We all know Emmy-winning actress Carrie Preston as the inhabiter of some of our favorite quirky television characters. Whether fighting vampires or assistant district attorneys, she wandered onto our screens and managed to steal most every scene on shows like True Blood and The Good Wife. But audiences might not be so familiar with Preston the accomplished independent film director. Her latest film, Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show, a sort of concert documentary, chronicles a performance of Slanty Eyed Mama, the comedy and music duo of Kate Rigg and Lyris Hung.
On Wednesday night at the Asia Society, The Houston Cinema Arts Festival hosts a screening of this most outrageously titled film of the fest with Preston, Rigg and Hung in attendance. Before making the trip to Houston, Preston talked with me by phone about taking on the ultimate role of director.
CultureMap: How did you get involved with the project? I’m assuming you knew Kate Rigg before directing the film.
Carrie Preston: Kate and I went to Julliard together. We had this immediate bond and recognition of kindred spirits. When we got out of school, Kate started immediately creating her own work which really spoke to me. I would go and crew for her. I would help her with sets. I would run lights. I would bring audiences in because I really believed in her artistry and her voice. Even to this day I think it fills a void and I think it’s important to support those kinds of artists.
Over the years, I kept going to her shows and finally I said to her: “I think your work needs to be seen by more people that can make it to the theater. I want to make a film for you.”
I took her latest live show and I filmed it over three different evenings. Then I created a concept for it. We took her characters out on location in New York where the characters live. I created a mash up of a rock and roll, spoken word, stand up comedy film.
CM: The structure of the film is interesting. It has the frame of a stand up, concert documentary but we’re also taken on location throughout New York with Kate Rigg’s characters and sometimes violinist Lyris Hung tags along. Why was it important to let her characters leave the concert stage and roam the wilds of New York?
CP: Kate is about challenging preconceptions about Asian women and about what stand up is and what comedy is. Her writing is all about re-appropriating and redefining and in some ways assaulting racial stereotypes. To take her characters out in the world is to contextualize them. Yes, it’s funny and we’re laughing, but these characters and preconceptions exist in the world. I wanted to give the audience that reminder.
CM: Does this type of format, a documentary structure with sketch pieces, have any commonality with some of the independent comedy films you’ve directed?
CP: It is scripted, in that Kate wrote everything. So it’s not a traditional documentary. We didn’t know how to categorize it. I do enjoy directing comedy and that’s the majority of the films I directed. And I certainly enjoy acting in comedies. I guess I have a lifetime of experience with what is funny. I used that experience when I was gathering all the raw ingredients to then go into the editing room where you really create the thing. You make the meal.
The comedy is so evident in Kate’s work, but what I wanted to add was some gravity to the piece because I saw it a real social commentary.
CM: There are a few actress/directors in the HCAF lineup this year. Could tell me about your own experience as both. Do they flow from and complement each other?
CP: I’m what I like to call a lifer. I started doing plays when I was eight years old. By the time I was 12, I started my own backyard theater company. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had something in me that needed to do that. I studied acting, but even when I was in school, I directed plays and always supplemented my acting with directing.
I do enjoy the totality of being able to exercise all of my creative muscles. When you’re acting you’re responsible for getting inside the skin of one person, but when you’re directing you have to to get inside the skin of all the characters and be a guide a group of artists. It’s thrilling to be able to bring my training as an actor to the table but to expand it fourfold.
CM: At this year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival about half the selected films were directed or co-directed by women, which is rare. What are your observations about the place of women directors in Hollywood and in independent film?
CP: I’m sure you’ve read all the statistics about our business and how few women directors there are compared to men, certainly in the Hollywood movie-making world, but less so in the independent film world. I do think it’s getting better. I dream of parity. Women are 50.2 percent of the population. I feel like we should be 50 percent of the directors and the stories being told should have that parity.
I make that a priority, in not only the things I choose to act in but also the things I create. I like to pick pieces that serve audiences that are underserved and create pieces and help bring to light pieces people that don’t always get to be front and center in Hollywood.
CM: What’s next for you both as a director and an actor?
CP: I’m looking to get into directing episodic television. I’ve acted in front of the camera on series for quite a time now and have the opportunity to observe and learn from a lot of directors. I’ve also formally been shadowing on some television shows, following some directors who have been teaching me the ropes. That’s my next goal to get hired as a director on episodics.
Acting-wise I just did a pilot for a potential TNT show called Claws about five women in a Florida nails salon and they’re also involved in organized crime. We have our fingers crossed that it get picked up. I’m also in a miniseries called When We Rise that will be airing on ABC in late February. It’s about the gay rights moment from the late '60s all the way to present day. Sadly it’s never more timely than now. I’m very proud to have a small part it in. It’s a cast of millions and a really incredible piece of artistry.
CM: Any chance you’ll pop up in that Good Wife spin off The Good Fight?
CP: You never know. Unfortunately, these things are not up to us as actors. They certainly are well aware that I would be thrilled to come in if they want to bring me back. That was a great role and it yielded quite a bit for me, including an Emmy. It was the gift that kept on giving, so if it wants to keep on giving, I’ll be there.
Happy Lucky Golden Tofu Panda Dragon Good Time Fun Fun Show will be shown Wednesday at 7 pm at the Asia Society Texas Center, with guests Carrie Preston and Slanty Eyed Mama. Purchase tickets here.