A LITTLE CUP OF TINA

Tina Huang’s road to success has been paved with hard work and a deep well of talent, all leading her to a juicy role on the TNT hit crime drama, Rizzoli & Isles which returns for a sixth season on June 16. The striking Dallas-born and New York-raised star opens up about life in the Hollywood glare.

HYDROGEN MAGAZINE: Tell me about growing up in Chinatown and the Lower East Side of New York?

TINA HUANG: Insane, just insane. I’m lucky to have grown up in an environment which exposed me to so much at a young age, but my goodness, when I think back on it, it was crazy! It was constant information overload and lots of sensory over-stimulation. Chinatown and the Lower East Side are vibrant communities that are full of colorful characters. People live on top of each other and the sights, sounds, and smells can be overwhelming.

I loved every moment of it, even though I always pined for the traditional childhood that included a grassy backyard! I have no idea how my parents didn’t go nuts worrying about me as a kid running around in that crazy city. I started taking the subway alone right after I graduated the 6th grade – I think I was only 11 or 12. Bananas!

HM: You are a first generation Taiwanese-American. How has the merging of two cultures molded you?

TH: I think I am passionate about learning about different cultures, histories, language and travel because of who I am. I think being between two cultures has also made me curious about people and their stories. It’s probably why I’m an actor.

HM: You went to NYU’s Tisch School of Arts…not too shabby! But did your family have any reservations about you jumping into a career in acting, with the unpredictability of it all, or were they on board from the get-go?

TH: These are great questions! Being Taiwanese-American, my parents weren’t enthused when I expressed interest in the arts. Since I was a decent student, I think my parents had the typical hopes for me to become a doctor or a lawyer. My mother used to say all the time, “You’re so good at arguing! You should be a lawyer.” I know these kinds of hopes were coming from a place of love. My mom wanted me to be safe and secure in my future. I applied to all the normal science high schools that everyone tests for in NYC (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, & Brooklyn Tech). I was accepted to Bronx Science.

Meanwhile, I also secretly had prepared a painting portfolio at the urging of my lovely art teacher in Junior High School. I applied and interviewed at LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and Music & Art (a.k.a. the “FAME” high school). I got in. I weighed my options and felt drawn to the arts. I accepted the offer to attend as an art student, much to my parent’s consternation. Halfway through my freshman year, I grew the guts to audition for the drama department, something I always dreamed about. The audition was a grueling process back then. I was accepted. I was so excited.

Being Asian, I never thought acting would be a viable path for me. I had so few role models. I decided to become a Drama Major and take the risk. My parents still didn’t understand my choice and even until I graduated TISCH, they asked when I was going to get into a viable business; along with law and medicine, they had a funny obsession with me becoming a pharmacist. I wouldn’t say they ever were “OK” with my choice to become an actor, though they finally began to “get it” when they started seeing me on TV. I said to my mom one day, “Look at me mom! At least I play a doctor on TV,” to which she would chuckle. She never could pronounce Rizzoli & Isles so she always asked, “When are you on Gilligan’s Island?” Hah!

HM: Who are some of the performers that inspire you?

TH: Meryl Streep. I wish I had a less obvious answer. I’ve seen almost every film she has been in. Her performances are nuanced and painfully beautiful. She’s a virtuoso. I also like Kate Winslet, Li Gong, Cate Blanchett, Dame Judi Dench, Sandra Oh, Lucille Ball, Julia Louis-Dreyfus…As far as male actors, I am inspired by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Forrest Whitaker, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba. George Clooney has a career that I deeply admire on levels that are beyond his acting. A LOT of people inspire me! My fellow Alumni that are out here in LA working hard, inspire me as well. I’m in a theatre company, Ammunition Theatre Company. We are launching later this year. Every single member is extremely talented. I am sometimes caught in awe.

HM: You’ve had roles on shows like Switched at Birth, The Office, Criminal Minds, The Kroll Show, House, and a recurring role on General Hospital. What have you taken away from some of those experiences?

TH: I’m so thankful that I have been able to watch the wonderful actors on these shows up close. Each one has been a lesson in humility, relaxation and technicality. All of these experiences have also had amazing crews. The actors inspire me, and the crews that make it all happen impress me.

HM: Let’s talk about Rizzoli & Isles, which returns in June for a sixth season on TNT. You play Susie Chang, a senior criminalist with the Boston Police Department’s crime lab. What makes Susie tick? What’s her story?

TH: Susie is a gear head. She likes technology. She likes solving puzzles. She uses her sense of aesthetics in conjunction with technology to figure out crimes. Susie is fiercely loyal, so anything she can do to help the team, is what makes her tick. She’s fundamentally happy and LOVES her job.

HM: What approach did you take to playing her?

TH: My husband is a scientist, so I took a combination of some of his wide eyed enthusiasm when talking about pure science, sprinkled in some of my clowning background, and focused on Susie’s joy when figuring out a puzzle. I love puzzles too, so this wasn’t too much of a stretch.

HM: What has your experience been like working with Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander?

TH: It has been such a pleasure working with these two tremendous women. I admire them both very much. They both have a good sense of humor, intelligence, and have been nothing but kind and welcoming to me. It’s also been so great to work with Bruce McGill, Jordan Bridges, Idara Victor, Lorraine Bracco, and Lee Thompson Young. I’m just so incredibly lucky to work with these people! It blows my mind. It’s surreal.

HM: We love our fashion here at HYDROGEN! How would you describe Susie’s style?

TH: Susie’s style is business-casual and modest…when she wears clothes, that is. She is a nudist, so I think if it were up to her, and she could do it at work, she would mostly be wearing her birthday suit. PROBABLY not appropriate for the crime lab!

HM: Who are some designers you gravitate towards, and how would you peg your own personal style?

TH: I always want to look my best, but I FEEL my best when I am comfortable in what I am wearing. I would say my personal style is comfortable-chic. Nothing is more attractive than projecting confidence. My clothes should also be cute and practical. For example: I LOVE dresses with pockets. For fancier evenings, I like simple, clean, classic lines. I like vintage looks too or vintage pieces mixed with contemporary pieces. Designers…Marc Jacobs, Phillip Lim, Zac Posen…but I’m always looking out for new designers as well.

HM: What do you like to do to unwind when you’re not on set?

TH: Locally, hiking and camping, taking photos, reading, cooking and eating. If I have the opportunity, I love to travel…and eat some more! I did the naked Korean Spa thing for the first time recently and I must say, it was fantastic. Susie would have loved it!

HM: If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?

TH: This is one of those trick questions that makes everyone seem shallow, or that they are trying too hard to sound cultured and sophisticated. With that being said, here it goes: Lucille Ball, an unparalleled comedic actress and business woman. Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s greatest human rights activists and statesmen. And Meryl Streep, of course. I hope they like my vegetarian lasagna.

HM: Tell me one thing we’d be surprised to know about you…

TH: I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.

HM: Giving back is something you care deeply about, and I know you are an advocate for Parkinson’s disease. Tell me about that side of yourself…

TH: In the last few years of her life, my husband and I became my mother’s primary caregivers. She passed away in December 2014 at 64 years old. She was an incredibly resilient and positive person, but it was a very difficult journey and experience. It can be scary and isolating for both the patient and the caregivers. I want to help raise awareness about the need for medical and emotional support for Parkinson’s patients and their families. I also want to raise awareness for the need to fund Parkinson’s research. Right now, the way I know how is to donate to Parkinson’s foundations such as The Michael J. Fox Foundation (michaeljfox.org) and to speak publicly about the experience. I hope to get more involved.

The Lower Eastside Girls Club (girlsclub.org) is a non-profit organization in New York City founded by Lyn Pentecost and it is near and dear to my heart. I was an early member before there was a building. It was a safe place for young women from my neighborhood to go to find resources such as career mentorship, college prep, photography classes, entrepreneurial training, nutrition studies, dancing, drumming, the offerings are endless. I also love that the Girls Club provides some job opportunities for the working mothers of the neighborhood. The Girls Club was incredible for me then to keep me out of trouble, but it is even more tremendous now. It finally has a beautiful building on Avenue D in the Lower East Side. It has science programs, music and a podcast recording studio, cafe and bakery, and a dome planetarium designed by Dave Pentecost. It continues to grow and has become a major part of the community. I try to volunteer when I can, and help raise awareness about the Girls Club, because they will help raise the next generation of women leaders.

I’m also co-artistic director of Ammunition Theatre Company (ammunitiontheatre.com). Our company “was founded by a group of passionate artists and activists to reflect the diverse, evolving identity of America.” We are launching our company with an evening of one act plays on May 30th at Artshare LA. We also are creating a partnership to engage with our community with My Friends Place (myfriendsplace.org) whose mission it is to assist and inspire homeless youth to build self-sufficient lives. We hope to help raise awareness about the homeless youth in Los Angeles.

HM: What’s the long game?

TH: An acting career is filled with insecurities. The actors that I most admire were able to take some degree of control over their careers and creative output by becoming directors and producers. Some of the best TV/Film directors that I have worked with are also actors (Tom Hanks, Eriq La Salle, Anthony Edwards) because they understand an actor’s process and are able to communicate with actors in a way that helps elicit truthful performances. So, while I’m primarily focused on delivering a good performance and hitting all my technical marks when I have an acting job, I also try to absorb as much as I can about all aspects of production. I try to get to know everyone on set and learn how each person does their respective job. Long game? I want to keep telling good stories, maybe write, direct, produce and continue doing theatre for as long as this community will have me.

Twitter: @tinahuang

PHOTOGRAPHY: VINCE TRUSPIN

A r o u n d   t h e   W e b