Late one night, whilst taking a much needed 2-minute intermission from painting, I was scanning through my freight train of social media and was drawn to a photo of an actor cuddled up to a petite girl with the caption “Snuggling up to Mr #JohnCusack in the #GobiDesert” … Well this I gotta find to more about.

It turns out that the beautiful young lady concerned is Jenny Wu, assistant director on the new Jackie Chan Movie, Dragon Blade, so I emailed her and asked if she fancied a chat …

Shanghai born Jenny Wu is a talented actress living in Sydney. Jenny made her stage début at 16, in a Bertolt Brecht play, and honed her craft at the Young Actors Studio. After high school, she spent three years studying at NIDA, the National Institute of Dramatic Arts.

JJ: I understand that, in China, new actors and actresses do something called “the hotel rooms’ round”. Can you explain how it works and what it has meant for you?

JW: Haha, it sounds so seedy doesn’t it? It’s probably more fun to let your imagination run wild here.

When you are speaking of Beijing, the capital, the cost of living is quite high. So it is essentially cheaper for production companies to base their pre-production in a hotel, a place to sleep and a place to work – hitting two birds with one stone.

For actors, it’s essentially like the film markets. Instead of aspiring filmmakers pitching their projects to distributors and sales agents, it is aspiring actors pitching themselves to the filmmakers. So in essence, it’s pure business.

For me, I love it. You have all the content creators situated in one place.
Imagine, you have CAA, UTA, WME, ICM all in one building, on the same floor, door to door from each other, and all with their doors open ready to meet new faces. It’s paradise. On top of that, you get a sense of how you fit into their projects, whether they are interested, or whether they like you in person but don’t like your photos etc, nobody is hiding behind the politeness of an email. Of course these hotels are not as fancy as the Santa Monica Loews, but someday it might get there.

Jenny Wu. Photo courtesy of Shane Kavanagh

JJ: With the advent of digital camcorders and the Internet, many actors and directors are able to film or act in their own backyard, and quickly showcase it to the world. This sounds easy enough, but if you’re looking to get to the top level, to work with the big production companies, things are still as tough as they were before. How hard has the journey to build up your résumé been, and where has it taken you?

JW: I still film and act in my backyard. I’ve had a tough road regarding my career, but I never expected it to be easy. It’s still not easy, and I don’t think it ever will be easy. Like the phrase goes, there is no easy road to success.

I remember Adrien Brody saying to me that he’s usually the last choice when it comes to casting for most of his films. I thought, “Wow, no way! Here is the history’s youngest academy award winner in his category, telling me he has trouble with casting…” It’s like my god, he has the same problem as I’ve got … that’s nuts.

You really have to chase the work, no matter where it is in the world. I never know where my journey is going to take me, but in the process of securing work I have worked in weird and wonderful places. It sounds like a long shot to working on the other side of the world, but anything is possible, as long as you’re open to it, and as long as you allow it to happen, it will happen.

JJ: In 2014, you were in the Gobi Desert, working as Assistant Director on the set of Dragon Blade, with Jackie Chan, Adrien Brody and John Cusack, among others. How did you go from acting to that role? Do you think directing is something you would like to do?

JW: As an actor when you are used to being told what to do, it’s very strange to go from that to telling people what to do, which is the job of an Assistant Director.

I remember I started off as a terrible Assistant Director. Nobody really briefed me on what my job entailed, they just threw me in the deep end! It was a case of swim or sink. And when you’re on a big blockbuster set with A-list actors, the pressure is extremely high – there’s really no room for mistakes.

I was too polite and too soft, and I couldn’t take control of the set. I simply didn’t know how to take charge of hundreds of burly Western men. And it wasn’t until the 1st AD, who was also the 1st AD on Ang Lee’s Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, said to me, “You’re an actor right? Why don’t you imagine you’re acting, and this time the role is of an Assistant Director. Become that commanding assistant director, take charge of the set, it is your playground.” Suddenly for the first time, it felt like someone was speaking my language.

And then everyone was impressed, especially Jackie. He was impressed by this sweet little girl ordering a bunch of men around on set!

In China, the natural progression for an Assistant Director is to move into the Director at a later stage in their career. Considering now I’m so good at ordering men around on set, so perhaps yes, I will give directing a shot…I guess we’ll find out.

Jenny Wu & Adrien Brody singing in the Gobi Desert, China, 2014.

JJ: What can you tell us about your experience on the set of Dragon Blade? Do you have any particularly fond memories?

JW: You know, there are so many stories to tell. A couple of months of set-life equates to a couple of years of relationship with those on set, you get to know everyone really well and a lot happens, love and hate, breakup and makeup. People who hate each other at the beginning become best buddies at the end. It can be all so weird.

I have some very fond memories of John Cusack because I got to work with him very closely – I was John’s personal translator during his length of shoot. I think it might have been John’s second or third day on set, when he saw that I was overworking myself, and looking faint, he ordered me to lay down on one of the prop logs, told me to rest, and stuffed a huge bottle of water in my hand, said, “Movie sets are like marathons, you really need to pace yourself so you can last. And drink plenty of water, people always forget.” It was really heart warming, because I’d just met the guy.

JJ: How was it watching Jackie Chan at work? He has a serious following in the West!

JW: Jackie Chan is phenomenal. I’m really lucky to have started my career working with such a legend. Jackie is so funny, so charismatic, full of life and energy, and very, very professional. He is a role model, he is all about setting a good example so others can follow.

You know in between setups or on his days off, he’d be picking up rubbish that other crew or cast carelessly tossed aside. He’d crush the plastic bottles so they could get recycled, etc. He believes in keeping the environment clean and make the world a better place, and it starts from the very small things each individual can do. I mean it’s nuts to think that Jackie Chan, I mean THE Jackie Chan, is picking up a plastic bottle some extra tossed on the ground, crushing it and putting in the bin. It’s crazy to have Jackie Chan picking up your rubbish in general! The truth is Jackie doesn’t see himself as better than anybody, and to have that kind of behaviour from a legend like him, it’s quite an eye-opener.

Photo courtesy of Shane Kavanagh

JJ: You recently starred in a US martial arts production, called Lady Bloodfight, which was filmed in Hong Kong. You played the antagonist, a challenging leading role, since you had to master kung fu. What can you tell us about the training you had to go through for the part?

JW: I couldn’t walk for a long time. Afterwards, my leg muscles became rods of steel and it was awesome.

Training was intense. We could choose between a session in the morning for three hours or a session in the afternoon for three hours, and because I was playing the lead bad girl, I chose both sessions, doing six hours of training a day for at least a month prior to shooting, and throughout shooting on my days off. It was intense.

There were lots of screams of pain, because when you’re no longer five years old, it is very painful to do a split. By the end of the process I could almost do the split, that’s real progress!

You know it’s great to kick off my first US feature with an Oscar award-winning production company, Voltage Pictures. No matter how hard and painful training was, it’s a real privilege – they make great movies.

JJ: You are currently involved in a new series, called Secret City, now in post-production, where you play Mae Lin. How would you compare the experience of filming episodes for TV to filming for a feature-length movie?

JW: Each project had its own challenges so it’s always difficult to do a direct comparison, it’s like saying which is tastier, apples or oranges. And the truth is they both are, they just taste different.

Secret City was very unique in terms of how I became involved with the project. I was called onto set that very morning because the actress who was cast as Mae Lin was too sick to make it and so I replaced her at the last minute on the day of shooting. Guess anything is possible huh. I had a ball shooting Secret City, working with Fringe’s Anna Torv and director Emma Freeman.

JJ: Any new projects on the horizon?

JW: There are some things, but nothing locked in yet so I can’t talk about it at the moment. Let’s leave it for the next interview!

Photo courtesy of Selina Miao

You can follow Jenny Wu at the following links: