Michelle Ang is stoked this week. It's enough that she is the star of new Kiwi romantic comedy My Wedding and Other Secrets, the debut feature from Roseanne Liang. But the bonus for Ang, who has been based in the United States for the past four years, is that while promoting the film, she has been able to squeeze in a rare visit to Wellington to see family and friends.
"It's just incredible how much the city changes each time I come back," she says, grinning from ear to ear.
"I don't get to come back to New Zealand as much as I'd like. I always try to make it to Wellington so see Mum and Dad and old school friends still working here."
Ang, 27, has been a performer since her early teens, with stints on McDonald's Young Entertainers, then playing as Ti San in the popular children's series The Tribe, shot in the Wellington region.
Interest in Ang, born in Malaysia and raised in Wellington, intensified when at 19 she landed a part in hit Aussie soap Neighbours, the show that launched the careers of Kylie Minogue and Guy Pearce.
Ang was studying accounting and chemistry at Victoria University, so carried on her studies by correspondence when she had to move to Melbourne for filming. She played rebel Lori Lee and was one of the first Asian actors to get a prominent part in the soap. Within the first year, she was nominated for an Australian television Logie Award.
Back in New Zealand, her career included stints on Outrageous Fortune and The Market, and movie No 2.
But Ang has also been working hard for other roles and for the past two years has been based in New York. It explains why her CV includes The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson and directed by Jodi Foster, and the Martin Lawrence comedy Big Momma's: Like Father, Like Son, released in New Zealand last month.
The world has yet to see The Beaver, which was to have been released last year. Ang says it keeps getting delayed because of Gibson's off-screen antics. Regardless, Ang - who plays a Japanese translator in the film - loved the experience.
"I've never been the great headline [name], but I've managed to slide in between lots of great projects. I hope it comes out. Mel Gibson is not really the most popular guy in the world right now, but his character in The Beaver would be publicly redeeming. It could have been his comeback.
"I'm only a tiny, little part in it, but the most amazing thing was getting directed by Jodi Foster. She knew heaps about New Zealand. She heard that I had a tattoo on my wrist that was a New Zealand tattoo. She came down and wanted to look at it, because she knew about the Maori culture of tattoo."
Her part in Big Momma's also stretched her. "My character was really out there. It was just permission for me to play and just go a little bit crazy."
The roles are in contrast to Emily, the Chinese New Zealander she plays in My Wedding and Other Secrets.
She is a bespectacled Auckland University student, who loves Star Wars and wants to make movies, including ones featuring vampires and martial arts.
But Emily clashes with her family and herself when she not only dates Dungeons and Dragons-playing European student James (Matt Whelan) on the sly, but marries him, using the extra money from her student allowance to finance her film.
Written and co-directed by Roseanne Liang, My Wedding and Other Secrets was inspired by Liang's feature-length documentary Banana in a Nutshell, which traced her real life romance with a European New Zealander and getting her Chinese parents to accept him.
Ang says it's only now, with the film's release, that she has thought about how big her role was. "This film was my first lead role and it's a big responsibility," she says, then laughs: "I hope I did a good job.
"I'm in almost every scene. It was a really intense filming schedule for me. I remember thinking I might have to pull to the side of the road for a nap, because driving to work and back I was so exhausted.
"But at the same time I like working in an environment like that. This was the first character I was completely engulfed by. I really tried to do method [acting]. I was pretty much Emily more of the time than I was Michelle, which suited me.
"I made the decision at the start to make this a real character role. I really wanted to step away as far from myself as possible and build this fictitious character."
Ang, who also trained as a ballet dancer, played a lesbian television reporter in American television show South of Nowhere and a "Chinatown princess" in the short film The Potential Wives of Norman Mao.
In 2007, FHM magazine rated her as No 3 on its list of the "sexiest women in New Zealand", so bookish Emily was significant.
"It was super liberating. I always feel awkward having to be this glamorous, very stylised person, so it was really exciting to get into work and not have any makeup and not have to look great, to have it just be about the personality."
It's also something that Ang continues to face as an English- speaking Asian actress. She's positive and upbeat and appreciates how far she has come in the past 10 years. But, like any actor, also wants roles based on her ability, not her ethnicity.
Before New York, Ang based herself in Los Angeles and found it tough. It was the first time she re-assessed what she wanted to do with her life.
"I toughed it out for a year and it was during the writers' strike, so it was a very bad time for the industry. After that I packed my bags and went backpacking for almost a year.
"I'm a little bit older now and sometimes, when the going gets really, really tough, you're like, 'Is this my calling and should I really be doing this?' But I knew after that I should probably give America another shot."
Ang returns to the US before the end of the month to pursue more work, including a MTV television pilot from Craig Wright (Dirty Sexy Money, Six Feet Under and Lost). But she knows My Wedding and Other Secrets has made a difference.
"I don't know if I will ever have the chance to play a character like that, which is central to a story. I hope I'm wrong and that it's the beginning of something, but right now, I feel as if it's just been the role of a lifetime."
My Wedding and Other Secrets is screening now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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