of-life look at relationships highlighted by its Asian and Asian American-led cast.
First time writer/director Ximan Li leads a female driven production crew to create an intimate character study that interprets love from three different points of view. The film stars Celia Au, Amy Chang, Yi Liu, with Ludi Lin and Cheng Pei Pei.”
Follow In A New York Minute on Facebook for the latest news on the film.
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