BWW Interview: Celeste Den Conducts Dangerous Liaisons in M. BUTTERFLY
Celeste Den, who plays Comrade Chin in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly revival, was searching for a UPS truck after a recent matinee, a box tucked under her arm. "I was told a truck would be here but I guess that was bad information," she said with a laugh.
Den knows about passing on information.
Chin is the Communist Party liaison who meets with the famed actor Song Liling, played by Jin Ha. He is the Butterfly of the play. Song is having a torrid affair with a Parisian diplomat, Rene Gallimard, played by Clive Owen. Chin extorts sensitive military secrets from Song and, well, you know how it goes.
M. BUTTERFLY is a complicated story that takes place in 1986 and flashes back and forth. It was inspired by an actual international scandal.
"I had read this play in high school before I even studied acting," said Den. "I've been waiting for this part since I was 18."
Den was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan and moved to the states when she was 8 years old. She finds her particular duality different from those of her Asian-American friends. Den is both Asian and American.
"As an Asian immigrant I was experiencing things I couldn't articulate then. I since then have carried the narrative of the misunderstood on my shoulders," she added.
"Reading it had a profound effect on me," she added. "The fact that I can do this as a performer is amazing. Even though things are improved for Asians in theater there are still limitations on opportunities. I wanted to push against type and now I'm more interested in representing the disenfranchised," Den said.
She's making her Broadway debut in this heralded revival and enjoying every moment. She is particularly fond of wearing her stark military uniform in contrast to the majestic costumes envisioned by Constance Hoffman.
"Wearing the uniform makes me feel powerful," Den said. The director, Julie Taymor, "created an arc for my character, and I made up a backstory that Chin was sold as a baby in exchange for food," Den said. She envisions that Chin survived hardship and joined the Communist Party, where she became an agent of espionage.
"She's ready to prove herself," Den said, "She pushes Song to get more and more information and that gives her glory and makes her look good to her superiors," she added. "I'm always calibrating my degree of intensity and balancing it with my vulnerability. I have to feel the threat I represent to Song," Den said.
"I can unleash my wheelhouse of strength and sometimes I have to dial it back. Julie was focused on filling out the world, and the presence of Chinese culture has been elevated."
Den embraced acting while in high school but her creative passion was steeped in photography and ceramics. "I excelled at academics but I fell in love with acting. Before that, everyone thought I would become a doctor because I was always fascinated with anatomy," Den said.
"I finally got the courage to tell my mother I wanted to be an actor and she said, 'absolutely not!' then she finally agreed. "It was a cheesy lightbulb moment," Den said with a laugh.
Her mother warned her it would be a thousand times harder because of her ethnicity. Den understood. "I will do theater the rest of my life. It's the actor's medium. It's all about story telling.
"To work in theater, television and movies is the dream," she said. "It's enjoyable to do all. One informs the other, the expression is different. Theater is more about what you can do, and television or movies is more about who you are."
Den plays passable piano and decent ukelele. "That's the beauty of acting. You can fake anything. We had a baby grand in our living room for two years and my brother and I were largely self-taught. He plays everything," Den said.
Now addicted to Pilates and weight training, Den makes sure she has a full 90 minutes before each performance to warm up. "Pilates is an excellent complement to yoga and I'm super flexible," she said.
"I was drawn to Eastern philosophy in grad school," she said. "It's more of a way of life than just an exercise. It took me a long time to learn about nutrition, but I have."
One of Den's favorite moments in M. Butterfly is when Gallimard and Liling are listening to jazz records. "I love the jazz scene. When they play the record snippets and they're just being themselves in Song's apartment -- we all love to watch from behind the scenes," Den said.
"It's such a lovely scene done with so much sensitivity and open heartedness," she said. "It's just so moving. What is it that draws them to each other? Fantasy and reality, they're human, fully formed, flawed people.
"I also love the Red Brigade ballet scene. That is so dope!"
Den keeps to a strict routine on show days. "I am crazy with rituals," she said. "I warm up for half-an-hour then prep vocalization exercises. Then when I'm getting into costume I go around and make eye contact with everyone.
"I do a funny little hand thing with some crew members and wish everyone a good show. Audiences have been wonderfully diverse, age wise and ethnic background. We can see the audience during different scenes and they're quieter in the beginning of the week.
"Towards the end they're much more vocal," she said. "We like to gauge the audience at curtain call, too. And when Jin Ha comes out it's always to thunderous applause," Den said. "It signals they get this play, and it makes my heart want to explode."
M. Butterfly is playing at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Elliot Goldenthal composed the music, choreography is by Ma Cong, Paul Steinberg is scenic designer, costumes by Constance Hoffman, lighting by Donald Holder, Will Pickens is sound designer, Dave Bova is hair and wig designer, Judy Chin is makeup designer and Kate Wilson is dialect coach. Kuang-Yu Fong is the Peking Opera trainer and consultant and Stephen Kaplan does masks and puppets.