Meet Khanh Trieu
An AAFFN interview with Khanh Trieu
With a move to LA and Hollywood on the horizon, the AAFFN focuses on the rising career of Khanh Trieu, a performing artist with experience and training in acting, modeling, music, martial arts and fight choreography. His background is Vietnamese Australian, and he has played a range of ethnicities and characters in short films, TV shows, web series and commercials. Asia Look Talent and Model Management describes Trieu as “one of our more valuable talent assets” due to “talent he has and this, combined with a willing and passionate approach to varied and eclectic assignments”. A hard worker with a natural and interesting, memorable stage presence, he studied acting at the Australian Academy of Dramatic Arts, earning a $7000 scholarship towards one year of study at the New York Film Academy. He also holds Bachelor of Laws and Commerce degrees, and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. Well known and well liked throughout the arts community, Trieu provides his time and support to a range of creative and community projects emerging within the Asian Australian community and beyond.
Trieu recently co-starred with David Field in the short film, Convenience which was part of the official selection of shorts to screen at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2012. He also had a role as a fight choreographer in Australia’s Next Top Model 2011, hosted by Sarah Murdoch, where Trieu instructed contestants on choreography he designed, while also drawing on his experience as a model. His TV work includes the Australian series Housos and Headland, and his recognition has continued to rise with the release of MTV EXIT’s music film clip “This Song Saved My Life” which was released across 168 countries on all MTV platforms.
Q1: One of your achievements is your range, whether it be comedy, drama or action, commercial or art house, you are seamless in the way you integrate into the story the way directors aim, yet make each role your own. I’ve seen you play tough man, tender guy and funny as hell. Tell me a bit more about these contrasts. What have been some of your favourite, and more diverse roles?
Diversity is a principle to which I live my life by and encourage others to do similarly because as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life and I’d like to experience as much as possible in my lifetime. Consequently, as an actor, I’ve found myself applying that principle in choosing a wide range of characters to portray. It’s both more interesting, and technically challenging, which is important to my development as an artist.
A few of my favourite roles include playing a Japanese celebrity in short film Bars and Tone, a Thai terrorist in TV show Housos and a Japanese chef in upcoming TV commercial ‘Legendary Suitjamas’. Each role differed in background and personality but were equally exciting to perform. Learning the script language was also quite challenging but as they say you’re not making any real progress until you’re put out of your comfort zone.
Q2. It takes hard work to do what you do, but also there’s numerous rewards. What are some of these you can reflect on when looking back at your most recent projects you’ve worked on?
Moving on from project to project I’ve managed to gain more exposure and recognition as a professional actor which is one of the things I’ve strived for since day one. However, I’ve come to realise more important things like being selfless in helping other performers find work and how important it is to develop and maintain professional relationships with everyone I meet or get to work with. The benefits in doing so may not come right away but one day in the future your present actions will come back to either help you or bite you on the ass. I know because I’ve learnt the hard way!
Q3: There’s this ongoing thing with beer ads right now to have a more diverse cast of ‘blokes’. Usually an Asian. This is great, not because the AAFFN have a secret deal with a brewery promoting beer drinking or rampant masculinity that dictates any link between beverages and genders, but because it’s typically seen as an iconic Aussie past time. It’s a big deal to see Asian faces normalized in the context of BBQs and beers, rather than just woks and sake. How did that role come about and what was the shoot like in terms of performing a ‘bloke with beer’?
I think the role you’re referring to is my part in a TV commercial for cricket team Sydney Thunder’s mascot Maximus Thunder, in which I hold a stubby of beer standing around a BBQ.
The role came about through a casting website called Starnow. Basically I applied for the role online and was cast by the production company, Kontented. The shoot was a lot of fun and flowed quite smoothly. All cast and crew got along really well and the director was able to nurture natural performances out of the cast. It was one of the most pleasant sets I’ve ever worked on! I think they made a nice decision to cast an Asian bloke in the ad, maybe for demographic reasons or maybe they were simply being open minded. Either way it was a positive decision that reflected a forward thinking group of professionals. Thanks Kontented! [Note also see Trieu in a Wild Turkey ad, bourbon being another realm where Asian faces haven’t always been commonly cast].
Q4: As Asian Australians, we all know the casting opportunities available out there have often been restricted to stereotypes of being drug dealers, and all round general evil people. These roles are actually good dramatic opportunities and do reflect a certain part of the social world and a range of stories well worth telling, yet there is also various other roles that Asian Australians could and should play. What’s the attitude you take in when you are cast to play a ‘stereotypical’ role to make the most of the performance and make it interesting?
Well first of all beggars can’t be choosers, so if I get cast into a stereotypical role, and I have been, I’d just go ahead and do it to the best of my ability especially if there’s a paycheque attached. Work is work. Performing as a drug dealer, terrorist, kung fu bad guy, thug, karaoke singer, boat person and a crazy chef has been a great deal of fun and technically challenging. The good thing about stereotypical roles is that there’s already a blueprint for you to go by to base your own performance on.
What I bring to the table to make things interesting are my own idiosyncrasies, nuances, quirkiness and in your face attitude. But then again when required to I’d exert these characteristics whether the role is a stereotypical one or not.
I don’t mind playing the stereotypical roles because I take the view that they won’t be and haven’t been the only roles I’ll play. I don’t see it as being racist because these roles or characters actually exist in life. Some less stereotypical roles I’ve played include a doctor, bank manager, employee, patient, boyfriend and school bully. I’m positive the future of Australian film and TV will be more reflective and receptive to Asian Australian experiences.
Q5: What kinds of roles and films do you see out there for Asian Australians that are pushing the boundaries for our community, and possibly breaking the barriers?
Films by Khoa Do. Khoa’s Footy Legends is a good example, although I’m not sure how successful it was in breaking barriers but it certainly tried to.
There are films and roles out there for Asians, but they don’t necessarily reflect Asian Australian experiences e.g Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story and Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer.
Ang Lee’s films like Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman certainly pushed cultural barriers but they’re not uniquely Australian stories.
Q6: Martial arts has been a huge influence to you. It looks cool, but behind the style and ease with which you execute the moves, it takes hard work! How have you developed your style and felt you’ve been able to showcase it best?
I have over 15 years experience in martial arts training including kickboxing, ninjutsu, karate, kung fu and Filipino stick fighting. The most prominent school I attended was the International Cultural and Martial Arts Shinbukan in Lane Cove. For the first 10 years I trained heavily with a daily routine and I used to train to the point of exhaustion. I don’t do that anymore! Over the past 6 years due to the people I’ve met or worked with on films and TV productions I’ve learnt new things and refined my techniques. These days I only train 2-3 days a week, not because I’m lazy but because there has been a definite shift in focus and action to dramatic and comedic performances which I spend more time practising and developing.
Stylistically I have been influenced by Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa.
I think my best showcase was in September 2012 filming a series of promo clips for Foxtel Channel V Music Oz Artist 2012. I got to choreograph and perform multiple fight sequences in a boxing ring setting with a fusion of kung fu, kickboxing and wrestling styles. It was an amazing shoot working with a team of talented performers and crew.
Q7: You have worked with many people in the Australian acting, film and TV community. What’s the general vibe like when local folks want to go work overseas in places like Hollywood and other places in the USA? Much support and buzz?
It’s well known that LA as opposed to any other American city, is one of the biggest film hubs in the world. I know quite a few Sydney actors who have made the move to LA with varying degrees of success. A couple of actresses have managed to score regular TV gigs on popular US shows and have set themselves up. Most however go over to check things out or come back realising they need to do more before going back.
Personally, it’s a new thing for me. A friend of mine went for 5 weeks September-October 2012 and came back sharing a lot of industry info which was highly valuable and essentially planted the idea in me to make the move to LA in 2013. Since December 2012, I’ve been preparing and collecting documentation required to support my O1B visa application which I’ve yet to lodge. I’m currently waiting on three more letters of recommendation from producers before giving my US lawyer the go ahead. The move to LA is contingent on getting this visa, so fingers crossed!
Q8: No one lives in a vacuum, we all have influences and people who inspire us to get out there and do our thing. Who have some of those people been for you (famous and/or non-famous)?
Bruce Lee has been a significant influence on me as a human being and accordingly as an actor. He was a child actor, a Cha Cha champion, a philosophy student at University and an inventor of a martial arts style. Looking back to my childhood, I would have to say that if my dad had never introduced me to Bruce Lee films and films in general, I don’t think I’d be an actor today. It isn’t because he was the greatest actor – it’s more to do with what he symbolised and stood for. He used to say ‘Let no limitation be your limitation’ – that blew my mind back then and still does to this day! Likewise, the way he looked physically left a permanent mark. I’ve been wanting an abdominal six pack for years!
My Dad also had an important part to play in my exposure to the entertainment industry. It was because of him that I immersed myself in films most days/nights as a young boy. He used to hire heaps of movies from the local video store and bring them home to watch, it was all there was to do apart from playing backyard cricket, growing up in country town Warwick Queensland. My brothers and I would watch kung fu, action, comedy and drama films nearly every day/night whilst my parents ran a service station/restaurant.
During my completion of the Suzuki Violin program, from ages 6-14, Dad encouraged me to play the violin for the Warwick Community Youth Orchestra and later in 1996, halfway through my law degree, suggested I enrol in a Music course at the University of New England. I never finished the music course but it was an experience I would draw upon later in 2006 when I enrolled in Contemporary Performance at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney.
Mrs McVeigh and Mrs Edwards, teachers at my primary school Warwick West, thought that I’d make a great actor and with their support I performed in amateur productions of The Nutcracker, Alice In Wonderland, Swan Lake and The Pirates of Penzance.
So thanks to this early exposure and encouragement from Dad and my primary school teachers, my love and passion for the performing arts was born and bred.
Q9: People can learn all their lives from others at how to do something but at the end of the day, what makes someone unique and be their best is their own unique personality and life lessons. How much does where you grew up and your own life experiences influence who you are and what you bring to the screen or any project you’re a part of?
To put it simply I am the sum of everything I’ve learnt and experienced in life. Everything I do has been reflected by the things I’ve been exposed to or have bore witness to, tempered by the values and personal beliefs I have and would like to share with others.
I’m grateful to the people who have provided me with inspiring films to watch, and to those who’ve given me support and career opportunities because in learning to adapt to their vision or creative ideals in my performances I have grown and improved as an actor and human being.
As a result, I believe in goodwill, love, beauty, music, art, travel, laughter, humour, food, peace, unity, diversity, action, excitement, sacrifice, magic and hope. I bring these beliefs with me everywhere I go, especially hope.
It’s important to have hope because, as we all know, life isn’t always rosy and will hit you where it hurts most when you least expect it. Hope helps us come to terms with terror, evil, sadness, depression, hate, loneliness, fear and loathing. Hope allows us to make the most of life and is the reason I’m planning to go to LA!
Q10: What’s next?
Aside from my move to LA there are a few other projects up and running.
There are plans for me to work on a couple of Bollywood films shooting in Sydney and India which I’ve yet to finalise but have already auditioned for and entered into discussions with, including one called My Cornerstone. It’d be great to work on something so culturally diverse!
I’m also presently involved in script reading workshops for Dead to Me, a film dealing with suicide and gun themes which should be an eye opener and really worthwhile doing with such a topical issue – the dangers of guns. The film is slated for a shoot schedule in January 2013.
Interview with Khanh Trieu by AAFFN’s Indigo Willing, January 2013. Photos courtesy of Khanh Trieu. IMBd page here.