BORN in Taiwan and trained in the US, Yuching Tsai is a trilingual actress who is now making moves behind the camera as well as in front of it.
In Michael Huntsman’s short film Winter Cabin, Yuching served as a writer, producer and actress to help tell the story of a young couple trying to survive in America during a time of bio-chemical war.
Q: Why did you want to look at love under the intense strains and circumstances we find in Winter Cabin?
A: I think it is because I think about the question “What would we do if we were to die tomorrow?” a lot. I think about what would be important for us if we don’t have the “security” most of us have in our daily life – what if everyday is a matter of life-and-death? I believe that it is an important question to ask and to explore. That was how it started. Plus in circumstances like this, I believe we can see humanity and love at its best and most transparent.
Also, I think the film can be a good reminder for ourselves that a lot of people are actually living like this in our world today. And it forces us to think about – what if the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, the place we call home, became a war zone or a wasteland? And what if WE are living like this?
Q: I saw you recently left the US, although you may return in the coming months. Was this story in any way a reflection of your own personal experiences?
A: I was still in the U.S. when I wrote this film and when we filmed it. I think I didn’t have an intention for the story to be anything about me or my dilemma of wondering where I want to be in the particular moment of my life.
However, I do think in some ways, I definitely wanted to contribute this story to refugees, immigrants, and people who struggle to find a place where they feel like home. I’d like to think of it as a love story of refugees and an opportunity to think about how we would treat each other if we were refugees.
Q: There is a revealing sequence that shows the individual struggles facing Nolan (Bernard White) and Roxy (Yuching’s character). What can you reveal to us about the different inner turmoil of these two characters?
A: THE sequence reveals their independent emotional journeys. Like every other couples, although they had committed to share a life together, they are still two individuals and have things they are dealing with on their own. In this case, they both held a secret from each other. Perhaps they don’t want to burden the other, or maybe it’s because they themselves don’t know how to deal with it yet.
I think Nolan was dealing with a lot of self-doubt and experiencing this scary, out-of-control situation. He feels weak and not himself. While Roxy understands it, she has something she needs to prioritize herself to and a difficult decision to make. I think this sequence shows a bit of who they are, what they do in this post-war time, and what drives them as human beings.
Q: You worked with director Michael Huntsman before on the short film En Passant. What insight can you give us into your dynamic working together?
A: MICHAEL is hands down one of my favourite people to work with. He is professional, responsive, and enthusiastic. I would say we work well together and we have similar communication styles. We can usually get on the same page pretty quickly.
As a collaborator in Winter Cabin, he gave me a lot of advice, since he is much more experienced than I am in producing, filmmaking, and perhaps everything else. I presented my ideas to him and his response was always supportive, but honest and realistic. He would tell me what works and what doesn’t straightforwardly, which I love.
He never held back on sharing his knowledge or calling out bullshits. And that’s why I trust his opinions and visions.
As a director, he usually knows what he wants and I would try my best to do it, as I would in any other projects. I think the benefit of knowing each other and having this established trust is that he can be as tough as he wants and even use my personal life to get me to where I need to be and I would never take it personally. We know we both want the best for the project.
Q: This project gave you the opportunity to write, produce and act. How valuable to you was this experience?
A: IT was obviously an extremely valuable experience to me. I am still learning from it – the post-project and how-to-put-your-film-out-there part. The most valuable thing I learned from this experience was probably how stupidly passionate I am about filmmaking and acting. I can’t say that I do it well yet, but I know I would definitely put all my heart and effort in it and continue bettering myself.
Q: What were some of the main lessons you took away from this project?
A: I think the main lesson I took away was probably to embrace the unknown. Do as much homework as you can, but know that you cannot have control of everything (whether it’s on set, in post-production, other people’s mood, sound issues, or your own performances).
At the same time, you need to learn to react quickly, go with what is happening that is out of your expectations, and make decisions or solutions assertively. And try not to hang on to the problem too long. Embrace the circumstances and make the best out of it. Also, I learned how hard it is to find sponsors (who I am so grateful for everyday by the way) and be a producer – and – actor on set.
Q: Can you tell us more about your background and your journey as a creative from Taiwan to US?
A: Yes, I am from Taipei, Taiwan originally. I didn’t do any acting there even though I desperately wanted to. I came to the states as an exchange student in South Dakota when I was 17. I finally tried out a few plays in school and in the community when I was there, and totally loved it. Moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in a drama school, thankfully with family’s blessing and support. I started to try to find acting gigs after graduation. It went okay, but I was 19 and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to even survive.
Then I moved to New York to finish my bachelor degree and learned more about film and writing. I did more theatre, film and TV projects in New York. And as we know, New York is a place of hustling and making-things-happen-yourself, so I decided to make the best of my time and be a true New Yorker. While auditioning, doing different projects, making money, I decided to write, make a film, and also become a producer in a theater company. It was really crazy and fun, but everyone around me was doing the same hustle. I felt like I belonged, as a creative and a person.
Now here we are, back in Taiwan, continue doing projects, and hopefully be able to create back in the states again soon!
Q: Can you pick out and talk about a few of the role models in your career so far?
A: IF we are talking about well-known people, probably Natalie Portman. I like that she is not only a great actress, she also does what she wants. She is an activist, an intellect, a producer, a director, a mother. She seems to follow her passion and instincts, speak her mind, fight for what she believes in, and does not care about what other people think. She did what she set her mind to and did them well. That is a great role model to me.
If you mean in my life, Michael Huntsman, the director of Winter Cabin. Definitely a role model for me in film industry and in life. And the other person on the top of my head is a friend of mine and a production assistant/music contributor for Winter Cabin, Maks Kubis. He is a singer, song-writer and an actor. His work ethic, positive spirit, laser-like focus in his career, and enthusiasm in helping others are the reasons he is a role model of mine and why I can learn from him all the time.
Q: Where would you like to be in five years time and what kind of work would you like to be creating?
A: I would really love to be working on a film or a show that not only has a good team, but means something to me. Perhaps something that continues to empower Asian or Asian American community, like this year’s Crazy Rich Asians, A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities, and Killing Eve.
Telling the world our stories, letting them see our culture and values, and bringing understanding and equality to different races. Something that brings people together or brings attention to important issues or brings people joy and warmth.
I would love to be creating them in the U.S. because I am more familiar with the environment there, but honestly I’d go anywhere that allows me to be a part of wonderful projects like the above.