The Feminist Lens is a bimonthly series that offers an inside look into the world of film-making and media production through conversations between women in the film, television and digital media industry and Aviva Dove-Viebahn, a Ms. scholar and professor who writes about gender and race in popular culture.
Funny, smart and observant, Tess Paras is known not only as an actor—on programs like Just Add Magic, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Grimm—but also as a writer, producer and director whose videos and short films offer clever and memorable commentary on politics, racism and the patriarchy. Paras has a distinctive ability to inject even the most serious subjects with a vital streak of humor, as in the viral sensation “Make Your Face Great Again” makeup tutorial and her award-winning music video “Depression Mashup (Feat. Anxiety).” It’s no wonder she served as the Assistant Director for the CBS Diversity Showcase in 2019 and will be its Associate Director this coming year.
Paras talked to Ms. about her directorial debut, The Patients, the pressures and privileges of being a Filipina American actor and representing the experiences of women and minorities on film and TV.
What inspired you to start writing, producing and directing, when you’ve been working primarily as an actor?
So many people right now are multi-creatives. Economically, it’s a way to sustain yourself in this business if you have something to say. Gone are the days of the Hollywood studio system where people say, you’re going to be an actor and you’re going to be in every single movie. It doesn’t work that way in the current landscape. At the same time, it feels good for me personally because that’s who I’ve always been. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor and dancer as much as I wanted to be a journalist. Those values I had that were performative, but also curious, are the same values that I live out right now.
I want to spend some time talking about your new short film The Patients, but can we start with your other shorts and music videos first—like “Typecast,” and “What If Catcalls Were Cheeseburgers?”
There were a couple transitions from doing improv and sketch comedy on the stage to learning how to put that point of view into sketch comedy videos and then translating that into what I’m doing now with longer form. Those early videos were really reactionary to things that I was experiencing. “Typecast” was my first video that came out of anything. I was working as an actress booking these day-player roles, and I was experiencing a lot of tokenism where you know that you’re sprinkled into the cast because the primary cast is white and they have to fill out this world. That video was only from a little over five years ago, but the language that we use about diversity and inclusion wasn’t the same language that we use now. That was around the time folks were starting to speak up; actors were starting to be more empowered and say, this is the right way to talk about how to diversify your cast. I even make a comment about it in the sketch, [the idea that] if you have one African American actress, there can’t be two. It almost seemed customary in mainstream media [at the time].
Now, if we’re talking about the Asian American experience, we’re getting more nuance. Is this the East Asian American experience? Is it Southeast Asian? Is it Pacific Islander? Are we talking specifically about being Filipino? Now we’re starting to get better about the language we use, hopefully, but, at the time, “Typecast” was what I was experiencing. I had to make fun of that, talking about my struggle back then as an actor: I want to be making a living, but, at the same time, my choices weren’t as sophisticated as they even are today.
Absolutely. This has been a century-long struggle for actors of color—to have to decide between taking token roles that maybe are not ideal or not getting work.
In a couple of situations, I said, no, because I didn’t like portraying Asian women the way that a particular script was portraying them. But I’ve been lucky thus far to be able to portray awesome characters who are part of great story lines. With Grimm, I was told [the episode I was in was] the first Filipino American story-line on network TV ever. It’s great to know that I’ve been part of some of those changes.
It makes a huge difference for people to be able to see themselves represented in more diverse and accurate ways.
So, yes, “Typecast” was really a reaction to that. It’s one thing to say “this is bad,” but to be able to do it in a way that is satirical with music was my stamp on it. The “Cheeseburger” video came out shortly after and was also a creative collaboration with my friend Rebekka Johnson, as she was directing a lot of sketch at that time.
I was reading all this stuff about feminism every day and trying to think about these large questions and I thought, what’s a comedic take on it? What am I digesting? I was thinking about this one analogy that I heard and how to make that entertaining because it would be so funny to personify that and write jokes in that vein.
I love it. What’s great about that video is that it’s so patently ridiculous—handing women cheeseburgers as they walk down the street—and works well to convey how ridiculous catcalling is.
Let’s talk about The Patients. It’s your directorial debut and shows a Filipino American family coping with the revelations of a #MeToo survivor in the family. What drew you to this story?
This story is very much based on my true life experience. I was a victim of intimate partner violence and went through my own #MeToo situation before anyone would have ever used that hashtag for it. One day during the #MeToo movement, when everyone was posting their experiences, I wrote my own on Facebook and Twitter. I wrote, “#MeToo. Therapy helped.” That’s all I had the courage to write at the time, but I was really inspired that other people were writing their whole stories online. When I posted that, within minutes, my mom called. I just pick up the phone and I’m like, “hello?” And she says, “what’s the #MeToo?”
I said, “Mom. That’s what everyone’s saying when they were a victim of some sort of sexual abuse or sexual harassment or violence.” And she says, “Oh. Okay,” and starts talking about something else. In that moment, I thought, there’s something to that. Something to what I’m feeling right now and this one little conversation. I realized that in the #MeToo movement, it’s easy to share that stuff online. What isn’t easy is talking about what happens in the middle. How do you go from acknowledging that this happened to you out loud to telling yourself that it does get better? For me it took years of therapy. Years of training myself after being essentially brainwashed in an abusive relationship. How do I talk to myself? How do I talk to loved ones? How do I create a healthy, loving relationship in myself with people that I may be dating? How do I guide my own family on how to speak to me because there’s such huge cultural differences?
My parents immigrated here and I’m first generation Filipino American. So their whole culture in terms of how we talk about things within the family—or don’t—and mental health is a totally different culture than what my brother, sister and I all subscribe to. I thought, if I’m experiencing this now and have these questions, it’s time to share that and it’s time to write about that.
My whole family came to the premiere that we had in May at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. It was a huge moment for all of us.
In the film, you’re not offering a moralizing message about how people should respond, but creating a nuanced portrayal of differing family responses and how people come to terms with things differently. One of those ways is humor. One of the characters comments on how humor can be useful for people coping with trauma. Can you elaborate on that?
I want to gently correct—because he never said it was useful. There’s a doctor in the story who says that people do it. People use humor; he doesn’t say it’s useful. From what I’ve learned, it’s one way of avoidance for victims when you’re in shock. I’ve been that person where it’s tough to talk about something, so you joke about it instead of actually confronting and processing whatever is happening to you head-on. Part of the reason I included it is because in our stories of these experiences women have, of surviving violence and trauma in their lives, it’s how we talk about the violence. I wanted to write a movie that was about violence and trauma without looking at the violence and trauma. It’s not the point of the story [to see the violence] because I think that’s gratuitous and not necessary. This story is about growth and family and relationships; it’s about how those things are complicated.
In this film, all the characters are avoidant in their own way. One is physically avoidant, doesn’t even want to see the person who’s suffering. Other people are minimizing it by being on their phones the whole time. One person comes in with what he thinks is the storybook answer because he thinks this is a black and white morality-based question: “This is wrong. This is what you’re supposed to do.” But it goes beyond that. I think in processing these situations, everyone has their own way of thinking that they’re going to fix the problem, but they’re not necessarily right. Everyone has the best of intentions, but it’s such a complicated experience that you have to vary it person to person and family by family. That’s what I wanted to write a story about.
Is The Patients showing at any festivals in the near future?
It’s screening at the Bend Film Festival in Oregon, October 10-13, 2019 [Tess is also starring in a feature film, The Blackout, showing at the same festival]. I’m also honored to be screening The Patients at the Asian American Psychological Association Conference.
What else are you working on right now?
You can see me on the most recent season of the Amazon Prime series Just Add Magic. The thing that I love about the show is that there are three Asian American women on the season of that show that we’re launching and we never talk about it. We’re so normal. I get to work with the legendary Amy Hill again—she played my mom on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—which is great, but then I also get to go toe-to-toe with her as magical beings.
It was something that definitely struck me when she and I were shooting together. I said, look at us. We’re just talking about spells. We’re in a scene where two Asian American women are talking, but not about being Asian. That, to me, was normalizing something through the fact that [the show] is geared towards adolescent girls who will see these women, but with no comment about how different they are aside from that they do magic. That was huge. It was a dream come true for me. That, and the girl on the show who plays my daughter—if I had seen an 11-year-old girl who looked like me and had my features [on TV], I wouldn’t have felt so alone as a kid.