"It was pure, pure fun!" she declares. While discussing her work in the Xena episodes Purity and Back in the Bottle, Matiko frequently laughs - usually at herself. And her enthusiasm pours out at such a pace that she often interrupts her own sentences with a new thought. "It was one of the most beautiful experiences I`ve ever had as an artist," she recalls, "because you didn`t have the Hollywood attitude; you didn`t have the politics. Everyone was there to create beauty From the lead actress to somebody that was there for the first time saying one line, nobody was there for a pay cheque. Nobody was there just for their next gig."
Not that all this fun was easy! Matiko was cast as the twins Pao Ssu and K`ao Hsin after an intense two-week auditioning process, which was just as demanding as playing the roles for the cameras. Almost immediately after landing the assignment, she found herself on the way to New Zealand, where she dived into an exhausting work schedule. With only three days to prepare before shooting began on Purity, Matiko had to attend stunt, Tai Chi and costume rehearsals, as well as riding lessons. As if all that wasn`t enough, she also had to learn 40 pages of dialogue and prepare to play two distinct characters.
"At the end of the first week [of shooting], I slept for two days straight," she says. "I went to bed, woke up three hours later, woke up six hours later, was up for half an hour, [then] went back to bed. I didn`t wake up until three o`clock Sunday afternoon!"
Matiko became an actress almost by accident. She was an engineering student at UCLA when she learned about the musical Miss Saigon. She was so amazed to discover a show featuring Asian characters that she immediately decided to audition. "I didn`t know how to dance, I had never acted before, and I just knew how to sing," she reveals. "I had never been on an audition before... I didn`t know what it was to be rejected, so I had no fear of it. I got cast [as one of] 12 girls out of maybe 3000 other girls... I was a total newbie, and all these other people had been dancing since they were five years old... By sheer survival, I had to learn everything... So I would go to dance classes in the morning [and] acting classes during the day."
The acting classes opened a new emotional universe for a girl raised in an Asian American family. "[Asian] girls and boys were brought up... to never answer back to your parents, to respect authority, to always respect your elders. You never break down... You never have these huge crying screaming fights with your parents. So I started taking acting classes and it [was like] , `Whoa, what`s this feeling? Oh, I can be sad and it`s okay? I can be angry and pissed off and it`s a good thing?` As long as you`re honest, it`s all good. I was literally experiencing feelings I had never felt in all my life."
Matiko took these classes during her four-year tour with Miss Saigon. Afterwards, she played roles in about 20 independent films to learn the trade, while supporting herself as a car show model. Finally she decided she was ready to get an agent, and was quickly cast in two movies: Oliver Stone`s The Corrupter and Mystery Men. Her successful audition for Xena was next, and she was amazed by the reactions of her friends at the news. "When I got cast for Oliver Stone... for me, that was huge... When I got cast for Xena, people went crazy! I had no idea there were so many devout watchers."
Matiko made full use of her new emotional range to create the characters of K`ao Hsin and Pao Ssu. "Everything is in my body emotionally.. so I create emotional layers. With K`ao Hsin, I started off with my mother`s love. In the very gut of me, in my movement and everything, is this love for my mother and a belief in what my mother did, and I want to make my mother proud. There was also a vocal adjustment where her voice is very light, and ethereal, and very pure. "Pao Ssu was [built on] her feeling of abandonment... I started off with, `Everybody`s here to screw me over anyway, so in order to protect myself I need to have power over them.` So Pao Ssu was made out of pure power.. and also this almost hedonistic feeling of enjoying other peoples torture. [I made] a vocal adjustment, bringing my voice down low and having it very earthy and primal. `I didn`t make any body adjustments, but I`ve seen takes, and even my posture is different for Pao Ssu and K`ao Hsin. K`ao Hsin`s movements are very rounded and fluid; and Pao Ssu is very upright and as tall as she can possibly be, and all her muscles are very engaged in all her movements."
The artistic challenge was increased by the practical difficulties of playing two characters in the same episode, and sometimes in the same scene. "Because I was playing twins, one character is with one set of people, while the other character is with the other set... And then they have totally different hairstyles as well, and different costumes... Everything`s shot on location, so... I would be with Lucy in the forest as Pao Ssu, but then the next shot would be with Renee and Ted as Kao Hsin. They`d yell, `Cut!`and I`d run to the trailer and do my whole warm-up in my head... I have to change literally from this heavenly, ethereal character to this really primal hedonistic character. "I had to trust my acting abilities, because I had to do it in 15 minutes, and then maybe switch back in the same day.. I learned so much, because I had to. [It was] incredible!"
Matiko has nothing but praise for the director, the other actors, and Xena`s crew, all of whom supported her through the constant role switching. "Mark Beesley, is this amazing New Zealand director," she says. "He`s going to go places... I never felt super stuck, but he would feed [me] little ideas that would give it a little more spice. Mark just fed the passion and the direction, not just for me but for the whole film crew.
"None of the stars act like your typical star. Lucy is huge... in terms of the TV world. She could be a total diva... but Lucy is the opposite of that. The lady totally gave me 110 per cent. Lucy was pregnant, so lots of times she couldn`t work the 14 hour days. Sometimes I had to work with her body double, but when she was there for me she was truly there for me.
"And then Ted Raimi, he gets into Joxer mode. Even off-carnera, his body language becomes clumsy, his speech pattern changes... He`s the great source of entertainment, because he`s falling over things, stepping in the wrong things - he`s so funny, and he`s almost like a hypochondriac too because Joxer`s like that."
Matiko`s enthusiasm skyrockets when she talks about the chance Xena gave her to play a type of role rarely offered to Asian actresses. "I`ve gone for so many roles where it started out Asian, and then... they changed their mind or lost confidence in using an Asian actress, so they turned it back to a white character. On top of that you have a lot of Hollywood stereotypes. I`ve played three prostitutes... I`ve had to play these passive, meek characters that had to speak a foreign language with an accent. "The beautiful thing about Xena is that they have no colour lines. Xena was my first opportunity to play these incredible strong women without an accent, and [I] was able to try all these different things that I do in acting class all the time but I wasn`t able to do it in film. This was the first time. It was truly, truly a gift."
Matiko credits her Xena experience with giving her the confidence she needed to win a lead role in The Art of War, which she hopes will be a breakthrough for her career. She plays opposite Wesley Snipes and shares the screen with the likes of Donald Sutherland, Ann Archer and Michael Biehn, under the direction of Christian Duguay. Plans are already underway for her to participate in a major promotional tour in 2000, when the film will open all over the US. She is delighted with the East-meets-West action story and with her character, Julia Fang, a United Nations translator who can clear Wesley Snipes` character of the assassination of a Chinese ambassador. "She`s intelligent, she`s vivacious, she knows how to have fun, she`s a smart ass. She`s a dream role," states Matiko. "I have a whole range of emotions, in terms of total vulnerability and crying, and total smart-ass fighter comedic moments." Matiko also has a more altruistic hope about the impact of The Art of War. "I try to portray in my character.. what the future should be in terms of East meets West... We can look at [a Chinese citizen] as a foreigner because their culture is so different. We can look at them as an enemy because we don`t understand them, and we can push them away. [But] idealistically we need to... embrace the differences."
Despite her increasingly hectic schedule, Matiko would love to return to the Xenaverse in the near future. She has already discussed the possibility with producer Erie Gruendemann, although nothing is definite. Whether she reappears on Xena or finds more roles like Julia Fang, Matiko approaches everything she does with one essential ideal. "Ultimately we want to create positive images," she declares. "This is how I always start off.. I imagine a six-year-old girl looking at it going, `I can do that. I can find that in myself. I can be a strong woman. I`m allowed to feel love, I`m allowed to feel vulnerability and it`s okay.` I always imagine a little girl and [wonder] what can I inspire in her, what can I bring out to create a better world in the future?"
Marie Matiko reveals how the magic of Xena makes one actress into two characters... "This is the funny part. We would have like five of me on set: me, my stand-in, my body double [and] my stunt double.... A stand-in is the person who stands there when they`re doing lights... A body double, they literally use [her] body for mine when they`re filming. It might be over the shoulder, it might be a hand, it might be a wide shot where you see the person walking. Then you have the stunt double who does stunts, like the martial arts.
"First they would do a wide shot, then they would do an over-the-shoulder [shot] with my body double as one character while the camera faces me as the other character. Then they`ll do the opposite side. That`s when it`s really crazy, because [everything`s ready except] me: the actress running to the trailer, getting into the next outfit and coming back as the other character!"
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