Interview

ICYMI: Laura Kai Chen Interview

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Credit: Riker Brothers

How Laura Kai Chen became one of Salem’s most ruthless residents

“The writers have repeatedly referred to me as ‘The Lady Shark’ in scripts,” muses Laura Kai Chen of her tough-as-nails alter ego. “It is such a pleasure to play Melinda. She’s ambitious. She’s ruthless. She’s totally cutthroat. She doesn’t care what anybody thinks. And she’s also wickedly funny. I love her. I think she’s hilarious.”

Cast as the Salem DA back in 2013, Chen was originally brought onto the show to prosecute Sami for the murder of Bernardi. “We went to trial, so I knew I was going to be on 18 or 20 episodes,” recounts Chen. “I spent a few months on the show when I started. Melinda has sort of popped up here and there in the ensuing years, largely in the context of the courtroom and being a really tough DA.

“But toward the end of 2017, I started to do some other stuff,” she continues. “The writers started expanding where we see Melinda and what she’s doing. I’ve got to say, [Head Writer] Ron Carlivati, the entire writing team and producers have been awesome and fearless when it comes to writing these characters who are bold, complex and unapologetic, and [creating] storylines that are so much fun to play.”

Chen never anticipated such longevity with the soap; particularly, “playing a character that has been growing and developing over the course of six years,” she points out. “As actors, we rarely get to do that. Melinda has turned out to be such a gift. I’m excited to see where she’s going, especially in this fun and serious storyline she’s been part of over the last few months.”

Namely, Melinda’s short-lived run for mayor that was derailed by the reveal that her sister is an illegal immigrant. “I love working with Thia [Megia, Haley], and I love having a storyline,” says Chen, noting that the plot “makes total sense to me and works with who Melinda is. I’m also grateful that Melinda and Haley have their own little family in Salem now.”

For Chen, who was born in California and split her childhood between Berkeley and the outskirts of Chicago, the route to acting began as a kid. “I’ve always had a flair for performing,” she remembers. “When I was 5 or 6, I used to put on shows for my parents and would make my little brother [Ted] hold a flashlight on me like a spotlight.”

Fast-forward to college, and Chen enrolled at Brown University in Providence, RI. “It had a great theater department and I’d always liked performing, but I didn’t necessarily think I could have a career in it,” she admits. “I didn’t grow up seeing people who looked like me on television. There were no Asian-Americans on television, or very few, when I was growing up in the ’80s.”

But encouragement from “some wonderful professors” changed Chen’s outlook. “They said, ‘You should apply to a conservatory after Brown. You should go to a graduate school that will really give you the tools you need in order to have a career,’ ” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! You think I can have a career in the performing arts? That sounds crazy.’ ”

Upon graduation, Chen auditioned for some schools and ended up going to NYU. “I had a wonderful three years there that were totally pivotal for me. I came out of school and was able to start working almost immediately. I started with off-Broadway plays, LAW & ORDER, some movies and commercials in New York. Then I began working a lot in L.A. and was going back and forth.”

Among her most memorable gigs, Chen played Uma Thurman’s therapist in the short film The Mundane Goddess. However, she cites her “favorite” project as the 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her. “I adore his work, and it was a lifelong, bucket-list dream to work with him,” confides Chen, who played Chris Pratt’s girlfriend, Tatiana. “And it was on a film that was unique, quirky and different, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay the year it came out. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.”

In between conquering her professional dreams, Chen began realizing some personal ones, too, when she met fellow thespian and future husband Manu Narayan in 2012. He was starring in Glengarry Glen Ross at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Chen was in the audience. “I thought he was tremendous,” raves Chen. “We knew people in common, but had never met. I waited until after the show to say hi, introduce myself, and tell him how much I’d enjoyed his work.”

A romance blossomed, and three years later, they were exchanging “I do’s”. And their wedding announcement even made it into The New York Times. “To be very honest, my husband is a Broadway guy. He starred in Bombay Dreams, and they do like that,” she notes. “My husband was sort of like, ‘Whatever’, but I was very excited. It was a dream of mine to be in The Times, because I’d always read the wedding section. It’s a happy memory.”

The artsy couple has been making memories and amazing strides ever since. “My husband and I are often humbled by the opportunities that have been presented to us,” reflects Chen. “We’ve also worked incredibly hard to get to do what we do. I have worked predominantly in TV and film over the last 12 years. He has had this fabulous career onstage and been nominated for a Drama League Award and won various awards in theaters where he’s performed. It’s been such an interesting road. My husband is Indian American. His family is from South Asia. I’m born here, but my family is Chinese. We have an enormous amount of pride in being able to be Asian-American actors who get to live these dreams.”

And now, thanks to her current DAYS storyline, Chen is realizing another dream on-screen. “I had this wonderful moment with Thia the first time we shot a scene together,” recounts Chen. “We were sitting on set, just the two of us, waiting to shoot. I looked at her and thought, ‘Wow! I’m not sure that this has ever happened before, that two Asian-American women have ever had their own storyline on daytime television.’ Never in a million years would I have ever dreamed that I’d be a part of this. How exciting to move the needle even a little bit, because representation does matter. Diversity does matter. When you see people that look like you on television, it sparks a whole world of possibilities for young people that are going to come after us.”

 

JUST THE FACTS

Birthday: December 20

It’s Love: The actress married actor Manu Narayan on October 25, 2015.

Puppy Love: “My husband and I don’t have any children, but we have two dogs that are our fur babies, JoJo and Stella. They’re mutts; sisters from the same litter, who are very feisty and naughty. We adopted them from a place in L.A. called Bark n’ Bitches, which is a wonderful organization.”

Cake Boss: “I am a big cake baker, and, in particular, my dear friend Elena and I have been making Momofuku Milk Bar cakes from the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook for years. We once baked 10 different Momofuku cakes in different flavors for a friend’s wedding.”

Must-See TV: “KILLING EVE. Everybody has to see KILLING EVE. It is amazing. Sandra Oh [Eve] is one of my idols, but regardless of my personal bias, it is outstanding and everybody should watch it.”

Relax Already: “There’s a great meditation app that I like called Insight Timer. It’s amazing and has maybe 15,000 meditations on it. You choose the category. If you want to sleep, you pick the sleep category. Then you get to pick which meditation you want to listen to. They come in varying lengths — five minutes, 10 minutes. I have to decompress somehow when I’m playing Melinda Trask.”

Sister, Sister: “Thia [Megia, Haley] and I are very, very close. We have a true sisterly bond. She’ll call me or we’ll lunch together, and she’ll be like, ‘Sisterrrrrr.’ She’s a sweet person and a great human being. It’s been an honor to get to work with her.”

Wild About Wally

“When I first started on the show I was going head-to-head with Wally Kurth [Justin], who I adore,” says Chen, whose Melinda was embroiled in a heated legal battle with the Salem attorney. “He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s kind.”

The workload was tough, but Kurth got Chen to relax and go with the flow. “I was really nervous about doing eight episodes in one week,” she admits. “That’s an enormous amount of material, especially when it’s courtroom material, you’re doing a trial, and you have a lot of legal jargon. Wally turned to me and said, ‘If we can do this, we can do anything.’ I thought, ‘Gosh, Wally is right. If we can knock out eight episodes that involve the two of us grinding it out in a courtroom, and get through all of this legal jargon, we really can do anything.’ It was the most wonderful feeling. And it’s something that’s really stuck with me to this day.”

Chen is always impressed with the “great sense of camaraderie” at DAYS. “There’s a great sense of having each other’s back and working together,” she says. “It really is a collaborative team effort, and it has to be, because we work very quickly. There’s a great deal of material. I think everybody is deeply invested in the show being as good as it possibly can be. So there’s a great sense of everyone helping each other out.”

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