Karen Maruyama is an Asian American actress whose credits include: The Groundlings, Nip/Tuck, The Jamie Foxx Show, voice-overs for The Simpsons and American Dad, and more. Our good folks had the opportunity to speak with her about what it was like being an actress in Hollywood, Asian American, and her role as Mrs. Yao inThe Campaign – a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as political rivals in a race for Congress in a North Carolina district. Please enJoi:
What drew you to the role of “Mrs. Yao” in The Campaign?
Karen Maruyama: Him and his staff are really funny and my agent thought it would be funny so that’s pretty much it, you know. I didn’t know about that beforehand. But once I read it, I laughed out loud.
Are there any similarities or differences between Mrs. Yao and you, Karen, as a person?
Oh geez. If I say Asian and really pretty in a maid’s outfit…
You know what? Actually, you know what, I was kidding, but she is because she’s really opinionated.
Even in my family, I’m the one that my mom goes to yell like, “You don’t say that. Quit swearing.” You know, sit like a lady. I mean, I still get told by my mother to sit like a lady at the dinner table so… (*laughs) But that’s about it.
How was it working with Will? Is he also funny off-screen?
Will Ferrell is awesome. He’s funny in person, super delightful, very nice, very down to earth as is Zach. With Will, it’s sort of interesting. I was Will’s improv teacher at the Groundlings when he first came…so I knew Will. We met back in the 90s when he gets Saturday Night Live and that was it. But yeah, it was interesting. When Will and I saw each other, we were talking about people in the company that we worked with together and things like that so that was kind of fun.
I’ve actually got sort of a double-barreled question for you. You mentioned you were in Groundlings. We knew about that. You’re pretty much well known for that. I think with a cast that includes the likes of yourself and Will Ferrell, there was a fair amount of leeway in terms of script and your role is sort of bending ethnic stereotypes. There’s an actor I know and he always gets miffed because most of the stuff he gets to read for are “ethnic roles,” but in this particular case, your role was ethnic but just not what anyone would expect.
Why? I mean, what was the question? (*laughs)
In terms of tackling this role which is, like I said, an “ethnic role,” you obviously had to revert to an ethnicity that you may or may not share and then where do you define that?
Well, you know, it’s so funny because for me, it’s a challenge and I actually worry for when I do get called in to audition for ethnical, physical roles which say Japanese or Chinese so this looks fine because it’s so not that. In terms of just the action and everything, I actually asked an African American friend of mine to help me out. I said, “Hey, can you just read this for me?” and he said, “You know, I’m just going to read this like my late grandmamma would” so I just worked on that with him and then
you could’ve bumped it up a notch. You know, put a little bit of Gone with the Wind so that’s how I worked on that. And then in terms of Hispanic stuff, I’m from Chula Vista so most of the people I went to high school and junior high school with were Hispanic.
It must have been awfully fun though.
Super fun, it’s super fun! I love doing these parts too, but I do love going out to
the ones that are kinda just…I mean, this one’s obviously going to the visual thing, an
Asian maid, but I do like going out for angry bosses, jaded nurses, you know.
I’m seeing a thread here.
Yeah. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of angry, bitter principals and piano teachers.
Oh geez. And you’re from Chula Vista?
Yes, I am! My folks still live down there.
I was just wondering what made you choose to become an actress in the first place?
It was a mistake. I had to take a class, some sort of elective like art class when I was in junior class. I was really shy and I just took it by accident…and then it was just kind of fun so I was just doing theater in high school. And then in college, because we were undeclared as freshmen, I just kind of started doing theater to my family’s dismay. I was an art history major and then critical science and then I changed it to theater in…I think my sophomore year in college. It’s not one of those things where when I was a kid, I was just born to perform. I wasn’t like that at all. It was just something that was fun and I enjoyed doing it so that’s how that happened.
Is there any interesting experience you may have in acting? Or maybe like doing comedies?
Well, I do like doing comedies like I did with the Groundlings. It was fun and challenging because I didn’t know what I was doing so it was fun. I didn’t gravitate towards the all Asian groups. I tried. I tried to go with these first players a little bit and then I found the Groundlings and it was fun to be silly and do characters. Poke fun at the people that drive you crazy or do characters that are based on your relatives. Also, being someone who’s Asian American, my experiences were like…the culture clash in that we didn’t speak the language at home and my parents were very American so it was that kind of household. So to me, the experiences are in trying to be able to those ethnic roles if that makes sense.
Can you tell us a little about what’s is in store, or what moviegoers can expect when they go see The Campaign?
Oh! You know what, what I like about is it kind of views politics and politicians and what they’ll go through to get elected. There’s a lot of satire about that. The fighting and selling out a little bit and it’s talking about them trying to win this election. It’s really satirical and it pokes fun at it and obviously, it goes way beyond what’s possible which makes it a great satire so that part’s funny and all the physical stuff will be funny too.
I think that it really pushes that envelope that politicians…you can at them and you’re
also seeing their heart and kind of rooting for them too.
I know Asian American actors overlook for in a role, but recently I’ve seen a lot of Asians stealing the show. Like Ken Jeong is doing Mr. Chow. Do you think you guys are a part of a new school – new generation of actors?
Yea, I hope so, I think it’s fun to be a character who happens to be Asian as supposed to that’s all you’re there for.
Do you ever have conversations with any of these peers right now and kind of feel the camaraderie?
Seeing others out there, like Margaret Cho, who did stand up before, who is so talented… It’s great to see them.
How much improve did you get to do?
We got chances to improvise. Sometimes you go off a little bit, I freak out and be like, I didn’t say the exact line! But there are so many things you could do with the script.
As an Asian female comedian, in a male-dominated field, what kind of challenges do you face and how do you get over them?
Well, you know what? It’s always going to be challenging, you just have to keep going. It’s sort of like anything. But me trusting you having a point of view and you have something to offer, it has nothing to do with me being a comedian and actor, it’s just about what I do. It’s not always so easy for me to get up in the morning, but you just have to stay positive. It’s less about me being Asian or a woman, I try to get that out of my head.
Karen, can you just tell us what are the pros and cons being an Asian actor in the US?
It’s the same as what it was when I was going through in the high school. You can’t always deliver yourself in a certain way and just have people think you’re an Asian person. It’s about going in and keeping another option, The hard part is that when you have to go for Asian specific roles, and you see all these other Asians and I’m just like, oh my god! It’s actually harder because if I have to do a specific ethnicity, I have to make sure I play the truth out, because after all, Asians are not all the same.
As far as the film is concerned, obviously it is released in a heated election season, as outrageous as a lot of these ideas are, does it seem to you that maybe this is the next logic step as to the idea depicted in this film? Some of the ideas are far out, but you know…
They are far out! The idea about business running politics, that is not really far out. The campaign and ads are crazy, they kind of push that to make fun of what actually happens. So lightly maybe it is headed that way, but not that much. Although, there’s always news about some crazy politician doing something. I don’t know much about politics, so let’s talk about sports. I am more opinionated about sports than politics.
What is the next project you’re working on?
I’m working on an improv show called the Black Version, we do iconic cinema stuff but the black version of them. Also this show, Shit myself, things you would not tell parents but you would tell strangers – shameful things. After this show, you could feel better about yourself because everyone has terrible stories – that’s what I’m doing!
Do you have any advice how other Asian Americans can make it in Hollywood?
Don’t be afraid to let who you are come out in your work as opposed to just what you are which is an Asian actor. I think your point of view and your personality should be something that should come out too. Granted, when there are roles that call out for that, you’re going to have to do it, but when those opportunities come for you to have a point of view, just jump in there. Also, just work hard with no excuses.
Your character would come through and have the last statement and insult them. How much is that character is you in real life?
Let’s just say that I could relate to that. I’d say that there’s a lot of me in that in terms of just saying that to somebody or muttering that to somebody. I must say that I felt pretty comfortable. It would still be written that way too, for her to be that way, but I will say that the swearing was pretty fun. I had no problem dropping those F’s at the dinner table as much as my folks hate it. (*laughs)
Oh man, God bless America.
Thank you, guys.
You can find Karen Maruyama as “Mrs. Yao” in The Campaign. In theatres now.
*Just wanted to send a special THANK YOU to IW Group, Inc. for making all of this possible! And to everyone else that participated and brought great questions! Really appreciate you! Let’s be in touch!