Monday, July 22, 2013

The Interview: Rosalind Chao

Thanks to a comment left on this very blog, I learned that actress Rosalind Chao was on Twitter. As soon-lee as I read that, I hopped on and asked her if she would be willing to do an interview with me for the blog. Ms. Chao generously agreed, so I hope you all enjoy this talk with someone who holds a unique place in M*A*S*H history:

AfterM*A*S*H: How did you get the job as Soon-Lee on M*A*S*H? Was it an audition?

Rosalind Chao: I auditioned for Burt Metcalfe, Alan Alda, and Gene Reynolds. I was their first choice but almost lost the role. They found out how young I was (graduated from high school at sixteen and was in college at the time) and cast someone else. My agent told me that if I told them that I was 26, the role was mine. I agreed and because of all the press, etc. surrounding the show, the eight or nine-year age bump has followed me through through the years.  I guess that is my penance for fibbing!

AM: Was the character always planned to be part of the upcoming spin-off, as far as you knew? Or was it initially just for the last two episodes of M*A*S*H?

RC: I was originally hired for the last episode (which was filmed first) and the second to the last episode (which was filmed last). They started talking to me about AfterM*A*S*H the week before the last episode aired.

AM: You were coming into the series at a very unique time--right as all the characters were saying goodbye, and then when all the actors were saying goodbye, after a decade of working together. What was the set like? Was it a happy place?

RC: They were a wonderfully warm group of people who clearly were fond of each other. I remember tears being shed at the table read through of the final episode. It was a lovely set. The shoot of the final episode was beset with delays because of the Malibu set burning down. There were other delays because of weather, etc. but through it all...the mood and the vibe stayed pleasant and professional throughout. They were a classy group of actors and crew...a real family. I am lucky that they welcomed me in!

AM: How did you find working with the cast? How as Jamie Farr in particular, since the majority of your scenes were with him?

RC: Jamie is so generous and kind! I was a bit shy and very socially
awkward. I couldn't even bring myself to sit with the cast on my first day of shooting the final episode. He brought me to the rest of the cast and made sure I always had a chair to sit with them.

I was so lucky to learn from this group. Alan Alda was a wonderful director who taught me so much from beginning to end. (In post production, he even taught me the fine points of looping.)

Even throughout AfterM*A*S*H this group was classy and generous with their knowledge. Above all, they were so patient. I was inexperienced and a bit gauche but they never made me feel it. 

AM: That's great to hear that the cast was so welcoming. Aside from the obvious career considerations of being offered a regular role on a network TV series, did the good experience with the M*A*S*H cast factor in your decision to take on AfterM*A*S*H?

RC: Yes, absolutely! It was at the core of my spite of all the things I was juggling at the time.

AM: What was the media attention like for you during the final M*A*S*H taping? Here you were, a very young woman, and all of sudden you're in the single most watched TV episode of all time!

RC: Oddly enough, I was unrecognizable in my real life despite the fact that more people watched the final episode than any other show in TV history.

I was at the gym the morning after the airing and two women at the lockers were talking about the episode. There I was stripped down...literally...and they didn't recognize me.

However, when AfterM*A*S*H started airing and I was on the cover of People and TV Guide and on Johnny Carson five times...the attention was disconcerting. I was very shy and stayed home a lot ;-)

AM: Wait a minute--you were on The Tonight Show five times?!? With Johnny?!? What was that like?!?

RC: Johnny Carson was a delightful host who could always find a way to help his guest shine and take the 'laugh'. He made the guest look good and I always knew that I was going to have a great time as his guest.

AM: I remember reading that groups of people from the show got together to watch the M*A*S*H finale as it aired. Where were you that night?

RC: They had a cast and crew party for the final airing.

AM: How was it during the early days of AfterM*A*S*H? Did you feel more confident since you were now one of the stars of the show?

RC: I never felt a lack of confidence as an actress during the M*A*S*H finale because they made me feel like one of them. I was just a bit shy on my first day. I felt very comfortable on AfterM*A*S*H as well. It felt like a true ensemble with a wonderful crew as well.

AM: It seems like fairly early on there was a lot of tinkering to AfterM*A*S*H by the network (characters leaving abruptly, roles being recast, etc.). Did any of that filter down to the cast? Did any of you feel pressure that the show didn't seem to be connecting with audiences?

RC: There was a lot of tinkering. I remember one or two of the new cast members being concerned about whether they would get written out. But Jamie and Harry always kept the mood light and there was not room for much neurosis.

AM: Can you talk a little bit about working with Harry Morgan? You only had one or two scenes with him in M*A*S*H, but on AfterM*A*S*H you got to interact with him a lot more.

RC: Harry was a true professional and a delight to work with. What a wonderful actor he was! I absolutely adored him!

AM: AfterM*A*S*H kind of has a horrible reputation as spin-offs go, but after watching them all over again a year or so ago I realized that is patently unfair. Do you remember what you thought of the material at the time? Did the show seem to be working as far as you and the rest of the cast were concerned?

RC: That's a good question. No, I don't remember much about that. People seemed happy. Of course, I remember wanting more to do!

AM: You've been involved with two of the most successful and iconic TV franchises of all time--M*A*S*H and Star Trek [as Keiko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]. I've read that some writers have left M*A*S*H off their resume because it dates them, even thought its such an impressive credit. You've clearly been busy working all these years, but has this ever been an issue for you? Did M*A*S*H (and later Trek) open doors for you?

RC: Is that true...? The writers have left M*A*S*H off their résumé because of ageism? That is sad.

My situation is different because I was obviously so young when it was filmed. However, as I mentioned, my agent's and my age 'fib' to get me the job has had long term consequences for my online profile...hence for casting. I always laugh when casting people bring me in for a job expecting me to be a little old lady in her 50s or 60s! has been an issue but It usually gets straightened out once I get in the door. There's not much I can do about it so I roll with it. Besides, it was worth it...given the opportunity to be a part of TV history.

As far as Trek is concerned, I am impressed with the loyalty of the fans of the series. I was first selected many years ago after (auditioning for Gene Roddenberry) to test for one of the series regular roles on TNG and passed on it!  I didn't have the foresight to understand how it would register with the audience. Also, I was in London at the time with no desire to return. I was a little naive. Fortunately, it still worked out. Although, I did turn down DS9 to be a regular as I guess I didn't learn from my mistakes. I guess I had a fear of commitment to Sci-Fi. ;-)

But it was still a happy ending because I was able to do other things as well as work with the wonderful Star Trek franchise.

AM: Are there specific things about acting that you learned from your M*A*S*H experiences, things that you later took to other projects? (other than the finer points of looping, of course! :)

RC: Another great question! I have learned the importance of professionalism and generosity to the entire cast and crew. The M*A*S*Hstars treated everyone like an equally valuable member of the team. As a result, the 'team' roots for the 'stars' every time they step up to the plate. Acting is a team sport. I have worked on many other films and TV shows as a guest and recurring in my years and have carried the importance of that on every job. I have been lucky enough to work with many other actors who have the same philosophy.

AM: What do you have coming up? Any future shows or films we can look for you in?

RC: I will next be appearing in a new CBS show [Intelligence] starring Marg Helgenberger (CSI) and Josh Holloway (Lost)!

I cannot thank Rosalind Chao enough for doing this interview! I still remember watching the final episode of M*A*S*H as it aired live, so getting the chance to talk to someone who was part of that historic event was a real thrill. She couldn't have been nicer and (as you can see) was a great interview! We wish her the best of luck on all her new projects!



Unknown said...

Terrific interview!

Booksteve said...

I love these kinds of talks. Very informative and much fun. Thanx!

nilvento said...

Lovely interview,glad you mentioned DS9. Loved her in that! Before rewatching the series on DVD, I had had the impression that she was in so many more episodes, but I must have seen more AfterMASH episodes, & melded them together.

Russell said...

I always liked her, especially on D29, because I don't think I ever saw any episodes of AfterMASH. By the time I saw her on DS9 I was also married to an Asian woman so I wanted to see more of her and Colm Meaney's life together shown on-air. We are not often shown on network TV, haha! Cool that she was a part of two of the most widely-seen couples! I will look for her on INTELLIGENCE.

Thank you, Ms Chao for doing this interview, and great job on it, Rob, as always!

Neal P said...

Great interview! I think it's interesting that she mentioned the age thing. I too assumed that she was older and, by the time she appeared in The Joy Luck Club, I was thinking, "This woman never ages!" I'm glad she's coming back to TV.

Joseph Brian Scott said...

Very informative interview, I commend Ms. Chao on her sharp memory. Known mostly for drama, I'd say, she's also an adept hand at comedy: I thought her turn as Pastor Jin on the not-that-late-but-very-lamented (at least by me) show "Don't Trust the B----..." was a hoot.

Dr. Habibi said...

Thanks for posting the interview with Ms. Chao, and I'm glad that my post about twitter led you to interviewing her.

I'm glad that this blog is still active, it seems in recent years, interest in MASH and it's spinoffs has dwindled.

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