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“I like when people are knocked out of their comfort zone.”

If you have ever watched the groundbreaking medical drama ER during its unprecedented 15-year run, you will surely recognize writer/director/actor Lily Mariye. Born and raised in Nevada, this English major turned dancer turned veteran actress is one of the most well known Asian faces in Hollywood, and she is currently making a well-earned transition to directing. Her feature-length film debut, Model Minority is a wonderful character driven film that strives to go beyond the ‘what is being Asian-American’ question and asks ‘what does it take to move forward’? We were pleased to get a chance to interview her prior to the film’s East Coast Premiere at the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival.

Where did the idea for Model Minority come from?
It started when I went to film festivals for the Shangri-la Café (Mariye’s AFI sponsored, award-winning short in 2000). There was a festival where my short was the film before the feature – When You’re Smiling by Janice D. Tanaka. It is a documentary about her family. Her Nisei second-generation parents had gone to internment camps, and when they got out, they didn’t talk about it and kept it inside. It caused a lot of damage, both psychological and emotional… and they thought they were shielding their kids from it, but what they actually did was pass on this sort of indeterminate damage that manifested itself in dysfunctional ways like alcoholism and drug addiction. So she made this documentary to open people’s eyes and make it okay to talk about it.

When I saw it I thought, what happens to the next generation? If the first generation after the internment is dysfunctional, then their kids are not going to turn out normal, happy and carefree… the damage was going to be passed down again. And what form does that take? So I started looking around, asking about kids of Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei… and what happens to a lot of them is that they get caught up in the wrong crowd, or their parents push them to study – because of their insecurities – things they are not necessarily right for.

I got the title Model Minority from a study about the UC system where Asian students were failing and dropping out… So as I came across all of these stories, I took pieces of everything I had heard.

What is your Japanese-American background?
My mother was raised in Northern California. All of her family was sent to an internment camp, except for her and my father because they moved to Nevada. They felt like if you moved inland, the Government would think that you couldn’t communicate with Japan. My father was from Hiroshima, and had come here because he had an errant younger brother who was here gambling. He was sent to come get him and send him home, and then he stayed and met my mother and they got married. So he had family in Hiroshima that he was communicating with. When the bomb fell on Hiroshima, he lost contact with them and later found out that they had all been killed. So they had a lot of fear about being Japanese-American, especially being in Nevada where there weren’t many Japanese-Americans.

How did your acting career start?
I had been a ballet dancer in a small company in Las Vegas. When I got to UCLA, I decided to major in English, and I thought I was going to be a writer. Then I was in a movement for the actor class, and one of my professors said, “Are you in the theater department?” I said no. “Would you like to be? We’re doing a production of West Side Story, would you like to be in it?” I said, “well, okay”… so in order to do that I had to join the theater department, and then I just got sucked into it. I started acting, but I was writing all along, and then I got my first job – a film called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I got my SAG card and I was on my way, and I said, ‘I guess this is what I’m meant to do.’

How about directing?
One day [on the set of ER] I saw one of the actors with headsets on, and so I asked them ‘What are you doing?’ And they said ‘Oh, I’m shadowing one of the directors, Chris Chulak.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I’m just following them around to learn what he does as a director.’ So I said, ‘Well I’m just sitting around here all day, I want to do that’. So they assigned me to two of our directors – Lesli Linka Glatter and Jonathan Kaplan – and they allowed me to shadow them during episodes of ER, West Wing, and Gilmore Girls. And a lot of the crew were a lot of my good friends so they allowed me to stand around and ask, “What is this? What does this do?” It was 15 years of film school!

What was the transition like?
When I got into the directing workshop for women, everybody said, “Oh you’re going to be a director now”. And I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never done it. Let’s see what happens.” After years of having to be camera ready all the time, and waiting and waiting to do your little bit… I always felt like if I was on an artist’s palette I’d be the color blue. And I was responsible for the color blue and had to do a good job as the color blue, but I was limited by it as well. But as the director I got to choose everything. I got to choose where we were going to be, choose where things were going to go, and especially as the writer, I got to choose what people were going to say. I just loved that I could be an artist in all these capacities. With it, of course, came a huge responsibility, but I enjoy being the traffic cop and the psychologist and the peacemaker and the decision maker. I didn’t know I was going to enjoy it this much.

What was the casting process like?
I knew that with the kids, I would have to audition people and see who was out there. But with some of the grown ups, for example… I have known Chris Tashima, who plays the father, for a really long time. But I saw him at the ID filmmakers conference, where he was on the panel (Tashima won an Academy Award for his short film Visas and Virtues in 1997). And as I was sitting there watching him on the panel I thought, ‘Oh my God, he could totally play the father.’ He was really the first person I talked to. I had written the character of Bachan (grandmother, in Japanese) with my friend Takayo Fischer in mind, she and I were in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Of course I asked some friends – I asked Laura Innes to be the judge, Helen Slater to be the teacher… and then I have some cameos from all my friends from ER.

What was it like to work with a younger generation of Japanese American actors?
Nichole’s [Nichole Bloom, the lead actress of the film] dream is to be Julia Roberts – because she doesn’t see any boundaries around what she can be. Honestly, I think you need to have that kind of attitude.

When I started out as an actor, people kept saying, “How can an Asian-American girl make a living as an actor?” If I let that stop me, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. If you let other people’s boundaries stop you, you’ll never do anything, you have to say, “I’m doing this, I’m plowing forward, and this is what I love, and this is what I’m going to do.” For a long time my African-American friends would say, “This is what we did – rather than complaining about the lack of roles we just made our own”. I took a page from their book. Many friends of mine maxed out their credit cards to make their films with all African-American casts. So it made me think that if anybody’s going to tell our stories right it’s going to have to be one of us.

What do you want people to take away from your film?
I like when people are knocked out of their comfort zone. If they walk around with expectations about what people are like, and then they come to see my film, they get introduced to a whole new world and see something they didn’t expect to see. I hope they take that openness with them the rest of their lives.

———- Interview by Nobi Nakanishi



© Julia Ransom


L.A. teenagers survive the treacherous world of peer pressure, drug dealers, juvenile hall and dysfunctional families. Kayla, an underprivileged Japanese-American 16 year old, endangers her promising future as an aspiring artist when she becomes involved with a drug dealer. Lily Mariye describes MODEL MINORITY as “a film about redemption, the struggles of the 21st century family and my hope for the future. The screenplay was based on what I saw happening to younger generations of Asian Americans. MODEL MINORITY won multiple awards, including Best Narrative Feature at the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival.

© Julia Ransom

Written and directed by Lily Mariye

Cast: Nichole Bloom, Jessica Tuck, Chris Tashima, Delon de Metz, Takayo Fischer,  Courteney Mun, Laura Innes and Helen Slater