Interview with Teddy Qin: Trans Asian Actor and Powerhouse
In an industry lacking diversity, this rising actor is making sure queer stories are heard
Teddy Qin (she/they) is a Chinese transgender actor. Her New York theatre credits include a postponed project due to the pandemic at Mercury Store, directed by MacArthur Fellowship winner Annie Dorsen, “The Tempest” (Gallery Players, directed by James Dean Palmer), "Playdate” (Dixon Place Mainstage) and “Where Is My Maple Town” (Theatre Row). Teddy has also starred in short films, such as “Close To You” (LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, NFMLA & Outfest, Queens World Film Festival), “Big Trouble in Little America” (Edinburgh International Film Festival) and “Dahlia White” (LA Women’s International Film Festival). She holds a BFA in Drama from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and will be joining USC School of Dramatic Arts’ MFA Acting program in the fall.
Alyssa Naka Silver (ANS): Teddy, I know identity is very important to you. So I wanted to ask you, how has your identity influenced your work over the years and has it evolved along with your journey as a growing artist?
Teddy Qin (TQ): It’s definitely been something that’s ever evolving. Growing up in China, we didn’t have vocabulary for gender or sexual minorities. So, even before I was an artist, I knew that I was different. I knew that I was attracted to male-bodied people, and growing up as a little Chinese boy, that wasn’t normal. It wasn’t something that I was hiding because it was just so out there and everyone just kind of knew before I knew. And that was interesting, because even though I learned about what it meant to be a gay man, I didn’t really identified with that 100% and I still didn’t know what being trans meant until I came to the U.S.
My first year at NYU, it was very difficult to do acting work because there weren’t any roles written for people like me. The gay roles felt weird. The straight roles felt weird. And I wasn’t really in a place to say “should I play female characters?” That’s why in my first year, my training was limited because of my own self identity restriction.
As I moved onto my second year, we did a new musical called “Times Square” with the amazing theatre company The Civilians. It was funny because, at a time, when I identified as a gay man, they cast me in the female ensemble. I didn’t know what I was going to play when I was cast, but I realized I was playing the part of a boy in a Marilyn Monroe dress, and I was going to be a lead stripper in the strip club scene—so I’d be cross dressing. As an artist with this first big show, I just said “let’s do this and see what happens,” and I had a really good time. It was also in this musical that I met friends who were using they/them pronouns, so that was kind of an introduction for me to move onto the next step of my journey, and I started using they/them pronouns.
After that, I went into my third year where I was primarily doing Shakespeare, and I realized, “wait a minute, I connect with these female Shakespeare characters.” When I was playing those female roles that cross dress as a man, and me as a trans woman doing that, there was a really interesting parallel between the journey in both ways, going across the river and coming back. I had an encouraging director and we all explored that together. In class, I played Juliet and my Romeo was a female-bodied person, and we had really interesting chemistry. From then, I was really clear about my own identity as a trans woman—out and proud. I then specifically only sought out trans women roles, and I’m interested in playing a cis woman, but the opportunity hasn’t come along yet. Every project I get to explore what it means to be trans, which is such a blessing.
When I met you at ETW [Experimental Theater Wing at NYU Tisch], it was a very liberating experience because none of it mattered. We weren’t doing a play, we weren’t doing characters, it was just exploring theater with our bodies and our voice. It was hugely impactful when it comes to my self identity as an artist, because now I know that I don’t need to approach my work as a trans woman, I can approach it as an artist and everything else can come after it. Everything else can come out of the story instead of me sculpting it to satisfy the appetite of the audience.
Then I moved on to doing films, which is always exciting because they get so up close and personal. In “Close to You,” it was about the Chinese American experience. In “Dahlia White,” it was about bullying, transitioning, a hidden narrative. With “Big Trouble in Little America,” it didn’t matter that I was trans, it just mattered that I was Chinese person wearing a fur coat and smoking on the street. With “Perennial,” identity-wise and artistically, it was something that was really challenging because it was so close to my own life. It was about dating straight men as a trans woman and I’m so excited for everyone to see it and for it to enter the film festival circuit.
ANS: Thank you for giving us that beautiful journey you’ve been on. I’m glad you brought up “Perennial” too because I was going to ask you how that experience was, working on something that hits so close to home.
TQ: I met the director, who also wrote the film, when I was doing “Close to You”—Griffin Cubero. She reached out to me to audition for “Perennial.” Throughout the audition process, it was just one scene between me and a young girl. I met two other young girls who were auditioning for that part and it was a very interesting journey because I didn’t know how old they were at the time. I thought, “These are kids. Should I be clear about what this film is about?” Because the storyline is about a trans woman and a young girl who just got her period. I wasn’t as open about my identity throughout the audition process, but moving forward from that point, I realized nobody really cares and we all know already, so just do it Teddy. This film explores dating straight men as a trans woman in a very pungent way. It does hurt. It is real. They don’t want to be seen with you in public. It’s real that they disguise their interest in you as romantic when it’s only sexual. How does someone compartmentalize a relationship between a straight man and a trans woman, when essentially, it has to be problematic? How do we process that kind of relationship in society when they’re so toxic for everyone involved? In my own experience, I love men, like Cher says, I love men, they’re fabulous, they’re like deserts, but I don’t need them.
As an artist, I’m always craving the idea of what it might mean to have someone who is attracted to you regardless of who you are—what does that connection mean? And this film really explores that in a very interesting way. It’s not a romantic comedy. It’s about “here’s how I function in relationships” and it goes into being disappointed, then self-healing, then being depressed, and then getting out of that. But also, “here’s another kind of relationship I can have.” Not romantically, not sexually, but a very strong connection because we went through something together. Because she reached out to me when she got her period because she sees me as a woman, and that experience connected us, and that’s what “Perennial” is about at the end.
I think it showed me a lot about how I should approach my relationships with everyone, because upon reflection, I realized that I’d been very closed off because I was afraid of getting hurt, and that’s natural and everybody does that. But especially throughout the whole covid thing, you realize that human connections are rare and precious, and if we have it, let’s not let go of it. That’s what makes us human. We are a group of people living in society and that’s what we need to work hard to maintain and for us artists, we need to be clear about who we are and approach it with a clear message.
Perennial directed by Griffin Cubero
ANS: Absolutely. It’s a beautiful film, and I’m excited for everyone to see it. So you talked a little about COVID, and COVID hit slightly after you graduated. How have you coped?
TQ: It’s not been an easy journey because I’m here on a student visa so we have one year to work in the industry and I made “Perennial” during that year, but I also lost a lot of opportunities like Mercury Store, which is a new experimental theatre project in Brooklyn to work with Andy Dorsen, who is a McArthur winner. But it’s also been funny because COVID came from Wuhan, and I grew up in Wuhan. My family is there, so I knew that it was happening before anyone else in my life knew. It was kinda like I was driving a car with a sense of lying to myself like every other American like “It’s not gonna get here.” And then it really hit in March. By the time we were in lockdown in New York, my parents were out of lockdown, so I thought it was going to be quick. They were there for 2 months and I thought the U.S. would be able to deal with this much faster than China. It didn’t happen. So, I switched to trying to work from home instead of doing film and TV.
And COVID, as ugly as it is, it revealed something about our society in the U.S. that is much deeper. It is xenophobia. The hate against Asian people in the U.S. and people who see other people as foreign, and that is essentially what I am here. I’ve never been attacked directly, but the possibility of that rising by 180% is ugly, and that has everything to do with a conversation we didn’t know how to have in this country. In the meantime, we’re going through BLM, and how Asian people engage in that conversation is also something people didn’t really think about until this year.
So it’s been very educational, to be part of this conversation, to be at the center of it in New York while I’m still here. There’s no silver lining when it comes to a pandemic, but I’m hopeful about where we’re going and how we’re looking at identity differently and I’m excited about the art that’s going to come from it. There’s going to be so many solo performances about somebody trapped in a room for like 10 years. But I’m sure there’s going to be more genius stuff I couldn’t think of or expect that’s going to shock me when theatre comes back.
ANS: So you’re a very strong creator and performer. You’re a writer, you’re an actor in film and theatre. Out of everything, is there anything you’re most proud of at the moment?
TQ: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m still an actor even though I’m not acting and actively hustling in every project every week. I’m still approaching life from the point of view of an artist. Things are on pause and no one’s creating, but artists aren’t going anywhere. Actors aren’t going anywhere. When we come back, and hopefully soon, we’re coming back armed with the learnings we’ve done, the soul searching we’ve done in the past year, and we’ll be able to portray the lives that were lost, and the souls that were oppressed.
We’ve always been here, and we’ve always been watching, we’ve always been observing what’s happening in society, and that’s what actors do. That’s what I’m most proud of because prior to this year, my idea of what it meant to be a working actor was different to my idea now. Back then, I thought I had to be in every project possible and be constantly working. But this year showed me that even when you’re not working, you can still be producing spiritually or anything from within. You’re still a storyteller. You’re still observing, learning and growing, and that can also be an interesting journey. I’m most proud of myself this year because I didn’t give up, and it’s easy to give up. But we have to hold on. We have to keep doing this because no one else will.
Big Trouble in Little America directed by Qiyue Sun
ANS: I’d love to hear what you hope to see more of for representation and change in the industry?
TQ: Representation is very funny because it almost means more to white people. Sometimes it feels more like a tap on the back like ‘we had Crazy Rich Asians, we did it.’ But that’s not it. It isn’t a box to be checked. It’s the future we’re moving into. It’s about figuring out how we can surpass Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther. It’s about making sure that every project afterward is as culturally unique and culturally specific as Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, Fresh Off the Boat.
Also, how do we get better? I’m even more interested in exploring the… LGBTQ stories within the Asian communities, the relationship between the Asian and Black communities in this country, the Asian diaspora in Hawaii. That’s what I’m interested in, to get even more specific, to get deeper into the history, and to be out and proud about our Asianness, our heritage, and our history in this country.
Instead of saying ‘we did it, let’s just go back to the way it was.’ We’re not doing that. We are moving forward. That’s why I loved "Minari" so much. They primarily spoke in Korean, because that’s how Korean people are when they move to this country. They just don’t think ‘we’re in America now, we’re gonna all speak in English.’ Even though it was a Korean story, and I’m Chinese, I still saw that culture specificity. I thought, I do identify with this on the level of how an Asian household is. This is how I treated my grandma, and that’s why it brought me to tears because I realized maybe I’ve been too busy chasing after a white person’s idea of who I should be that I forgot how powerful it can be if I become my idea of who I can be. I think that message has been loud and clear with the projects in the Asian community, and I’m really hopeful about where we’re going.
ANS: I know you got some exciting plans coming up because you just got into grad school. Do you want to talk a little bit about your hopes and your future plans?
TQ: I’ve always been a New York gal. I’ve been here for 5 years, and now I’m planning to move to LA. I’m so excited to be in a place I’ve never lived in. I’m so excited for USC because throughout the audition process, I got to meet all their faculty. Their voice teacher is an Asian woman from Canada and their movement teacher is a trans woman, Alexandra Billings, who is one of the few working trans actors in Hollywood.
During my callback weekend, Alex told me "Teddy, as trans women, we have to walk into a room being loud and specific about our message, because otherwise people won’t listen because we are hyper visual and hyper sexualized." That has been such a powerful message, and I realized even if i didn't continue my education, I still got that message, and that’s such a beautiful message to keep with me moving on with my career.
[REDACTED] directed by Andy Arden Reese