Breakout Film Star Brianne Tju Talks Upcoming Roles & AAPI Representation in the Film Industry
The momentum Brianne Tju has gained within the last few years has been astounding. From being featured in the Hulu series Light As a Feather to starring in Amazon’s modern take on I Know What You Did Last Summer to 47 Meters Down Uncaged, Tju has another set of excellent roles coming up this year.
EDITION had the opportunity to catch up with Tju and discuss how she prepares herself for a role, the increase of representation in film for the AAPI community, and how COVID-19 has impacted the industry.
Is there a particular project that you're most excited about coming up?
Three Months' been a long time coming, and it was something that the pandemic affected. It halted us when we first started shooting at the beginning of 2020. We were in Atlanta, and the NBA got shut down. I remember specifically that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had gotten COVID, and I was standing next to Judy Greer, and she was like, “Shit, actors can get COVID too?” and obviously, she was kidding. We ended up shutting down for everyone's safety until we could have proper protocols that would keep everyone safe. We shut down for six months. We were lucky enough to finish filming. We waited for all of 2021, and now it's finally coming out. I'm excited because it was one of the best experiences I've had on the set. It has an incredible message. So, I am excited for this one of all the projects coming up.
That makes me excited. I saw you were working on Uglies. I read that book when I was in elementary school. It was so ahead of its time. What does it feel like to be a part of that project?
It's so interesting because I read them when I was in elementary school as well, and the book came out a little over 15 years ago. The original cover of the girl and you see half her face; it’s burned into my brain, I will always remember that. I had the honor of speaking to Scott Westerfeld, the author, when I was shooting in Atlanta. He's so amazing. You have to be so smart, but so in touch and aware, to write something that I'm sure was relevant in its day but is so incredibly relevant right now. He wanted the book to be made into a movie for 15 years, and it finally is.
When I spoke to him, he said this is a perfect time. It was incredible to do something so relevant, something that affects everybody, especially young people right now who have social media. It's something that I feel very close to because with social media, the level of comparison, the need to feel beautiful, and to look a certain way. Thirteen-year-olds now definitely don't look how I looked when I was 13. You can see the world changing so rapidly, and I think Uglies is a great way for us to kind of touch base, go back to basics, and realize what it is that we're doing. What are we moving so rapidly towards? Is that actually what we want to be moving towards? It's a way for us to check in with ourselves in our society.
Especially the way that we look at ourselves right now compared to how you and I did when we read that book so long ago, and thinking about in between how society has so vastly changed – it’s incredible and scary to think about at the same time. Going off that, within the AAPI community, how does it feel for you to be a part of so many projects and have that representation?
First off, I'm so incredibly proud to be able to represent my community and also be very specific and thoughtful when it comes to how I portray these characters. As an actor, I bring so much of myself, in my experience, I have immigrant parents, to these characters that I play. I think that intrinsically through that process, someone who's also AAPI, or has immigrant parents, or who has been through the same experiences and struggled with me will be able to relate, and that is what inclusivity does, and diversity does on screen, it gives people a way to validate and reflect and feel seen in a much bigger space, and television and film touch so many people around the world.
Growing up, I didn't have that level of representation. My identity felt a little skewed because I thought that I was supposed to look a certain way and behave a certain way and live a certain way for me to feel normal or seen. I've been in this industry since I was very young. I've seen it grow and change, especially now. I believe we still have a long way to go in terms of nuances and true representation, not just a trend. I hope that we're here to stay and that it only keeps getting better from here. I'm very proud and excited to hopefully be a part of that growth and change in our industry. I do think that what our industry puts out into the world largely affects everyone in the world because everyone watches television, everyone watches movies, and we all want our stories to be told and understood. And I think especially right now, with all of the awful Asian hate crime skyrocketing right now, the need for empathy and to see people as human even though their lifestyle, their history, their culture is different. It's so necessary right now. I hope that our industry is doing its part in doing it justice.
I'm part of a community that supports me and that I support, and I couldn't do it without them. I couldn't do it without the people that came before, and the people were working just as hard to make a change in this industry and put themselves and their work on the line to change how this industry behaves – the systemic racism or the systemic exclusivity of who is allowed to be on screen. It’s me and a whole ton of people.
Do you feel that some of the issues that have been presented towards you impact how you decide what roles to take on? What are some of those qualities that you look for and are important to you when you take on a new role?
First off, I want to shatter the illusion that I get to just go read a bunch of scripts and be like, I want to be in that project,’ and then I get to be in it. This industry is very tough, I've been in it from a young age, and I audition, and I auditioned for plenty of projects and a lot of them I don’t, but I've been very lucky that in recent years, the projects that I'm most passionate about, I've been able to be a part of. I can say that a percentage of that is my ability and the fact that I've worked so hard to be where I am. But also, I think there's a level of executives and people behind the scenes that also want to tell diverse stories and put me in a position that, maybe in the past, I wouldn't have been allowed to be a part of.
When I pick projects, or when I decide, ‘Yes, I've gotten this far. I have an offer. Do I want to do this project?’ I always have in-depth conversations with the director, or if it's a show, a showrunner, and I like to pick their brain. How did this character come about? If the character was meant to specifically be of Asian descent? Why? What story are you trying to tell? I give them my perspective. This is how I feel about the character. This is kind of the backstory I have. Doesthethat fit into your vision? And are you willing to represent this person, as an Asian, as an Asian American? There's a responsibility on both ends. I don't have any interest in being a part of a project where how I look, which means the culture that I'm from, the history that I'm from, isn't being acknowledged.
I've been lucky in recent times to work with people that understand that and want to use my unique experiences and the unique experiences of my people to reflect that on-screen and to make the story richer and better, more unique. For me, the part of my job that I love the most is when I'm on set, and I can be as collaborative with people and have experiences with people. For me, the people I'm working with are an important part. I think that their level of insight and understanding, and willingness to learn from me is important.
I truly admire your dedication to your craft and finding that importance within your films. Besides the amazing lineup of movies you have, what else can we look forward to in the upcoming months? Is there something personal that you'd like to accomplish?
Well, it's interesting because right now, last year was an absolute whirlwind, and the fruits of that labor are going to show themselves this year. Currently, I have a bit of downtime, and it's been a bit of a shift for me because I was so busy last year.
Right now, I'm focusing on enjoying the work that I've done and seeing it come to fruition. I think I have four films coming out this year, which is insane. It shocks me just to even say, but I have Three Months coming out on February 23 on Paramount +, which I'm so excited about. And then The Cow, which I did with Winona Ryder and Owen Teague, is Elli Horowitz's directorial debut that'll be at South by Southwest next month. And then I believe Unhuman, which is a Blumhouse film, which I am super proud of. It's one of the first major projects that I've been a part of where I am the lead, number one, which I don't care about, like the numbers, but I think that in terms of representation, as an Asian woman, that was huge for me.
I'm focusing on being grateful and taking care of myself and enjoying this time because, to be honest, I don't know, it's probably just like this capitalistic way of thinking, but I just love working. I think it's also an artistry thing. I love my job. I feel like I always need to go, go, go. And right now, I'm not, which I'm using to my advantage to help myself grow as a human being, and enjoy this time, enjoy the people around me, enjoy experiences, and the small moments. I'm focusing on advocacy and using my voice for things that I believe in, especially in the AAPI community. The way I kind of live my life and how I've had to because of this industry is I'm open to what comes my way. I've been so lucky that the things that have come my way are things I’m so excited about and passionate about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.