Interview: Theatre Life with Francis Jue

The stage/film and TV actor on his work in Cambodian Rock Band and more.

By: Aug. 23, 2023
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Interview: Theatre Life with Francis Jue
Francis Jue

Today’s subject Francis Jue is currently living his theatre life performing the role of Duch in Cambodian Rock Band at Arena Stage. The production continues through August 27th in Arena’s Kreeger Theater space. The production will then continue without Jue on to Seattle’s ACT Contemporary Theatre as a co- production with 5th Avenue Theatre.

The show marks Francis’ Arena Stage debut. He was last seen onstage in DC in You for Me for You at Woolly Mammoth.

In the season before the pandemic, Francis received a Lucille Lortel Award for Cambodian Rock Band, an Outer Critics Circle Award for Soft Power, and a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for The Language Archive.

He has appeared on Broadway in Pacific Overtures, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and M. Butterfly.

Some of Francis’ recent Off-Broadway credits include Good Enemy, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and Wild Goose Dreams (Obie Award).

Select regional credits include Today is My BirthdayKing of the Yees (Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award), and Tiger Style!.

You might have also seen him on the big and small screens in Madam SecretaryHightownLaw & Order: SVUJoyful NoiseWhite Noise, and Our Son.

Cambodian Rock Band is an important musical that should be seen by all. Francis Jue’s performance is just one of many reasons to go. If you have seen his work before, then it should come as no surprise to you that his performance in Cambodian Rock Band is truly memorable.

At what age did it become apparent to you that performing was going to be your chosen profession?

I was 20 years old and still at Yale studying English literature when I was cast in the first NYC revival of Pacific Overtures in 1984. I was surrounded by brilliant Asian American actors in that show, but I didn’t believe that acting was a viable option for me. After PO closed, I went back to college, got my degree, and secured a job at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Then in 1989, legendary casting director Meg Simon called me. She told me she remembered seeing me in PO, and wondered if I would audition to understudy in the Broadway production of M. Butterfly. She got producer Stuart Ostrow to pay for my plane fare to/from San Francisco, a night at the Milford Plaza, and a ticket to see the show the night before my callback at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. I had a blast, because I was determined to enjoy being on a Broadway stage for the first and last time! Later, company management called me to tell me I had to quit my day job and move to NYC if I wanted the gig. When M. Butterfly closed on Broadway in 1990, I decided to see if I could figure out a way of constructing a life in this biz. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Where did you receive your training?

I took a beginners acting class from a wonderful teacher named F. Jo Mohrbach. I took a comedy class from brilliant Maria Aitken. When I was a teenager, I took some ballet and jazz classes. I still take voice classes every now and then. But most of my training has been from work. I’ve assigned myself a lot of research. I’m motivated by engaging and learning from my collaborators. I used to think I was missing something because I hadn’t gone to drama school. Over time, I’ve come to believe that we’re all just trying to figure it out, and my opinion matters at least as much as anyone else’s. Collaborating is much less scary when I acknowledge that we’re all struggling.

Interview: Theatre Life with Francis Jue
Francis Jue and company in the 1984 Off-Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

What was your first professional performing job?

Brilliant David Loud was a couple years ahead of me at Yale. He had graduated and was the Assistant Music Director for Pacific Overtures. He called to ask if I would audition for The Boy in the Tree. I took ConRail to NYC for the first time, David picked me up from Grand Central, and I had my first professional audition. I began commuting between Yale and NYC, and Stephen Sondheim came to our closing night performance at the York. I had to audition again when The Shuberts and McCann/Nugent picked up the show and mounted an Off-Broadway commercial run. I took a year off from school to do the show in 1984-85. I’m still stunned by how lucky I was.

Interview: Theatre Life with Francis Jue
Francis Jue in Arena Stage's production of Cambodian Rock Band.
Photo by Margot Schulman.

Can you please tell us a little something about Cambodian Rock Band and also about something about your character in the show?

Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band is a rock-and-roll show, a father/daughter story, a political drama, an exploration of the human capacity for light and dark. I play Duch, based on an actual mass murdering war criminal, one of the few Khmer Rouge leaders ever to have been brought to trial. I think Lauren’s play is a new play for the American theatre canon. She dares us to keep up as the rules keep changing, and it’s a thrilling, hilarious, wrenching ride.

When you were offered this show, what was it about the script that made you say yes to the project?

When I was first asked to audition for the NYC production, I said NO. The role had been originally created by Daisuke Tsuji, to great acclaim, and I told them he deserved the chance to open the show when it came to NYC. I was told he was working as a regular on a tv show, so he couldn’t do the show. And that’s when I jumped at the chance to audition for this brilliant play. Without making any excuses for Duch and the Khmer Rouge, I wanted to avoid playing him like a typical villain. I want to see what we all have in common with Duch, with the human capacity to rationalize even the most horrible things.

Interview: Theatre Life with Francis Jue
Francis Jue his reoccuring role of Chinese Foreign Minister Ming Chen 
in the CBS TV series Madam Secretary.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Besides working in the theatre, you have had a lot of work on TV.  On Madam Secretary you had a recurring role.  What would you say are some of the biggest differences between working in theatre and on TV.

In my limited experience, the process of work in theatre and on TV have important technical differences. With TV, I like to be word perfect on the day, because it’s unlikely you’ll rehearse, aside from camera blocking. I like to prepare several different ways that a scene might go, lots of different given circumstances, because I am usually surprised by what the set looks like once I arrive. The camera directs the audience’s focus, so you don’t have to worry about taking and giving focus. But I think working on TV, particularly on a recurring role with the lovely Madam Secretary family, taught me to trust myself a little more, to perform less, and to know that I am enough. 

Interview: Theatre Life with Francis Jue
Francis Jue in Arena Stage's production of Cambodian Rock Band.
Photo by Margot Schulman.

What would you say is the biggest message audiences should take away with them after seeing Cambodian Rock Band?

One of the things I love about live theatre is that every audience member’s take-away is correct. It’s live, it’s their experience, and it’s not in my control. So I’ve learned not to try to manage an audience’s reception. It’s much more productive to focus on my own objectives, to listen, to have and share my own experience. With Cambodian Rock Band, I get a sense of my capacity for evil, for destruction, for survival. And I also get a sense of how lucky I am to have the choice of light, of good, of joy. 

After Cambodian Rock Band concludes its mini tour, do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

I do have some exciting things lined up! But they haven’t made their cast announcements yet, so I’m not sure I can tell you … Stay tuned, BroadwayWorld!!

Special thanks to  Arena Stage's Associate, Marketing & Media Strategy Anastasia St. Hilaire for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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