ENTERTAINMENT: TV & FILM
James Liao in Management
Management is a romantic comedy that chronicles a chance meeting between Mike Cranshaw (Steve Zahn) and Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston). When Sue checks into the roadside motel owned by Mike's parents in Arizona, what starts with a bottle of wine "compliments of Management" soon evolves into a multi-layered, cross-country journey of two people looking for a sense of purpose. Mike, an aimless dreamer, bets it all on a trip to Sue's workplace in Maryland – only to find that she has no place for him in her carefully ordered life. Buttoned down and obsessed with making a difference in the world, Sue goes back to her yogurt mogul ex-boyfriend Jango (Woody Harrelson), who promises her a chance to head his charity operations. But, having found something worth fighting for, Mike pits his hopes against Sue's practicality, and the two embark on a twisted, bumpy, freeing journey to discover that their place in the world just might be together.
During his trip to Maryland, Mike arrived in Aberdeen with no cash, no job, and no place to live. But, he is soon rescued by a kindred spirit named Al, played by James Liao, who offers him the bonanza of both a job and a place to live. “Al is so instrumental in helping Mike achieve what he wants to achieve,” says Zahn. “Al and Mike are of the same ilk. They’re just very honest guys, but at very different speeds. Al’s this fast-talking, hip, young guy working at his parents’ restaurant and here’s Mike, this laid back guy who’s working at his parents’ motel. I think that is their initial common ground, but they end up becoming best friends.”
Stephen Belber (actor and director) had seen fellow Juilliard graduate Liao at a reading and had kept his name and contact information on a hunch. “He was so interesting and cool,” Belber remembers. “I went up to him and said, ‘You have to give me your email addresses and then I immediately thought of him when I wrote this role. He came and auditioned several times and nailed it. He has a great rhythm of talking and brings so many different cultural sensibilities. He’s half-Japanese, half-Chinese, from Brooklyn, from Juilliard, and he’s just an incredibly unique actor - - perfect for this role.”
Liao identified with the character of Al, an underdog himself who takes a shot at helping one of his own. “I love underdogs,” says Liao. “I’ve always been an underdog my entire life. I’ve been smaller than every guy I’ve ever had a fight with, and I feel that Al’s the same way. Big heart, big visions and stuff, but a little isolated, and maybe with an inability to really branch out and realize his potential.
But, with Mike, he finds a way to do maybe the biggest thing he’s ever done because he actually gets to help somebody. He feels like, ‘Oh my God, I could actually help this guy realize his dreams.’ And, that’s a big thing.”
I ended up auditioning, got a call back and did a reading with Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston in her manager’s office.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, James Liao is a 2004 graduate of the Juilliard School’s drama division. That same year, he made his professional theatrical debut as Song Liling in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.
In addition to Management, Liao starred opposite Wesley Snipes in the film Hard Luck, directed by Mario Van Peeples. Liao made his television debut on the series Law & Order, and has appeared on CSI, CSI: NY,Bones, The Shield, and Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Liao is also a graduate of the professional actor training program at the Marjorie Ballentine Studio, whose founder continues to be his acting coach and mentor.
ASIANCE: How did you come to act in this film?James: It was a long process to get cast in this film. It was a very long process. Stephen Belber, the writer/director of it, actually saw me in a workshop back in 2005. It may have even been 2004, but I think it was 2005. It was a very small workshop of a Japanese play that had been translated into English. One of my teachers at school asked me to be a part of it because I was part Japanese, and so they wanted to make it with Japanese American actors regardless of whether they spoke the language or not, I guess because it was translated into English. We did this workshop and Stephen Belber was actually there as an audience member and he came up to me and said he was working on something would be willing to give him information so he could contact me.
Watch the Management trailer
Fast forward to 2007 and this guy emails me, Stephen, and I found out he was a Juilliard playwright long before I got to school. He was like, ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I saw you at the workshop and now I’m writing and directing this new movie with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn and there’s a part I’d like you to audition for’- that kind of thing. So I was like, ‘Whoa. When does that happen!?’ I read it. When I read it, I went bananas because he wrote it just the way I talk. It just fits my natural rhythm perfectly. So I was like, ‘man, this is gonna be good!’ I ended up auditioning, got a call back and did a reading with Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston in her manager’s office. Then I was asked to do all the scenes as my character Al and it was put on tape. Then after that I was told that they were looking for a name actor, basically, I wasn’t being considered anymore. After that, I finally got the call and they said guess what? You’ve got it. And in a few days I was on a plane to Oregon to start filming.
ASIANCE: You were the comic relief in the plot most of the time. How did that feel as an actor?James: Here’s the real funny part, here’s the real funny part! I’ve never done comedy. I never did it in school. I never brought it in to my acting. Professionally, in the little film and TV I had done, I never did it. This is my one and only comedy. And for me, the thing is if someone would ask me if I could deliver the perfect punch line I would say, “No”. If I have perfect comedic timing and rhythm, I would say, “No”. But with this character, I thought it was more about the character and I thought it was really me. It was one aspect of who I am and if I just embrace that aspect, I’ll be ok. So that’s the way I looked at it and I tried not look at it about timing and setting up the execution because I thought, ‘this is you James, be you.’ And so many people say ‘the comedy is great’ and this was a riot because I love being the comic relief; with Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn and Woody, it’s crazy. Woody is a genius.
It is not the greatest hardship in the world to be an Asian American actor because at the end of the day, this is a choice.
ASIANCE: The scenery in the Pacific Northwest was gorgeous. How did you enjoy that aspect of filming coming from NYC?James: I loved it. I love it. The rain is not as bad as they say it is. Literally it can rain for like twenty seconds and then it will be sunny. And what was it, Mt. Hood; and Woody’s house where we filmed was a real place and that view from the backyard where you see Mt. Hood on a clear day- f-ing gorgeous. I loved all that lush, green, it’s not something we see everyday. And hey, if it’s in the States it’s just great.
ASIANCE: Can you tell us a bit more about your background, growing up in Brooklyn, acting at Juilliard?James: So really long story but to make it short, I’m born and raised in Brooklyn. My father is Taiwanese and my mother is Japanese. They are immigrants so I grew up speaking Japanese because my father could also speak Japanese as he grew up in the Japanese occupation in Taiwan. So the only other language we spoke other than English in the home was Japanese. But that really started to fall by the wayside because I’m growing up in Brooklyn and there are no Japanese around, especially in my neighborhood.
How I got into acting is a long story, it was not a natural inclination I would say. I enlisted in the army after High School. When I was 18 or 19, I thought it was what I wanted to do. Then I was medically discharged shortly after I was there. When I went home I became very unproductive, let’s just call it that. And my sister encouraged me to do something creative so I took an acting class with a lady named Marjorie Ballentine who I still think is the best acting teacher I ever had and want to say that. But I never really pursued it, so I didn’t audition or anything like that. I just bounced around from job to job until I got a fulltime job in catering that I did for a few years and then my sister said I shouldn’t give up on this and she got me the application for the Juilliard School. She said, ‘it’s one day out of your life’ and I auditioned and got in and the rest was (clap) I guess what started it all. So I owe a lot to my sister.
ASIANCE: Do you think in the future you or an Asian American actor could have a bigger part in a film like this as the main love interest of Jennifer Aniston for example?James: Ok, I’m a very blunt guy and I’m very honest. Do you want the straight answer or the diplomatic truth? Straight truth is maybe some time in the future but to be quite honest I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I think a lot of people, especially people in the business, think of Hollywood as being ahead of the times. That they’re full of forward thinking people but in the end, it’s still a business.
I think very much the entertainment industry is behind the times. I think things like baseball, and I’m being dead serious, I think baseball has always been ahead of Hollywood and for that reason that is why I say that because when Hollywood believes that it is actually buyable in society, well, society may actually be ready for that, but they’re betting on the safe bet when they want to make an investment in something it’s about playing it safe.
Therefore, I think the entertainment business is behind the times and it make take longer, not because there are people out there not willing to embrace that but there are not enough of the business people in Hollywood.
I might be going off on a tangent but I think it’s a very important thing to say especially for other Asian American actors or young Asian Americans, or Asians in general. It is not the greatest hardship in the world to be an Asian American actor because at the end of the day, this is a choice. What can help is when we care more about other things that happen to minority groups in this country and then it will be more work for us. So for the Asian actors hung up about not getting roles, they should think about why that is and why it extends to a lot of people on the whole. We should think about how kids from certain backgrounds are getting a crappy education today and when we speak on that we have a larger megaphone. For us Asian actors, we have to stop talking about how there is no work but it is a much larger problem that affects us in other groups, like women and other minorities. I think Asian Americans don’t embrace that sometimes so I think when we care more about the larger issues at whole in society, it will make us better people and give us more legitimacy. Just because you are an actor out of work, that’s not a cause worth fighting for much sometimes.
Management opens Friday, May 15th.
Main picture above: (L-R) James Liao, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale and director Stephen Belber at the NY premiere of Management