Snakehead is a thrilling action crime drama with two leading ladies: Shuya Chang and Jade Wu. Both women give incredible performances and believe this film will open doors for other Asian actresses.
Snakehead is produced, written and directed by Evan Jackson Leong (Linsanity); the film stars Shuya Chang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny), Jade Wu (“Luke Cage,” The Motel), Yacine Djoumbaye (“Three Trembling Cities”), Catherine Jiang (A Different Sun), Richie Eng (Killerman) and Sung Kang (The Fast and the Furious franchise, “Power”).
Synopsis: Sister Tse (Chang) comes to New York through a Snakehead, a human smuggler. She gains favor with the matriarch of the family of crime and she rises the ranks quickly. Soon Tse must reconcile her success with her real reason for coming to America.
Check out my conversation with Shuya and Jade!
How does it feel that it’s now complete and people are actually going to be able to see it?
Shuya: Exciting, it’s about time, we waited long enough for it. Did you,
Jade: Yeah, I would say, ‘Have you heard anything yet? Have you heard anything yet?’
Shuya: It’s finally happening, so we’re definitely excited about it?
Did you film this before COVID? Is that why you’ve waited so long?
Shuya: Yes, I think it was shot in 2016.
Jade: Yeah, I think we’ve both been attached to this for about five years or so. With an indie film, it’s how much money do you have to shoot another scene? So, it can take a course of years, whereas in studio films, you can shoot something in six weeks, or you can shoot something in less than that now and you have the budget. Whenever the money was there we would shoot some scenes, and also improve the script and the storytelling. It would change, it went through many iterations, but we had the luxury of doing that because we didn’t have to answer to big studio bucks.
Shuya: It took a little bit to shoot, but there was also a big pandemic. But it is what it is and that delayed the release for about a year.
Jade: And it’s actually serendipitous that the release is coming now. In a way, sadly, the pandemic was to our benefit because now this illegal trafficking and human smuggling is so relevant in current affairs around the world. So, that’s been the advantage. Now it’s very timely and timeliness is everything.
What initially drew you both to this project?
Shuya: There are so many things. One, usually you don’t find scripts like that where you find two strong female characters. I think both of us were excited to be attached to it. They’re just such movie characters and they both have so many layers. They come from sort of different worlds but not, you know. We came together and we created this beautiful story. Characters like these are usually only written for men, not for women, so I got super excited when I read that. It’s a very nice ambitious script, you know, and I can’t believe we actually made it through.
Jade: Making indie films is always challenging because you don’t even know if you’re going to finish it. I’ve started many indie films where they were never finished. For this particular one, I mean, I knew Sung (Kang) from previous work, we had worked together on a film, and I knew Brian (Yang) from previous work and from Sundance and Evan (Leong) happened to work on ‘Better Luck Tomorrow,’ so I’ve actually known these fellows for a few decades. And when they brought me the script and asked if I would you consider doing the role, I, of course had to read it and I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it!’Any actor would be a fool to turn it down. You know, at my age, an older Asian American woman, being offered a lead role is almost impossible these days, especially not being a superhero.
Shuya: Generally speaking, it’s hard to come by roles like that as a woman, but as an Asian woman, nonexistent.
Jade: Yeah. I don’t think we’ll be invisible anymore. I think, hopefully, this will open a few more doors.
Did you feel any pressure when taking these roles?
Shuya: It was more exciting than anything. You just want to do it and do a good job. Those were my thoughts at least. I didn’t want to overthink things, I just wanted to do a good job. I wanted to be focused on this character and who this person is and just really have fun with it and commit to it. It’s amazing when you get opportunities like that. I always feel like pressure would come later.
Jade:For me it wasn’t pressure, it was a challenge because how often do you get to sink your teeth into a role like this. That’s what my creative dream is, to be offered roles like this and to be able to sink your teeth and create a character based on what you read, your research, based on the other actors working on the project, how you develop the dynamic and these characters and mold them so that they can tell the story in the best way possible. I want more roles like this, I’ve been fortunate to work pretty much non-stop, but they’re character roles. I’ve had one lead role in a very small independent film but, you know, how often do you get these opportunities?
How did you prepare to play your characters? Did you do anything special? Did you look at any strong women in your own lives?
Shuya: That is definitely important, right, to build any characters actually, who are, who do you admire and all that. But, as an actor, you have to go way deeper than that. You have to do the research, you have to ask a lot of questions, that’s how I do it. Most of the time you ask a lot of questions about who this person is and why.
Jade: One of the things they kind of teach you in preliminary acting classes and in grad school is, they use an example of becoming an animal. So you observe that animal- how does that animal move, how does that animal eat, how does it drink? It’s just all the idiosyncrasies and the physicalities of that animal. And that’s how I approach everything I do. I don’t really look at models, I have to create them because I don’t want to mimic something that someone else has done. I want to create something that is inherent in me, that comes out through me, so I try to find that animal part that I can relate to so I know how Dai Mah eats and picks up a pair of chopsticks or looks or speaks. What is her intonation? How often does she speak? What is the brevity of her wit? When does she speak and why? How does she drink a cup of tea? Those are important things on how I mold a character… It’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is. There’s a lot of work behind it. There’s a lot of work behind it and some of it is unconscious. I articulate it, but I can’t say that I am mentally aware of that every single day, but it’s in the back burner of my brain so that I can apply that when I’m in a scene doing something.
What was it like working together?
Shuya: We’re like a little family!
Jade:Yeah, I mean, Shuya and I should be on screen all the time! So all you filmmakers and all you TV people out there, we should do more stuff together.
Shuya: That’d be amazing. Yeah, we had such a good energy on set, but not just us, all of us together. I think they cast us really well and they put a team together, that for some reason just fit. We all had the same goals and that’s what’s really important, we all have the same passion to bring this out of us. It made everything much much easier, I think, for me at leas,t because I felt really comfortable in my environment to act, and we felt safe. I mean, I felt very safe.
Jade: And that’s Brian and Evan and Anson (Ho). They’re the ones who actually create that world, and it all starts from the top. The CEO of a company creates the environment, the world you work in. So that comes from the top.
Shuya: Yeah, and then we created a film.
Jade: And had a lot of good food and partied, which you don’t do in studio films. In indie films you have the liberty to do that.
Shuya: Sometimes we went out after, so that was fun. We had a good time. Yeah, we all became friends and now, and I think that that kind of shines through, that this passion was just there for all of us.
Oh, for sure! You can totally tell. I was watching this and I completely forgot that it was an independent film, like the quality was just like *chef’s kiss*
Jade: It’s amazing how you can get blood out of rocks, I mean, I don’t know how they did it but they did it and it looks like the production quality is comparable to any major studio film. That was Ray (Huang) and Evan and all the producers involved. I mean they just had the vision to do this on financial fumes, and that’s the other part, that’s the other character in the film is to be able to produce something like this.
What is something that you are very excited for viewers to see when they watch the movie?
Shuya: I feel like this whole movie is very, very exciting. Also the colors and the grittiness of New York, of Chinatown. I think it’s just a different perspective. I think that’s really special, not just the acting course but just as a whole, and how New York is represented in the movie, I think it’s very special.
Jade: Yeah, my takeaway from this film and the reason why I took on the film is, I want audiences to be evoked in some capacity, any capacity. Whether it’s anger or happiness or sadness or if it makes them cry and they don’t have to understand that emotion, but at least it starts conversation and an appetite for more stories like this to be told. That’s what I’d like. And then it also provides more work for me (laughs).