"I could sit around and wait for opportunities to come my way OR I could create them and be doing what I truly love RIGHT NOW.”
That statement by Susane Lee on her Kickstarter campaign page encompasses the California-based actress's drive and motivation into creating "susaneLand," a new web series inspired by the surreal humor of shows such as "Louie," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Atlanta."
Lee, who has acted professionally for the more than a decade in shows such as "Gilmore Girls" and MTV's "Jerks With Cameras," said she wanted to highlight her experiences as an Asian-American actress in today's entertainment business. Currently in pre-production, Lee and the rest of her cast and crew started the campaign — which ends the first week of November — to gain support from the public to receive funding for their project.
NBC News spoke with Lee about the idea behind the web series, creating visibility for Asian-American actors, and getting some high-profile attention for her project.
Can you tell me what “susaneLand” is about and what viewers can expect from it?
We love subtle, dark, and surreal comedies. We also love looking at human nature. With “susaneLand” we hope to do both. Each of the six episodes is a vignette inspired by events in my life that we’ve embellished and played with a little. Some are about people's needless cruelty or awkward situations while others look at the grey areas of human behavior and why people do the things they do. We’re creating a show that isn’t out there right now but one we would like to watch. Also, this series will have a female Asian-American lead that is not defined by her race or by some stereotype. In “susaneLand,” women and people of color exist at the forefront not in the background.
You’ve been acting professionally in Los Angeles for 10 years now and in 2013, you wrote, produced, and starred in a comedic rap video called “DREAM BIG” that poked fun at the common stereotypes Asian-American actresses are often called upon to play in roles. What was the message behind “DREAM BIG” and what interested you to get into acting in the first place?
The purpose of “DREAM BIG” was to highlight the absurdity of the limited amount of roles that Asians are expected to play. Three years later we’ve made some progress, but there’s still more work to be done.
I was always drawn toward movies. I loved going and completely immersing myself in these other worlds, finding myself crying one minute and laughing the next. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do with my life, to connect with people by telling compelling stories that resonate with them.
In your [Kickstarter] video, you mention that you have some great people on board for “susaneLand.” How did you meet the rest of the cast and crew involved?
The director Andrew Olsen and I met around the time I started doing improv. We both came up in that world and continued on writing and producing projects together like “The Girl Who Couldn’t Get High.” a short film we released last year. Our cinematographer Alex O. Gaynor and I collaborated on a short film I co-produced a few years ago. He’s worked in the industry for 15 years, has an amazing eye, and I’ve always wanted to work with him again. “susaneLand” just happened to be the perfect project since we’re going for a cinematic look and feel which in comedy is somewhat rare.
How are the funds from the Kickstarter campaign being distributed to the cast and crew?
On Kickstarter, we won’t see any funds unless we reach our goal. Filmmaking is very costly and we’re essentially making six [shorts] here. Funds will help cover film and equipment rental, the cost of major commercial locations, and paying our professional team, including our actors. I have worked on several projects for deferred pay in the past and it is important to me that everyone on board “susaneLand” is properly paid for their hard work and time. The only two people who are not receiving payment is myself and the director. This is our passion project. We have other costs as well such as insurance, property design, music licensing, and so on.
You talked about how growing up you rarely saw people that looked like you on television and film. How important do you think it is to continue making projects such as “susaneLand” to create more visibility for Asian Americans and women of color in the entertainment industry?
Think about what the consequences are of not seeing someone that looks like you in TV or in films. How is someone supposed to interpret that, much less a child? It has to have some effect on them subconsciously. It wasn’t until I saw Lucy Liu on TV that I thought becoming an actor was even possible. Hopefully “susaneLand” can do a similar thing not just for other Asian actors but for other Asians as well to show them that their voices deserve to be heard. Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic in this country and there is more content being created now than ever before, especially for TV, so there is no excuse for the disparity between the numbers and the faces we see. Part of the solution I think is creating projects like ours which help increase and normalize the visibility of people of color, especially women, and placing them in leading roles not just supporting ones.
The Asian-American community seems to be very supportive of your project. You reached out to John Cho and he retweeted you! That’s very exciting.
Sometimes your greatest allies are other Asian actors who know what it’s like to struggle and what it feels like to fight for more substantial roles. When I reached out to John Cho about my campaign, it really meant the world to me that he shared it with his followers. I don’t know him personally but when he responded I felt a little less alone in this battle. It’s one thing to say you’re an advocate for Asians in entertainment or diversity, but it’s even more powerful when you take action. Everyone who supports and gives to our campaign will be making a huge impact. It’s never, ever about how much you give it’s that you gave at all.
And Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey tweeted about you, too!
I met Cory Booker for the first time last Friday at work. The moment he learned about my dream project, he literally jumped up from the table and insisted he share it with his 1.8 million followers on Twitter. I tried my best to hold back tears for the picture we took together. It was so surreal. We all know that humans can be senselessly cruel to one another, but then there are moments like this where they can be extraordinarily kind. I will never forget that night ever. This whole crowdfunding experience has been such an emotional ride, filled with many sweet surprises along the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.