hot Magazine, Issue 212, January 2013
Anything but underemployed
Michelle Ang finally gets her Hollywood breakthrough
By Sophia Goh
She plays Sophia, a college graduate with big dreams of becoming the next Great American Novelist, and who’s suffering from the worst case of writer’s block ever while toiling away in a minimum wage job selling doughnuts.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Michelle Ang knows what that’s like. Having tasted success in her homeland of New Zealand, she struggled alone for years to make her mark in the big, daunting world of Hollywood, and the irony that her breakthrough role should come in a new MTV drama series titled Underemployed is not lost on us.
In the show, Sophia is one of a group of five close friends – Daphne, Lou, Raviva and Miles being the others – who, one year after graduation, find themselves nowhere near the lofty goals and romantic ideals they’d set for themselves. Instead, they’re caught up in dead-end jobs, terrible bosses and romantic mistakes. Luckily, they have each other.
We speak to the very talented and very determined 29-year-old Michelle, who by the way is of Malaysian descent.
How did you get involved with this project?
I’ve been an actress since I was quite young. I was in Los Angeles for pilot season, which is when they cast for all the new TV shows, and I did an audition for Underemployed. The role was originally for a redheaded girl, but I went for it anyway, and they liked what I did so I had a callback, and I had to go back another two times, and I guess I must have done something right because they decided to go with me.
How did you go from New Zealand (NZ) to Hollywood?
It’s been a very slow and painful journey. I’d been doing pretty well in NZ, and in this overly optimistic viewpoint, I thought, oh I should try a bigger industry. So I jumped over to America without thinking about it very much, got an agent, and started the long, hard slog of paying my rent in America whilst waiting for jobs to happen.
What was the transition like?
It was actually a very humbling experience. I don’t think I ever got cocky, though like I said, I was doing pretty good projects on this side of the world. But in America, unless you’ve done an American project, they don’t consider you anyone. I had to start right from the bottom. The American casting system was quite different from the NZ casting system, so I had to learn to play that game a little more, even things as basic as wearing a little more makeup. In NZ, we’re a little more raw and ‘unglamourised’ I guess, but I was definitely just grappling with the larger industry and figuring out how to step up to the plate.
You’re from an Asian background, with Malaysian parents. How did they react to your career choice?
My parents have been very supportive, but they are also very traditional in some aspects. I think it was a bit of a shock when I was like, mum, dad, I think I’m going to have a creative, artistic life. But I did do my degree, they know I was brought up in a very responsible manner, and I think I’ve proved to them throughout the years that I’m able to look after myself and make wise choices. It’s a new experience for them too, you know, having a daughter on the other side of the world doing really random jobs. I think sometimes my mum still wonders how I’m actually paying rent [laughs]. But I think one of the highlights was when I did a film called My Wedding and Other Secrets, which had Cheng Pei Pei and Kenneth Tsang in it, and they were both huge film icons in my parents’ time. That was one of the moments when my mum was like, wow, you’re actually doing pretty good. And I won a best actress award for that in NZ. So I think they know I’m not just pretending to be actress.
Was acting always the dream or something you fell into?
I know it’s going to make some people annoyed, but I did kind of fall into it. I’ve always been very interested in performance and self-expression, and I studied ballet when I was very young; I was dancing on stage professionally with an adult company. I’ve always had that side to me, but I like to think I would have had other things to do besides acting. Not to say I want to give up acting, but I have lots of other interests.
What was most challenging about playing Sophia?
Aside from the accent, it was about creating believable relationships with her friends. Because essentially we were all strangers, and you know, in life you have different relationships with different people. So kind of making choices about which of Sophia’s friends would affect which part of her life. And also, Sophia explores her sexuality, which was kind of an interesting and challenging storyline for me too.
In what ways are you and Sophia alike?
I think the sense that Sophia is like the center pin for her group of friends. They all come to her with their questions and problems, and she tries her best to steer them onto the right path. I think I’m kind of similar – my friends all come to me, I think because I don’t judge people, and I’m quite good at putting myself into other people’s shoes. But we’re different in that Sophia is kind of a lagger – she experiences everything a little bit after everyone else, and she’s a little slow off the mark. Whereas in my group of friends, I’m always the first to do the crazy, risky things, like travel overseas or live by myself. So we’re opposite ends of the spectrum in that sense.
How did all of you bond to play good friends?
One of the great things about it – we shot on location in Chicago, and everyone was from somewhere else. So we were thrown into this exciting new city knowing only each other. We hung out lots and the three girls in the cast all lived together in an apartment, which was at times taxing – one bathroom [laughs] – but it kind of sped up the process of us getting to know each other.