With the atrocities that happened this week in Atlanta that resulted in the deaths of Asian American women, and with the hashtag #StopAsianHate streaming through social media, a film like “See You Then” is more important to see then ever. A trans woman meets with an ex-girlfriend she hasn’t seen for a decade. They go out to dinner, and what happens from there is the most intimate conversation between two people on screen that I’ve ever seen, one that takes you to vulnerable places. What is personal and authentic in this film is also universal, and during my interview with “See You Then” director Mari Walker, an Asian American trans woman, she hopes people will feel like they are walking in other people’s shoes through these characters. “See You Then” premiered at SXSW this week and runs until tomorrow. Along with Mari, I had the opportunity to speak with the two main actors Lynn Chen [Naomi] and Pooya Mohseni [Kris]. We spoke about how a personal and authentic story can be so universal to an audience, how it was an important and challenging choice to base a deeply nuanced and intimate story through a conversation, and the importance of bringing trans and Asian American women stories to the screen.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?
MARI WALKER: I’ve always wanted to make a film ever since I was in high school and I’d written a number of scripts. I was desperate to make something, but all of them were outside of our budget constraints, and considering the fact that I’m trans and Asian American, there are all of these sort of obstacles ahead of me. So I really wanted to tell a story that was very intimate between two characters, and I started transplanting my own life experiences of the consequences of transitioning, like the sacrifice I had to make, not only for my life, but also for my work. And the script became art therapy. Then I really started to fall in love with the characters, and I felt really terrible when I ruined their lives. And then it started to evolve into its own thing. This thing that sort of manifested itself out of nowhere. As I was saying to Pooya one day when we were driving, I feel like it was always meant to be the first one, I just didn’t know it at the time.
LYNN CHEN: I came to this project, like I come to most of my projects, through an audition. It came across my computer and the script came and immediately I knew I want to be a part of this. It was a really good omen that when I saw where the audition was taking place at Vanishing Angle’s office, I had to ask myself, ‘Why does Vanishing Angle sound so familiar to me?’ When I showed up I was like, ‘I filmed my movie for two days here.’ That’s why it sounded so familiar. So when I walked in, I felt immediately at home and Mari and her team were so warm. It just made it a great experience. I remember when it was done, I thought to myself, ‘I really really want this, but if I don’t get the part, I’m just so happy that this movie is existing. However Mari wants to tell it, I hope she gets who she wants and that she finds the right people to tell this story.’
POOYA MOHSENI: Actually the way this project came to me is very different than how they usually do. It came by email, kind of like an offer, and it came from the casting office on behalf of Mari, who had seen me in a short film. She had said what the short film was, and she had really liked my performance, the nuances and the different colors that I brought to it. My first response was, ‘Is this a joke? Like is someone just seriously messing with me, because that’s not nice.’ And then I sent it to my agents, and they said, “No, this is real.”
I read the story and I remember–and I’ve told Mari this–as I read through it, there would be moments where I couldn’t breathe. I was just so taken by these characters, and their journeys, and I would find myself saying out loud, “Oh my god, how devastating.” Of course, as an actor, I’m like, ‘Oh how devastating, let me do this.’ From there, it was like step-by-step: I met Mari on Zoom, then came and did the call backs, which is when I met Lynn, and then when everything came together last January, I came to LA and we started that part of the journey. It was an amazing experience for everybody to be in the room, with that group, and doing that story.
MARTIN: I believe what is personal and authentic is universal. I’ve seen this through your film, Mari, and through Lynn and Pooya’s performances. Can you talk about how this film was personal to you?
WALKER: I think that was definitely something that we spoke a lot about: how we strove to be authentic and honest. I think that you are absolutely right, personal stories stem from universality. And I think that is the great power that film can have. It’s the ability to allow someone else to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and start to understand them a little bit better. For me at least, being trans and being biracial, I’ve had to exist in multiple worlds throughout my life. I think that as a consequence of that, my prism of vision has kind of winnowed down to that universality.
Our hope is that we can get people in countries all across the world to see this film and relate to the themes of reckoning with your past, and coming to terms with who you wanted to be and who you used to be. We all kind of talked about that on set, from pre-production through to post as well. It was a constant process of trying to make sure it was framed within this grand sense. I think that there aren’t enough films that have that universality, and we need more of that. I think we need more people to see that we’re not all that different, and I think cinema and storytelling can do that.
CHEN: The thing I love so much about being an actor is that you can experience things through another person’s experience. Even though I had never been a mother, I’m not a performance artist. I don’t go through a lot of things that my character in this movie goes through. It’s just that imagination of flipping a little bit of a switch and suddenly you’re able to completely imagine what it would be like to be this person and have these experiences. And I think that’s the power of cinema. When you watch it you’re suddenly like, ‘I don’t live there, that’s not me, but I completely understand this person.’ And a lot of that is to Mari and Kristen Uno’s credit because they really mapped it out for us, not only in the script, but also in the backstory by giving us these major places to be able to identify with, and learn more about what we needed to know. So that by the time I got to set, even though I had literally never seen a performance piece up until two months ago on Vimeo, I felt that I could do this. That is the power of preparation, and having a really strong base as well as a really strong story.
MOHSENI: For me, like Lynn was saying, there are a lot of things about this character that was not specific to me, but it was about kind of turning that dial a little bit. I’m an immigrant, so I understand what it feels like to be an outsider. I’ve had my own really dark times, even though it wasn’t the same as my character’s, but I could understand that sense that you have to be equal to other people, and that you have to apologize, and that you are not sure that you deserve a seat at the table. Those were things that I knew in my experience, I just had to figure out how to not fit my experiences into that character, but try to understand how this person felt those same things that I was going through. And one of the things that became very interesting for me was when I watched the movie, somebody said, “The character doesn’t walk the way you do.” It made me very happy because I knew that this character was a little bit of a mirror of Mari, and I wanted to capture that. Who is this person who is a little more shy than I am, a little more timid because of how they feel they fit into the world? I feel through the movie like it’s kind of the evolution of that, bringing myself, watching Mari, connecting with Lynn, and trying to make this character not just me in a different wardrobe, but a character with the authenticity and nuance that I could bring to it with my backstory.
MARTIN: Can you talk about the choice to bring this whole story through one conversation between Lynn and Pooya’s characters, starting with Mari?
WALKER: I wanted to be challenged by that. I think an important thing for directors and writers to keep in mind are your strengths and weaknesses, and I felt going into seeing them, my weakness was dialogue. So I figured if I’m going to do this independent film with a limited budget, I should really invest and try to build up this experience. It was a bit torturous in the writing process, and it was definitely a challenge. Kristen and I would write it, and then we’d act and talk it out. I hate hearing my own voice, which is hilarious because I’m doing interviews all day, but I get very intimidated by hearing myself speak. I always figured that if I could say it, then a much more incredibly talented person will be able to go and take this material and really elevate it. Kristen said she felt like she knew I was in it when I was reading the lines back to her, and then I’d start yelling at her as Kris. When we were getting into one of the big argument scenes, I really tore into her, and I think I scared her a little bit because it was so intense. After we reached that moment, we started thinking about how to stage the story, what the motivations were, if they come from me, and if I could get that passionate about it, then hopefully someone else would be able to take it and fly.
MARTIN: Lynn and Pooya, how was it acting in a film with heavy dialogue, and diving into this those different emotions?
CHEN: Something that is a weakness of mine is memorizing large amounts of dialogue quickly. And so, for me, I was a little scared, but I also kept thinking to myself, ‘This is the challenge. And this is definitely something that is worth challenging myself for.’ Instead of like, ‘I can’t believe I have to memorize all of this dialogue to pretend I’m a doctor.’ But when it’s a beautiful story that you’re at the heart of, I find it to be so much easier, and the challenge ended up being something I really enjoyed. Once I had the lines down, I could really sink into the meaning behind it, and then it became the most richest, most satisfying experience. That’s what all actors want. They don’t want to be sitting there being like, ‘What is my line?’ The luxury to be able to have that safe place and a safe environment to carry that out was really special. I knew when we were filming it that this was really special, and I was going to savor it, even though I was cold. [laughs] It was very cold on the set.
MOHSENI: There was a whole lot of dialogue, but it wasn’t just dialogue, like Lynn was saying. We weren’t talking about, “The building is blowing up because x, y, and z.” It was about getting into these people’s lives: what they think, what they want, what they feel, what they are missing, and what they regret. And in that way, it was exciting. For me, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to memorize this?’ I not only wanted to memorize it, I wanted to become this person. I wanted to know when this line came after that line, and what happened in between those two lines. That’s makes the shift. Having Lynn opposite me, I wanted to figure out what is happening in each scene between takes. That’s what we talked about 15 years ago. Mari who would never come at us at the end of the take and say, “That sucked.” You never felt like you were going to be punished for something, which can happen on some sets. You knew that everybody there was rooting for you. Obviously you do your work, you know your lines, and you’ve kind of mapped it out. But you come there and you just let it happen moment by moment. That’s really the value of having this kind of movie done by this kind of group. You feel that everybody, from the person who’s catering the food, to the person who makes sure your drink has the continuity, cares about each and every part of the aesthetic of the film. All you had to be concerned about was being present and a full human being while connecting with this other amazing person to tell a story. There were times Lynn would be talking and I would just forget that I had to talk, because I would just be so engrossed in what she was doing. That’s when you knew that there was something very real and authentic about it, and nobody was going to take that away, even if it was cold. [laughs]
MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your film?
WALKER: I hope that audiences will be able to take a walk in someone else’s shoes, and that they’ll gain a greater understanding of the trans experience as well as womanhood. I hope these two amazing actresses get all of the greatest roles after this film, and the same goes for the rest of this cast and crew. I hope that people are able to come away with the understanding that these experiences, particularly in the queer community, but also in the Asian American community, are still so unexplored. There are still so many other stories to be told. This time has been very challenging for everyone, and I just hope people will continue to go to theaters, support cinema, and support filmmakers, because it’s so important, especially now more than ever.
CHEN: I feel really lucky that the first movie I ever did was “Saving Face”, which was the first movie to have lesbian Asian American characters in starring roles. Over the last 15 years I’ve heard from so many people who’ve come out to their families because of that movie, or used it to bond with their families. I’ve been very conscious about what movies I’ve chosen to do since that are taking place in the LGBTQ community, because I want to be an ally. It’s very important to me. And I feel really really lucky that Mari trusted me to be a part of this story because there is no doubt in my mind that there are going to be trans people of color who will see this movie and their lives will be changed, because they will be seen. I’m just so honored to be a part of that.
MOHSENI: Listening to Lynn, I have tears in my eyes. What do I hope? I’m a trans person from the Middle East, I’m an Iranian American, I’m the first Iranian American trans actor to exist in the larger scheme of things. And to me, what do I want from this movie? I want people to see this movie and feel that they are not alone. That there is a path forward, there are other people who care about them, and there is a community out there. And that wherever they may be on their journey, it is there’s and that no one can take it away from them. Seeing this movie will make them feel seen and appreciated.