Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an actor, filmmaker, adventure junkie. I was born in Canada but lived all over the place as a child (Beijing, Taiwan, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto). I was raised by older parents, so sometimes I say things like “nifty” and “hip” and I love the old divas like Barbra Streisand and Broadway musicals. I’m just a 40-year-old cat lady at heart really. When I’m asked to do a Chinese accent for auditions, I only know how to sound like an old Cantonese man (I don’t know why). I also started a digital series and a prime time television series for a major Canadian broadcaster when I was 23. Now that TV series is nominated for a Canadian Screen Award.
When did you first realize that you wanted a career in the film industry?
At first, all I wanted to do was act. Making my series Second Jen was just a vehicle for that – at first. Then as we started to develop the television series I realized how much I loved filmmaking! I love all the different aspects from developing the story and pre-production to the adrenaline of filming, to the final details of post-production and editing. There are so many areas and ways to craft a story in film, it feeds my imagination on so many levels.
How did your time at the National Theatre School of Canada prepare you for your career in filmmaking and acting?
NTS really taught me the power of storytelling. A good story doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to be captivating. It brought storytelling back to its oldest art form and gave me my foundation. If you can’t grab people with your story all on its own in an empty room, then adding the fancy costumes, props, and lights are just trying to make up for lack of substance. NTS also taught me endurance. We trained 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. You really learn what you’re made of. It was a chance for me to work through my fears, failure, and fatigue in a safe space. No job has ever demanded the kind of energy that school did. Everything else in the real world seemed doable then.
Right out of school you were commissioned to create “Sudden Master”, OMNI Television’s first original online series. What was it like to get that opportunity right out of the gate?
Only now in retrospect, I realize how fortunate (and ballsy) I was at the time to take on the project. I met OMNI television 2 years after school at the Banff World Media Festival. After OMNI said they were interested, I realized I had never made a web series in my life! So I walked up to the big guest speaker presenting on web series at that same festival and asked: “how do you make a Web series?”— and he became my producer. It was such a long process to getting funding approved, by the time we made it to production, I was so eager to make it, again I didn’t think about the mountain ahead. Originally I had pitched Second Jen as an idea to OMNI but they took 6 months to confirm and the concept had already been sold. So coming from a martial arts family, I pitched them a Kung Fu series instead. They liked it, and I ended up creating Sudden Master in between Second Jen. I was just trying to keep my head above water. There wasn’t energy to think about what an opportunity it was, which I’m glad because I think I would have been intimidated.
You developed a buddy comedy about two second-generation millennials making it on their own in the big city called “Second Jen” with Amanda Joy. What sets this show apart from other shows in this genre?
Amanda and I have an offbeat sense of humor. We like shows like the IT Crowd and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I like to think we bring that absurd vibe that is different from the other traditional family sitcoms. Also, our show is not about an Asian family. It’s about second generation kids going through those first adulating moments, and how culture can affect that. We also try to go more into specifics of being Filipino, versus Chinese, versus African American etc. We are interested in the cultural AND generational gaps.
How does it feel to receive a 2019 Canadian Screen Awards nomination in the category of Best Comedy Series for “Second Jen”?
It feels amazing. We are really proud of our second season, so they have the nomination as confirmation is so rewarding. Every once in a while I have a moment of “Oh my gawd, we really did it!”. Sometimes it’s hard to believe at 23 we decided to make a T.V series… and then we actually did it. We were the youngest people in the country to have our own series. It’s moments like this when it really sinks in what we accomplished.
You also play Zoe Chow in “Private Eyes”. How has that experience been thus far?
I love being on Private Eyes. Second Jen felt more like an indie series (even though we were with a major broadcaster, we worked with budgets most show just use for their kraft table), whereas Private Eyes is the tier A show. There was so much more to learn. I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a lead watching Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson work. How much leadership your main cast provides on set is incredible. Shawn Pillar the producer that I have learned from so much. He keeps a well-oiled machine because he is genuinely willing to listen, and you know he cares. A happy set really does come from the top down. Private Eyes is a well-oiled machine and I think that love on set translates on screen.
You even co-created a theatrical piece called “Madame Mao” about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. How does creating a play differ from a film or TV series?
Very different. The script was created through improv. We worked the Father of collective creation Paul Thompson and his daughter Severn to create the play. The other lead actress (Janet Lo) and I would go home and research everything we could on the cultural revolution. Then we would come in the next day and improv scenarios we’d read about. We would do that over and over again until it got refined into a script. It took about 4 works shops of the play until we got to the script we finally toured with. Theatre has so much rehearsal and play that I often miss from film because we are so tight for time.
Do you feel a pull towards one thing over another or do you like the variety of being able to act, direct, and write?
I love acting and directing the most. However, writing is where creation starts. We still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity and representation. So I feel a responsibility and calling to contribute as much as I can to the industry in that way. I guess I’m stuck with all three for now haha. I see myself being more of an actor while I’m young and then director/writer as I get older.
What advice would you have for aspiring directors, actors, and writers?
Failure is inevitable. So Fail Hard, Fail Fast. It’s like we all have a quota to fulfill. So the faster to get to making that quota and picking yourself up to fail again, the sooner you’ll find success. Also, have an idea of what success looks like to you. The clearer the picture the better, because then you can realize what you don’t need to waste your energy on. It’s easier to aim when you have a target.
What’s your life like outside of the set?
I love exploring. If I can find time for an adventure I will. If that means going on a new hike, trying a new restaurant, whatever. Sometimes I like to explore Groupon just to get ideas. I recently started appreciating eastern philosophy and meditation, but I still love diving into western psychology as well. Sometimes I like to also be a bum and chill with my cat.
Let the readers know where to find you online.
You can follow me @TheSamanthaWan on Twitter and Instagram. Also my website www.samanthawan.com