We invited Maggie Q and Leonardo Nam to sit down for a frank conversation. The pair ended up with a deeply personal discussion about family, Hollywood’s perceptions and where Asian American creatives should be headed.
Here’s a full transcript of their talk below:
Nam: You grew up in Hawaii?
Q: Born and raised. I think most people, if they want to act — which I didn’t — they go to L.A. or they go to New York, or they stay in the States, because that’s the thing to do.
Nam: Yeah, for me, I moved to New York.
Q: Right! That’s what you do, because you’re smart. I did it backwards. It just so happened that I ended up in Asia before Hollywood.
Nam: Did “Q” show up in Asia, or did “Q” show up in high school, or?
Q: My theater friends in New York call it my porn name.
Nam: [laugh] All right!
Q: They couldn’t pronounce my last name, because my father is Irish. When I was working in Hong Kong, they just couldn’t do it.
Nam: So they should they pronounce it?
Q: It’s Quigley. My last name is very Irish. They would go, “Maggie Q-” and they couldn’t get past the “Q.” So what they did was, one day in the newspapers, they shortened it to just a letter. And because it was the biggest newspaper in the region, everybody followed and copied it. They ask me, “When did you name yourself?” Dude, I didn’t name myself.
Nam: Now you own it. I can’t be like, “Hey, I’m Leo Q.” People would be like, “Yeah, no…”
Q: I came back to L.A., and half the world sort of knew me already. So to change it would have been weird.
Nam: You know, I remember seeing you in “Mission: Impossible” [III, in 2006] and being like, “Woah.” This is a newcomer, this is someone that’s going to —
Q: Have I disappointed?
Nam: No! And then from there, you went on to “Nikita,” representing in such a way.
Q: I want to know about Australia, and then the move to New York.
Nam: Sydney. I grew up in Sydney, and needed to get out to really own my own self and what I wanted to be.
Q: Were you always an artist, though?
Nam: Yeah, always an artist.
Nam: I had a red mohawk, I had red horns at one point. That probably speaks [to] somewhat of an artist there. Like everyone does. [laugh] Yeah, of course. Went to an all-boys’ school. I moved to New York when I knew that theater was something that I needed to respect, and to be able to look face-to-face with not only colleagues in the industry, but also to my folks and to be able to say, “I know what I do.”
Q: How was that, your folks?
Nam: Great. My mom just called me, and it was a really lovely moment to be able to say, “I’m going to this event.” [e/n: Nam and Q were the recipients of the Actor and Actress of the Year awards at the 16th Unforgettable Gala.] My mom’s like, “A party? You’re going to a party?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s kind of like a party, you know, I’m getting this award.” And she’s like, “Oh, for what?”
Q: [laugh] She’s shocked.
Nam: Yeah, she’s shocked! I’m like, “Mom! It’s not that crazy.”
Q: There was an article once in the New York Times about an American girl who had gone to Asia, worked, and then come back to the States. Kind of done it backwards. My sister had told my parents, because I never tell them anything. There’s this local free newspaper that’s this big [motions with hands] in our little town. My mom goes, “Oh, OK. But you know, honey, [the paper] didn’t write about her.”
Nam: [laugh] My mom says the same thing about the Korean newspapers in Australia! I’m like, I don’t know why they report on this, mom. I don’t know.
Q: I’m sorry!
Nam: But the price of kimchi may have gone down. Napa cabbage, there’s a shortage in Australia.
Q: Keep it important. Keep it in the food realm. I mean, growing up with an Asian mother, an immigrant mother, as you know, it’s just not something they get. Art is not a living.
Nam: Yeah, it’s not a living.
Q: So that’s the hard reality for them. It’s not that they don’t want you to be who you are, it’s that they don’t know that what you are is something that can sustain you.
Nam: So do you feel like an artist now?
Q: Sometimes I do. [laugh] Do you understand what I mean by that? Because you do have to make a living, and you do have to do jobs. And from time to time, it can feel like a job.
Nam: That’s something I believe is taught.
Nam: The difference between work and job. When you said, sometimes you do something for the job, and sometimes it’s work. And work, I believe, is you’re building on something, on a legacy. And a job has purpose?
Q: Yeah, that’s right. And a job is purposeful.
Nam: Is there someone who taught you that, or a project?
Q: No, I think I learned it as, you feel fulfilled in moments, so fulfilled in moments. And then other moments, you feel very empty.
Q: And so you start to know what the difference is. The older you get, you start to know what you can take and what you can’t take, as an artist.
Q: You know what your threshold is. You’re like, “OK. I haven’t been an artist lately, and I’m feeling it. And it hurts me.” So I have to kind of get back to whatever it be. I know that I have that.
Nam: With anyone that asks me about, “I want to break into acting or be in movie making or be an artist,” I’m like, well, you’ve got to understand where your attention is.
Nam: Because where you put your attention, grows. So if you’re looking at, if you’re thinking, “I want to be making this. I want to be doing that,” then you live in that want, as opposed to doing it.
Q: That’s right.
Nam: It’s in the doing it. Just do it.
Q: You do have to just do it. You have to be good sometimes, you have to be maybe not-so-good sometimes, sometimes you’re respected, and sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re going to feel fulfilled, and you’re not. But that’s all a part of the artist’s journey. Because even the greatest artists of our time — I’m talking about painters, musicians — they weren’t always happy. It’s just that we get their highlights.
Nam: Yeah. We get their snippet reel.
Q: We get the snippets of the things we have deemed worthy or collectible or honorable. But they had the same moments. So to know that that’s what art means. Because you get to do what you love. You could work in an office and have those days as well, but still not be as fulfilled.
Nam: Lisa Joy [the co-creator of “Westworld”] is half-Asian, and when we walked in, she said to me, “Wow. I haven’t been to a Hollywood event where there are more people that are like me, than not.”
Nam: And so I know you spent some time in Asia. But now the majority of work is here — do you still find that feeling in you? How do you deal with that feeling? I didn’t know how to respond to [Lisa] in that moment, other than hugging her. I said, “It’s happening.”
Q: We’re certainly at a level we’ve never been at before in the industry, which is exciting. Because I know that for myself, when I came here, going into studio meetings, it was very — the way they saw me was very specific. If there was something that was on the table that wasn’t specific, for me, there was no consideration of it. I had been asked many times why my English was so good, when I got my passport. All these things. All these things that people would never think they would f-cking say. You just can’t believe it’s happening in front of you, but it is. And I use it. I have a fire in me, and it burns all the time. Sometimes it’s higher, sometimes it’s lower. It’s not an angry fire. I’m resilient. You can knock me down and I will come back stronger. And I feel that fire for this community. I feel that because of what we’re building, what we’re growing on, we’re going to be seen not only differently but taken seriously as actors not because there’s an Asian role available, but because we’re going in the rooms and challenging people’s minds and hearts and saying, “I don’t care what you thought you saw for this. I’m going to come into the room, I’m going to be a certain level of talent for this that you can’t deny, and in that ability to not deny what it is I’m bringing, you can’t count me out.”
Nam: That’s beautifully said.
Q: That’s sort of how I look at it. I’m going to go in the room and change your mind.
Nam: I wonder what’s going to happen, with so much that’s happened in the industry with these doors that have been flung open not only in the entertainment industry but in politics as well. I personally have only started to understand the concept of white male privilege. I grew up in Australia, which is predominantly white, but we are a very inclusive country, and yet there also has been ceiling for me that I assumed was a part of the structure that had always been there. I’m starting to see so much of that world change, bit by bit. How are you finding navigating that world right now? Because it’s impossible to ignore.
Q: It’s impossible. And thank God we are talking about it, finally. It’s funny because my fiance [Dylan McDermott] is a white male. We’ll have conversations about something and he’ll say, “Are you OK about this, honey?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m figuring this out, this is how it is, blah blah blah. But you wouldn’t know, honey. Because it doesn’t happen to you.” But he’s incredibly empathetic, and it opens his eyes to a lot. But I genuinely am like, “You will never experience this. This thing that I am experiencing, you will never see it.” Because I get the double, I’m the female and I’m Asian.
Nam: I was about to say, you have the mansplaining, too.
Q: Yeah, big time.
Nam: Which I’m learning about, too. I’m like, “Did I just mansplain? I can’t believe that just came out of my mouth.”
Q: I try not to be too targeted in my view of people who are very privileged, but you know, you go through things, so you’re hyper-aware of what could come, what may come, what you’re going to have to deal with. The reality is, there are just people who will never know what that’s like.
Nam: Is that magnified now that you are in a position where you walk into a room and people know, “Oh, that’s Maggie Q.” I have a project, and blah blah blah. So people are coming to you. Is that magnified now, or is it dissipated more?
Q: Like “Nikita.” She had always been played by a white female before. [e/n: Nikita has been portrayed by white actresses Anne Parillaud, Bridget Fonda and Peta Wilson.] When it came up, I met with the head of Warner Bros. And I said to him, “What is it? Why are you meeting with me? What’s the deal with that? What are you seeing? I’m just interested as a minority in what you’re seeing in me, because this role has typically been played by white females, and are you really ready to open this door and let a minority play a role that’s always been white?” And he said, “Maggie, I’m not interested in what you are. I’m interested in who you are, and you’re the right actress for the role. I don’t care what you are.” I was so blown away that the head of Warner Bros. Television would be able, at a point, to finally say, “It doesn’t matter, I’m looking for the actor, and you’re that actor.” I didn’t realize what that even meant. By the way, I don’t read the trades. I’m not on Deadline, I’m not on Hollywood Reporter. I don’t read anything that has to do with this industry.
Nam: But you’re in it, though.
Q: I’m in it, but I don’t — unless someone sends something to me, I don’t think it’s healthy to always read about the industry. I would rather read about politics or the environment or the things I fight for. But I had been sent this Hollywood Reporter cover. It had my photo on it, and I didn’t know why. I was in negotiations for “Nikita.” And I read this article. This woman had written this long, extensive thing about, if I sign this deal, I would be the first Asian American in broadcast drama as a lead, ever.
[e/n: Note: The first Asian American lead in broadcast television was Anna May Wong, in the short-lived 1951 DuMont series “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.” Q, however, remains one of a handful of Asian American female leads to have led a TV series, and “Nikita” one of the longest-running.]
Nam: I remember. We in the community remember.
Q: So I’m sitting there, and I’m like, “What?” It’s that mixture of, “Wait a minute.” I’m so pissed. Are you kidding me that this hasn’t happened before? Because the talent that had come before me, it’s not that they didn’t deserve the opportunity, it’s just they weren’t given the opportunity. It’s not about whether you’re worth it, it’s about whether somebody is seeing that you’re worth it. It just blew me away that it hadn’t happened yet.
Nam: So that was some time ago. Now, present day, are those conversations still happening?
Q: Not really. Not like they were before. It’s changing. I think one of the key things is, Leo, not to accept the things that people want to put you in, or the box that they’ve labeled for you. I’m going in, and they’ve offered me every “Street Fighter,” “Dragon Ball” this, that. Of course. I’m like, thank you, but I don’t want to perpetuate that all Asian actresses do is act and fight, fight and act. Right? There’s so much more to it. And by the way, action films and series are so hard to do. They’re so much harder than anything else. We’re so past the [Jean-Claude] Van Dammes and the [Steven] Seagals and that whole world of, well, if you do action movies, you’re a B-actor. Or a C- or a D-actor. We’ve gone past that. Hollywood’s now way past that, and now A-list actors all want to do action movies. Whereas before, people used to say to me, “Oh, that’s a great movie you did, Maggie. That’s all fine and good, but when are you going to act?”
Nam: “When are you going to act?”
Q: Yeah. And I was like, “How about I act like I’m punching you in the face? You see how it feels, and tell me if it’s real.” [laugh] How about that? So it’s a struggle. It’s always been a struggle.
Nam: Are you finding roles now that are beyond that?
Q: That are not ethnic-specific. I reject that when it comes through, when something is ethnic-specific. Not because I don’t want to play an Asian person in an Asian role, it’s because I need to first go far beyond that, and then be able to make decisions and come back to do what I want in the time. But I have to first break that pigeon hole. Because otherwise I know that there’s another Asian person that can get that role. So I’m going to fight for the role that you want the white girl in. Or you want the black girl in. Because I should be up for that. I shouldn’t just be settling for this, because you’re like, “Well, we’ve got this dry cleaner in the movie and she’s really great and we would love you to play her.” It’s like, f-ck off. No. I’m not accepting what you’ve deemed acceptable for me. I will create my standard and you can deal with it when you’re ready. Asian women are put on some level as sex symbols, or this or that, and when you look at the films they make with the beefcake-y sort of white guys, it’s always that. It’s always that. It’s always the beefy white guy. Do we see Asian men as sexual or as sex symbols?
Nam: Do you?
Q: I do. I think Asian men are very sexy. I only dated exclusively Asian men for a very long time, because I didn’t like body hair.
Nam: [laugh] Yes, we are blessed with that gift.
Q: I didn’t like hair. It was so juvenile of me.
Nam: People have different considerations, and there are different things that unlock different parts of a person’s emotion and a person’s body, so even getting into a character and trying to figure out a way into them comes in many different ways. And part of that can come from the skin. And part of that can come from having a shaved skin. Anyway, I think where we’re at right now with men that are of color — that is such a strange thing to say — I can’t believe that word —
Q: We’re talking about race.
Nam: Yeah. And color, in that way. The white beefy guy that plays these studio roles, tentpole films, right now, yeah, that’s fine and great that that’s out there. But there also does seem to be a cry for some other kind of flavor in there.
Q: Literally they are proving that big studio films that are exclusively white don’t make as much money as the diverse ones. We know this now, in numbers. Now, does it piss me off that we have to prove that we can line your pockets because we’re in it and that’s why you give us opportunity? Yes, that pisses me off. Definitely. Because that’s not the way I should have to prove myself. Right?
Q: But, get the opportunity based on the numbers, prove yourself, and go from there.
Nam: I mean, the color they need to be seeing is green.
Q: Pretty much. That’s the only color they care about.
Nam: Paint me green!
Q: They really just look at you and your skin is green to them — you know, that’s what they’re looking for.
Nam: How do you now approach a project? What’s the criteria for you? Who needs to show up and be like, “Hey, listen.”
Q: One, you look at something as an artist, of course. You want to. But that doesn’t always happen. And then the other thing is, I have always looked at projects that would and will further this community and not put us back, to make sure that as an Asian female, I am choosing roles that are empowering, respectful, galvanizing, all the things that this community needs. When the “Nikita” thing happened, too, I thought, I’m so pissed off that this has happened, but think about how many more opportunities are going to happen if I can prove that in a lead role, it works. I wish I could make decisions just on Maggie, but that’s not how I operate. I’m always reading three books at the same time, I always have different things on my mind. So there’s different things that always have to happen with material that will push or move the needle.
Nam: Is that material showing up for you?
Q: It has been. I’ve been very blessed to kind of be seen by casting directors, directors and people who I haven’t been in the rooms with before. It’s another realm of understanding of who I am and what I have to offer.
Nam: I find that the projects that are coming my way are really, really f-cking exciting right now. It’s starting to get really exciting.
Q: Well, the show you’re on is exciting. And Thandie [Newton] is amazing. She’s a sweetheart.
Nam: Yeah, she’s an absolute, absolute genius. When you get an opportunity to work with an artist that has had a legacy of helping so many people —
Q: The heart is everything. That’s sort of the thing. You work in the industry, you work with a lot of talent, and that’s all fine and good, but there also has to be something behind what you give, and that’s what you give back.
Nam: What’s the role that you’re going to create for yourself right now?
Q: I would like to see more Asians in comedy, to be honest.
Nam: You need to do comedy. You’d be so funny!
Q: We need to do something together.
Nam: We need to do that.
Q: I want to see more Asians in comedy. There are more Asian stand-up comedians, people coming out that are brilliant, absolutely genius. I watch them, and I find them so much funnier than maybe a white person would.
Q: Because they’re talking about their parents, you know what I mean? How you grow up Asian, all those things.
Nam: Yeah. There’s textures.
Q: It’s not just about me, but I want to be writing more, producing, fostering that and finding more Asian talent. I want to push people out there. I don’t want to be in front of the camera forever. What about you?
Nam: I’m really interested in stories of my uncle, of my brother, of my cousins and those stories that usually are unheard. I want to know about and explore stories of the different shames that we have had in families that I believe that you need to bring that down into the living room and say, “Right!”
Q: Asians don’t do that. Another thing that excites me about what you’re saying is, Asians, we don’t tell our modern stories. We tell ancient stories.
Q: We need to tell stories about our modern heroes, people every day who are making a difference. Or just bringing things to light.
Nam: We are people. Asians are people, by the way.
Q: Kind of. [laugh]
Nam: They struggle with autism, they struggle with mental illness. I need those stories to be told when we’re at the dinner table, with our chopsticks. We can talk about this stuff, and no longer are we burying this up in the attic.
Q: It’s not typical. This is the generation that has to do it. Because our parents’ generation is not.