Many Singaporean women have big movie star dreams when they were young, but Lydia Look managed to take that extra stride and has made hers a reality.
“I was a hundred percent sure I wanted to be a Hollywood actress from the start. I hate to be so ‘cocksure’ about it, I was!” exclaims the loud and proud CHIJ Katong Convent alumnus.
Handpicked by the Convent nuns and dubbed “the girl with the gift of the gab” since she was eight, Ms Look was a natural and the it-girl for the Convent’s notable Speech and Drama programme.
She rode the snowballing wave of opportunities that came her way, and eventually went on to study acting in the United States at the age of 18, under a scholarship from the National Arts Council — and the rest was history.
Ms Look’s most notable role to date is Madame Selena Wu, a badass gang leader, on ABC daytime drama, General Hospital.
In the face of all the glamour, this shapeshifter of an actress asserts that “a lot goes into making a scene beautiful or truthful”. And it is evident that Ms Look is deeply Singaporean and misses home dearly.
“I like to call Singapore a strange paradise. I think people who live here on a long-term basis sometimes forget the many things we take for granted. But when we’re overseas, we really miss Singapore,” says Ms Look, who drops a Cantonese or Singlish word into every other sentence and still tries to identify a Singaporean accent amid the busy streets of Los Angeles (LA), where she now lives and works.
TheHomeGround Asia speaks to the animated Ms Look to learn about her “journey to the West”, her adventures in Hollywood, and how she navigates her patriotism from across the globe.
Video courtesy of Lydia Look.
TheHomeGround Asia (THG): When did you know that you really wanted to become an actress?
Lydia Look (LL): My career in acting started when I was four, and it really had a lot to do with my mother. I credit her for everything that I am today. She was a phenomenal woman, very ahead of her time, but a ‘failed actress’ of sorts herself. She was a nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital for 55 years, but prior to becoming a nurse, she wanted to be an actress. She was really quite beautiful in her youth. She was a World War 2 baby, and she was one of eight children. So she had to look after her brothers and didn’t get to study, but she was very intelligent.
She pushed me to do acting since I was young, and put me in the right schools too. I went to Katong Convent, which was known for its Speech and Drama programme. I was handpicked by the Convent nuns to complete the Guildhall School of Music and Drama certifications, and I was very good at it. I was just a natural, being a chatterbox. They gave me a good moniker that I still use today. When they picked me since when I was in primary one, they told my mother, “this girl has the gift of the gab”.
I was very good at mimicking accents. I grew up with many seniors who ended up being legends in the media and theatre industries, like Glenda Chong and Suzanne Ho, so I got a lot of exposure. At the same time, I started to do semi-professional work outside. I was part of the first batch of girls picked by Samuel Chong to dub hundreds of Chinese series into English. In secondary school, I started to work very seriously with Theatre Works, and even more so when I did theatre studies for my “A” levels.
THG: When and how did things start getting serious for you?
LL: I went to Los Angeles after my “A” levels, and I got a [partial] scholarship under the National Arts Council (NAC) to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Film & Television and the USC School of Theater for acting. I had a very unique double major combination — I was doing film studies with an emphasis on screenwriting, and I was also simultaneously an acting major.
I had already started working since my first semester in school. Being in acting school, acting outside for credit really counts for something because it’s practical work. I was booked for my first acting job with the East West Players, the United States’ first professional Asian American theatre organisation, and it was for an absurdist play called Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello. From then on, I was barely acting in school and was doing shows outside of school, and so I ended up graduating with one degree instead of two. I didn’t have enough money to fund my two degrees as well.
THG: That must have been hard. How did you survive financially, especially when you first started out in Hollywood?
LL: When I was starting out, I didn’t often make enough money as an Asian actress in my early 20s. So, I started writing at a very young age. I used to write all the plays that we did in primary and secondary schools. When I was in film school, my emphasis was also on screenwriting, and in my second year, I actually sold a script to a TV station and I joined the union. So I had another life as a writer too. I still write for the Disney Channel, I wrote Wendy Wu: Wuhancoming Warrior. So I have a whole legion of Asian American young girls who grew up watching all the stuff that I wrote. That helped me get by alongside my acting gigs.
THG: What kind of actress would you say you are?
LL: I’m a character actress in Hollywood. I’m not what you would call your typical leading lady. So I shapeshift a lot — sometimes I play powerful women, other times I play “poor thing” characters, and there are times I even played animals. Actually, a character actress has a longevity that usually extends way past that of an ingenue.
The very first thing I ever saw on television was 神雕侠侣 (The Legend of the Condor Heroes). I didn’t want to be the demure female protagonist, Xiao Long Nu (小龙女). I wanted to be all the other characters, and usually the guys too!
I’m not really a leading actress either — I’m not traditionally beautiful.
THG: No way.
LL: No, seriously. Beautiful is like Gemma Chan. I am not that. I was always a bit quirky, and I have a scar on my lip, that sort of thing. I can play the demure leading actress if you want me to (for a price), but I was always more attracted to the other roles. I play anything, no role is too small for me.
THG: So I guess it worked out well for you?
LL: You know what? I don’t think I really had a choice one way or the other. Because when you come into town, people pigeonhole you pretty fast. I was always known as the dependable professional who showed up, did her work, and was good. In the industry, the actors run the gamut. There are those who really take their craft very seriously and show up and bang it out and get the job done over and over again. And there are those who just come because they want to be famous, and those don’t last very long.
THG: Is there something that people seldom know about your job?
LL: That it requires a lot of work. What you see, we make it look very easy for you. But actually, a lot goes into making a scene beautiful or truthful. Being an actress is very san fu (Cantonese for gruelling). You’ve got to really want it. Glamorous is only what you see on the screen. There’s a lot of prep that goes behind the scenes that is totally unglamorous.
THG: What kind of characters do you like to play the most?
LL: I like characters that are not who they seem to be, characters who will surprise you. In other words, I like very human characters. People that we know in everyday life that you think are one way, but when you talk to them, you realise they have many more layers. They may seem like they have their sh*t together, but in reality, they’re just trying to juggle everything. Like everybody else, they’re people like you and me — flawed.
Video courtesy of Lydia Look.
THG: Is there one in particular that stands out to you?
LL: I’ll tell you something. The character that I’m playing on General Hospital right now? I love her. Her name is Selena Wu. Among the five families that have a lot of dealings with the hospital, there’s a Chinese triad, and I play its boss lady. I’m the only woman across the five families, so I boss the men around all the time. In this season (spoiler alert!), I actually killed two of them in a car bomb to usurp power.
So it sounds like my character is very hou ngok (Cantonese for fierce), right? but I’m also a very complex woman. The writers didn’t tell me that she’s a Harvard graduate, but when I got the material for the character, I just made her one, because the stuff she says is so unbelievable. (Her England very powerful.) I knew that I wanted to make her very yin and yang — a real gangster who would take out a knife and slash you, but also extremely well-educated and smart — someone who can track both worlds.
I’ve been playing Selena since 2015, but I only used to come in once a year when there was a big mafia meeting on the show. But this year, my character suddenly became much bigger, so I’m really loving playing her right now.
THG: Was there any particular reason why your character grew, or was it just fate?
LL: I think the fans asked for it, and also I think I was in the right place at the right time. After the #MeTooMovement and #BLM, as well as the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, the audience demanded a more diverse cast and better representation. This year, they have really made strides to introduce a lot more diversity on the show, and I am part of that diversity.
THG: That is great! But what about the early days of your career? Was it hard trying to make it as an Asian woman in Hollywood?
LL: If I wasn’t so crazy and knew that that was what I wanted to do, I think I would have come home a long time ago. Aiya, living in Singapore is so nice! All my friends are there and anywhere I walk I can makan (Malay for eat). Everytime I leave Singapore, I cry at the airport. All my family is there. My mum is now 87 and very frail, so it’s getting harder and harder to leave every time.
Because even though I have very good friends now, life in Los Angeles is a lot harder than in Singapore. There are no helpers, you have to do everything yourself. And it’s not like Singapore, where everybody is your auntie and every corner is your neighbourhood.
THG: It sounds like you do miss Singapore a lot. Was it hard for you to leave at eighteen?
LL: Yes, very much so. I think patriotism runs the gamut. When kind of a patriot am I? I think I’m a lover of the people. That’s what makes Singapore so special. I do love them. I really do. I love my friends, my family, and of course, I love the food. You can take the girl out of Singapore, but you’ll never take these things out of her.
You know, we take a lot of stuff for granted in Singapore, even though we complain a lot about how strict it is here and everything. But with that also comes a lot of beautiful things. I think people who live there on a long-term basis sometimes forget that. When we’re in Singapore, we grumble a lot about it, but when we’re overseas, we really miss Singapore. It is sort of a strange paradise, as I call it.
THG: So even though you love Singapore deeply, you felt like it was a necessary step in your career to go to Hollywood?
LL: Yes, absolutely — for me. I can’t answer for every other actor or actress. Some people find great fulfilment being professional actors in Singapore, and they are wonderful actors (like Siti K — she’s such a good actress!). We have such talented people.
But for me, at the age of eighteen after “A” levels, I felt like I had hit the ceiling. And back then, the acting industry was much, much scarcer than it is now. I really felt like I needed to find myself, and went to USC because I knew I wanted to be in Hollywood from the beginning.
THG: What would you like to tell budding Singaporean actors and actresses today?
LL: Never be fearful. Don’t ask yourself, “what should I do for my career?”, because that brings in a lot of negativity and thinking you’re not doing enough. Don’t let that inner, Singaporean critic voice (which we are all born with) get in the way of your dreams — that can sometimes be very damaging. I still catch myself saying it in my head sometimes too.
I don’t think it’s as simple as asking yourself what you should do for your career, because if that’s the primary question, I doubt you’ll ever be fulfilled. I think that if you’re really an actor and lover of the craft, it’s a lifelong pursuit, you’ll never be where you want to be as an actor.
Instead, I think the question is, “what can I do for myself on a day-to-day basis to enrich my acting world?” If it means going away for small stretches of time, or taking a vow of silence for six days to find your inner world, do it.