Interview with Lucy Sheen Part One

Interview with Lucy Sheen Part One

Posted Sept

Overcoming the struggles: a dyslexic, transracial adoptee carves space for British East Asian actors in the UK


Interview conducted by Christina Schultz

Lucy Sheen was made in Hong Kong, exported to the UK in the late 50s early 60s as a transracial adoptee. Lucy is an actor, writer, filmmaker, trainer and transracial adoptee advocate. She trained at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama (1985), the first British East Asian actress to graduate from a recognized UK drama school. Lucy’s first professional job was the female lead in the groundbreaking British feature film Ping Pong, directed by Po Ch’ih Leong. This was the first British film of its kind to look at the issues facing the British-Chinese community in the UK.

Christina Schultz: Hi, Lucy. Thanks for chatting with Femfilmfans. I want to start by saying I am in awe of all the work you do. You are a filmmaker, actor, writer, poet, cultural sensitivity trainer, advocate, the list goes on. How do you find time to do everything?

Lucy Sheen: The nature of being an actor is that if you’re not Dame Judy Dench, you need a day job. If you don’t have some Hollywood films on the backburner, you need to fit in the teaching, the training, the writing, the acting, etc. Lots of the work you can do remotely, like writing, for instance, which makes it easier.

CS: What do you enjoy doing the most?

LS: Acting, I suppose. But I enjoy all of it. The corporate training day job not so much although I do appreciate it. I get to use my acting skills in a different setting and I get paid for it, which is always great.
Acting on stage is so different from other types because it’s in front of a live audience with other actors - all living, breathing entities. The challenge is to keep it fresh and exciting for the audience and for you as an artist if you have multiple performances.

Film, conversely, is there for all time. You can’t go back and change it.

Seeing Ping Pong last October [at the Asian Film Festival Berlin], a film I did nearly 30 years ago, good God! That’s quite scary. I thought: Why did I do that? Why did I not do that? That was my first ever acting job out of drama school. But I’m still not very good at watching my work. Filmmaking itself has yet another set of challenges.

Poster for "Ping Pong" (photo:

CS: What made you transition from acting to filmmaking?

LS: I got hoodwinked into it [laughs]. I was approached by an acquaintance who found out I was an actor and suggested I make a documentary film. I pointed out my work was all in front of the camera and not behind the camera so I said I could help her,  but somehow I wound up producing, directing and writing the documentary Abandoned Adopted Here

CS: But Abandoned Adopted Here also tells your story, that of the transracial adoptees. Is that why you agreed to make the film?

LS: Yes, I felt it was important to make a documentary about what it means to grow up as a transracial adoptee and what it means to be British East Asian.

CS: Was it difficult making a film about such a personal topic? What was that like for you emotionally?

LS: It would have been harder had I not been directing and writing. I would have more time to stew in my own juices. I didn’t give myself time to think about the personal nature of the project. It wasn’t until I observed other people watching the film that I realized how emotional they found it.

CS: If I may say so, your personal story seems to be one of struggle. Struggling to find quality work, to navigate the completed waters of identity, esp. in the British colonial context, as a “transracial adoptee,” struggling for the rights and representations of Asians in film and theater, struggling with dyslexia and so on. What injustices and limitations have you faced in your line of work?

LS: As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less tolerant of inequality and injustice. When you first come out of drama school you want to work. You can end up compromising yourself and you have youth as an excuse. I was lucky, however. When I left drama school in the 80s, I was a “jobbing actor,” although there were limitations. I got radio work because they wanted a Chinese person but since I grew up in the UK I had to put on an East Asian accent. And yet I couldn’t be in radio for anything other than those Chinese roles, which is quite bizarre and still happens now.

In England, East Asians are viewed separately from other British minority ethnics, such as Black, African, Caribbean and Southeast Asian. We have always been further segregated and seen very much as the Other, the thing to be feared, to be ridiculed; you find it in the practice of yellowface. If you were to continue the racist practices of black- or brownface, you wouldn’t get away with it in the UK, but for some strange reason this continues to happen to East Asians.

So we are, in many ways, so far behind and it confines what I can do as a performer 
and artist. When I am cast, it is still because of my appearance and not because of my skills as an actor, which is infuriating, but change is slowly coming about. 

CS: And what was it like dealing with your dyslexia?

LS: I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did all of my studies. It wasn’t a recognized condition when I was a kid in the 50s-60s. They thought that I was being thick and insubordinate. This kind of reaction hasn’t changed much over time, even with more awareness of learning disabilities, but you do find ways of coping.

Dealing with text and words as an actor is still probably not the best profession to go into when you’re dyslexic. I had to learn to train my eyes to slow down and my brain to focus. I’m not very good at sight readings. In a student production of King Lear, for the line “Put on what weary negligence you please,” I once famously said “put on what weary negligees you please” instead. These kinds of things were embarrassing at the time but are now quite amusing.

Because of my experiences I work with dyslexic charities and offer advice. I tell people you can succeed in world of words and literature. Today there is so much technology that makes things easier. It still takes me twice as long to read a script though.

Part Two

"When I perform, I’m making a political point whether I like it or not."

By Christina Schultz

In case you missed it, please read Part One of my interview with Lucy Sheen here: "Overcoming the struggles"

Now on to the final part of the interview.

Christina Schultz: How do you combat stereotypes?

Lucy Sheen: By not getting angry - it’s a waste of energy. No matter how civilized the societies, there will always be idiots who are prejudiced for no other reason than the fact that they are. All you can do is counterbalance that with the way you act as a human being and with the work you produce. And the work we produce in the arts has wide ramifications on society. Without culture, innovation, discovery, and without creative minds, society is stunted and stifled.  

I have to challenge the two-dimensional characters, the Other, the foreigner with an accent selling knock-off DVDs on the street corner, which reinforces stereotypes. We are not allowed to be normal British citizens that happen to be East Asian. So when I perform, I’m making a political point whether I like it or not.

I was in an episode of the extremely popular British period drama series Call the Midwife (BBC 2012-; Lucy was in episode #6.3 in 2017). The East Asian character I played, although with an accent, was a well-rounded character, which is the exception to the rule. Her story was fascinating and heart-breaking. I think this is best way is to combat stereotypes: to share stories, showcase voices and offer perspectives that have not yet been seen or heard. And you should have as much integrity as you can in the work you do.

CS: What do you think about the idea of “inclusion riders” - there was a big buzz around it during the Oscars this past February - or diversity quotas in the film/theater industry?

LS: I’m split. Forcing quotas is always hard but look where we are today. We still do not have an equal playing field. There are all sorts of political, social, racial elements bubbling below the surface acting as serious barriers for artists of color, especially in the U.S. Looking at where America is now, it works like a charm. No one bats an eyelid when seeing a black, an Irish, a Latino person in major roles.

In Britain, we are still trying to get the major production companies to start writing and programming different storylines. There’s all this talk of diversity but you need writers who can access this. That’s not to say the white, middle class, Oxbridge male writers can’t do that - some of them can - but many of them can’t because it’s beyond their experience.

To change this we have to start nurturing and commissioning British East Asian writers. We need to be given a chance. Producers, casting directors, etc. need to be aware of modern cultural sensitivity issues. Whitewashing roles is just not good enough. And there were natural hurdles with such a small number of drama schools, there were only five back in my day, to get auditions. Now there are so many schools which allow more people to have a chance.

CS: What challenges have you faced or negative experiences have you had because you are a woman?

Obviously #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein created a global stir. In the UK, I was involved with the Royal Court Theater when they openly addressed the concerns of sexual abuse. That was also hot on the backs of Kevin Spacey and Max Stafford-Clark, a renowned director who co-founded the Joint Stock Theater Company and is also heavily involved with the Royal Court.

Working in the 80s was a different world, however. The casting couch was still very much in evidence. There was that awful feeling: Who do you tell? Where do you turn to? I had the added misfortune of being a Chinese woman who at the time was a size 8 [U.S. 6] with long hair. This fed into the Western male dream of the oriental submissive female, which then played a part in my theater work with some people trying to take advantage of me. But acting is still a difficult profession for females to get into and to hold their own. The majority of people in power are still older males. In theater, not even a third of directors are female, which is galling because there are so many talented women out there but the culture is still sexist and abusive.

CS: If you could give our readers some advice on how to fight against racism, prejudice, sexism and ageism in the acting business, what would you say to them?

LS: None of these things should stop you from doing what you want. You just need to develop loads of patience and diplomacy. It’s also helpful to look for other allies and to be careful about male bashing. You should stay true to yourself, however. Do your research and don’t be afraid of asking for help. Reach out to others who you admire and inspire you. Write to directors or editors. Put yourself on the line. Ask Can I shadow you? See as much as you can, read as many books as you can. Never stop learning and most importantly, don’t be afraid.

CS: That’s a lot of great advice. Thanks, Lucy!

Drop Lucy an email

Want to collaborate with Lucy?
Would you like to commission her for a written work or a digital canvas?
Want to talk about transracial adoption, diversity, inclusion, being a British East and Southeast Asian?
Looking for a mentor, dramaturge or just have a question.
Use the form below to get in touch.

Lucy values and appreciates you having taken the time to reach out. While every effort will be made to respond in a timely fashion please be patient as sometimes work schedules can delay a response from Lucy