CARDINAL X is Angie Wang’s assured debut feature. Much of the film is autobiographical, depicting an Angie Wang onscreen (played by Annie Q.) who as a college student becomes the major supplier of Ecstasy on the West Coast in the 1980s. You can catch this gripping film again at CAAMFest this Saturday, March 18th at the New Parkway. Wang was gracious enough to answer a few questions by Skype. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your incarnations over the years.
Oh, my goodness. Well, I’m 51, so there are quite a few of them! So, it gets harder for me to remember every incarnation. I went from like a damaged little girl… People today read me as an extrovert and I’m definitely not. I’m a total introvert but I sort of reinvented myself because I remember saying to myself, “This is not getting me anywhere. I need to be able to go out there and kind of force my way into the world and make friends and connect with people.” You know, it was a pretty lonely upbringing, I have to say. My mom really did leave when I was about seven years old. So, from there, we move around quite a bit, so we lived in exotic places like Newark, New Jersey, Freehold, New Jersey. Actually, reunited with my mom in the Virgin Islands when I was like 12, so I lived in the middle of the rain forest for a while and then we moved back to New Jersey to be with my dad and then to Texas. As you can imagine, it’s like a foreign land to a yellow girl especially back in the ’80s. And then we moved back to New Jersey and then I went off to school and then I decided I was gonna sell software when I was 30. I decided that I was gonna catch this Silicon Valley wave. This is obviously post my pharmaceutical endeavors, which really I hope the movie indicates was really more out of a desperation and a sort of … I have a therapist and she was asking me these questions – “Did you know what you were doing? Did you think you were beyond the rules?” And I thought about it, I’m like, “Nah, I don’t really think I was a sociopath. I think I really, you know, I think I was just running so hard and so fast that I never really sat down long and hard enough to think about the ramifications, you know, like whether or not it was a good idea and as I’ve learned now, like my father and I haven’t even engaged.
So, when I started to engage, I decided that it was probably not a good idea to … bar tend, dance in cages, be the tequila-upside-down-girl. And I was pretty smart, you know… it was easy enough. Not easy but it was certainly within the realm of possibility for me to be able to sort of reincarnate myself and give myself another shot at what I consider to be a respectable life, so I sold software. I remember my friends then again saying, “What, are you crazy? You couldn’t even boot up your computer when you were in college, what are you doing?” And I was like, “No, I’ll figure it out.” And I think what I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I like the challenge of some new endeavor. I think it’s really fun to sort of start yourself into it, you get into the flow, you get in the zone and you sort of engage yourself. I think it lights up your pleasure centers. So, after selling software for years, and then selling services in the Valley, you know, I had a good run but it certainly wasn’t anything that fed or nourished my soul and then I found myself in the situation where I was like, “Wow, I really don’t have to sling hash anymore for a living if I don’t want to and this is spectacular.” And I think it sort of led way to a very early midlife crisis (laughs) – maybe not so early – but I tried to be a PTA mom and that didn’t really suit me that well. You know, I got very frustrated and I found I had a lot of energy that I had to sort of expend and learn how to have a positive release for it. I can be a little destructive. So, I founded a nonprofit which I think you know about. It’s called GROW.
It’s Global Resiliency Outreach Work. So what I basically was able to do is sort of reach out to my own damaged middle school self and we did a process group where we kind of sat around and talked about the things that were going on in these kids’ lives, but specifically focused on middle school because I felt like it was sort of the last bastion, you know, like if you’re gonna turn and take a turn for the worse it generally happens around middle school, because I felt by the time they get to high school it’s harder and harder to reign kids in. And we focused on at-risk kids and I found that a lot of closure and a sense of fulfillment, I think in working with kids like that, and a lot of them showed up to my movie which was fantastic. It’s so great to be reunited with them. But I found that I wasn’t gonna reach the broad scale of kids that I wanted to. You know, I’m not well suited to be the executive director of a nonprofit. There’s a lot of people working in administrative stuff that I just f—king hate doing and so I thought, “Well.” I think I was watching Modern Family and I thought, “Wow, I really think that Mitch and Cam coming into people’s living rooms week after week sort of gave middle America maybe a glimpse into what it was like to be in a same sex partnership and good parents.” And I thought I actually really do believe that that helped moved the needle, which seems to be moving backwards unfortunately.
I realized what a powerful effect media has in terms of shaping hearts and minds and I’m definitely a kid who was brought up on movies, on TV. There was limited TV back then, but I do remember, making believe that Laura Ingall’s mom was my mom (from Little House on the Prairie), so I was like, “Oh, she’s so kind and she cooks her food,” and I thought in a way, it sort of re-parented me and I think that during some darker annals, you know, my dad and I still had a standing date which was to go to the movies once a week. So, I definitely was very transported and I drew what I could from those experiences, so I thought if I could get back to that, it would be fantastic. So, I sort of like a strange, it was like a little gnawing thought at first and then it just sort of grew and again, my friends were like, “You’re crazy. You know, you can’t make a movie.” And I was like, “Watch me.” And so, I figured it out and I got something on screen. It’s not perfect, but I think I’m happy with what we accomplished.
Absolutely. So, you never did any film making before this?
No, no. I never even shot anything on my iPhone.
Wow. That makes it all the more incredible.
I think it was in the realm of possibility for me.
You actually, you do name your character Angie Wang after you and you preface your film by saying it’s “inspired by true events”. It all could have been real and in the Q&A last week, you said about 50% was based on reality.
Yeah, it’s hard to say percentagewise. I would say that it’s probably about 30 years of my experience condensed into a one-year more dramatic movie. So, and I think I said this to any Q&A so I really wanted to write from a very real, emotional place. So, you know, I’ve lost friends – a lot of friends, I’ve felt very responsible for them definitely. I feel guilty, I felt less than, so all those emotions are real. A lot of the incidents that transpired happened in one way, shape, or form. Maybe not specifically to the amalgamation, you know, to the personality on screen. But to other people who are close to me in my life.
Okay, well, how do you think that disclaimer works on the viewer in terms of what the viewer is saturated with on screen?
Well, I think that a lot, I mean, it makes a lot of people wonder like exactly what happened? And I think there are two schools of thought, you know, there are more concrete thinkers who wanted to be like Angie, exactly what fucking happened, you know? It’s hard for me to go through the whole thing with a fine-toothed comb. It’s like this really happened, this is bullshit. This really happened, this is bullshit. But I think that what I really wanted to do was sort of send the viewer on a journey with this character because the Angie Wang on screen is obviously, not the Angie Wang on this (Skype) screen and I think that I had to give a lot of that control up and once you sign on with an actress or an actor to portray a role like that, you have to give it up. Annie Q. is not gonna be Angie Wang. It is her interpretation of the character that I put on paper and the person that she saw in front of me largely. But it sort of filtered through her own reality.
So, what you see on the screen is really sort of a mosaic of my cast and crew’s hearts and souls. But what I wanted to do is make it personal and make it… (In) those groups for my nonprofit, what I found was if I just walked in there and just started talking at them, they didn’t give a shit, they were like, “Whatever. This is about to be hella boring. Who the fuck is this woman?” But if I led with my own story, warts and all, then it gave them permission to kind of to follow with their own story. Own their demons as well, which is really what I was trying to do with this movie. You know, I mean I did a lot of shitty things in my life and, you know, it’s a process to own all that and sometimes, you know, I don’t wanna look at it and I’ll get into an argument with my daughter and I don’t really wanna own the shitty thing that I said to her and I have to think about it and sometimes I have to journal and then I go back to her again, “Yeah, you know, this is where it was coming from because I was worried or scared or I was hungry,” or whatever it was and try to make amends in that fashion. So, I don’t know if I answered your question.
Yeah, I think, well, what you just described I think it’s called “being human” (laughs), so I appreciate that.
(laughs) Well, in order to make it a very human experience and a very relatable, you know, I just really wanted to highlight the solidarity of the human experience and I think, especially in this day and age, I mean when I shot this movie, there was no way in hell that I would have thought Trump would be in office, but now he is when this movie is released, so I think it’s even more timely than ever that we start to have, start to really focus on our common humanity rather than with bullshit differences that I think are made up for the sake of someone’s campaign or their policy or whatever. And I also think that we’re a lot more alike than we care to admit and I think the beauty is in sort of owning that and being able to hold hands in the face of adversity.
Well, common humanity is the real Ecstasy, I think.
It is. It definitely is.
How did you find Annie Q.?
So, I had a casting director, Shana Landsburg who I worked with and I was like (very dramatically) “We need to do an open call!” And she was like, “Do you know how much fucking work and money that is? Like, are you crazy?” So, she called it out on the system which is all computerized of course and Annie Q. actually was one of the first actresses who taped herself for me and I saw her and I thought, “Oh, yeah, she’s pretty good.” And then she wrote me an email, a very succinct, very heartfelt email where she basically said, “You know, your script really resonated with me and I’d love the opportunity to even if not capture the role, I wanna just sit down and have coffee with you. And in fact, I’d be willing to fly myself out to perhaps read for you.” So, I was like, “Well, what the heck, sure.” She showed a lot of passion. I thought she could be great for the role. She flew herself out. When you’re casting it’s like you basically sitting there drinking coffee the entire day with the casting director, and there’s just like a flood of people who come through and read for you.
So, she was the first one who read for me, and I really liked her. I think my hang-up was that I, you know, so in some ways obviously, this character is a younger version of myself. And I just never saw myself as young as her. (Laughs.) You know, I was 18, 19 years old, but my perception of myself… (laughing)
You were always an old soul? (laughs)
I was never that young or vulnerable or cute or… People are always like, “Was she a lot like you?” And I’m like, “I don’t think I was as likable as she was.” But my memory is obviously flawed and you kind of, you tend to color your memory with your own sense of damage or whatever sometimes. And then I remember I met with, like every Asian actress up and down the Western seaboard and the Eastern seaboard, many, many, many. And then I remember I was looking across the dinner table at my daughter who was, I think she was 16 at the time and my step-daughter who was right around 18 and I was like, “Holy shit, that’s at their age.” You know, it’s their age because I remember thinking like, “Oh, they’re so little and they’re so young. They’re so fragile.” And I thought, “Oh… maybe I was a little more like that.” So, at that point, I was like it’s Annie. So, I of course I just fight convention yet again and called her directly and I was like, “It’s yours.” And the casting director was like, “You can’t do that! You can’t do that! You can’t just reach out to her directly.”
Because I thought, you know, we have been sort of kindred experience through this process for such a long time that I felt like I owe the journey to let her know. So, I did.
Okay. Great. Well, I’m glad you did it. Yeah, so I really loved all aspects of your film, the acting, direction and storytelling, but I mentioned a slight well, criticism or question in my review that Angie Wang in the film is almost always the rescuer and she’s never admitting need of rescue herself. Was that a conscious choice for you to have her not speak her need too openly, not speak about her own vulnerability, but rather portray it in the events she goes through?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, I think for her she was sort of a stereotypical “I’m gonna do shit for you, I’m strong, I don’t need anything.” She wouldn’t be able to say that she was vulnerable until she was like 40-something. (Laughs) It wasn’t for a long time or maybe not until her daughter was born. So, I think that there’s a lot that you can show in a look of an eye, you know, in a look, in a glance, you know, like in the pain in someone’s eye. You know, I think Annie, that’s why Annie was so perfect for this role because she was able to convey that vulnerability with this façade of being this tough girl or this person who was like really strong and was gonna come and help you, that sort of thing. And I think understands particularly that she plays against Ron Yuan who played Michael, my dad, were just really beautiful because she really, she’s the hurt little girl really wanting her father’s love, really hungry for her father’s love about it’s difficult for her to stay, but I think she portrayed that really beautifully. So it was a conscious effort because I think it’s true to the character in real life and on paper.
I think so many Asian Americans in particular have this go-it-alone kind of philosophy especially in their 20s, like they got to do everything themselves and not rely on anybody else, so I think that did speak a certain truth.
I think Asians feel very isolated, like they can’t reach out and talk to people and I think it’s one of the things that’s going on in the world but, you know, I think we need to sort of blow the cover off of.
Right, well, I especially loved what you said in the Q&A that you hoped your film would help people get away from criticism or judgment and towards compassion and I think your film really does accomplish that, so thank you.
Thank you very much. That’s why I’m silly enough to make a film about my own life story.
Well, I’m sure we’re gonna all be waiting for more from you, so thank you.
Thank you so much.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com. When you sign up, you can get his free e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.