Close-up: An Interview With Samantha Wan

Actor, director and writer Samantha Wan is trailblazing talent with an exciting vision to help promote a diversity of voices in the entertainemnt industry.

Samantha joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about the success of her comedy series Second Jen, her background in martial arts, starring on ION Television’s Private Eyes, and much more.

Q: Your comedy series ‘Second Jen’ recently received a nomination for the Canadian Screen Awards. If I’m right, it all started with a short film you made in 2014. How do you reflect on your journey with this project and its personal meaning to you?

A: Looking back, Second Jen created some very formative years for me. I didn’t consider myself a filmmaker before then, now I can’t imagine not creating more in the future. I didn’t even know what a producer was until that concept video. When someone came up to me and asked: “Who should I talk to about crew?” and I pointed to myself, then they said: “So you’re the producer!”.

I can confidently say I know how to put a project together from pitching, to funding, to production/post, to festivals, to television. Eventually DFP took over as our production company so I didn’t have to worry about that as much, but then I was in the writing room and I directed in our second season! I can’t say I knew what I was doing at any moment, but the next step to the path kept presenting itself.

I really understand what people mean about finding your flow. When you are meant to do something, the universe will open up to support you (as long as you put in the effort). I’m trying to remember that in my next steps in my journey.

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Samantha Wan and Amanda Joy in ‘Second Jen’

Q: You co-created ‘Second Jen’ with Amanda Joy. Can you tell us about your collaboration and the creative dynamic between the two of you?

A: Amanda and I have the same sense of humour. We also care about the same cultural and social issues. No matter what is going on, even if we have a disagreement (which is expected on all projects), on the page we almost always agree on what’s funny and what doesn’t seem right in our gut.

In the beginning, Amanda was more the writer and I was more director/producer. Throughout the process though, our jobs started to mold together more. I joined the writing room and Amanda was part of producing. We wear all the hats now.

Q: Who do you dream of teaming up with on a future project?

A: Lin Manuel Miranda or Shonda Rhimes. Their work is always intelligent and entertaining first and foremost. The way culture enhances the story, and is not made to be token #diverse, is what I hope to see more of.

It’s a tough battle and they are doing it right! They have transcended the glass ceiling of being a token of colour, into just being seen as brilliant artists. I would give my left arm to work with one of them.

Q: You now have an acclaimed series under your belt that is empowering, diverse and hilarious. How do you want to use your voice in the future?

A: I hope to create more work that gives opportunity to diverse voices. I hope to build my profile and uplift my peers, so that when gatekeepers say: “Sorry, we just could’t find qualified diverse talent” — we can call bullshit.

I hope one day I can have a production company like Jordan Peel (another person I would love to work with) or Shondaland, to help be another person saying ‘yes’ to diverse gender/colour talent. Until then, I’ll be working to make sure they have no excuses to say ‘no’.

Q: It must be a pretty special feeling to have created a successful show. Have you always had this creative spark and desire to entertain? Or was there a certain moment or experience that lead you in this direction?

A: Thank you, it is a surreal a sometimes daunting feeling.

I’ve always been into acting, and before that I played the piano and was a dancer. I’ve always been a driven person and my first couple years out of theatre school I was frustrated that I didn’t have more agency in my life. As an actor you are always waiting for someone else to say yes to you.

So I went abroad for three months, working festivals and doing some soul-searching, and realised I needed to take charge of my life. So when Amanda wanted to make a series together I said let’s do it! I figured if I could work abroad in countries where I didn’t speak the language, then I could certainly make things work back home. That was my catalyst.

Now I love being a part of the creative process and having a voice in the community.

Q: You have an incredible background in dance and martial arts, which you showed off in ‘Sudden Master’. Are these disciplines a welcome release away from writing and performing? Or do they provide a release that aids your creative process?

A: It’s really great having something outside my industry that I do. It gives me another identity and a break from the creative. Plus martial arts is a family tradition, so I became closer to my father and learned how to appreciate more of my culture.

Of course we create from what we know, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to create a martial arts series. Especially when my Kung Fu brother is an established stunt performer and would choreograph the series for me!

Q: How much have you enjoyed your time playing Zoe Chow on ‘Private Eyes’?

A: So much. It’s been such a blessing being part of the Private Eyes team. Zoe is such a great character. The writers do an amazing job and it’s a blast to let my weirdo fly. I may be biased but she gets some of the best punch lines – who doesn’t enjoy playing that! The team is also very open and collaborative.

I’ve really enjoyed being able to mold Zoe with them into the peanut butter eating, whole-hearted, odd ball she is now.

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Ennis Esmer and Samantha Wan in ‘Private Eyes’

Q: Have you been picking the creative brains of Jason Priestley and others on the set?

A: Absolutely. I don’t know how many people realise Jason is a director too and directs a lot of television. He directs an episode of Private Eyes every season! So he’s been giving me great tips.

Also Shawn Pillar, the producer, is an extremely generous man who’s been super kind in sharing his tips on creating a successful show. He’s never had a show fail, and you can see why in the way he builds the team and runs production.

Also Jason and Cindy Sampson were really great in helping me learn how to work with two cameras at once when I first started on the show. Also, how not to block my own light or anyone else’s. They do it on instinct, and you need the privilege of practice for that to happen. My game on set has grown immensely since I started.

Q: The show is about private eye detectives solving crimes around Toronto. Is there a mystery – perhaps ‘who was Jack the Ripper?’ or ‘did the totem keep spinning in Christopher Nolan’s Inception?’ – that you would love Matt and Angie to solve for you?

A: Great question. It would be really cool if we did a Hound of the Baskervilles tribute, but with a Canadian spin like a Sasquatch! I love how much the show features Toronto. It would also be cool to get into more of our Canadian lore, maybe something aboriginal.

Q: What are your ambitions for the future?

A: I would love to be an artistic director of a company or own my own production company one day. I want to help put Asian Canadians on the map, using myself in front of camera, and lifting up others behind. When I’m older and fulfilled by my career I would like to help teach the next generation.

On a totally different note, if I could play a superhero one day (or a witch) that would be pretty cool. Just putting it out there…

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