Creators, Makers, & Doers: Janet Lo
Posted on 8/29/18 by Brooke Burton
Janet Lo had an atypical upbringing as a child of parents who immigrated from China, first to Canada, and then to the United States. She found her happy place among other ‘misfits’ in her high school drama club and has been hooked on acting ever since. Janet downplays the glamour of working professionally in theater and television, often flying back and forth between Boise and Toronto for work. Doing what she loves has ups and downs: natural highs when performing in front of a live audience and lows when waiting for acting jobs or struggling to make it in Los Angeles. We got to know Janet after checking out costumes, props, and set building progress for Madam Mao, the upcoming theater production for which Janet was awarded an Arts & History Grant, as well as a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Oh, and we also caught some BTS action with Janet on location at a commercial shoot over the summer. Break a leg!
You were born in Hong Kong, you live in Boise, and you work in Toronto. Is there any one place you would call home?
I think Toronto because I grew up outside there in a place called Woodbridge.
You are bilingual, right?
I speak English and Chinese. I can speak Chinese but I can’t write it and I can’t read it.
Where did your parents come from?
My mother was born in Guangzhou and my father was born in Hong Kong. We grew up in Woodbridge on a farm. My dad found the farm to buy as a land investment with his two brothers. I’m the youngest of five.
You’re the baby!
I’m the baby. They sold the farm—and when they sold the farm, they moved back to Hong Kong and my father wanted to become a businessman.
Yes, we talked about this earlier, that your dad believed it was better to work with your mind than with your hands; that it was superior in some way. Would he wish you had an MBA rather than working in theater?
Oh, yes. I think most parents feel that way about an actor.
[laughs] That’s pretty common. Same for artists.
My father’s two brothers, you know, family lore says, my father put them through university because he was the oldest. He didn’t go to university himself; he worked and put them through school.
As a parental figure?
Yes, but since then, he said, “How could I have done that? I didn’t do that.” But for some reason we all grew up believing it, so I don’t know. When I graduated from high school and moved out, he and his brothers sold the farm and he took that money to go to Hong Kong and become a businessman. My uncle had an equipment company and my father was going to be the liaison between China and Canada. But then Tiananmen Square happened. All trade stopped, it just stopped. So he was left thinking, “There’s nothing I can do.” My oldest brother had gotten his U.S. citizenship, so he sponsored my parents [to come to the States.] My parents didn’t want to go back to Canada because it was too cold.
They didn’t like the climate?
The winters, they just did not want to do the winters. They moved to L.A. Then they sponsored me. At the time, an unmarried child, after a spouse, got first priority, in the immigration policies. It’s all changed now. This was back in the mid-‘90s.
L.A. though. What a great place for an actor!
Yeah, I’d already been an actor for about fifteen years in Canada.
How did you get into acting?
I have memories of my mother saying, “You know, Janet pretends all the time. She should be an actor.” Which is very odd, because we never listened to our mother. [Laughs] But for some reason, that stuck with me—
That’s true. We don’t listen to our mothers.
Yeah, then I got into high school and had the guidance counselor saying, you know, “You’re programmed for math and science.”
Is that what they told you?
Programmed? Why do you think he used that word? I mean, was it based on your test scores?
Could be. Or stereotyping. Math and science—math, particularly—was very easy for me. We had grade thirteen up there; we don’t anymore but it’s like college prep. I was lazy, so I took three maths and three sciences, because [laughs] it was easy for me.
Wow! That is just about the opposite of my experience. I took logic courses whenever I could substitute them for math. Maybe you are programmed for math and science. But programmed isn’t the right word, I would say talented.
Yes, but I don’t think I was happy.
It just wasn’t for you? Then you found the theater department?
Yeah, all misfits go into theater.
A friend of mine who is a standup comic, Alec Mapa, has this joke, that in high school, it was like he’d found Hogwarts: a place you could go that was magical and you had all these magical powers. And that place is called Drama Club.
Totally. And you found more people like yourself?
Well, no. Nobody was like us. I mean, we were all different. That was the thing, we were all misfits. I remember the first show we ever did; afterward, we were tearing around the halls, just going “Whoooo!” because we were so high. It was a natural high.
The endorphins were flowing. Do you still get a natural high from acting?
I still get euphoric—But the energy is not as scattered.
You don’t start running through the halls and whoo-hooing? How many people can come home from their job with a feeling of euphoria? Do you have any idea how lucky you are? [Laughs]
But that’s the thing. Every once in a while, I say to myself, if I wasn’t an actor, if someone could erase that part of me, I think I would be happier.
Because acting is ninety-eight percent waiting around for a job—I feel lucky when I am working, and in those rare moments, it’s fabulous. I was flown to Montreal once to do a Toyota campaign, where we just kind of—we hung around and hung around and hung around—
Waited and waited?
Yes, the first full day, we didn’t work at all. We just sat on set. And we were paid overtime, too.
I’ve never thought about it that way. You wait to get an audition. You wait to get a part. Then you wait while doing the job.
Yes, but even after a life time of being rejected, I still want a life in the theater. So it’s challenging to not be able to live without it [theater.] But this time I won’t be waiting. I’m on stage the whole time.
Yes! Talking about Madam Mao, your production coming up in September at Boise Contemporary Theater. This is an original production, too. Who created it?
There are four of us: myself, Paul Thompson, Samantha Wan, and Severn Thompson, Paul’s daughter. Paul Thompson is known as the theater guru of Canada. Originally, he was the director of Madam Mao, someone to kind of oversee it, shape it, come up with ideas, and make suggestions. Everyone had their job, but we all created it together. I think this gets back to what we were talking about “waiting.” I’ve had enough waiting over the years, so every once in a while I have to create something for myself because I just don’t want to wait.
Good for you! What is Madame Mao about?
It’s based on the life of Jiang Qing, who was Chairman Mao’s fourth and last wife. His widow.
She was one of the most hated women of that movement?
Yes, she was one of the most powerful and feared woman in the world at the time.
It’s interesting to have a theatrical production about Jian Qing because she was known for using performing arts as a form of control.
Yep, she used it as mind control and propaganda. She believed that the masses needed to be told what to think, because, you know, she believed they weren’t smart enough or they couldn’t discern for themselves. But she would [secretly] hide away and watch Hollywood films. She loved Greta Garbo.
But the general population was not allowed to watch Hollywood films?
No. [She believed] they would be misled.
That’s one reason she was hated, for the double standard. But you were interested in her as a character because, although she was hated as a real-life villain, she was also fully human—with a full range of emotions and experiences.
Yes. The journey of how she came to be [interested me.] Also, we were kind of wondering, was she as bad as everyone said, or was she vilified from a historical perspective? She was scapegoated because nobody could say—
Nobody could say anything against Mao? Did she receive more than her fair share of the punishment?
I think so. She was defiant in the end, she would never confess [wrongdoing.] There are [documented] trials you can actually watch where she’s yelling, she’s like, “Who are you? Who are you, telling me what to do? I don’t recognize your authority.”
She’s larger than life!
During the Cultural Revolution, she, like Mao, would stand up in Tiananmen Square with hundreds of thousands of people chanting her name and praising her and trying just to get a glimpse of her.
Right? And I guess that’s akin to what rock stars are now. Where you can fill a stadium, people just cheering for you.
Crazy. I can’t wait to see the play. Is this a dream role for you?
She is a dream role, but I do have another dream role.
What is it?
I’ve always wanted to play Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” We were supposed to do it in high school, but the men in our production were unreliable and we had to pull the plug.
I can see you as Martha. I wanted to talk more about life in L.A.
Yeah, L.A. I studied with a couple of women, and one woman, her name was Sandy Marshall, she likened it to winning the lottery, because you can go down there and be super-prepared and stunningly beautiful and super-talented, but for some reason, nothing happens for you. Then you can have someone else equally as talented, equally beautiful, equally dedicated, and for some reason—
Everything happens. It’s like winning—because it’s out of your control. To a certain extent, it’s just completely out of your control.
That would be frustrating.
It was extremely frustrating, although there were things about it I did enjoy. I loved that it was summer all the time. I loved that I could go hike in the woods. And there is something nice about being in a place where everyone is struggling with you, where everyone is in the business. The first thing, of course, when you’re a Canadian is you call up every single Canadian acquaintance and then become best friends.
Like ex-pats. What was a regular day like in the industry?
Oh, my goodness. Everyone goes to the gym. [Laughs]
Every day. You have to be in shape. There are exceptions to the rule—of course, but everything is super-healthy, you shop at Whole Foods. When I first moved down there, I didn’t eat meat. I was really conscious about everything I put in my mouth. Every little thing that I put in my mouth—to go into a restaurant and quiz the waiter about how it’s cooked, how a piece of chicken is cooked.
You’re making it sound like the show Portlandia.
Oh, maybe it was, I don’t know. It was certainly a different world. There are all sorts of interesting people there. I met a lot of people who wanted to go to clubs where they thought they would be seen or they would be attracted to men that could do things for [their career.] I remember going out, and these rich men, from I don’t know where, would invite us to sit in the VIP section of the club with them, and my friends were all into it. And I was thinking “Really?”
That could be fun for a while.
Yes, but when I went to L.A. I was in my thirties. I think if I were in my twenties, it would have been different. I was straddling that feeling, you know: young enough to be star-struck but old enough to think, “Okay, this is silly.”
“This is not meaningful.”
Yeah, it’s not real.
Who was the most interesting person you met?
Not sure if he is interesting but the most disappointing person I ever met was Oliver Stone. He was so putrid that I kicked him out of my home. I physically turned him around and shoved him out the door.
I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall. Tell me about the comedy TV show Second Jen. You’ve finished the first season, and it aired in Canada?
Second Jen is about second-generation Canadians who both happen to be ethnically Asian. I play the Chinese girl’s mother, and it’s about firsts, because they just graduated university—so, it’s about first jobs, first apartments, first time being on their own, first loves. I’m the mother who is being pushed aside because my daughter has to go live her own life.
It’s a cute show! You play kind of a tiger-mom. How did you come to Boise?
With my husband, John Rowe, we met in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Boise. John Rowe Senior directed and acted at Boise Little Theater and he would bring John there to keep him out of trouble; that was his first experience with theater. He went to Hunter College in New York and he fell in love with it, fell in love with the diversity and stayed for eleven years. When he moved out to L.A., I had already been there two years. We met on my doorstep, because—okay, so when you first move to L.A. one of the first things you do is try to get yourself into a showcase. That’s something where you pay hundreds of dollars, you do a scene, it can’t be more than ten minutes, and they actually pay casting people to come watch you do a ten-minute scene.
I believe it.
So, that’s the first thing he did when he went to L.A.
Did you do a showcase?
No [laughs], because I had an agent. I had representation. Her name is Carolyn Govers; she was my agent in Toronto. She moved to L.A. and I followed her, because my parents were already living there.
It was a natural fit?
Yeah, it was a natural progression. So I met John on my doorstep because he and my roommate were doing this showcase, and we [subsequently] decided to do an evening of one acts together. We didn’t pay anyone to come, but we certainly invited people to come, and that’s how we met.
Two young actors living the life!
[Laughter] Another thing about L.A. is they want to pigeonhole you. They want to know what you are. So, we came up with a tagline for me: Young Connie Chung.
Because when you say, “Oh, she’s a Young Connie Chung,” they know exactly—
Who you are. If you’re going to get pigeonholed anyway, why not come up with your own tagline and take ownership of it?
You mentioned the writers’ strike too. That it caused a big boom in reality TV because you don’t need writers for reality TV—and that there were very few roles because you also don’t need actors.
It just got so hard. There were Academy Award winners who were starring in television series, and series regulars were doing guest stars. And guest stars were doing day players, and day players were probably doing background work, right?
Demoted. [Laughs] But television now, I mean, it’s changed completely—it used to be if you were a film actor you were serious. And if you were a television actor, then you stepped up to film, like George Clooney. But now people go back and forth because television is so good.
That’s actually kind of nice. But you left L.A.?
L.A. was just too hard. I brought everyone back to Toronto because I didn’t want to start over again somewhere else, I didn’t want to go to another city. The reason we came to Boise is that John wanted to come home. He left acting and became a teacher, he’s a drama teacher at Boise High School.
And he’s building the sets for Madame Mao?
Yes, he is building the sets.
That’s very nice of him. Right now you are prepping for Madam Mao, preparing to shoot season two of Second Jen, and when I came out to document you on location, you were doing a commercial! That’s a bit of everything. What is the commercial for?
An app: giveback2schools. It’s an App that, if you shop with local merchants, they will donate part of their revenue to a school of your choice. Directed by Kody Newton.
It was super-fun for me to be behind the scenes. And yes, there’s a lot of waiting around. What is next for you?
I’m working on another character. Her name is Jan Wong and she was the Globe and Mail correspondent and she was actually at Tiananmen Square. She was born and raised in Montreal then decided to go to go back to China during the Cultural Revolution and become a Maoist. She was one of only two foreigners allowed to be in China at the time. She became disillusioned with China so she came back and became a journalist.
You’re working on a character based on her story? I believe you said earlier that she had made an unpopular statement when reporting on a high-profile shooting and that it caused her to lose her job?
Yes, she got so much backlash that our Prime Minister publicly denounced her.
Wow. That’s intense. So, you’re character-driven, you find these incredible, intense life stories and you want to re-tell them. Why do you think that is?
Like you said, truth is much more interesting than fiction. She lived such a colorful life. I don’t even have to invent anything.
It’s all right there. Are you superstitious at all?
A bit. Especially theater stuff. You don’t wish someone luck because it brings bad luck. You say “break a leg,” or “merde” (French for feces, I don’t know where that came from.) And inside a theater, I don’t quote or like to hear anyone quote Macbeth, so you refer to it as “that Scottish play.” And when peeling a cucumber, I cut off the end piece and rub it around the cut; it’s supposed to draw out the bitterness. My mother always does this!
Maybe you’ll pass that family tradition down to your children, too. If you could travel to the past or to the future, which one would you do?
I think the past.
Well [laughs], I think I would really love to tell my younger self to let go of a lot of things. I held on to some things for a really, really long time, so I would go back and do it differently. I’m into the second half of my life—the future’s not something I worry about anymore. I think it just is. And it will be what it is.
To let go of the past, and look calmly into the future. That is something to aspire to.
West End Boise
August 29, 2018
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.