Not everything has gone Steph Song quite yet. But there is a certain inevitability to the rise of this Vancouver-based actor who divides her time between chic modelling jobs in Singapore and a burgeoning career here acting in funky movies and TV shows.
As of next Friday (April 20), those who haven't already caught her on the festival circuit as the female lead in Everything's Gone Green will be able to spend some quality time with one of the most enjoyable homegrown movies ever shot in B.C. Directed by the sharp-eyed Paul Fox and written by incorrigible phrasemaker Douglas Coupland–in his first work created specifically for the big screen–the film is an extended meditation on generational anxieties, our big little city's place in the social firmament, and the qualities that make it uniquely placed as an avatar for future urban life.
It should be pointed out that the thing is a comedy. Ostensibly, EGG follows the somewhat floundering exploits of a late-20s skeptic, played affably by Road Trip's Paulo Costanzo, who is looking for some meaning in life when he bumps into a glamorous yet down-to-earth set decorator of B-grade TV movies. This, of course, is Song, in a role some steps removed from her image as "sexiest woman in the world", as voted by readers of the Asian edition of the lad mag FHM. (For more evidence, check out the cover gallery on her Web site, stephsong.com/.)
In fact, Song's early life wasn't exactly glamorous, although it certainly was jet-setting enough. Born in Malaysia to well-travelled academics–her father has a PhD in genetics and her mother has a master's in political science–she lived for short periods in Australia, Colombia, and the United States, and she even lived for a few years in Saskatchewan, starting at age 12. Over lunch in the cafí‰ at the Vancouver Francophone Cultural Centre, a faint Prairie twang is evident in the self-deprecating zingers sprinkled among her reminiscences.
She is particularly caustic about her appearance, referring to herself as "the ugly little brown thing" that used to follow her friends around. Call it pretty-duckling syndrome, but she gained new confidence after obtaining dual degrees in nursing and journalism in Australia, where her parents now reside. She parlayed a nascent interest in acting into roles on several TV shows in Singapore while testing the airwaves there five years ago. She also hosted a 26-part series on the environment for the National Geographic Channel and starred in her own sitcom, Achar!.
The TV work led to modelling offers (not the other way around, as is typical), although she explains away the glossy results as "hundreds of talented people working long hours" to make her attractive. Looking for more acting jobs, she returned to Vancouver and stumbled into an audition for EGG on her last day here. It went so well that she came back from Asia less than 48 hours later and soon had her first starring role in Canada, not to mention a new home base.
"Most of all," she recalls over a salad, "I was excited by the script. It just seemed to say everything that interests me. And then when I started meeting everyone involved, it just got better and better."
Song remembers seeing scripter Coupland behind the camera a few times early in the shoot, "giggling in headphones", but says he disappeared soon after.
"Paul Fox told us that Doug couldn't stand it anymore, that it was too much like stepping into his own brain."
ALTHOUGH SONG MISSED the movie's U.S. debut last month at the South by Southwest Festival, in Austin, Texas, Coupland had a popular one-man panel there, appropriately called "Everything's Gone Douglas Coupland". On the line with the Georgia Straight from Toronto, Fox remembers it as "a recitation of his usual obsessions" plus the reading of a couple of scenes from the script. (For more on all things Coupland, read the Straight next week for Paul Myers's on-set visit with the youngish curmudgeon.)
"Our film played at the Alamo Drafthouse, a theatre where they serve food and beer during the movie," Fox says. "It's very Texas. And this was a sold-out Saturday night, so 'Yee-hah!'"
Fox, best known for directing Canadian TV shows like Cold Squad and Degrassi: The Next Generation, says "a crappy VHS tape" of Song's Singapore sitcom convinced everyone that she would be great with frat-boy-comedy vet Costanzo. Indeed, much of the film's exportable appeal probably comes from a chemistry their director says was visible from the start.
"I think the scene where Paulo's character meets Steph's for the first time is very significant. Sure, she looks stunning in her red-leather motorcycle outfit," he says with a small chuckle, "but more than that, everything that is going to take place between them is there in that moment. She's outgoing and makes it easy for him to talk to her, and I think you can see right there what the connection will be."
Significantly, that was the first scene the film's leads shot together, with the added element that they were, in reality, strangers until that day on English Bay, when a beached whale occasions a crucial encounter.
"We'd never met before the whale scene," Costanzo recalls, on the line from his Los Angeles home. "So the night before, I called her. If there's any degree of intimacy involved on-screen, I like to get to know my costar, to establish enough of a comfort zone to at least look more genuinely connected. Anyway, we instantly launched into fairly deep conversation that ended up lasting three hours. So that was our getting-to-know-you period. The rest came naturally."
Fox apparently recognized the chemistry too.
"Paul was very hands-off," Costanzo explains. "Some directors tend to micromanage, but really a large 'tell' of an experienced director is that they know when to back off. Every once in a while, he would show up with apt observation, but he mostly let us do our thing. From the first day it was there between Steph and me, and with the others. Plus, Douglas Coupland was really clear in the script. Basically, we just had to say the words and we knew it would be funny."
For the youthful-looking Costanzo, EGG meant a chance to break out of the ensemble pack of comedies like Road Trip and the short-lived NBC series Joey and really come out as a leading man. He had already fronted Gary Burns's A Problem With Fear, but the Coupland-scripted project allowed him to hit some new notes.
"Taking this part was not the most lucrative move I could have made," says the Ontario-born actor, who has been living in L.A. for about four years. "But on a soulful, artful level, it was absolutely the right thing to do."
He was also proud to participate in something that "doesn't reek of that Canadian thing", meaning that the film is hip without hiding its provincial qualities.
"Making a really cool movie is almost impossible at the best of times. But here you have all the actors, the chemistry, the writing, the smart script, the director with a vision, a great DOP [director of photography], a cool music guy–well, this never would have happened even five years ago."
Even more than those elements, he felt a strong connection with the project as a Canadian expat who recently turned 30.
"I was personally affected by the character. You have moments when you're not really sure you're going in the right direction. Plus, the movie really cross-sections Vancouver, and that hadn't been done. People who don't know Vancouver say it brings the city right to their doorstep. And those who have been there say, 'You nailed it, dude. Let's get high!'"
Costanzo asserts that the 1981 New Order tune that shares its name with the film gave Coupland's project its distinctive vibe, "along with the colour of money and marijuana".
The actor also praises costars JR Bourne, who plays his romantic rival, and Aidan Devine (the heavy in Fox's previous feature, The Dark Hours) as his oily boss at a lottery magazine.
But clearly, Song is the breakout performer here.
"I respect her," Costanzo says. "She's very natural and wise. She's beautiful and smart and she's got gravity. She's also smart enough to know when you are trying to make her laugh, and then she won't give you the satisfaction. So there's a real art to that."
BACK AT LUNCH, Song giggles easily as she mentions getting ready to meet the rest of the cast in New York for the film's bow in commercial theatres stateside on April 13. (Canuck projects are rarely released abroad first.) But she's serious about EGG's prospects in the marketplace.
"I think the Canadianness of the movie will be one of its main attractions," she insists. "Going back and forth between here and Singapore for the past five years has taught me how much people like this place and want to know more about it."
Since going Green, she has played the love interest in a Jet Li action movie called War, due out this fall, and was a poor Cambodian refugee in the CBC movie Dragon Boys, for which she added a hunk of Cambodian language to her skills in English, Spanish, and Hokkien Chinese. And she recently returned to Couplandville to play a sexy office worker in the pilot for the proposed series jPod.
Her Canadian roots may not be an instant marketing hook, but her ability to swim in different waters certainly is. Her goofy side is a bonus too. When asked if she can add music to her list of talents, she rolls her eyes.
"When I was growing up, my dad always used to say: 'It's one of life's abiding ironies that someone named Song couldn't carry a tune to save her life." It's a good bet, though, that she's humming along with at least one New Order tune.