BWW Interview: Rosalind Chao Talks THE GREAT WAVE

BWW Interview: Rosalind Chao Talks THE GREAT WAVE
Rosalind Chao

A co-production with the Tricycle Theatre, Francis Turnly's new thriller The Great Wave opens at the National Theatre in March. This production marks actress Rosalind Chao's debut both at the National and on the West End stage. However, she's no stranger to the Dorfman.

Catching up during rehearsals, Rosalind shares her history with the theatre, who inspires her, and why this play is proving so timely.

What was the first theatre production you ever saw?

Well, as a kid, I first started out in theatre. My parents were Peking Opera performers, so they put me on stage playing little boys when I was young.

But then the first professional stage production I saw was South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I was actually supposed to be in it, but I chickened out after a week of rehearsal. When I saw the show with my parents, I remember saying to them, "Oh no, I wish I could be that girl again!". So that was the first sign.

What was the journey to then becoming an actress?

Well, I actually fought it.


Over summers I was sent to Peking Opera school in Taiwan and I was kind of forced to constantly perform. So I was a little bit resistant to that, but I did a few professional productions of musicals when I was younger.

And then when I was still a kid, at my parents' restaurant, someone saw me and put me up for a toothpaste commercial. And the next thing, I was doing commercials and then little parts in TV shows. So I started young, but I didn't take it seriously. I was a child of immigrant parents, it was mainly about my studies; the commercials and TV work were just to make money for college.

Then I went to college to study English lit and journalism, and I remember doing an internship at a news radio station on the weekends. And while I was there, I started getting serious jobs.

At one point, I was given a choice. A TV movie I was in flashed across the screen in our newsroom, and the news director saw that. So he said, "We are going to give you a promotion where you can be on the air, but you can't be on the air and be a member of Screen Actors Guild. You have to make a choice." It was a no-brainer for me.

BWW Interview: Rosalind Chao Talks THE GREAT WAVE
Kae Alexander and Rosalind Chao
in The Great Wave

And since then you've had an illustrious career, across TV, film and theatre.

I've been very lucky. I've gotten to work with some really, really wonderful people. I think a really big highlight was working with Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come. It's a beautiful film about life after death, and I come back as his daughter. So we spent a lot of time together.

They would put us in a boat and push Robin and me out, and so we were alone together for hours. We were just able to talk about what had brought us there and our lives; he was just such a generous, wonderful person and so warm, no matter the circumstance.

Even at the premiere, I remember there was a crowd of people around him and I walked in late to the afterparty, and he made his way straight to the door to see me. I mean, who's like that? A big star like that. He was so generous and his feet stayed firmly on the ground.

Now you're across in the UK. Have you performed in the West End before?

You know, it's my first time performing here. But my husband has performed here before. He was in David Hare's play The Secret Rapture. We had just gotten married and came here for six months. So I remember being here at the National and being backstage and thinking, "Oh my God...this is actors' heaven!". And it is, everyone is wonderful.

There's so much going on and there is so much I want to see. Of course, I want to see Network with Bryan Cranston.

That's now doing a sold-out run. But now you're working at the National, surely you have a ticket?

Well, no. Even we can't! But I have a friend who has offered her ticket to me, so fingers crossed. I also want to see John and Pinocchio, I hear them rehearsing and I see them doing their warm-ups.

And I actually worked as a tour guide at Disneyland. So that was one of my first summer jobs.

We've just spoken to Annette McLaughlin...

Is she playing Tinkerbell? My parents actually had a restaurant right across the street from Disneyland when I was growing up. I remember every night, I used to sit at 9 o'clock and see Tinkerbell zip across the sky!

BWW Interview: Rosalind Chao Talks THE GREAT WAVE
Leo Wan, Kae Alexander
and Rosalind Chao in The Great Wave

Tell us a bit about the play you're in, The Great Wave

It's basically the story of a girl who goes missing, who is a daughter and a sister. And in my mind, what really sold me on the play was that it touches on what happens when people just disappear. Like in the tsunami in Japan: one person was standing next to another, and then that one person died and the other lived.

So this really touches on that: are they alive? You never really saw a body, what happened to them? And sometimes when people pass, even when you do see a body, you do wonder where they are.

Is this based on a true story?

It's based on a series of circumstances that are going on to this day. It's very timely. I think when Indhu Rubasingham spoke to me, she brought up the story of Madeleine McCann. And for years that haunted me - every time I went on vacation with my son or daughter.

There are cases of this everywhere, but this is, in particular, in Japan. And we get into the political ramifications of this girl going missing as well. It's loaded. Let me just tell you that. Not a single breath is wasted in this play.

Can you tell us about the character you play?

I play the mother, who's a waitress, a single mother. She actually says, "My daughters are my life". And anybody with a daughter, even if you have a career, they are your life...even thinking about it, it's going to make me cry!

So she's lived for these girls and all her hopes and dreams are on these girls. And when her daughter goes missing, this is someone who has never bucked authority before and she is learning how to fight. She actually grows a lot through this journey, she ages a lot by 20 to 30 years during the course of the play.

How have rehearsals been going, and exploring that journey?

Well, we went through each of the acts scene by scene when we were at the Tricycle Theatre. It's a co-production with them, so we were there for two weeks. And then we came here to the National and we're now in Act 2 today.

This rehearsal process has actually been different to what I've experienced in theatre before. It's so integrated. I mean, usually you just sit around a table and break it down over and over. We're kind of going through the physicality of it at the same time as going through the motions of it. So we're working a little with the stage and breaking down the scenes again.

Have you been in the space yet?

BWW Interview: Rosalind Chao Talks THE GREAT WAVE
Kae Alexander and Rosalind Chao
in The Great Wave

I was lucky enough to see Barber Shop Chronicles in that theatre, the Dorfman, when I was here for the workshop. And The Great Wave is theatrical too, really theatrical for a small space. It's not just people sitting around over a cup of tea. So it's kind of the best of both.

Also, before it was the Dorfman, many years ago, I saw Fuente Ovejuna when my husband performed here. And that was one of the most alive theatre experiences. I remember thinking, "This: I would love to be in something like this". And it was in the same space before it was this theatre. So it's weird how things come full circle.

And talking full circle: is your husband here with you too, during your run?

No. But it's because it's an important time in my family's life. We have two kids, my husband and I. And that's why my career's a little odd: when I don't work, it's because it's a really crucial time in one of the kids' lives.

This job actually did come about at a really crucial point in my daughter's life. She's a senior in high school getting ready for post-high school life. So my husband is on full duty.

Finally, why should people come and see The Great Wave?

Well, I'll tell you: when I told my husband about this, I said, "I've been asked to read for this thing, and it's Indhu Rubasingham, and the Tricycle Theatre..." And he said, "What?!" And I said, "Yes, and it's at the National". And he said, "You must!"

I said, "Well, let me read the play first". Once I had, I gave it to him and said, "I'm not going to say anything...but you read it". He came in after he read it and closed it and just said, "It's a beautiful play".

Francis Turnly's play is wonderful, and the company is so great. Indhu has such a vision. We all really want to help Indhu and Francis express their vision. It is beautiful.

The Great Wave at the National Theatre 10 March-14 April

Photo credit: Mark Douet

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