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  • Writer's pictureAugust Sorenson

AAPI Month: Grace Shen Tells Stories Close to Home



The actress Grace Shen. Photo credit: Joanna DeGeneres

Whether she’s telling tales in the sun-beaten South Pacific, dancing through Belle Époque-Paris in Gigi, or witnessing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Grace Shen (‘93) knows the power of a good story. Below, we’ll glimpse into her work with Oscar-winning artists, explore how she navigated an unforgiving industry, and ponder the unanswered questions that still linger.


The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


You’re a ‘93 grad who’s done a lot of theatre. Tell us the story of entering the entertainment industry…big fish in a little pond?


I lucked out. I was cast as Liat in South Pacific at the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera shortly after I graduated. I was looking through Backstage, and the Trades, and saw that audition. I love musicals, so I auditioned, and lo and behold, I got cast. That was such an amazing experience. The theatre is where your heart beats. There’s nothing like standing in the wings just before you step on stage, your heart beating so fast it feels like it is going to jump out of your body.  You have the rehearsal process to get everything down and find the character and the scenes…so much fun.


What was it like entering the industry as a younger Asian actress at the time?


It was definitely not easy. Being Asian, there weren’t really a whole lot of roles. This was in 1993; that was a long time ago. Everything was few and far between…especially with film and TV. I focused on theatre because it was more open to diverse casting. Things have changed recently, so nice to see more Asians on screen and more Asian stories told. 


I kept plugging away. If you have that little fire or passion inside you, it’ll keep you going. When you’re not working all the time, you’ll have those doubts: Am I good enough? Is this ever going to happen? Those thoughts come in, so keep the faith and keep trucking.


I love that. What about stories you’d like to see? What stories are you drawn to? 


I am drawn to stories about family and relationships. There’s a story from everywhere that can be told; everyone has a story from their own background. It doesn’t have to be the same ethnicity; it can be wide open. I’m just open to accepting the person as they are regardless of background.


I have a story that I’m thinking of writing. I’ve left it a bit on the back burner…I have to put my mind to it and do it. No one else will do it for me.


What’s the special story?


It’s about my dad. He’s from China and had to leave during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. He went to a Seminary in Taiwan and wasn’t able to return [to China]. We immigrated to Vancouver…he never got to see his family all those years.  I have a pile of these love letters that he wrote to my mom when they first met, so I want to incorporate those. In the end, when he was in a nursing home, he kept talking about how much he missed his family. He never got to see his siblings or parents pass.


Are those two things connected? Is family important culturally?


Oh, definitely. Definitely.


Tell me about that.


I am blessed to have a very loving, supportive family. To me, family is everything. There’s that tension when you don’t have that. The culture is steeped in tradition, which is a good thing because it tells you who you are, but it can be limiting in its expectations.  There is a constant pressure to be successful: Go be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant–do something that brings in money.


Being an actor, you give so much of yourself. You have to be you, be authentic and truthful, and pour your heart into your characters, into your art. It’s a medium that can change people. You can change people’s lives with stories.


How do you see your work changing lives and affecting people?


I want to tell stories that inspire, that uplift. No matter what situation you’re coming from–economic, cultural, or familial–I want to tell a story that inspires someone to be the best version of themself. Stories without limits, where the characters can break free and overcome what they’re going through to be their best self.


If we look back at Grace Shen as a young girl watching a movie or reading a book, what story does she want to see? What did you want to see?


[A pause.] I didn’t have a particular story that I wanted to see.  I just loved watching movies–all kinds.  I definitely wanted to see myself represented.  Whenever I saw an Asian person on TV, it took my attention immediately and wanted to know who it was.


Is there something you’d want to convey to your younger self?


I would want to convey to my younger self to have confidence and believe in myself. That’s the thing I struggled with, having doubt. Believing I can do this and that I’m good enough would have been important. That came later, with putting myself out there and with doing the work and putting myself towards what I want to do. Learning about yourself and knowing yourself–because that never goes away, it’s in your makeup…you must understand yourself. 


I listened to an Emma Stone interview where she talked about anxiety. How important it was to learn to breathe and realize those negative thoughts aren’t real. Recognizing them and being aware of them, you find the tools to deal with them.


What’s another project you worked on that you’d like to mention now?


I’ve been really fortunate to work with some Oscar-winning artists, such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Watching and listening to those artists is so fascinating. Alejandro was so detail-oriented; how he created everything was so impressive. When I had the callback with him, it was a working session for about an hour. When you’re working with these big names, and you have those anxious thoughts about whether you’re good enough or how you’ll compare…it’s really gracious when they give themselves.


And what’s next for you? You have all this stage work under your belt, and you just mentioned working with a high-profile director. What’s around the corner?


There’s no project that I’m about to work on, but I’ve done a few things recently. They haven't come out yet. I had a small role in Rosemead, the Lucy Liu independent film that’s going to be coming out…probably at the end of the year.


I’m always looking ahead and getting more auditions.


We look forward to seeing what more work you tackle. Working with Lucy Liu must have been a treat.


Yeah, she’s–she’s wonderful to work with, very welcoming and gracious.


A pleasure chatting. Thanks for sharing such tender stories with me. Our readers will be delighted to delve into them, too.


Thank you, August. You have a great “look”–I could see you in many things.


I appreciate that. It’s not always easy, this business, so it’s good to hear things like that.


The Academy extends gratitude for Grace Shen’s continued work in The Academy’s “Task Force for Inclusive Excellence.” You can learn more about her at graceshen.com.

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