A working woman, with a specific goal, a dream job, and a long road ahead of her, though it is a hard one to walk, especially when you find yourself having to fight against racism, misogyny, and discrimination. This is the story of Ingrid, the lead character in “Partner Track” (available on Netflix), played by Arden Cho.
Through this very character, Arden made us realize that it’s okay to work hard for what you want, scrounge and scrape to reach your goals but, at the same time, it is essential not to forget about who we are, and our roots, to live them with pride and to seek a safe space where we have open and honest conversations.
We met Arden on one of those hectic September days that make you doubt they actually took place. While chatting with her about Ingrid, we discussed what it means to be brave, the pressure we feel when we tend to compare ourselves to other people (a kind of pressure for which sometimes we are responsible), and how freeing it is to have the power to simply be ourselves, always.
I confess: I binge-watched “Partner Track” in two days, I just couldn’t stop! I’m very curious, what was your first reaction when you read the script for the very first time?
I was so excited that there was a story with an Asian-American lead. I was thrilled to read something with such an incredible character: she was smart, but she wanted to win, she wanted to be a good friend, a good employer, and a good daughter. I feel like often, with female characters, they either exist just to support someone, or they’re just not as well-rounded and three-dimensional, and I’m so excited that she was… everything!
Yeah, by showing just one aspect, they let us see everything.
Yes, you see the good, you see the bad, the ups and downs, and the mistakes because she’s real and she’s flawed; she’s very relatable and someone who probably reminds you of yourself or your friend. She makes choices that make you think, “Oh, why did you do that?!”, but then you also say, “Oh, would I do that?” [laughs]. You get to learn from her mistakes and it’s a fun journey and something that working, intelligent, and aspirational women can relate to.
What are the aspects of Ingrid that you loved the most and the ones that you feel like they’re far from you?
I love how whip-smart she is, I love that she is so resilient, she doesn’t give up, I love that she’s a dreamer; she is so optimistic, but in a way, that’s also what I don’t like about her because she feels very naïve, immature in some ways where she doesn’t get how the world is or how people are, and she’s sort of living in a dream where she thinks: well, if I just keep working hard it’s going to work out. I feel like that’s not a jaded spirit. However, of course, throughout the season, we see growth and change, and that’s fun, so we need a place to start.
I think the things that I probably don’t relate to as much, but I’m very happy to exist for Ingrid, are that she doesn’t really know who she is, and I like that: she’s still discovering herself, and she’s still trying to find out what she truly wants and who she truly is. She doesn’t really know that, yet, and I think it’s okay. A lot of times people put so much pressure on trying to be an adult and grow up, but what I enjoy seeing for Ingrid, Rachel and Tyler is that all of them are on their respective journeys, they’re different and they all have their own battles, and they’re all going about their lives in their own way, in the best way that they can. As an audience, we can learn from that, see it, and have some thoughts, and judgments [laughs].
“I think the things that I probably don’t relate to as much, but I’m very happy to exist for Ingrid, is that she doesn’t really know who she is, and I like that: she’s still discovering herself…”
If on one side “Partner Track” is, like you said, funny, romantic, and light-hearted, on the other side it tackles important themes, such as racism, workplace pressure, and so on. How did you relate to and approach this part of the series? Was there any kind of discussion on set on how to best portray this on the screen?
Yeah, of course, we talked about it all the time, especially having so many women on the creative side – a female showrunner, female directors, female writers.
We had so much care in every direction, which is really wonderful. As an actor, you receive a lot of direction in every way, and we got to sort of create this project together, so that was a really nice process because every woman knows what it feels like to be belittled or to experience misogyny or the patriarchal system or to feel like “less than”. We’ve all experienced that and now we’re trying to show the world what it feels like to be in a woman’s shoes; but it’s still drama, it’s still TV and fun, so we don’t want to make that everything, it’s sort of hitting throughout the show, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to see it because it just happens all the time. Even in the boardroom scene, where Ingrid is mistaken for the assistant or paralegal, there’s a reading that the choice is not to make a big scene, the whole point is, “Look guys, this is how often it happens, that she doesn’t skip a beat”, she just says, “Actually, I’m the senior associate”, she doesn’t say, “Oh, actually you’re wrong, I’m so offended”, she doesn’t waste the time because it happens so often.
What we’re trying to show is how unfair it is, it happens so often that we don’t even have a moment to waste, not even a moment to feel. All of that feels quite intentional, especially how subtle everything is – all the small moments to me are some of the most meaningful and powerful moments, and I always say that “Partner Track” is this amazing drama-romance-comedy, on the outside, but then you open it up and you get surprised by something else that you didn’t expect.
That’s why you get so obsessed with it, and you are amazing in it because every episode is about something different that you go through, and we want to see more and more, and not just, as you said, what you see on the surface.
Right, it’s not just what you see in the trailer, that’s for sure. It’s interesting because everyone I speak to tells me about something different that draws them, some people love the romance, some people love the workplace drama, some people love the friendship, and some people love the family frame, so it’s very fun to hear what people are drawn to and it just shows me that we need series like this, with deeper character development and stories that are rich with real people doing life; then, of course, it’s all dramatized and it’s fun and sexy because it’s a Manhattan show, but it’s still quite normal in a way, or it feels relatable.
Yes, for example, I related a lot with the work part, and the pressure and all those aspects, so it’s very nice to see something that portrays everyday issues. What did Ingrid leave with and for you?
It’s so funny because I always feel like there are ways Ingrid and I are similar, but I also feel like we’re so different. What she leaves with me is probably her spirit that just doesn’t give up. I feel like Arden gives up a little easier than Ingrid does. If I walked into a room with a hundred boxes, I would just say, “All right guys, I don’t want this case this bad”, or if my male co-workers every single day made me feel like an outsider, I think one day I would say, “You know what? I’ve had enough, bye”. So, I love Ingrid’s spirit, I love that she continues to learn, every night she’s listening to podcasts, and she’s constantly learning, and growing. I’ve had friends call me and say, “I love that Ingrid listens to podcasts, I do that every night”, and I would say, “Really? You do? Cool!”. I didn’t know that about many of my friends, and I thought it was really sweet because I don’t do that.
I also love that Ingrid isn’t afraid to be feminine and fashionable, she’s not afraid that if she wears soft colors her co-workers will think she’s weak. I think a lot of times women are afraid to dress feminine because they think that they have to wear something strong to be respected or to be a boss. Even I am guilty of it, every time I have an important meeting, I wear a black suit or something black and aggressive, but fashion plays such a big role in the characters we are playing and who we are. I know that when I put on a sharp suit, I just feel smart, ready to go close some deals, but I love that with Ingrid there’s this extra level of feminine, beauty, and charisma and so I always say that I can’t be Ingrid or feel like Ingrid until I’ve put on her Christian Louboutins, and her two-piece suit, and then I’m ready [laughs].
And she’s unapologetic about it, which is great.
Yeah, I love that! And I hope Ingrid inspires other women to be unapologetic and bold about their fashion and who they are, and not be afraid. She’s taught me to be braver.
“With Ingrid there’s this extra level of feminine, beauty, and charisma”
As we said, Ingrid is a very smart woman with goals that sometimes don’t let her see what the other important things in her life are. I don’t know if I’m right in saying that this might make her feel kind of lonely in some aspects. Do you ever feel like that and how do you cope with these feelings?
Of course! I feel like all my friends in the busiest cities with the busiest lives are always the loneliest. I’m sure you relate to that and so many people do, but when you’re busy and you’re just working and working, sometimes you don’t even realize how lonely you are until that moment of silence.
When we were filming montage scenes of Ingrid working, I didn’t realize how powerful that would be: as an audience, when you’re watching, you’re like, “Oh wow, look at her work all night, that’s so sad, that’s so lonely, eating takeout every night by herself, eating lunch alone”. A lot of it feels lonely, but then you realize that so many people feel that way because if you’re married to your job, that’s everything.
Something that I’ve found, that has helped me over the last 5-10 years, is really implementing balance in my life. I love working and I could go nonstop. I need time for my friends and community, I need time for healing, and R&R is so important. I would say balance is key, and I hope Ingrid is a good example of the fact that too much work is not good for anyone. Moreover, she hasn’t been dating for six years, and then she just jumps into it. It’s like fires, right? [laughs] If she had some balance along the way, maybe she would have had more experience, and better judgment, but instead she jumped into the fire!
I think that being an actor, with the many characters you play, you also get to work on yourself, learning new things. What’s the latest thing you discovered about yourself?
That’s so true, you nailed it. Acting sometimes is the most healing and therapeutic because you really are forced to sit with yourself and try to find the truth. I always feel like, at least for me, when I’m acting, I want to be the most real, vulnerable, and honest and to do that you really have to let down your walls and just be. I’ve definitely learned through the years, and even on this project, how much I love control and things to be perfect. I’ve learned to let go of the need for perfection because perfection’s boring and, honestly, sometimes imperfections and flaws make something so much more beautiful than it ever could have been. Sometimes it’s a flaw that makes something have character. I think that’s one of my most recent lessons: letting go of needing control and perfection and just be.
There’s also another thing. Sometimes, when I think back at my career, I just can’t believe how fast the years go. I run into fans who tell me about a project they loved and it was 15 years ago. So, I think something I’m now learning more and more is to really be in the moment and enjoy. I think a lot of times people rush through life, and think, “I want to hurry up and do my job and get promoted, or graduate so I can get a job, or I want to hurry and get married and have a family”, everybody wants to quickly go through life. But then you get to the destination that you’re trying to get to, and you don’t even remember what happened, you missed the journey, and I feel like the journey is the best part, with its ups and downs.
Something I’m focusing on is being in it and enjoying the ride, all of it, the ups, the downs, the scary parts, the uncertainty, and that’s really special because when it’s over or if I get to a destination, I’ll look back and I’ll have more memories, as sometimes you get to the destination and you don’t even remember how you got there.
To be present, to be in the moment, is so difficult nowadays with all the things that we see, listen to, and do for our work…
There are so many distractions, there’s so much noise, and with social media, and the pressures and something popping up every second, how can we live? Sometimes, I think it’s so important to turn it all off. Sometimes, I turn my phone off for two days and it’s the best, I recommend everyone to do it, every once in a while, just turn it off because you don’t need it. I think when you let all of this noise control you, it’s just so sad, to simply put it.
“…with social media, and the pressures and something popping up every second, how can we live? Sometimes, I think it’s so important to turn it all off.”
We just heard the news that you will play June in “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, congratulations! What does it feel like to be part of such a big and iconic project?
I am so grateful and thankful that I get to be a part of something so historical. I’m so excited that I get to work on projects that I think are really meaningful. “Partner Track” is meaningful because for the first time we have a modern-day Asian-American working woman being inspirational in a very American workplace: in Manhattan, we’ve never seen that before! To be a part of that story feels very special.
To be a part of something like “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which has such a tremendous fanbase and is truly an iconic project, is the absolute best. I’m honored to work with such icons and incredible people, and I’m so thankful to Albert [Kim], the showrunner, who’s been so involved and I can tell he cares a lot about all the characters and the people involved. I’m so excited and very thrilled to be a part of the project.
And we can’t wait to see it of course!
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Oh man! If I think about little Arden, moving to LA was a pretty brave thing to do, when she didn’t know what was possible and moved with a very big dream.
Recently, in the last few years, the bravest thing was saying “no” to a lot of projects, in hopes to hold out for the right one. It’s funny, saying “no” for the very first time is very hard, it’s very scary because you think, “Can I say no? Do I deserve to say no?”. But then, after the first time, it gets a little easier. That’s one thing I’m very proud of because my entire life I’ve had a really hard time saying “no”, a lot like Ingrid, she doesn’t know how to say “no”, she hasn’t quite learned that yet. Filming the show, some of it is so triggering and tough to sort of relive those moments, but it’s so important to see it and show how difficult it is when you are in a position where everyone just expects you to say “yes”, and you realize you’re just living for everyone else! At some point in your life, you just have to make the choice to say: “am I doing this for me or for someone else or for my parents or for my boss?” And sometimes, that’s the right choice. It’s different for everyone, every situation has its different nuances, there’s no formula, and there’s no right answer, right? And who knows, maybe I’ve said “no” at the wrong times! But I do know for me, in the last few years, saying “no” has been quite empowering and felt very brave for me, especially because there’s so much uncertainty and risk involved in saying “no”… but it’s empowering, so I would recommend doing it if you can!
“There’s so much uncertainty and risk involved in saying “no”… but it’s empowering”
Yeah, I think it’s so empowering too because you think you don’t deserve to or you can’t say no, so it’s very strange sometimes. You know, I’m the founder of the magazine and we also have a production company, and at the beginning, I felt like I always had to say yes to things and people, and I still have to learn that that’s wrong in some cases, so what you said is very important.
It’s really tough to take that step sometimes, but it’s so important to protect your boundaries and to know your boundaries, and know that sometimes saying yes and always being available doesn’t necessarily help other people either because sometimes you just enable them to continue taking advantage of you and they never learn.
What does it mean for you to feel comfortable in your own skin?
I think I can say that I did not feel comfortable in my skin until my 30s. For most of my teen years and my 20s, I’ve always wanted to be like someone else, be taller, skinnier, be a different shape, be just different, all the time; I always compared myself, always felt insecure, always felt uncomfortable. Then, I finally hit a point in my 30s where I just realized there is no point to compare, you shouldn’t compare because, as cliché as this might sound, everyone truly is beautiful in their own way.
In my 30s, I have realized that the more female friends I have and the more women I’m surrounded by who are incredible, open, and honest, and we have healthy conversations, the more I realized everyone feels that way. Even the most gorgeous Victoria’s Secret model who has the perfect body still feels uncomfortable sometimes, still feels insecure.
So, if you look at someone whom you might say is the definition of perfection and she still feels a way, then what is there to say? And I think, for me, I realized all of that on the outside is so fleeting. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not really who you are. It doesn’t define you, and I think I’m having a lot of fun with beauty and fashion and myself in a way that I’m not trying to be like someone else, I’m just enjoying what I can be. I used to think, “I can’t model because I’m so short”, but now in photoshoots, I realize I can sometimes look tall, and it’s also okay to look short sometimes, and certain clothes make me feel really fierce, strong, and beautiful, and makeup, hair, and styling is so fun!
It’s almost like taking the pressure off and enjoying things, maybe it’s just caring less and being happy with who you are on the inside, and knowing that I can feel good whether I’m head to toe in glam and high heels and fancy outfit, or no makeup, in a hoodie, sitting at home with messy hair – this is more who I am, but I like the other girl, too! But I don’t think I have to be the other girl for people to like me, I hope I can be “no makeup and sweats” and people will still like me. I thought I had to be a certain standard of beauty, or a certain way all the time, and that’s a lot of pressure. I love that the world is starting to be a little more aware of how beauty standards are so unhealthy, I love seeing models and women, in general, saying things like, “I don’t always look this skinny, I’m sucking in!” or “sometimes I’m bloated”, and me too, sometimes I’m so bloated that I look 3-months pregnant! But that’s normal, normal bodies do that, and I love that women are sharing it more, and talking about it.
I’m quite open with my age, as well, because I hope it inspires women not to be ashamed of their age, I think the world can be really ageist against women sometimes. For me, my 30s have been the absolute best, I’m the happiest that I’ve ever been, I feel younger than ever, and I feel fantastic! [laughs] And I’m getting older by the minute, but I’m so excited and I hope it can excite other women. So many women dread their birthday, and I wonder why, it’s when you’re wiser, smarter, more elegant, and graceful.