Chris Pang interview

NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations that dive into the creativity, the inspiration and the success of Australian cinematic talent. Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the video series complements the NFSA’s exhibition, Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent, and ambition. Book tickets here now. 

In this episode, Jenny Cooney interviews actor Chris Pang, known for his roles in Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M Chu, USA, 2018), Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, USA, 2020), Charlie’s Angels (Elizabeth Banks, USA, 2019) and Tomorrow, When The War Began (Stuart Beattie, Australia, 2010). Watch here:

'WIthout ambition we wouldn't achieve anything'

Jenny: Let’s start with your first, or most influential, cinema memory.

Chris: The first time I went to the cinema, it was to see Willow (Ron Howard, USA, 1988) with my parents. But the first Australian film that I watched and I really enjoyed was Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981). I got to watch that as part of history class and I have a feeling my teacher just sort of, he’d get bored or he’d have nothing to teach, and he’d put Gallipoli on and we’d watch a bit of it every class. But I watched that movie in history class and I remember thinking that, I was young then, but it was the first time I felt like I watched a movie and I was learning something, and it was educational, and it meant something.

It’s a very touching, moving story and it’s such a beautiful film. But I guess when I watched it, it was the first time that I thought, ‘even films based on real stories are actually pretty cool!’. That was the first time that I had thought that; before that, anytime I heard ‘based on a real story’ I’d just immediately turn it off as a kid. So I think that was the first Australian film that I really enjoyed and that was special to me. 

Jenny: So what films, music, stories do you go back to often and why?

Chris: I love Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, USA, 1991). I know everything about it and it was definitely the film I went back to over and over again as a kid. You know what? Come to think about it, that’s rated R, right? I should not have been watching that as a kid! But me and my younger brother, who is 5 years younger than me, we used to, that was the one that we’d put on. Every time we didn’t want to eat lunch and we were slow, we’d put that on and then by the time we got to the T-1000 getting his head blown open we’d probably had finished dinner. So that’s still to this day my favourite film.

Jenny: (laughing) Yeah it didn’t have to be Australian, by the way. But if there is an Aussie film that’s something you watched more than once...

Chris: Otherwise, it would have been Tomorrow, When the War Began, obviously!

Jenny: Obviously because it’s a great cast.

Chris: Because it’s – yeah. Yeah, they did a good job on it.

Jenny: Do you think Australia’s is punching above its weight internationally for such a small country?

Chris: Oh yeah, I think so. I mean you just have to look at the Olympics, the Olympics just finished and it’s like how many gold medals did we win per capita? We’re pretty awesome! And it carries across to film as well. It’s like our population is not even the size of LA county and yet everybody can name a famous Australian, so yeah I think we’re doing pretty good. Pat on the back for Australia.

Jenny: So when you reflect on your career, what does ambition mean to you?

Chris: Ambition is getting to set early in the morning, 5am call time. You’re there tired as hell and you get a tiny break during filming and you go to the crafty, like the little food area, the snack area, and you find that a gaffer or someone has eaten all of the Snickers [bars]. It’s always the gaffer yeah, who's eaten all of the Snickers bars and there’s only KitKats left and so now you have to survive the rest of the day with KitKats but you still go back onto set and do your scenes. That’s ambition.

Jenny: (laughter) Okay.

Chris: You’ve got to be pretty motivated to finish the rest of the day. It’s a tough life; making movies is not easy.  

Jenny: I think Australians have a hard time with this question because ambition’s like a dirty word in Australia, right?

Chris: Yeah, a little bit.

Jenny: Which is sad…

Chris: You know the tall poppy syndrome? We like to cut each other down and keep each other humble. So yeah, I think ambition, like you said, it can be seen as a bit of a dirty word but I think it’s a beautiful thing. Without ambition we wouldn’t achieve anything.

Jenny: I totally agree and I think that part of this series is about just celebrating...

Chris: You know what? That might be a better definition of ambition. It’s being inspired to achieve. That’s what ambition means to me.

‘It’s really nice to highlight the diverse talent that we have out there'

Jenny: You mentioned the gaffers before – what elements of filmmaking, on the craft side of it, besides what you do, are you particularly fascinated by? Is there another job that in another life you would have wanted?

Chris: On set?

Jenny: Yeah.

Chris: You know what, the first day that I got onto set, I came onto this Aussie indie filmed in Melbourne called The Book of Revelation (Ana Kokkinos, Australia, 2006), it was my first time on a set, and I was there as an extra. All I had to do was walk through these train doors and I was there at 5am, I was there the whole day just walking through these train doors, but it absolutely blew my mind what they were doing on set. It was the morning, daytime, and they had blocked out one of the tunnels to become night-time and they had these spinning things that looked like lights on coathangers that they had to make it look like they were shining lights past us and the train looked like it was moving. That was the moment that I knew, I was like, ‘This is the most awesome thing you could ever do, and people are being paid to do this as a career!’.

Honestly, even down to the best boy role – like, how cool does that sound? Even down to the guy in the background that you don’t even see; there is one guy who is responsible for carrying all of the footage of the day and transporting that over to the IT guy. You think he’s just transferring footage but he’s holding all of the day’s work. Everybody’s pay that was on set that day is on that, and that’s what he’s holding. Even that’s so cool! But I think for me, the DOP [Director of Photography] job is the one that I would love to do or learn more about if I wasn’t acting. I think that the Director of Photography just brings the look of the film, adds the beauty, and I think that’s what makes something go from moving pictures to moving poetry. So I love the DOP role.

Jenny: Great! So what does the National Film and Sound Archive mean to you?

Chris: Oh, phew!

Jenny: You have movies that are there archived forever for future generations.

Chris: You know what? Film, I think film is so important to us culturally because it really encapsulates what’s happening at the time. It’s like the socio-political, cultural snapshot of that moment. And that’s an important part of history. If film is a snapshot of that, the National [Film and Sound] Archive is really keeping our history. So it’s a history book through pictures and movement.

Jenny: Is it important?

Chris: – and that is important.

Jenny: Is it important to collect it, to preserve it, restore it, and also to inspire the next generation, maybe?

Chris: Yes. I’m going to lock in my previous answer – yes! Yes to all of those things. I think it’s important to keep a record. I love history and I love learning about what we – trying to figure out and ask questions about what we don’t know, and we only don’t know them because that history was lost. So I think it’s important for us to preserve our story, like you said for the next generations, because we’re making progress and it’s always lovely to know how far we’ve come.

Jenny: So now, who currently inspires you? Who should be on the radar of the NFSA that we don’t know about yet?

Chris: The people that come to mind are just my peers. Because I’ve been fortunate and lucky and I’ve been able to be part of big projects and get my name out there but there are so many Aussies in Hollywood that are on their way or that are also working that just don’t seem, for some reason, to have that link back to Australia. People are like ‘Oh that guy’s Australian? That guy? You know, I didn’t know’.

So people like Jordan Rodriguez – I saw him the other day, he’s doing great things; a lot of people don’t know he’s Australian. Remi Hii is Australian, even Ronny Chieng. I mean Ronny Chieng – you know who he is, he doesn’t need it, don’t worry about him, he doesn’t need to be in the NFSA – but people don’t know he’s Australian! So I think it’s really nice to highlight the ethnic and diverse talent that we have that’s out there because Australia is not all white and people need to know that.

Jenny: The NFSA is opening an exhibition on Australians in Hollywood celebrating the craft, talent and ambition of Aussies at home and overseas. Why do you think it’s important to celebrate?

Chris: There’s a lot to celebrate. When I was a kid growing up in Australia we had 3 or 4 people that we were real proud of that we knew was Australian. There was like Kylie Minogue and then – now I’m showing my age – who’s the crocodile guy? Paul Hogan, everyone’s like ‘oh yeah he’s Australian’. Mel Gibson. Just these household names that we were really proud of, like yeah they’re Australian. Now Australians are everywhere! We have infiltrated Hollywood, and like we’re everywhere! Like I’ll go to casting rooms and I’ll get told to go home, as a joke, people are pretty friendly here. But they’ll be like ‘Oh you’re Australian, you guys are taking over. Go home, you’re stealing all our jobs.’ We’re everywhere. So I mean, we’re infiltrating, we’re like, just we’re kinda awesome. So it’s, I guess it’s celebrating us taking over. That’s, that’s why it’s important – because we’re taking over.

Jenny: That’s something to celebrate, you’re right!

Chris: Yeah.

Jenny: So did any Aussies help you when you were in your early days in Hollywood?

Chris: I started in Australia, I didn’t come over here having done nothing. My first film in Australia was Tomorrow, When the War Began and Stuart Beattie, writer and director of that, is just the kindest human being, and so I think I owe him my career, and I’m talking to you now because of him. He was just lovely, so he helped me. He guided me, took me under his wing, taught me how to write, taught me how to – he taught me everything. So I definitely owe a lot to him.

Ah also, one of my best mates, Deniz Akdeniz. I met him on Tomorrow, When the War Began but he’s – talking about ambition, he’s ambitious. This guy will go for something and he won’t stop until he gets it. And he’s organised. He has one of the most organised Google calendars I’ve ever seen – it looks like a rainbow, it’s like Tetris. There’s just blocks and colours everywhere, and he works so hard. And he really inspired me to make the transition to LA, and he moved before me. I don’t think I’d be here without him either – I moved here with him but like just kinda after him so he could set everything up and, and it was all ready by the time I landed. So they definitely helped me and inspired me.

Jenny: Great, so last question: what is your advice to Aussies dreaming of Hollywood?

Chris: My advice is – don’t sleep on the J1 visa. So the J1 visa is a cultural exchange visa that allows you to go to America and you can go to Hollywood and try that whole thing for a year and work without any problems, so no visa problems. That’s my advice. And: don’t be limited! Okay, don’t be limited. Don’t lose the dream; all the inspirational stuff!

Because one of the things I’ve felt was a hurdle – a pretty big hurdle – is that there’s a big sea in-between us and Hollywood and that’s where you ultimately want to go, you want to go to Hollywood and make American films. And I’m from Melbourne, the [other] corner of the world, that’s so far away – it just felt unobtainable. But as an Australian I think that we are a very fortunate and affluent country, we have the means to learn and go out and have time to study film and to be good at what we’re doing. And we have the opportunities to travel and so I think – just don’t ever stop, is the advice I would give Australians, because we can make it!

Interview transcript edited for length and clarity. Book your tickets now for Australians & Hollywood at the NFSA.