By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Joan Chen, who notably starred in the Oscar winning film “The Last Emperor” and the ‘90s cult classic TV series “Twin Peaks,” is making a comeback in English-language projects after spending more time in recent years making films in Asia and raising her a family.
She recently discussed by phone some of her recent TV projects that have brought her back into the spotlight in the West: “Marco Polo” and “Serangoon Road.” She also addressed the possibility of returning to the renewed “Twin Peaks” series, reprising her role as the mysterious Josie Packard.
In the historic epic TV series “Marco Polo,” she plays Chabi, empress of the Yuan dynasty. The 10 episodes of the first season delved into the famed explorer’s early years in the court of Kublai Khan. As the chief wife of Khan, she is the influence behind the throne, and the primary conduit for the Venetian explorer to her powerful husband. Though reviews of the Weinstein Co.-produced series in the U.S. were mixed, the elaborate and ambitious series scored satisfactory ratings, and has been renewed for a second season. Chen will reprise the role when the series goes back into production in Malaysia this June.
In “Serangoon Road,” a 2013 10-episode series that aired in Asia and other markets around the world, she plays another historic (though fictional) character. The Australian-Singapore production focuses on small group of individuals during an important time in the island nation’s history—the 1960s. Chen plays Patricia Cheng, the proprietor of a small detective agency, who recruits ex-pat Australian Sam Callaghan (Don Hany) to investigate the circumstances surrounding his mysterious death. Though not a detective herself, Chen’s Patricia Cheng is the calm and cool rudder that keeps engine of the agency running and the heat on the authorities to uncover the truth. The central mystery unfolds as other cases are investigated and resolved and radical political changes are taking place in the bustling international market area. Like an onion, new clues are peeled back in each episode, revealing new clues into Winston Cheng’s death.
The series was shot on location in Singapore and Indonesia in 2012. The detective series is available Tuesday, Feb. 24 on DVD. The DVD includes all 10 episodes on three discs, plus a 9-minute behind-the scenes featurette.[private]
Q: You shot “Serangoon Road” about three years ago. What do you recall about shooting on location?
Chen: A lot of it was shot in Indonesia, in an area that is a boat ride away from Singapore. My part didn’t shoot in Singapore but they shot in Singapore for a while, for less than a month. We built the streets of Singapore mostly on the backlot in Indonesia.
Q: Did you know a lot about this time period in Singapore? Or did you have to go back and research it?
Chen: I did go back and do some reading. That period in Singapore was interesting to me. Many years before, I read the biography by Lee Kuan Yew (the prime minister from 1959-90) and about the independence of Singapore and also about the climate of the region. I read Southeast Asian stories by Somerset Maugham. They’ve always been something I’ve loved reading. That’s a region I like very much. It’s set just before Singapore became independent. It’s politically interesting. You go to Singapore today and you wouldn’t be able to tell the nation is that young. It’s an incredible nation to have built itself up from very little to what it is today. I love the old Singapore streets with the tropical style and colonial houses and all the costumes they wore. The colors and atmosphere was something I liked (about the series).
Q: What attracted you to this project?
Chen: When I first read the script, I loved the period, the atmosphere, everything about it, except for Patricia herself. It was a hard decision to say, “Okay, I will try my best to make this work.” Other than going back to China to do Chinese projects, I hadn’t done an English-language work for a while. Being my age, there aren’t a lot of choices. First of all, being Chinese and way past my prime to actually have an acting opportunity, is difficult (in Hollywood). So I said, “yes,” and helped them improve the character with the producers and the writers, and I feel we got her to a better place in the end. There were big big changes for Patricia.
Q: What was the most significant change to the character made with your input?
Chen: The very fact that she kept the agency open was for a very personal reason. That wasn’t there before. It was all about her husband. That was the motivation of going on to leave it open wasn’t there before. In the beginning, there wasn’t children in her life so we made that part work to add to her. In the beginning it was just that she didn’t have children. But being Asian, I know this would be a big problem, a shame, and this would be the reason the husband might go out and have an affair.
Q: When you were filming, did it feel like you were making a movie or miniseries, rather than a TV series, because western TV shows tends to have a certain pace?
Chen: Yeah, I did. We had the first five episodes directed by Peter Andrikidis, and the second half was directed by Tony Tilse. We got all 10 scripts and we could work on the progression of the characters together with the 10 hours in mind. That’s always a good thing so you know if her motives are not clear in the first two episodes, it’s okay, because you’re considering all 10 episodes together. Unlike traditional TV series, they often do a pilot and then they write the scripts one by one, where you discover slowly, almost with the audience, where the characters are going. With “Serangoon Road,” we had all 10 hours. So when we discussed the characters we really could pace it out.
Q: You have a great cast, with a mixture of Singapore and other Asian actors and Australians. How was it working with co-star Don Hany and the other actors?
Chen: Don is a great person. He’s very upbeat and happy and has a positive energy. He’s a great actor with a beautiful family. I loved all of my co-stars. Something tragic happened to Don, though. He broke his shoulder doing a stunt in one of the episodes. It was horrible. He had to go through surgery in Singapore. It was a very bad accident. He was working in pain. We actually had to stop for a month because he was in so much pain. But he always was so positive. I believe he’s achieving more and more success in Australia now.
Q: Did you return to the U.S. while he was recuperating?
Chen: Basically, we all went home and regrouped.
Q: With you, audiences get feast or famine. You disappear for a while and then you come back and work on a lot of projects. Did “Serangoon Road” and “Marco Polo” just coincidentally come about at the same time or were you actively looking for more English-language projects to do?
Chen: I really wasn’t looking, no. I would go back to China because I still have family and friends there. When I work in Shanghai, I could stay with my parents. Other than that, I wasn’t really looking for projects (in the U.S.) I don’t live in Los Angeles so it would be difficult for me to have meetings and auditions. “Serangoon Road” came up because (series creator Paul D. Barron) had me in mind.
Q: What can you say about returning to “Twin Peaks” in the limited run that David Lynch and Mark Frost are doing for Showtime?
Chen: Not yet. I think they’ve announced some of the actors (Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Dana Ashbrook and Catherine E. Coulson), who have agreed to come back. But they haven’t told me if I’m in or out. I’m curious. There might be a time conflict between “Marco Polo” and “Twin Peaks,” but I’ll do my best to go back and do even one episode. (She laughs.)
Q: The original series (that aired in 1990-91) has a cult following, and there’s been a lot of speculation as to what happened to your character, hotelier Josie Packard. The last time audiences saw her, she was mysterious stuck in a dresser at the Great Northern hotel.
Chen: Yes. I think they’re still writing the script so I’m hopeful to go back for at least a little bit. It would be fun. It would just be great to see all (of my co-stars and the producers) again.[/private]