Lynn Chen: Defining moments as an actor

Chen in the BuzzFeed video "Disneyland Foods You Have to Try"

Chen in the BuzzFeed video “Disneyland Foods You Have to Try”

For actor and blogger Lynn Chen, success means, “to fully feel grateful for what you are doing. You can feel successful getting paid absolutely nothing handing a homeless guy a burrito and have him give you a fist bump. That happened to me once and I still remember it. That was a win for me that day.”

Chen, born in New York, started her performing arts career as a singer at the Metropolitan Opera at the age of five and studied classical piano at seven years old. She missed a lot of school due to performances in the city and yearned to be a normal kid. “I wanted to play kickball after school. I wanted to go to birthday parties. I didn’t want to be different even though I knew in my heart I was. Whenever I would quit, I’d get that ache in my heart again.”

Lynn Chen

Chen in "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera House

Chen in “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera House

She found it challenging to grow up as an Asian minority in Creskill, N.J. Life with her parents was difficult because of culture clashes and generational differences. “Being Asian was a detriment to my social life. I was trying so hard to be like everyone else that I didn’t know who I really was.”

During junior year, she auditioned for The Pajama Game musical and got the lead part. “It was unheard of that somebody who didn’t work her way up just came in there and took it. That was a defining moment for me because I didn’t really care that it wasn’t cool. I didn’t care what people said. I just knew that I loved it and I had to do it.” Chen thought she had gotten the lead because of her ability to sing. The school play director, Mr. McLaughlin, told her that acting was her forte, inspiring her to take herself seriously as an actor. “That’s when I got an agent for the first time and went into the city to audition for commercials and TV shows.”

At Wesleyan University, she started as a theater and music double major because her father wanted her to have a backup. She soon discovered she does not thrive as an actor in an academic setting and dropped the theater major. “There’s something about the academia of a class and the judgment that comes that does not do so well for me.” Outside of school, she struggled to learn to take care of herself as she experienced life without a curfew and structure for the first time.

Chen in The Pajama Game

Chen in The Pajama Game

Unsure of what she should major in instead of theater, Chen discovered her answer at the end of freshman year at an Ani DiFranco concert. “I had battled depression and listened to a lot of Tori Amos. I didn’t know what feminism was. I just knew the singers singing about the plight of women spoke to me. I literally felt like she was singing just to me. She sang about feminism and women empowerment.”

Chen took a women’s studies 101 class and was surprised that she did well. “It was a no brainer. I became a women’s studies major. That was a defining moment for me. I also loved that I was a women’s studies and music double major because at the time there was nothing like that and it was ground breaking. It gave me a chance to do things independently and chart new ground for myself. As I started to find myself in college, the things I gravitated towards the most were people who weren’t allowed to be themselves like gays and lesbians, women of color, people who were oppressed.”

After graduating in 1998, Chen tried to get into acting in New York while working as a waitress. “It was horrible. I hated it,” she said regarding being a waitress. “I went on a few open calls and again that ugly beast called rejection got to me. I said to myself, screw this. I’m going to try to get a real job.” Chen went on to work as a private school principal’s assistant for two years. “I quickly realized after the first year that a nine to five job was not for me and I needed to be performing. I was really miserable during that time, very depressed. When I left, I had saved up enough money and I thought to myself, do or die now. I’m not going to let rejection get to me.”

Chen focused on acting while doing odd jobs to make ends meet until she got her first acting gig less than a year later on NBC show Law & Order. Eventually she found a steady job with NiteStar, a theater company focused on HIV/AIDS education. The job allowed her to act, write, and teach kids about HIV/AIDS prevention as well as sex education.

She seriously considered quitting acting for good in order to work full time in HIV/AIDS peer education. Being cast in a recurring role on soap opera All My Children and her first feature film Saving Face in 2003 – for which she won the Outstanding Newcomer Award at the 2006 Asian Excellence Awards – led her to keep acting. After the high of Saving Face, she stopped dieting the way she previously had to prepare and lose weight for her ballet dancer role in the film. She coped through binge eating and anorexia with the rejection she felt from managers, fans, and relatives due to her weight gain.

Chen in "Saving Face"

Chen in “Saving Face”

One day, her manager called and told her that her agent was dropping her. “And in the next breath said, ‘We’re leaving you too.’ I remember just being in such shock that I collapsed to the ground,” said Chen. Her husband of 11 years picked her up, turned off her phone, and took her and their dog Julius on a drive, ending up at a winery in Santa Barbara. “I got wasted on one glass. That’s probably the last time I drank. It did nothing for me. It was depressing.”

She realized her eating disorder was at its worst and that she wanted to be at peace with her body, especially as she wanted at the time to someday have children. “I was like a zombie during those years. It had taken over pretty much everything.” She decided in 2009 to take a year off from acting and founded The Actor’s Diet blog with holistic health counselor and fellow actor Christy Meyers.

“My mission was to stop labeling, to stop being on a diet. I wanted each day to be manageable and not for it to be an unbelievable burden. I used the blog as an experimental ground. I ended up finding out in that year that I was fine with myself when I was 30 pounds heavier and fine with myself when I was at my skinniest. It really helped me learn how to deal with that ugly rejection piece and needing validation from others, which I think I still struggle with. Anyone struggles with needing to be told you’re ok. It didn’t disappear but it helped me to find my own voice and trust myself.” The blog – run solely by Chen since 2010 – has evolved from her daily food journal into a forum that highlights her restaurant reviews, places of interest, travel, fashion and beauty tips, recipes, daily life, and life on set.

During her process of coming to terms with her eating disorders, she became an Ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, worked with the National Organization of Women, and co-founded the body image blog Thick Dumpling Skin featured in Marie Claire magazine. Rituals such as always having candy and tea after she eats and being aware of how certain foods make her feel has contributed to her recovery. She has learned to become open-minded and empathetic. “What I mean by open-mindedness is a willingness to see beyond the boxes that society puts on us and that we put on ourselves. I always try to give others the benefit of the doubt even if they’re not treating me nicely.”

She finds expressing herself through blogging to be therapeutic and necessary. Her commitment to blog daily is inspired by her father’s extreme discipline. He passed away in August 2012 due to complications of surgery. During her freshman year, he would write her emails to tell her she needed to work hard in school. “My gut reaction was, no you’re wrong. I’m going to party and not study, and that whole thing has come back.” Chen, who was put on academic probation her junior year, learned to work hard then and now remains committed to persistent learning as an actor. Her father also inspired her to value solitude. “My father was extremely solitary and I’m coming to realize that I need that solitude in order to function and be as public as I am.”

Her father’s death brought her through a process to face painful emotions head on. “I found that when I can fully feel pain, it loses its power because I discover I’m still able to get out of bed the next day and if I’m not, that’s ok. Eventually it dissipates and it allows me to feel the opposite much more fully because I no longer dull pain with food, drugs, alcohol or anything else.” Chen, who grew up Catholic and whose mother is Catholic, sometimes goes to a church to just sit. “It’s something familiar to me. It taps into a side of me where I just feel taken care of even if I don’t agree or believe. It’s an excuse to be in public and to feel whatever emotions you’re feeling, which is not always the case, definitely not when you’re working as an actor or even just in general.”

Lynn Chen with her father

Chen with her father

She initially saw her father’s death as a sign to give up on acting. “At my dad’s funeral in that church I sort of said to God who I didn’t really believe in anymore, ‘I know I’m not supposed to test you, but I’m going to ask you for a miracle or a sign.’” She recalls hearing a voice that sounded like her high school play director Mr. McLaughlin – whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years – who had originally inspired her to pursue acting. After the funeral, she walked up to the deacon to thank him for overseeing the ceremony and discovered it was Mr. McLaughlin.

“I can’t even tell you what that felt like. That whole experience is a reminder from somewhere else that I have to keep doing this. Acting is so full of pain, and not only just from rejection. It’s full of so much negativity and I’m talking about jealousy, self-doubt, and depression. The highs are very short and they go away really quickly. I’ve seen in just the last year that it’s worth it to me and it’s not for the same reasons that it was worth it to me when I was younger or even when I first started.”

Get the scoop on Lynn Chen’s latest projects here and connect with her via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTubeThe Actor’s DietThe Actor’s Diet podcast, Thick Dumpling Skin, and Mourning Music.

Chen has been recognized with numerous awards, including the People’s & Editor’s Choice for CBS LA’s Most Valuable Blogger. Marie Claire magazine named her one of the “New Generation of Social Activists.” She is a spokesperson for NEDA and a sought-after speaker at national conferences and college campuses.

{Photos courtesy of Lynn Chen}

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3 responses to “Lynn Chen: Defining moments as an actor

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