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Marsha Marsha Marsha: An Interview with Marsha Yuan

Written by Shelley Cheung Tell a Friend

Actress. Singer. Model. Miss Hong Kong. Cheng Pei Pei's daughter. After seven years in the Hong Kong entertainment industry, the label most associated with Marsha Yuan may still be the last one, but the American-born 28-year-old actress is slowly finding a path in the industry on her own terms.

In person, Marsha Yuan is friendly, straightforward, and quite serious and talkative. The Hong Kong media tends to paint Marsha in a rather lightweight manner, choosing to focus on her looks, body shape, and relationships, but she is actually very dedicated to acting. Then again, contrary to the weight-obsessed perspective of the media, she is also quite slim. Throughout our interview, Marsha showed a sincere passion and a professional attitude towards the art of performance. After all, she did not fall into this profession by accident. Marsha started taking dancing and singing lessons at a young age and has always enjoyed performing. She studied musical theater at New York's American Musical & Dramatic Academy (AMDA) before coming to Hong Kong to pursue her dreams.

For Hong Kong audiences, Marsha Yuan is probably still best remembered for her comic turn in the hit TV series War of the Genders (2000) starring Dodo Cheng and Dayo Wong. Or for her endearing image and American-accented Chinese during the 1999 Miss Hong Kong pageant, where a first runner-up finish launched her career in the entertainment business. Since then, her Chinese has improved astronomically, and she has appeared in various television dramas and films, most notably Edmond Pang's popular comedy Men Suddenly in Black. Recently, Marsha revisited her role for the aptly named sequel, Men Suddenly in Black 2, which hit theaters in September this year.

Women Suddenly in Black

Released in 2003, the first Men Suddenly in Black parodied triad films like Infernal Affairs with the witty depiction of a tight fraternity of men whose elaborate cheating mission is foiled when their wives and girlfriends catch scent of their wrongdoing. Starring Eric Tsang, Jordan Chan, and Chapman To, the film proved to be a hit in Hong Kong. Three years later, the tables are turned with the sequel shifting focus to the women who are also on the prowl for some action.

Marsha, returning as Jordan Chan's innocent, soft-spoken wife, put a lot of time and thought into her role. "This time when I first started the film, I knew that the women, that our roles would be stronger. I really wanted to do well with it, with the acting. I took everything one notch more serious." In the film, Marsha's character experiences an important transformation. Starting out as the most timid and trusting of the females, she is also the one who eventually lets down her hair the most. "The acting, the character from the very beginning until the end, had development and I felt that the character actually had a character. Some of the other actresses, their characters didn't really have a set character, and I think my character was more well rounded."

Marsha frankly rated her own performance as "okay" while singing praises for her co-star, veteran actress Teresa Mo. "She had more impact on me, because a lot of time she had her suggestions and got me through some of the scenes that I really didn't understand as much." For one scene in particular, Teresa Mo offered priceless advice: get drunk.

For the scene in question, Marsha had to whip Jordan Chan while dressed only in leopard-print lingerie. It was a crucial moment of emotional release for her character and a crucial experience for Marsha as an actress, as it was the first time she had done such an open and daring scene. "Teresa Mo called me and said you have to drink. You have to get drunk so that you'll completely let go. At first, I didn't want to because I was fasting at that time." In the end, a sober Marsha felt uncomfortable during the shoot and with the results.

Unsatisfied with her performance, Marsha approached producers Teresa Mo and Eric Tsang the next day for a chance to re-shoot the scene. This time, Marsha heeded Teresa Mo's advice and drank half a bottle of dessert wine before shooting. "Actually, that whole scene had both the day that I didn't drink and the day that I drank mixed up in there. When I watched it again, I realized that when I didn't drink, it was still okay. I don't know how the rest of the scene was, but it did help me towards the end, when I was actually getting angry with him."

Marsha candidly shared her filming experiences, but stayed mum about the mystery surrounding the director of Men Suddenly in Black 2. Originally attached to Aubrey Lam (Twelve Nights), the film was later billed under rookie male director Zhong Qing. "They originally really wanted the film to be women. Woman director, woman producer, and then talking about the women. Now for me, I know who the director was, but I'm confused as to - what are we supposed to say?"

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Given her love for performance, one cannot help wondering how much Marsha has been influenced by her mother, legendary Shaw Brothers actress Cheng Pei Pei. Like her mother, Marsha has a dancing background, and she too has dabbled in action in such films as Undiscovered Tomb (2003), which was advertised as Hong Kong's answer to Tomb Raider.

"When I was growing up in the United States, I didn't really realize how famous my mother was. I'd go maybe once in a while to the Chinese market and someone would recognize her, but my idols were all Hollywood and Broadway." For Marsha, acting and singing were passions she developed on her own, independent of her mother. She acknowledges her mother's hand over her decision to come to Hong Kong to pursue her career, but finds that she influences her mother more when it comes to performing. "She doesn't actually enjoy performance as much as I do. She likes to go in, do the scene, and then just throw the scene away. But I like to work on it, develop it."

It is no surprise that Ang Lee tops the list of directors Marsha would like to work with. "I've heard so many good things about him from my mother, and he's in Hollywood now so there's a chance for me to act with a director who's more international." She also hopes to work with Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung some day.

As for working with her mother, the mother-daughter duo had previously appeared together onscreen in Mainland China period drama Yang's Heroine. When asked if another collaboration was possible, Marsha noted, "I hope that in the future I can do something with her that will be more challenging for both us. Maybe a movie will probably be better than doing a drama series." The Return of the Golden Swallow, perhaps?

All That Jazz

Classically trained in singing, Marsha's first passion actually lies with music, particularly musical theater. "For me, I think it's more about the live performance. I like live performance more than I like doing film, because there's more of a development. There's more time to develop your character, there's more time to get to know the cast, and there's a flow from the beginning to end." In the past few years, she has starred in quite a few Hong Kong musicals, including The Sound of Music, Musical Moments, and the curiously titled Turtles in Tollywood.

Marsha will be taking her love for music one step further this November with the release of her debut album Just for You. She spared no expenses for the production. "It started out as a very small project and kept getting bigger," she remarked with a laugh. Produced by famed Hong Kong pianist Phoebus Chan, Marsha's debut EP consists of five original Mandarin jazz songs. The music was recorded in Shanghai in 5.1 surround sound, while vocal recording was done in Hong Kong. Marsha describes her music as a fusion, "a mixture of jazz, a mixture of theater, and a mixture of Chinese."

Mandarin-language jazz may not be the most commercially viable route, but Marsha has a special affinity for jazz, because the manner of expression is closer to musical theater. "Jazz is actually quite difficult because it's more about feeling. I've had too happy of a life. I need more sadness, because in jazz it's more about feeling and I think through experience and life in general, I can probably develop that feel more."

Given Hong Kong's ailing music market and the rather niche audience for jazz, Marsha has realistic expectations for her album. "I know that record sales aren't doing very well, so I'm not expecting to be number one or anything like that, but I'm hoping this will open more doors for me for performance. And hopefully people will see I can sing."

From Miss Hong Kong to Mando-jazz, the United States to Hong Kong, Marsha has already come a long way, and she hopes to continue developing her career and performing skills. As Cheng Pei Pei's daughter, she will always have big shoes to fill. But as Marsha Yuan, she has even bigger dreams to fulfill.

Published November 29, 2006

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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