She has grown up before our own eyes on popular TV shows such as the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, Scandal, New Girl, and Dads. Brenda Song’s latest project is Pure Genius, in which she plays Angie Cheng, a computer techie.
Pure Genius can be seen on CBS every Thursday at 8pm central time.
At what age did you start modeling?
I started when I was 4 or 5 on a complete whim. A modeling company was at
a mall doing a search. I used to watch Star Search a lot. Mom was at a kiosk. I
was doing the modeling walk while my mom was looking at stuff. I was super
interested in modeling and my mom had no idea. My parents were really young
and did not grow up with a lot of money. My mom just said “ok, sure” and did
not think anything about it. Two weeks later I got really sick and would not take
my medicine. All I talked about was the modeling school. My grandmother
said, “if you take your medicine we will take you to the school.” I took my
medicine, of course. My grandma, took her entire savings of $527 to enroll me
in the school. I got an agent and I just kept auditioning. On my 6th birthday,
we came to LA, where I got a new agent and kept on working. My mom used to
joke that when I stopped working we’d have to go back to Sacramento.
I guess she did not need to take you back to Sacramento.
Not yet! (laugh). Knock on wood! I don’t know if I could survive there, now.
Do you think modeling prepared you for acting?
Well, yes and no. I mean I think it got me comfortable in front of the camera.
But, you know, obviously it wasn’t enough. I really love expressing myself
through crazy characters. So, yes, but I think I had to grow and modelling just
didn’t do it for me. I’m still very camera shy. I don’t like to do photoshoots
unless I’m in character.
Do you still have stage fright?
I still get nervous before taping some things but I have learned to let it go. You
have to take away that fear and not let people’s judgment hinder you at all.
Your breakout role was London Tipton on the Disney Channel’s original seriesThe Suite Life of Zack and Cody and your first starring role in the Disney Channel’s original TV movie Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior. To which character did you relate more?
Wendy was much more tailored to who I was because we had been part
of that project from the very, very beginning, so she’s much more like my
personality. But London is my fantasy character and that’s how I played her. All the things that are in my craziest dreams and what I could have, I lived through London. So, I related to both roles, really. With every character you play, you have to sort of take parts of yourself to make the character somewhat real.
What challenges did you face transitioning from a child star into adult roles?
I think it’s difficult to make that transition… I feel like I’m not quite there yet. It’s hard to do because you are doing it on camera. You’re under a microscope. I do think I have been fortunate to be able to do it progressively because I have gotten to play these characters as I’ve grown up. Right after Suite Life, I got to do Scandal and New Girl. They seemed like natural progressions of me growing up and I’m really grateful for that. Growing up on TV is hard because you can lose yourself at some point and there’s a fine line between who you are and the characters that you play every day. But I’m really lucky to have had Shonda Rhimes (creator of Scandal) and Elizabeth Meriwether (creator of New Girl) because working on Dads was like going to college for me. I’m so grateful for them because I not only got to play characters that
were older. I grew up with these people and these experiences.
In which TV show or movie did you realize that you had made the transition to adult roles?
I would say that I had to make adult decisions and become an adult when I was 16 and acting became a career and no longer was an after school hobby. That was also when my mom got cancer for the first time. I booked Suite Life that same year, and my parents said I could choose to do the show or go to college. They said it had to be my choice. I feel like that that is when I started becoming an adult because I had to make my own choices for the long run. But, character-wise, playing Josh Malina’s assistant on Scandal was the perfect transition point. That was the first time that I felt like I was part of an adult world.
Tell me about your new TV show Pure Genius.
Pure Genius deals with a lot of problems that exist right now relating to man versus machine. It’s a show about a tech billionaire who decides to
start this state of the art hospital with no red tape, no insurance… none of that. It considers what would happen if we could have a hospital where we would only get the best care and deal with the craziest cases without having to deal with any bureaucracy. Dermot Mulroney plays Dr. Wallace, a renowned old school surgeon who is in a constant battle with James about the balance between there being too much emphasis on machines at the cost of losing the human touch. I feel like that is what we are dealing with today in this digital age. It’s been really fun because my character, Angie, represents the tech aspect of that. She represents this time and place with all of these Silicon Valley products and apps and other tech things that are happening. I feel like I’ve passed that point and I am not very good with my phone and such things. So, I get to live through Angie. And you have to deal with how do we take the tech that exists and use it to help medical cases because, hopefully, that’s where we’ll be in the future when it comes to technology in that sense.
Angie is a tech person?
Yeah. She’s not a doctor. She is the tech side of Bunker Hill. There is no
hierarchy there; it doesn’t matter that Dermot’s character is chief of staff. Everyone sits in a room and whoever has the best idea wins. Angie has to figure out how to create something or take existing technology and help our crazy cases. How is technology used to our advantage? The show is a great way to introduce the tech world to the CBS audience like my dad who has no idea and just learned how to text me a few years ago (laughs). I think it’s a great way to introduce that and bridge the generation gap.
Are you a tech savvy person?
Oh God, no. I’m not but I’m getting better. I’ve really taken steps to be better about social media because it’s not going to go away. But, I still keep a planner that I write in. I’m not a person that uses all the features that my phone possesses.
I read that you are an active Twitter and Instagram user.
I really don’t think I do. I try but I don’t think I do that much. I don’t think I even have 200 posts on Instagram yet. But I do try. I try really hard. But, it’s not my instinct to go to Twitter and Instagram.
Do you keep up with any of your Disney co-stars?
I do keep up with Phil and the boys from the Suite Life. I see them at least once a year. When you spend seven years together you become family. Brian Stepanek who played Arwin on Suite Life just guest starred on an episode of Pure Genius. It’s a really small, small world. We all have a bond. We grew up together. We share memories that will keep us as friends and family forever.
You are one of the first Asian Americans who has had a TV role that has
inspired a lot of Asians.
Oh, that’s wonderful. Growing up, I didn’t even think about it but the only Asians I saw on TV were Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and maybe Michelle Yeoh. Obviously, I’m not anything like them. I grew up in California. I
feel like in the last five years or so, things have changed so much for Asian American actors. We’ve gotten such amazing opportunities to really be true to ourselves. I’m really grateful to Disney to have allowed me to have had the chance to sort of take away color—period. And that’s a really, really wonderful thing. When we did Wendy Wu, everyone told me that I was playing into the stereotype of Asians doing martial arts. I thought that I also had my own stereotype when I played London Tipton and everyone thought that I was a dumb ditz. So, I thought whether or not I was stepping into another stereotype, there are always going to be stereotypes. They are there for a reason. You know what I mean? Jackie Chan and Jet Li do, indeed, do great martial arts films. They do it best and better than everyone else. And there is nothing wrong with that. Stereotypes are not a bad thing. I was really grateful for Wendy Wu, a young Chinese-American girl who didn’t know much about her culture and wanted to learn more. And I thought it was a fun way to sort of play into that. I am grateful that they gave me the opportunity. Everyone who has hired me has given me the opportunity to build up my dream, to continually explore myself and get to express myself through these characters.
You don’t play the stereotypical nerdy Asian role in Pure Genius.
Can I tell you, I would love to play that. People don’t give me the chance to play these characters because they see me as being the funny “Valley girl.” When people think of me that way, all I can think of is that I know that that is “an Asian stereotype” but as an Asian-American, I never get the chance to play those parts. So, for me I would love the opportunity to play a nerdy role!
I think a lot of the young Asian girls find it refreshing to see someone in whom they can see themselves and who is not playing a stereotypical role but a funand crazy one. I think that’s why you have so many young Asian American fans. They love your character and are inspired by you.
That is probably true. I find balance in my role as Angie. She is so smart
but she is crazy, too. I think that is what is wrong with the stereotype. To be smart, you don’t have to be nerdy and studious. Everybody at Bunker Hill is extremely smart. In their own ways, they are all geniuses. Angie is smart, crazy and has an extremely dry sense of humor. That is why I love the show so much. Its creator, Jason Katims, has done such a great job balancing the serious and comedic aspects of the show. This brings lightness to the serious subject matter. Because the show is, at the end of the day, a medical show that deals with dark subjects, such as life and death. Obviously, my strengths are in comedy and I wondered how we factor that into the show in such a way that it would not be crazy comedy but still bring lightness to these dark subjects. That’s what’s really been fun. For the first time, I am able to play someone who is really bright and crazy. On a certain level, every character is sort of crazy because they are always thinking about ways to make impossible things
work. All the technology we use on the show is actually stuff that already exists or is being developed. It’s not science fiction and we are not making it up. It’s based on real things that are happening in the world which is really great. I have a few fun questions for you.
What do you do in your spare time?
My spare time…uh, this is going to sound really sad. I love to read. I love to knit and I love to bake. I kid you not. Ask anybody who really knows me. Those are things that I do on my spare time. Oh…I love to eat, too.
Do you watch cooking shows?
I did a lot. Not so much anymore, but I still do love to eat. So you must have to work out to keep fit. Something that I have to do but I don’t love to do is to work out. One of my brothers is actually going to culinary school and that is why I was so interested in trying to cook. My other brother is a personal trainer so I am really fortunate. I’ve got both sides covered.
What’s the weirdest thing anyone has ever done to you or for you?
Oh, for me? Umm… I think a weird and flattering but also scary thing is
when people have had tattoos with some of my character’s catch phrases such as “Yay me”. That was something that London Tipton always said. Also, someone had me sign my signature on their arm which they then had tattooed so that it would be permanent. I thought it was flattering but I thought, “Oh my God!”
What is your weirdest fear?
I love and I’m fascinated by the ocean but I’m terrified of it. I tried the surfing thing and when I looked down, I saw how deep it was and that it never ended. Then I got a little crazy in my head and had to get out of the water.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Oh, that’s easy! Alicia Vikander.
What is one of your annoying habits?
Annoying habits…Uhmm…probably saying “uhmmm” (laughs)
What’s one of your pet peeves?
People who chew with their mouths open. I don’t know. It’s a weird pet peeve of mine. Yeah.
What is on your playlist right now?
Uhmm…I’m obsessed with Sia’s song Greatest. That song is one of my
favorites. I don’t really listen to the radio so I listen to the same six CDs in my car all the time.
What do you like to watch on TV?
It’s very stereotypical of me but I love Game of Thrones. I love Homeland. I have been watching a lot of documentaries. I just watched the one about Amanda Knox. I love documentaries. I love like crime thrillers. It’s really pretty dark for someone who is not very serious. I like really dark shows (laughs). I think they are interesting. Human behavior really interests me. Documentaries are fascinating because you get to see all walks of life.
What would you be if you were not an actor?
I would be a psychiatrist, therapist or someone like that. As I said before,
human behavior fascinates me. I think it is so interesting to see what triggers people to do what they do.
What is something that you would like people to know about you?
That I am extremely perky and weird. I’m quite private about who I am and I want people to know that I’m not the characters that I play.
Pure Genius airs Thursday nights at 10/9c on CBS.
Missed an episode? Watch at CBS.com
Photographer: Rowan Daly
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