Meet Pearl Tan
Interview with Pearl Tan by AAFFN’s Indigo Willing
Pearl Tan is the director of Pearly Productions, creating independent films and producing videos for businesses and arts organisations. Her work focuses on diversity, as the creator of YouTube series ‘Minority Box’ and as co-chair of the Equity Diversity Committee. She graduated from the NIDA Acting course in 2005. Originally from Western Australia, she also holds a Communications degree majoring in Media Studies from Edith Cowan University. In 2013 she received a Business Leader Postgraduate Scholarship from the University of Sydney to undertake a Master of Commerce, specialising in Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In 2009 she received a Mike Walsh Fellowship to attend the New York Film Academy. She teaches filmmaking at NIDA, screen acting at the Actors Centre Australia and has worked behind the scenes for Channel 7, Channel 9, Network 10, Perth’s 96fm and Faith Martin Casting. Her credits as an actor include Motel (Sydney Theatre Company/Wharf 2Loud), Love’s Triumph (Darlinghurst Theatre) feature films Home Song Stories, Sleeping Beauty and for television Channel 9’s Sea Patrol and ABC’s Nowhere Boys. Follow @PearlyProductns on twitter or visit http://www.pearlyproductions.com for more information.
Tell us about one ‘easy’ and one, ‘oh, so awkward’ experience you had when you first started out in the screen scene?
My first gig out from NIDA was a small role as a nurse in Home Song Stories, directed by the amazing Tony Ayres. I was acting so theatrically and in a hospital scene, pushed a food trolley out in this huge arc towards “the audience” (the camera) then to the patient and Tony said, just move it like you would normally, directly to the patient… and I thought, oh yeah, duh… that felt ‘oh, so awkward’. In the same job there was a scene where I didn’t have any scripted lines, but they wanted us to impro. Joan Chen’s character was in the scene, so I threw a “Hello Aunty” at her, which she had to respond to… so now I can say I’ve acted with her. That was ‘easy’!
Can you describe the first and last time you looked at the screen and thought, yes, this director or actor has made me want to get out there and do more in terms of promoting and seeing diversity on the screen?
My drive to create diverse content comes from quite a personal space. I realised, through the types of roles I was getting auditions for, my range as an actor in Australia was limited by my ethnicity. Seeing the many diverse and immensely talented graduates coming out of drama schools, I really wanted to contribute by working towards expanding the industry to allow them more access to professional work.
Tell us about one of the most ridiculously silly or offensive roles or characters you can recall so far that made you shake your head and feel very frustrated concerning stereotypes about diversity and ethnicity?
I won’t mention specifics, but I do shake my head and feel frustrated when I see a talented actor, from a minority ethnicity, working in an accent, when it seems irrelevant to the story, and I’m aware that their natural accent is Australian. It happens frequently.
What is a classic good example of a film and casting with diversity that isn’t token or stereotypical for you?
Deborah Mailman in ‘The Secret Life of Us’. One of the rare instances on Australian television where the ethnic heritage of a character wasn’t pertinent or referenced in the major storylines.
As a director and filmmaker you have covered comedy and breaking away from ‘dominant’ narratives of family with the short film Babycake, which features a lesbian couple and a gay couple starting a family. The cast is multicultural. And you are in the driving seat as director. Can you share any positive feedback have you had?
My favourite feedback is from gay and lesbian couples who have had children and find the story amusing. One lesbian mother even told me that they were almost offended that the characters almost naturally conceived and were relieved when they didn’t (spoiler!), which makes me laugh. No one talks about the diversity of the cast, which I think is a good thing, as it’s somewhat irrelevant to the story. Some people say it’s quite risky and done in a unique style, which I’ll take as a compliment!
The community of actors in Australia is a richly diverse one, although minorities tend not to get an abundance of the screen time. With Minority Box you have so far covered the challenges that four different populations experience as actors via short interviews (with at least 6 to 8 in each episode): Asian Australians, Indian Australian males, African Australian females and Middle aged women. What are some of the universal issues these actors face?
What I’ve enjoyed the most from creating Minority Box is meeting and talking to the actors off screen. What is remarkable about all of them is their tenacity and acceptance of insecurity that comes with being an actor. I see a beautiful vulnerability in all of them that is a strong, passionate, unapologetic craving to tell great stories and affect people’s lives. Almost all of them have aspirations to create their own work and I get really excited when actors take the power back and leap into producing (hopefully) quality, utterly unique and robust characters.
Keeping the focus for now to Minority Box, what main type of audiences would you like to watch this series and why?
Currently the audience are actors and industry people who have an interest in diversity. They are a wonderfully supportive audience and I am grateful for their eyeballs and subscriptions! I would love for this to open up more widely so that general Australian audiences can have an awareness of the depth of diverse talent in our country and start to demand with ticket sales and their remote controls more uniquely Australian (as opposed to stereotypically Australian) stories.
You were recognised as a finalist for “Best Factual Series” and shortlisted for the “Innovation Award” and “Best Collaboration” Award for Minority Box. What other types of positive outcomes and feedback have you got so far?
Generally people are very encouraging and excited to see something positive being made (without it being just a whinge-fest). They always ask me when the next episode will be out, which is difficult because I’m doing it in my living room, in my spare time… so it takes me around 6 months to complete one short video! My favourite thing about it is when I hear that actors have been cast from the series (which has happened a couple of times!), or that directors or producers note that they will be more considerate of diverse performers as a result.
Pearly Productions and the Symes Group are launching the Independent Theatre Diversity Fund. What’s the main goals of this fund and why did it become necessary to begin?
The main goals of this fund are to give talented independent producers a way of putting on a show with more ease. We will provide a small cash budget, rehearsal space, a video trailer, stills photography, marketing and social media strategy advice and anything else that I can think of and can find support for! There are wonderful examples of great indigenous work being produced (Sapphires, Redfern Now, Black Comedy etc) that are a result of financial support and mentorship from places like Screen Australia and the Australia Council. Learning from this model, I’d love to support diverse work in a more general way to allow more opportunities for development of these unique storytellers. It also aims to bring awareness at a grassroots level, as it will encourage independent producers seeking financial and in-kind support for their show to analyse whether their production includes diversity; if the answer is yes they can apply and if it’s a no, and they now have a fresh awareness of their lack of diversity… and that in itself is a good outcome.
Who are some of the people you’ve been able to work with who have pushed you hard to achieve and made you further believe in yourself and your vision for the screen?
I don’t think I need much pushing to achieve… I’m probably my own best and worst pusher! My incredibly talented friends are incredibly supportive and inspire me when they take their own risks in creating stories that are important to them. Every time I see a talented actor from a diverse background kicking butt, it inspires me to create more opportunities in anyway I can to get them out there in the hope that there will be more visibility of minorities in the mainstream eventually.
What’s next for you?
I will continue to chip away at producing many more Minority Box videos. I’m currently smack bang in the middle of a Master of Commerce, majoring in Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, on a Business Leader Postgraduate Scholarship. This is giving me the skills to create things like the Independent Theatre Diversity Fund and with 10% of Pearly Production profits now pledged back to diversity in the arts, I hope to expand my business and find more innovative ways to generate more diverse visibility and share more inclusive stories. I’m also getting employed as a director more and more with diverse content, which is really satisfying and fun, and look forward to collaborating with more passionate and like-minded people to create more momentum. As Co-Chair of the Equity Diversity Committee alongside Bali Padda and as a National Performers Committee member with Actors Equity Australia we have a few campaigns around diversity planned that are quite fresh and positive… so much… so much to do, so much we can chip away at changing, it’s all very exciting!
View the short film Babycake below: