Exclusive Interview with "Irene Tsu"
A TRAILBLAZING PIONEER, acclaimed actress, artist, and designer, Irene Tsu has helped break barriers for Asian-Americans in her long and storied career in Hollywood. Along the way, she’s worked (and played) with many legends of the silver screen: Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Doris Day, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, Bette Miller, Nick Nolte. Irene knew them all, and many more… some more intimately than others! But none more intimately than the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra, with whom Irene shared a passionate and adventurous two-year relationship. Now she finally opens up about her journey from a tumultuous childhood in Shanghai, to New York and dreams of being a prima ballerina, and finally to catching the acting bug and moving to Hollywood. She reveals secrets about those fascinating relationships and the many opportunities that make up her compelling and inspiring tale. More than just a Hollywood tell-all, Irene also shares deeply personal moments and shows how she’s always been able to move with the ebb and flow of life, making the most of it and celebrating it like a true water color artist.
Let’s talk a bit about your latest project, A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu. What inspired you to write your book?
My college professor, Tom Stempel, who is the Cinema Department head at Los Angeles City College (LACC) and a renowned film scholar and critic, always thought I should write a story about my life. At the time I told him no because I was not a professional writer (yet) and I didn’t know if I would be able to properly convey all the aspects of my personal life and career into words.
Then, around 2016, Tom invited me to speak to his class at LACC to share my story. Afterwards, two students put their hands up and asked if I was going to write a memoir. Tom said, “You see!". That defining moment truly kickstarted my motivation to start writing my book.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about yourself as an individual while writing your book?
Honestly, while putting together my book, the one thing that surprised me most about myself was the fact that I was able to remember all the details about my life!
Why do you think it’s important to share your personal story with others?
I think it's important to document my life and share it with others mainly to help keep these precious memories alive for both me and my family.
My parents passed away around 2008 and I didn't think my daughter, who was only nine years old at the time, cared to know anything about her mom's life, so I mostly kept these experiences locked inside myself.
However, I had an eye-opening moment of inspiration when I visited my uncle who had written his own memoir 20 something years ago. He is now 99 and has dementia. I would see him read the manuscript from time to time and I thought that was such an amazing thing he could reference, to look back at his life and remember who he was and everything he had accomplished.
I also believe that sharing my story is very important because it can help other young girls who may identify with the situations I’ve been through as an Asian American, and the ways I have been able to overcome many obstacles in order to create the amazing life I have today.
What is one main message you hope readers take away from A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu?
I wanted to keep it light, bright, happy and funny -- just like my philosophy of life.
There is no heavy message, it should just serve as a nice reminder that any person can accomplish their wildest dreams if they put their mind to it, even a young dreamer from the Far East.
You started out with dreams of being a prima ballerina, and then transitioned into acting. What was the catalyst for that?
I always say I became an actress accidentally. I was working as a dancer in Henry Koster's Flower Drum Song (1961) and he was the one who gave me my first speaking role in his film, Take Her, She’s Mine (1963). From there, my career just kind of catapulted from one acting opportunity to the next. I was very lucky, but I was a very hard worker. Still am!
I’ve had the opportunity to watch the trailer for Over the Moon, the upcoming animated Netflix film that you are staring in, and it looks like an amazing movie! Please tell our readers a bit about the movie and how you landed the role.
Over the Moon is a delightful animated film detailing the life of a young girl and her journey to meet the fabled “moon goddess”. It’s a very nice story of perseverance and I’m excited for people to be able to finally watch it this fall.
Regarding the casting process, my agents submitted me for the role of the grandma and I was chosen. I am still continuing to act but the roles I land now or more geared toward the mother or grandmother age-range. But hey, someone has to play these roles!
What is the process like when working on a film like this? Is it mostly individual work? Did you have to read with the cast to get a feel for the other characters?
Regarding Over the Moon, I only worked with the noted director (Glen Keane) line by line.
My other film for Netflix I have coming out, Away, was shot in Vancouver and I had a dialect coach to help me perfect my character’s Beijing accent. I've never met the other cast members, which is interesting, as this was the first project with that format.
You’ve worked alongside some of the biggest celebrities, from Elvis Presley to Jeff Bridges. Out of curiosity, if your life was turned into a movie, who would you want to play you and why?
Someone suggested Chrissy Teigen, although she’s not an actress. However, I think she would be a good fit because she has that sense of humor and genuineness about her that I feel I've always had.
We’ve all heard stories of celebrities behaving badly. In your opinion, what’s it really like to work with a famous celebrity? Give us a story of your best and worst experience working in Hollywood.
The big stars like Elvis, John Wayne or even Frank Sinatra never rehearsed. Come to think of it, the negative experiences I had were mostly with technical crew not actors.
However, I do discuss some of my experiences witnessing bad on-set behavior in my book.
On a more personal note, tell us a little about your “real” (non-writing) life — family, hobbies, etc.
Outside of my entertainment career, I am also a realtor and investor along with being a lover and teacher of Bikram Yoga. I'm using this God-given time during the pandemic to create watercolor paintings while also writing a treatment for TV, most probably a reality show.
I love to spoil my 2-foot long Bengel tabby mixed cat and I consider myself to be a non-professional life coach, guiding and learning from my daughter, Yasmine, who is in her early 20s. She continues to usher me into new experiences.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My mom definitely still has a big influence on me. She was also an incredible watercolor artist, so I grew up learning that skill from her. She also taught me some other very useful lessons about life, like the importance of independence and self-reliance that I will always cherish.
If you had to persuade someone to buy A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu, in a tweet (280 characters), what would you say?
A Water Color Dream delves into my life, starting as a dreamer in the Far East and follows my experiences being one of the first ever Asian American actresses to overcome Hollywood’s diversity barriers where I went on to work with top stars including Elvis Presley, Jeff Bridges, John Wayne, Bette Midler, and more.
What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, etc.) and link(s)?
For more information on me or to order an autographed copy of my book, please visit my website: https://irenetsu-entertainment.com
To purchase my book through Amazon, please visit:
I am most active on my Facebook and Instagram.