All Ages, Many Wisdoms – Meet Asian Australian actors Charlotte Nicdao, her father Alfred Nicdao and his long time friend Ferdinand Hoang
A special ‘intergenerational’ feature with Charlotte Nicdao and her father Alfred Nicdao, and Alfred’s long-time friend Ferdinand Hoang by AAFFN’s Indigo Willing.
FERDINAND HOANG is known for his work on The Quiet American (2002), Little Fish (2005) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009). He explains with warm humour and humility that, “I am a chap who tries to be an actor & very thankful am still around after a couple of decades; there is the beard* to prove it – who said only Lawrence Leung can grow facial hair!?
ALFRED NICDAO is an actor, known for The Great Raid (2005), Schapelle (2014) and Loot (2004). He made his screen debut in 1979 as a Sumatran fisherman in the seminal Australian television drama The Sullivans. Other work includes Embassy(1992) as well as in Aussie favourites Neighbours, MDA, Blue Heelers, Stingers, City Homicide and Sea Patrol. Over the years, he has played various Asian ethnicities, and at AFFN we especially love this photo of him as we know him, a true blue quintessential Asian Australian guy, photographed in a Midnight Oil t-shirt.
CHARLOTTE NICDAO is a Melbourne based singer-songwriter and actress. Her acting career began with a lead role in the AACTA nominated children’s series A Gurl’s Wurld which filmed on location in Sydney, Singapore and Germany. She contributed to the soundtrack for the series, co-writing some of the songs and singing on each track. Charlotte has joined ABC dramas The Slap and Time of Our Lives in guest roles, the latter of which featured her performing her original songs in character. In 2013 Charlotte was cast in the NBC prime-time series Camp as Grace – the quirky adopted daughter of a gay couple, who develops a romance with the camp director’s (Rachel Griffiths) son. In 2014 Charlotte will appear in the second season of award winning Australian comedy Please Like Me.! Charlotte studied music at the Victorian College of the Arts and the VCA Secondary school. In 2011 she was a finalist in the prestigious Generations in Jazz Vocal Scholarship. In 2012 Charlotte launched her original pop project Charlotte Nicdao and The Sloth Orchestra, her debut crowd-funded EP will be released later in 2014.
IW: Let’s get an insight into what you’re all currently working on. What’s a project you’ve felt really proud of and artistically enriched from being a part of recently?
My favourite project to date is the SBS drama Better Man, written and directed by Vietnamese/Australian Khoa Do. The lead character, Van Nguyen, is played by Malaysian/Australian Remy Carou. I believe this mini series showed that Asian Australian artists have the skills to deliver high quality drama that tells important stories. Next up, I am about to work on a stage play about people trafficking.
I recently worked on Maximum Choppage and the feature movie Sucker, two separate projects which are completely different, and yet in a quirky kind of way is intrinsically related; a bit like a set of twins who are individual beings and yet share similar genes – hope it makes sense. Also, I will be working on the ABC comedy ‘It’s a Date – series 2’
I’ve recently finished working on Please Like Me! which has been a ridiculously enjoyable experience, not least because the cast and crew were amazing – but also because my character, Jenny, was a complete weirdo and different to any other role I’ve ever approached. It was probably the most challenging project I’ve ever been a part of. Then, I’m about to start work on an independent film that I’m not really allowed to start talking about yet – but I’m having a great time working with the director/writer on my character. The script is exploring a fairly untouched genre for Australian films, I think, and it will be exciting to see how people respond to it.
IW: How did you all begin acting and what is one of the best experiences you’ve had doing film and TV?
It all started when the beloved Joyce Yuen ‘encouraged’ a very reluctant me to audition for commercials, etc. There are so many, but I choose ‘Thank God You’re Here’. You have got one shot, you don’t know what the invited guest will say, you are still a virgin at this & you feel like a gladiator inside the Colosseum arena at the mercy of hundreds of audiences showing either their thumb up or… DOWN. I think the producers were more nervous than I.
When I was growing up in Manila, I always kept myself busy during the school holidays. One summer, I signed up to attend a community acting workshop organised by one of the city’s major theatre companies, PETA, which is similar to Melbourne’s MTC. I met new people and I loved the idea of being involved in something creative and collaborative. From there I started working in radio drama and I was reluctant to move to Australia as I felt my acting career was starting to take off in Manila. I think every experience is the best experience. But one that stands out for me is when I did the ABC TV series “Mercury” in the mid 90s. That series was like going to school and learning how to become a proper actor. The ensemble cast included some of the best actors in the country including Geoffrey Rush.
I kind of fell into acting. I was really focused on music for most of my life, and I was pretty certain that I wanted to be a musician. Dad’s agent, Joyce, at Phoenix Artists, knew me since I was really little and occasionally would put me up for things if she thought I was right, but it wasn’t really something I thought would grow into something. Even after working on ‘a gURLs wURLd’ I went straight back to studying music. It was actually after I got really close to and then missed out on a role I really wanted in 2011 that I realised maybe I really wanted to be an actor. I was so upset when the job fell through, I started thinking maybe I cared more about this than I thought. So I dropped out of my music course to start acting classes, and I decided to just focus on making the acting career thing work and see what happened!
Weirdly, the first thing that comes to mind (when thinking about the good experiences) isn’t a job that I booked. I did a full day audition/workshop for a feature film that I had been shortlisted for a few years ago that was probably the first time I ever “dropped in”, it was actually before I even knew what “dropping in” was. We were doing an exercise I know now was a Meisner exercise and I just really naturally went with what was happening in my body and my brain and had this really intense and awesome experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been relaxed or open enough to do that again, I’ve been so focused on chasing it! I didn’t end up getting the role, they decided to go with someone much younger, but the experience of the audition itself made me feel like I’d achieved something really important regardless.
IW: Even though you once dropped out of a music course to focus on acting, you still perform as a singer and musician. Tell us about your ongoing love of music and your current band.
I’ve been studying music since I was four, I started as a classical pianist and then picked up clarinet. I always loved writing songs, and I started to get really into jazz music in my teens. I studied jazz as a vocalist at VCA, but around the same time I decided to try to be an actor I also decided I was probably never going to be as good a “serious” musician as I wanted to be. After I left the course I got a few of my friends who are amazing jazz musicians together to play some pop songs I’d been writing, and we had heaps of fun and I thought “I could totally do this!”.
The band now (we’re called Charlotte Nicdao and the Sloth Orchestra) is a bit of a fun catastrophe of pop and jazz and wine and costumes. We are bringing out our debut EP later this year – which I’m really excited about!
IW: What has been one of the more frustrating aspects about working in film and TV?
When people ask me to do accents other than my own – I struggle with accents. Or when they assume that because I’m Asian I can speak Asian languages.
I think it is very frustrating being an Asian actor in Australia – but I think it’s also a really complex issue to verbalise. I watched the Logies this year and remember thinking: My caucasian friends whowatch this will see all these (very talented) blonde women being nominated for awards and think ‘I hope one day I get the opportunity to play a role like that’, but what I’m thinking is ‘I hope one day I get to play the best friend of a role like that’.
When I read scripts without being given a specific character to read for, I immediately gravitate to supporting roles – because I know that there’s no way I’ll be cast as the lead unless it’s specified that the character is Asian. I was born in Australia and had a pretty traditional Australian upbringing, but because of the way I look – I think it’ll be a long time before Australian film and television see me as anything but a supporting character.
Having said that – my friend Remy won the award for breakthrough performance in Better Man, the first Asian actor to win a Logie (which is insane!!), and I feel like I’m increasingly being considered for roles that aren’t specified as Asian. The landscape is changing, and I feel like I can contribute by working really hard on my craft, and not taking on roles that encouraging stereotypes.
We understand there are serious commercial considerations, however, it’s heart breaking at times to see producers/directors/script writers playing too safe and change an excellent project into a mediocre one.
IW: Who is one of the stand out inspirations and mentors in your life and why? And what advice would you give others wanting to get into film, music or the arts?
Geoffrey Rush was an inspiration. I remember coming home from a shoot one day and telling my wife how amazing this actor Geoffrey Rush was and how inspiring it was to watch him go through the process. He was not yet famous as it was just before Shine was released, but it was no surprise to me that he has gone on to so much success.
If you want to do acting because you want to be famous, don’t do it. If you want to do it because there is something inside you that you want to express and share with an audience, then give it a try. You don’t need to do a course, just get involved in any way that you can – school productions, community theatre, participating in student projects such as short films – any avenue where you can practice your skills and grow your confidence.
In the acting circle, again there are many but one who stands out is Michael Caine who is so supportive to work with, and he’s a real English gentleman.
My advice to others wanting to get into film, music or the arts is to follow your passion, your heart and have fun. If you are after money and fame only, invest first in a good crystal ball.
Obviously my Dad is a huge influence, I probably wouldn’t have even considered acting if it wasn’t something he was so passionate about. He and my Mum have been incredibly supportive of my acting work, and also made clear to me since I was little that if this is the kind of work I want to do it should be because I love it, and I want to be good at it – not because I want to be “famous”. My Dad managed to pursue his acting career and kick so many amazing goals under the most difficult of circumstances. From his childhood in Manila where this kind of ambition would’ve been ludicrous, to navigating an Australian film and TV landscape in a time that would’ve been much less open to a performer of his background, to the work he continues to approach now with so much excitement and enthusiasm – he’s a pretty inspiring man.
Only get into acting or music or the arts if you honestly couldn’t be happy doing anything else. It’s an incredibly difficult field to work in, it’s often heartbreaking and almost always an uphill battle – so if there’s another career you think would fulfil you, do that instead. But if you absolutely must be an artist – find every way possible to be as good as you can at what you do, and it can be a very rewarding way to live.
IW: Tell me Alfred, as a father, how do you feel about your daughter following you into the entertainment world, and what she’s done in her career?
She has such great creativity and courage to take this industry head on. It is a very tough and sometimes cruel industry. There are more downs than ups. But she’s resilient and realistic, and that makes me very proud.
When I first saw Charlotte in her first TV appearance in a kids show “Fergus McPhail”, I was surprised at her natural ability to perform in front of a camera. It was then that I started to worry that she was getting into this very difficult industry!
IW: What are some good memories you have about Ferdinand as your friend and peer as an actor?
With Ferdinand, it was actually when I attended the first AAFFN meeting in Melbourne a couple of years ago, and Ferdinand invited me along – one of the short films shown had his son as the lead. It made me feel so proud of him for encouraging and supporting his son to give this industry a go.
Also, with Ferdinand, when I saw him in The Quiet American. Watching him perform a scene with Michael Caine is what every actor can only dream of, any average actor would have just frozen, and Ferdinand did it with ease.
IW: What, Ferdinand, is one of your favourite memories about Alfredo and his family and his career?
I remember first meeting Alfredo during an audition in the early days and was deeply impressed by his relaxed manner (I was a nervous wreck then) and his trademark friendliness. I know his family much later and am amazed that the whole family is so arty – Louise is a very good painter among other skills; and Charlotte, her talents we are already witnessing…
I saw Alfredo in an ABC/BBC production called ‘The Bite’ in 1996 and was like WOW-ed that an Asian actor actually had lines… and worked opposite big names like Hugo Weaving, Pamela Rabe, Shane Connor, etc.
IW: Can you talk about some great memories you’ve shared with your Dad in your career and what it’s like for you to see your Dad on the screen Charlotte?
Every time I book a job (or even when I don’t end up booking it) and my Dad hugs me and says he’s proud of me is very special. Pretty sentimental answer, I know, but it’s absolutely true.
A time I’ve seen him on screen and thought, “wow, that’s my Dad!” was on Blue Heelers and we all sat down as a family to watch it and he was terrifying in the role – I almost couldn’t watch it, he made such a scary villain!
IW: What do you all most look forward to in the future for Asian Australians in the screen scene?
Maybe it will be good when there is a time when the adjective ‘Asian’ and even ‘Australian’ will be redundant to describe an actor in any screen scene? And anywhere in the world.
More multi cultural talent on our screens, more stories about real people who made Australia what it is today, more audiences watching locally made drama.
I’m looking forward to when the characters we see on screen reflect the characters we see all around us in real-life, modern Australia. Not just for Asian Australians, but performers of every ethnic background. Someday the lead in a rom-com will be an Asian man, the teen coming-of-age film will star an Indian girl and someone will write a Jason Bourne style action thriller for me to star in.
*Ferdinand’s infamous beard to rival Lawrence Leung