As simple as it sounds, staying silent while conveying there’s something simmering beneath the surface isn’t something that all actors can pull off. Some have failed. Others (like France’s Isabelle Huppert) have elevated it into an art.
Vancouver actor Valerie Tian succeeds in the task, making quite the understated impression in Karen Lam’s atmospheric horror The Curse of Willow Song, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival.
As the titular character, an ex-convict attempting to rebuild her life in the Downtown Eastside, the Vancouver neighbourhood known as Canada’s poorest postal code, Willow is someone whom those around her—her probation officer, her boss, her unlikely allies—talk at, not with. Her eyes, however, say what she does not.
Facing too many pressures and being too inexperienced speak up is something that Tian can relate to. That’s because she grew up as a child actor, shuttling back and forth between Vancouver and Los Angeles since age 10.
“All the people who were micromanaging my life…[were] talking about me as if I’m not there,” she says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
Tian says she realized that in their efforts to turn her into an “overnight sensation”, they were just after money. That recognition was a killjoy moment, because she pursued the business thinking the work would be fun.
As a child, she desperately wanted to have a job. Consequently, her mom (“to shut me up”) got her into a talent agency to be a model. In a twist of fate, the shy Valerie accidentally signed up for acting classes, despite fearing public speaking.
“But that ended up being good for me,” she says. “Now I can’t shut up.”
She started off doing background work in films like Saving Silverman and Air Bud. But Tian says her agent wasn’t confident about submitting Asian actors for roles because he didn’t think they would sell. Then a prime opportunity popped up: Vancouver filmmaker Mina Shum’s 2002 comedy-drama Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity.
Tian prepared hard for the audition (she chalks up her drive to having a “tiger mom”) and it paid off: she bagged the role of earnest 12-year-old Mindy Ho, with Sandra Oh playing her mother.
She has since appeared on TV shows such as Motive, iZombie, and The Magicians, and the role she says she gets most recognized for is pro-life protester Su-Chin in 2007’s Juno.
Her recent work has been proving that she has more to offer. In addition to Willow Song, one of her only other lead roles in film was her portrayal of a Chinese woman in Trinidad who is coerced into sex work to pay off a “smuggler tax” in the 2017 feature drama Moving Parts.
But like others in her situation, the odds are stacked against her.
During her 20-year career, Tian says, she has seen the industry move beyond offering nonwhite actors roles as “human props”. Nonetheless, she thinks there’s still a lack of lead roles for Asian Canadian talent.
Although she hid her kung fu ability as a child actor because she didn’t want to be stereotyped, she would now love to do a Jackie Chan-style, over-the-top comedic role. After all, since she’s come into her own, she’s clearly ready to kick ass—and laugh about it.