Somehow, the writers and producers of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” continually find ways to reinvent the show and keep viewers intrigued. In its 17th season, the series extensively covered the COVID-19 pandemic in ways few other scripted shows did and brought back several original cast members … in ghost form.
So far this fall, Season 18 (now set in a post-pandemic world) has reintroduced even more old cast members and brought several new actors into the “Grey’s” universe.
Among those new to the show — but a familiar face, given her two-decade career in movies and television — is Lynn Chen as Dr. Michelle Lin, Grey Sloan Memorial’s new head of plastic surgery. Joining the longest-running prime-time medical drama in TV history marks perhaps Chen’s most visible role since 2004, when she made her feature film debut as Vivian Shing in writer-director Alice Wu’s “Saving Face.” While it played at acclaimed festivals like Toronto and Sundance, the movie was so scrappy that, as Chen told me recently in a Zoom interview, she remembers promoting it by “going door to door” around New York City, hanging up posters at bodegas.
These days, “Saving Face” is beloved, especially for its Asian American and LGBTQ representation. But it took a long time for people to fully appreciate it.
“When ‘Grey’s’ came out, and there’s such a large lesbian audience for ‘Grey’s,’ so many people were like, ‘Oh my God, is that Vivian Shing on Grey’s Anatomy?!’ I think people have just forgotten about ‘Saving Face’ or who I was until I had a huge platform for people to recognize me again. And it just made me so grateful,” Chen said. “It allows me to enjoy its success now, rather than be bitter about it never having had its moment back in the day. And it also makes it so that I really understand the ups and downs of this industry, and I never take any of it for granted, ever, because I know it can go away really quickly.”
In the nearly 20 years since “Saving Face,” Chen, 44, has worked steadily as a film and TV actor. But the roles have ebbed and flowed. Over time, she has gained a lot of perspective while charting her own path in the industry.
Her latest projects have included writing and directing her own feature film, “I Will Make Me You Mine,” which was released last year and is available to stream on Paramount+. She’s also been going after roles that really resonate with her, like in “See You Then,” which is currently playing at various film festivals around the country and will be released in 2022.
Throughout our interview, Chen spoke with hard-won wisdom about learning to accept the uncertainty of being a working actor and the many turns that a career in a creative profession can take — and about building the confidence to let go of the things you can’t control.
“I think it definitely shifted for me when I started directing because I saw how personal things were when you’re on the other side of things. Like, it can literally be something as trivial as your hair color as to why you’re not cast in something — something you have zero control over. And it just made me really stop obsessing over things that I couldn’t control or change in order to book a part,” she said.
“So, if I’m not the right person for a job, then I’m not the right person for the job, and there’s really nothing I can do to try to make them want to hire me. And that just gave me so much freedom of just, like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna really go for it.’”
A recent role that she really went for was her character in “See You Then.” She wrote a letter to the movie’s writer-director Mari Walker about “how important I felt the story was, and that I really felt like I was the right person to tell that story.”
Filmed just before the pandemic began, the movie is about former college sweethearts Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Chen). It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since their abrupt breakup a decade prior and Kris’ transition. Over dinner and then while walking around Naomi’s town, the two reconnect, gradually getting deeper and trying to sort out their complex emotions about their relationship and the hurt they’ve felt in the intervening years.
The movie has the feel of a lot of classic walking-and-talking movies, like Richard Linklater’s “Before…” trilogy, which are among Chen’s all-time favorites.
“It’s always been kind of a dream of mine to do a two-hander like this: people just talking over the course of one evening,” she said, adding that it was also significant that the role was written specifically for an Asian American woman.
As a kid, Chen knew she liked performing and was good at it. Growing up near New York City, Chen, whose mother was a singer at the Metropolitan Opera, joined the Met Opera’s children chorus at the age of 5.
“I knew right away, since I was very little, that I could sing. So that already put me at an advantage. But also, I was one of the very few, rare Asian children whose parents understood the industry,” she recalls. “I was working constantly back then because, you know, if they needed an Asian kid, they just basically were like, ‘Her!’ I also took direction really well, and I really enjoyed it.”
In college, she thought majoring in theater would be a natural fit. But after her first theater class got a little too in the weeds, she switched to music and women’s studies, knowing that she could get back into acting after college.
“When it comes to acting, I don’t like to really analyze it,” Chen said. “For me, it’s like a form of therapy, rather than something that I want to study or get geeky about. I just want to be part of it and do it and not really overthink it. So that was a good lesson for me.”
After graduating, she started her TV and film career the way many New York-based actors do: by getting a role on “Law and Order.” She went on to more parts on other shows in the “Law and Order” franchise (“SVU” and “Trial by Jury”), as well as five episodes of the daytime soap “All My Children.”
“I was one of the very few, rare Asian children whose parents understood the industry. I was working constantly back then because, you know, if they needed an Asian kid, they just basically were like, ‘Her!’”
When “Saving Face” came around, she didn’t fully realize how much of an anomaly the movie was until after its festival run and release. Because it was her first feature film role, “I honestly thought, ‘Oh, great! This is what movies are like. They’re so well written, and it’s like a family, and there’s always such talented people involved,’” she recalls. “It was the reason I moved out to LA because a lot of opportunities were happening. But then, very quickly, I had the crash. I found out that not all movies are done quite as well. And it was just constant rejection, and a lot of instability, and a lot of doubt.”
Typically, starring in an acclaimed indie movie would have brought a flood of bigger opportunities. But for Chen, they were more like a trickle.
“I remember we played at the Angelika all summer, longer than anyone else. People were stopping me on the street while I was, like, picking up my dog poop, telling me how much they loved the movie. And I knew that was not common, you know?”
“Yet still, this was a movie that could not get me an agent,” she added. “The opportunities were still not quite there. I was still not booking series regular roles or even recurring guest star roles on a regular basis, the way that I felt probably should have happened.”
“There was a part of me that felt like: ‘Is it the Asian thing? Or is it just me? Not just me, but is it, like, the way the world is? Or am I just taking this way too personally?’”
Partly because she needed to fill time between acting jobs, Chen started to pick up other creative endeavors. For years, she had a blog and podcast called “The Actor’s Diet,” talking to fellow actors about their relationships to food and body image. She also co-founded another blog, “Thick Dumpling Skin,” to help Asian Americans share their stories about body image, eating disorders and mental health. She writes frequently, from articles and personal essays to her newsletter and personal blog.
“For me, it is not giving all the power to this one career,” she said, noting that acting is “a lot of waiting, and it’s a lot of expecting other people to validate you, and literally, people being able to say yes or no in order for you to do what you do. To have a little bit of creative control and to be able to at least feed that part of you that really wants to say something and do something is really important.”
Periodically, she has gotten opportunities to do paid work in some of these other fields but has stopped short of fully pursuing them, fearing they would no longer be enjoyable. And fortunately, her acting career — movies and TV, plus commercials and voiceover work — has paid the bills, so she has never had to seriously consider making anything else her primary source of income, she noted. Besides, making it as an actor is hard enough.
“I kind of have zero interest in getting involved in yet another, you know, cutthroat industry. I’ve spent pretty much my entire life getting to where I am now with acting, where I’m finally comfortable that I don’t want to start all over from square one,” she said. “I feel really lucky that I have my day job, acting, which is also my dream job. And then on the side, I get to try other things and see what happens.”
With acting as her foundation, everything else she tries can just be a new adventure, not a means to an end. It also reduces the pressure to succeed at everything. “I think that’s also why directing and writing hasn’t been that scary or daunting for me because it was never like, ‘OK, I’m done with acting. Now it’s time to be a filmmaker,’” she said.
“I know what it’s like to feel an abundance of things and then have it completely disappear.”
In 2018, Chen wrote, directed and co-starred in “I Will Make You Mine,” the third part of a trilogy she had previously co-starred in. The movie shifts the focus away from the male protagonist of the first two installments — singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura (playing a fictionalized version of himself) — and toward three women in his life: Rachel (Chen), Yea-Ming (musician Yea-Ming Chen, whose music is also featured in the movie) and Erika (Ayako Fujitani). Each is at a crossroads in their lives, reflecting on the past and trying to figure out what’s next. For Chen, stepping behind the camera gave her another opportunity to gain more creative control, and crucially, develop more substantive roles for Asian American actors.
“I had definitely been going in for roles that were a little meatier, a little juicier. But it did feel like the chances of them actually casting an Asian American to play those roles were still pretty slim,” she said. “When I wrote ‘I Will Make You Mine,’ there was a part of me that kind of felt that frustration of: ‘Oh, I hate how it always feels like there can only be one of us.’”
At audition after audition, she would constantly run into the same Asian American actor friends. “It just sucks that, like, we’re all so different, and yet, here we are, going after the same type of role,” she said. “We’re just so specific, each of us. But yet on screen, you’ll have the powers that be say: ‘Unless they’re related, like, why would there be more than one?’ And sometimes it would be a situation where it would be like, an Asian guy ended up getting cast as a friend, so, like, that’s it, they can’t have an Asian girl play the other friend.”
In “I Will Make You Mine,” nearly every character is Asian American, with very different personalities and complicated traits. Chen says it was equally important to her that the characters happen to be Asian American, but aren’t defined by that.
“I wanted to see what it would feel like to not have to justify our existence by using culture or racism or something else as the means for us being on screen,” she said. “It reflected what my life was like, what it’s like when I’m hanging out with my Asian friends. We’re not sitting around talking about ‘Asian things,’ you know? And so I wanted to see that. I wanted to see my life reflected on screen because if I felt like it was lacking, then I knew that other people must feel that also.”
Recently, Chen filmed another movie with a predominantly Asian American cast: “A Shot Through the Wall,” which will be released in theaters on Jan. 21. Veteran character actor Tzi Ma — who has cheekily referred to himself as “Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad,” given how much he plays Asian dads, like in “The Farewell,” “Tigertail,” “Mulan” and the CW’s “Kung Fu” — plays Chen’s character’s father in it. (Chen quipped that she holds the record for the number of times Ma has played her dad: in two movies.)
During the pandemic, Chen wrote another project that she’s trying to get off the ground, which she wrote with Ma in mind (in part because “I want to keep that record,” she joked). In addition, she has another new project that she’s hoping to direct.
Earlier this week, ABC announced Dr. Lin will officially be a recurring character, so “Grey’s” fans will definitely be seeing more of Chen. But she doesn’t know when (and even if she did, she probably wouldn’t be allowed to say, given how “Grey’s” producers and writers are famously tight-lipped about the show’s future).
“It’s very like, I find out when I find out, and I show up when they book me, and that’s it. Like, I just don’t know what’s happening,” Chen said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen with my character this season, but I’m as excited as the fans are to find out.”
Chen is clear-eyed about all the turns her career has taken, comparing her works in progress to a garden of seeds, “and I’m just kind of like hovering over them waiting for them to take root. And some of them may, and some of them may not. And that’s fine.”
“There does feel like there’s an abundance happening right now. But I know what it’s like to feel an abundance of things and then have it completely disappear,” she said. “I was pretty devastated by it. But now that I’ve gone through it, and pulled myself out of it, and had a resurgence, I’m not afraid of it happening again.”
“And not only am I not afraid of it, I just see it as normal,” she added. “Because in sharing those times, I’m watching other people go through that now, and I see the worry on their face, and I just want to tell them, like, ‘You’re gonna be fine. You’re so talented. You’re gonna be fine.’”