Staying silent while conveying there’s something simmering beneath the surface isn’t something that all actors can do. Some have failed spectacularly, while others (think Isabelle Huppert) have elevated the technique. Vancouver actor Valerie Tian pulls it off, making quite the understated impression in Karen Lam’s atmospheric horror The Curse Of Willow Song.
As the titular character, an ex-convict attempting to rebuild her life in a Vancouver neighbourhood known as Canada’s poorest postal code, Willow is someone who those around her – her probation officer, her boss, her unlikely allies – talk at, not with. Her eyes, however, say what she cannot.
Being inexperienced and alienated, and facing too many pressures to speak up, is something that Tian can relate to. That’s because she grew up as a child actor, shuttling back-and-forth between Vancouver and Los Angeles since age 10.
“All the people who were micromanaging my life… [were] talking about me as if I’m not there,” she says in a phone interview.
Tian says she realized that, in their efforts to turn her into an “overnight sensation,” they were just after money. That was a killjoy because she pursued the business thinking having a job would be fun.
Her mom had gotten her into a talent agency (“to shut me up”) to be a child model. In a twist of fate, the shy Valerie accidentally signed up for acting classes, despite a fear of public speaking.
“That ended up being good for me,” she says. “Now I can’t shut up.”
She started off doing background work in films like Saving Silverman and Air Bud. Tian says her agent wasn’t confident about submitting Asian actors for roles because he didn’t think they would sell. But a prime opportunity popped up: Vancouver filmmaker Mina Shum’s 2002 comedy-drama Long Life, Happiness And Prosperity.
Tian prepared hard for the audition (she chalks up her drive to having a “tiger mom”) and bagged the role of earnest 12-year-old Mindy Ho, with Sandra Oh playing her mother.
She’s since appeared on TV shows such as Motive, iZombie and The Magicians, and the role she says she gets most recognized for is pro-life protester Su-Chin in 2007’s Juno.
Her recent work has proven that she has more to offer. In addition to Willow Song, one of her only other lead roles was her portrayal of a Chinese woman in Trinidad who’s coerced into sex work to pay off a smuggler tax in the 2017 feature drama Moving Parts.
But, like others in her situation, the odds are stacked against her.
Over her 20-year career, Tian says she has seen the industry move beyond offering non-white actors roles as “human props.” Nonetheless, she thinks there’s still a lack of lead roles for Asian Canadian talent.
Although she hid her kung fu ability as a child actor because she didn’t want to be stereotyped, she would now love to do a Jackie Chan-style, over-the-top comedic role. After all, since she’s come into her own, she’s clearly ready to kick ass – and laugh about it.
Lockdowns meant we couldn’t host the usual photoshoot our annual Canada’s Rising Screen Stars feature. So we sent this year’s actors and filmmakers disposable cameras to shoot themselves. All photos by Valerie Tian.