Leslie Ishii plays Mrs. Chang on Lost and The Lost Interviews wanted to ask her some questions, for instance about how it all works on the set. A HUGE thanks to contributor Kevin for conducting this interview on the phone.
TLI: What inspired you to become an actress?
I'm Japanese-American, third generation. I started out in theater with the Northwest Asian American Theater Company in Seattle. We had a fundraising performance for a gentleman named Gordon Hirabayashi. He had broken the curfew during World War II and was incarcerated (for 90 days), which he believed was in violation of his rights. It was years later, and he had a Supreme Court case coming up (in which he would ultimately have his conviction overturned). The place was standing room only. We told the story of those interned during WWII and Gordon Hirabayshi and everybody was very moved. It was very powerful to see the audience's reaction in support of this community member. It was the first time that these stories had been told publicly since WWII. For the internees in the cast, it was the first time they had spoken of their stories at all. Many families had not spoken of these stories since they happened. I recall my Dad mentioning at intermission that he was in the restroom and saw men crying. Asian men could be very close to their vests in showing their emotions. I saw how powerful storytelling was and knew it was something I had to do more of.
TLI: You have appeared in many well-known TV shows, and one of them was Party of Five. Did you meet Matthew Fox during that role?
It was one of my first jobs in Hollywood. I played a nurse and he was actually the person I had my scene with. I don't know if he would remember it but he was very seasoned and very kind. He put everyone at ease. We did not cross paths on Lost, though.
TLI: Did you watch Lost before you came on the show?
I watched the first season pretty religiously and thought it was really funny that they had this show where a plane crashed and they got lost on this island, and it was airing at the same time as Survivor, a reality show that had no plane crash but involved a group of people on a beach trying to survive. I watched both of those shows and was fans of both the reality and the scripted versions. I don’t watch Survivor anymore, but I still watch Lost. It did get a little slow in the second season, but the third season picked up and the fourth season was great – it got deeper and more intense.
TLI: What was your audition like at the beginning?
I auditioned last August. I was away seeing my husband at a Shakespeare festival and was in the airport when I found out I was going to have an audition. When I received the sides (the excerpts of the scene I was going to play in the audition), it was very exciting. I hadn't auditioned for Lost since way back before it started. I think the part back then was a nurse but it wasn't pivotal and I didn't end up getting it. All this time later, here was another round of auditions. In TV, pretty much what we audition with is what we're going to shoot, so I assumed the scene I was given would be in the episode. Then I got the script and it was the only script I had received at home. I called my agent and said, “Am I still in the episode? Because I didn't read the scene I auditioned for.” She said, “Oh, that's because they're very secretive. They're not going to let out any material that will really be shot.”
TLI: Could you describe the scene you acted in the audition?
The side was great. Dr. Chang and I were on an airplane and it appeared we were coming back from having spent a short period of time when Dr. Chang was being recruited to join the Dharma Initiative. He spent that period of time going to seminars. I (Lara) was upset because it felt like there were throwing me a bone. They thought it would be enticing for me to sign because I would have my own job, as well, as a lab tech. I felt it was beneath me (as Lara was a scientist in her own right). We had this very young child. It made me seem like I was on the fence about this as a family. It ended with us being positive about the decision, but I had to see if it would be fulfilling for me.
TLI: What was it like playing Lara?
I have really enjoyed playing Lara. They made her so interesting at every juncture of her life. I would be so grateful to continue playing her if that's in the cards next season. She's so multi-faceted.
TLI: When you filmed the first scene of Season 5, did you know that the baby was in fact Miles?
When we shot that first sequence in the season opener we did not know that the baby was Miles. My question was, “Did we have the baby on the island or have the baby and bring him there?” I thought a little bit about it but was leaving my mind open.
The first scene I filmed was when Lara was in bed and the baby cries. One scene they didn't end up using was Lara talking with Dr. Chang before he left for work, but because they established them as a couple well enough they didn't need to use the second one is my guess.
TLI: What was it like working with Francois Chau?
Francois, I've know him a lot of years through the Asian American theater. His wife is an actor, too, and an amazing singer and performer. It was a real joy to see I'd be playing opposite him. We all belong to East West Players Asian American Theater in Los Angeles, one of the oldest Asian American theaters in the country. One of the key founders was Mako.
TLI: And Ken Leung?
Ken is a wonderful actor. We had a lovely talk. Once the scene was over and we were on set waiting, we had a few minutes to chat and kind of connect, before he looks in the house and sees himself as a baby. It didn’t take long before we realized we have many mutual friends.
TLI: What was it like shooting the deathbed scene?
Ken approached it perfectly, in my humble opinion. Before we shot that scene, we didn’t talk a lot. He was in his own place emotionally and I was in mine. I think it was perfect because it didn’t diffuse the emotional impact. The process ended up lending itself to the scene because Miles hadn’t seen his mother for quite some time, so I think we achieved something… an emotional distance. Well, and by now, you all know what happened with that scene and after it.
TLI: What surprised you the most on set?
Jack Bender directed the scene where my character was very ill. Both he and Stephen Williams (who directed “Follow the Leader”) are a dream come true for an actor. They're collaborative. They know you've thought about your part. They both know how to talk to an actor about the technical as well as the emotional. Sometimes you get one or the other with directors. They were hands-on with the actors, which was fantastic. It's a great crew, as well as the artists in the make-up and hair departments. It's a pretty well-oiled machine now. I had a great experience.
TLI: Who are your favorite Lost characters?
They’re all very interesting. I would have to say that when I first started watching, the language of the Sawyer character always got me. The writing was so unique. He would try to express himself by comparing something to something we already knew about. It was very delightful.
Matthew Fox does a great job as Jack. I enjoy the Locke character, too. I met Terry O’Quinn and he was wonderful, very friendly. I met Elizabeth Mitchell and she was friendly, and Josh Holloway was very welcoming and friendly. What’s lovely about this cast is that you never get a sense of hierarchy on set. It was a real pleasure to work with and meet all of them.
TLI: Do people recognize you because you played Lara Chang?
I get recognized a little bit. My brother asked me to sign an autograph. (laughs) When visiting my husband at the Arkansas Repertory Theater, one of the cast members recognized me from Lost and that was really unexpected. It’s one thing if you’re in L.A. and someone from the business recognizes you, but this was Little Rock. I had no idea Lost had become such a huge phenomenon.
My episodes of Desperate Housewives just aired recently, too. My brother Facebooked me and said, “You have to go online! The Desperate Housewives fans are starting to recognize you from Lost!” You know what's so exciting about Lost and DH fans? As an actor it's really nice to see that there are so many people excited about scripted shows. Writers sit down and really think things through and take us to places we could never go otherwise. I'm really grateful to the fans that they show such enthusiasm.
TLI: Can we expect to see you in Season 6?
Hope springs eternal for next season. It's always a nice surprise when you get that call to go to Hawaii. I have a theory about how Lara could appear again, actually. Not only can they time travel back and forth; we know she was gravely ill but we never actually saw her die.
There's a tiny little segment I filmed during the Dharma evacuation that didn't come up in the last episode, but it looks like it was cut. I can see where it wasn’t needed. This could bode well for my character. If you see too much, it could trap the writers in a corner. If you see less, it gives them more options to keep playing with.
TLI: You know, some fans have a theory that when Miles was talking to his mother, she was already dead...
I love that! That's even better! That's what I love about Lost fans. They're so smart and so imaginative. I love what they come up with.
TLI: Do you ever read Lost fan sites?
I have more so since being on it, but I don't check a lot. Actors hope it's all positive. When I was first cast I went to Wikipedia. I had missed a little of the show here and there but was doing a major review. They had extensive material and I basically printed all of it and read it and enjoyed it. Once you're rehearsing the scene and shooting, the information kind of feeds into it and brings your character alive.
TLI: Why do you think Lost is so popular?
I think it's because of the great imaginations of these writers. I tell people it's a thinking person's show. The fans are so smart and so imaginative and I know the writers are that way, too. The way they paint a scene and come back to it later; it resonates all the way back. Good writing has that kind of depth. Part of being believable is the whole attention to detail. It's a big commitment to watch this show because it's deep and a huge puzzle. You have to be willing to hang in there. It's a quite a journey that they take you on. I think it mirrors how our imaginations work. I’m hooked; I’ve been hooked since the beginning.
TLI: Do you have any theories about Lost?
Between takes in the scene where Dr. Chang was filming the Dharma video, one of the actors who played a Dharma cameraman said his theory was that the island was connected to Atlantis. I've continued to think about this because it would be an interesting premise. Atlantis was known for having all these great experiments. Maybe the Dharma Initiative had that kindred spirit.
TLI: I notice you’ve started a blog. Can you tell me more about it?
I had never blogged before. I had read them but had never written. My students at East West Players said, “You have to get a blog. You're on Lost!” So, they've been coaching me, and my students are a great teacher. They like reading articles from actors and wanted me to write what my experiences are like from an actor's point of view. It’s also a great way to let my family and friends know what I'm doing. The blog is at leslieishiiblog.blogspot.com.
TLI: What are your upcoming projects?
I juggle a lot of balls. I enjoy being creative. While being an actor is my primary job and I love what I do and I'm very grateful to be able to do what I love, I also teach because I believe in bringing up the next generation of actors. I am also a writer. And fans are welcome to come to a reading of a play I’m writing called “Painting By Numbers,” which is based on the Jane Austen novel “Persuasion.” The reading will be on June 30th at 7:30 p.m., at the East West Players Theater in L.A.
I already shot a remake of “Fame” that should come out this fall (Sept. 25th). One day of work was a great amount of fun. I play one of the school administrators. I didn’t get to dance and sing, but I wish I did! It's directed by Kevin Tancharoen, a Thai-American director, and he was wonderful to work with. It's lively and works well as a modern interpretation.
TLI: Would you like to say anything to the fans?
I really appreciate the Lost fans. I come from live theater where you have more immediate feedback to go on. On the Lost sites, people are into the show and really support it. They're such imaginative people. I love reading what they say because they're amazing. They shouldn't underestimate the effect they have on the show. Their enthusiasm has helped keep the show going.