Okay. Okay. Let’s talk about Brenda Song. Not just because she’s our December Cover but also because you can’t but talk about her. Let me mention just a few reasons why: she is a whirlwind of energy and words that overwhelms you, she has a degree in psychology, she loves her job so much but most of all she cares about giving value to the things of her private life and her family; she is a feminist not by trend but because she was born with this education and believes that anything is possible if you truly want it. And above all, she wants to live the moment, instill her life with affection, smiles, and real relationships, without obsessing over what will be next, living the day.
Who, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to enjoy the moment? Her name is Madison, and she is one of the protagonists of the new Hulu series “Dollface,” played by Brenda, alongside Kat Dennings, Esther Povitski and Shay Mitchell. The exact opposite of Brenda: precise and anxious, she wants to keep everything and everyone under control and never lets herself go and, even when she does, she doesn’t do it very well.
Brenda, who became famous for her role in “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” has come a long way. We met her in Los Angeles where we talked about everything: from her new television success “Dollface,” her epic fail, life in more of general sense to what advice she would give to the protagonists of the series if she was their therapist and how she would like to use her “voice” every day.
You started at a very young age: how has your approach to a character changed over the years?
When I was younger, I just loved playing pretend. I was very young, I’ve been acting since I was 4 or 5, so I’ve always loved expressing myself through other people’s experiences. I grew up in a small town, with not a lot of money, so acting was my escapism, even though me being an actor wasn’t a career until I was 15 and booked “The Suite Life [of Zack & Cody],” but up until then, it was just something I did after school, like ballet or karate, or whatever. I know a lot of kids who used to get treats for going to auditions, but for me, it was the opposite, my auditions were my treat, so when I began my career and as I got older my characters became more complex, while before it was more like memorizing the lines. “The Suite Life” was one of my first projects and in that occasion, I read Paris Hilton’s autobiography and I watched a lot of “Will & Grace” and “Legally Blond,” I took some of my favorite characters that were in pop culture and I melted them, so it was the first time I did some real character work because she was so different from me and I wanted to see how could I make this feel real.
Now, as I’ve grown older, with every character I play, whether I’m in a show or just auditioning, I always try to find a way to make that character me, to make that feel real to me, to take something from my own experience and do a little mental gymnastics to fit myself in that situation because I feel like if I don’t even believe it, the audience will never believe it. The older I get, the more fun I have with these sorts of characters, with getting to sort of play with body language, with a cadence of speech and things like that, that I didn’t think about when I was younger. It’s definitely become more of an art form as I’ve gone older.
What’s the thing that makes you say “yes” to a project?
Number one, I think, the story has to resonate, whether it’s something I’m fascinated by, or something I find interesting or something that’s relatable, that’s the first thing that I look at; secondly, I look at who’s making it, and that’s very important because I think in this day and age everyone has their own style, so when I read the script of “Dollface,” the new show that I’m on, I didn’t know Jordan Weiss, who’s our creator and our writer, I didn’t know her writing style, but when I read the script, it felt so relatable that then, when I saw Kat Dennings attached to star, I knew exactly what tone of comedy they wanted, because she has such impeccable comedy timing and is so dry, so that really helped dictate what the pace of the show is.
And I think nowadays it’s more important to enjoy being on a set, in my experience, than the final product at a time, because we need hours on set a day, so you really have to love the people that you’re working with and the product that you’re putting out there, and I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been on great projects working with great people, but this one specifically was so much fun. Kat and I drove to work every single day because we live very close, so we would go to work and we’d just be talking literally all day, we never stopped, and then we would get the car and drive home together. We spent a lot of time together, and I genuinely loved these girls so much and I hope that translate.
“It’s definitely become more of an art form.”
How did you prepare for the role of Madison?
Madison was really fun, also because when I auditioned for her, I didn’t think they would have seen me as Madison, because I feel like a lot of the characters that I play are more like the wild and crazy characters and Madison is so straight-laced and she’s very serious, she’s does publicity, she’s has blinders on, so I took all my OCDness and all the little bits of me that get very crazy. I just took that part of me and built off of that and asked myself “who is that person that needs to be a perfectionist?” and for me it stems from when I was younger, because my mom always said “you can only compete with yourself, there’s always going to be someone that you think is prettier, who’s taller, who’s skinnier, who’s funnier, who’s better or whatever it is,” so I think all you can do is compete with yourself and that’s the core of Madison’s character.
I feel like in her life she’s always and continuously pushing herself to be better, and perfection is something she believes she can actually achieve. That’s her downfall, though, because she gets so caught up in her drive to be perfect that sometimes she forgets that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to do something that you may not feel comfortable doing, it’s okay to forgive yourself. The fun arch on this show is that she’s very harsh and won’t let Kat’s character back in, but as the season goes you realize that she has all those harsh walls up because she’s being vulnerable and she feels hurt by Kat and she has a lot of stuff going on in her own life with her mom, with her relationships that she’s not quite ready to share.
In what way did you connect with her?
What I did was: I took Madison as the very heightened version of me when it comes to work, because when it comes to working, I don’t like it when emails are not read or responded, I like being on time and that’s the part of Madison that I definitely owned, because she’s very much that way. So definitely I would say that my work ethic is very Madison.
“…it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to do something that you may not feel comfortable doing, it’s okay to forgive yourself.”
What would you say to her if she were here?
Take a chill pill, girl! Let your hair down, relax, have a little bit of fun. That’s my thing, I feel like I’m a mix of Madison and Jules, who’s Kat Dennings’ character and they’re very different, so that’s very me, I don’t like to leave the house, I’m in my pajamas all day long, while Madison is the exact opposite, she doesn’t like to waste a moment, she’s not a procrastinator – I’m a procrastinator [whispering], so I feel like it’s a good balance.
What’s the funniest or most intense scene you played while filming “Dollface”?
I think the most intense scene was the day we had a night shoot, in the finale episode, where we are naked and covered in mud and dance by the fire; it was one of our last days of work and it was about 3 or 4 in the morning and it was in Los Angeles and it was summer and it usually is really hot there, except for those two days when we had to be naked and it became cold. Seriously, we did a Christmas episode and we were sweating, because we had to be dressed up for 12 hours, and then those two days when we had to do the night shoot we were freezing and all we had on were these little shorts and little bralettes and we were covered in mud, and it was an intense moment for our characters.
My character’s fighting with Kat’s character, and we love each other but we didn’t know how to communicate with each other, and it’s the first time my character, who’s so straight-laced, does peyote. Our director, who’s also our showrunner, choreographed a change of look for my character, because her hair was always perfect, with perfect braids, while in this scene it’s so wild, and we actually had to work a little bit, because she doesn’t know how to move her body, she had never let herself go, so she’s kind of awkward because she’s never done that before. It was a really fun moment and I got teary doing that scene because it was such a relief, it was also the end of the show, this scene was a peak for my character, it was really fun but really intense.
“I got teary doing that scene because it was such a relief, it was also the end of the show…”
How was the discussion on set with everyone, with the cast, the creators, the producers, the director?
It was absolutely incredible. This was the first project that I feel that everyone was so incredibly forthcoming with information. Kat Dennings is also a producer, so it was really great to have someone on set who was truly there for you every single day and I went to her for everything. Also, Margot Robbie, who’s the founder of our production company LuckyChap, or her producing partner Brett Hedblom, they were on set with us every day and this was their first project for TV, so they were so incredibly honest about every step of the way, they were like “we know what’s like to be on the other side and we want you to be filled in.”
I’ve never been a part of testing for other roles, after Kat I was the first person to be cast, so I sat in castings and I had never done that so early on a project, but they really wanted it to be a very natural and organic vibe on set and they wanted us girls to actually get along, because at the end of the day you can have the best script, the most well-written dialogue, but if you don’t have chemistry, if you don’t get along with your castmates, you can’t fake it.
Was there room for improvisation?
Of course. Esther Povitsky, who’s an amazing stand-up comedian, thrives on improvisation, especially with her character; she was so funny and we could never be prepared for her, because she’s just so quick on her feet, so Esther would always be the first one to break us on set because you just didn’t know what would come out of her mouth and she improvised a lot of her stuff.
The protagonist of “Dollface” uses her own imagination to reconnect with the other women and friends. Did you get your inspiration from your personal life or from perhaps other comedies in order to better express the power of female friendship?
For me, it comes down to “Lizzie McGuire.” “Lizzie McGuire” was the best way to have a fictional character that represents what’s going on in your mind and that’s what this is because we’ve also got the Cat Lady, who’s more like a fairy godmother, she’s a guide who helps Jules throughout the situations in which she feels uncomfortable in, like wobbling back to the female world, but to me, she got to be the live-action “Lizzie McGuire,” her inner thoughts were coming to fruition and I love that. When I first read the script of “Dollface,” I was actually very confused, I asked myself “did I just read the right thing?” and I went back to read it because it comes out of nowhere and I think you can feel that even watching it, as it goes on, it’s such a fun way to play with these outrageous situations that we, women, sometimes put ourselves in. I think that’s what it is, it’s poking fun at society’s seriousness when it comes to social media or when it comes to faux pas or rules that people think we have to follow; to me, it’s more about making it a fun way to navigate around those sort of situations.
How would you describe “Dollface” in one word?
If you were a therapist for the “Dollface” characters, what would you say to them?
Oh my goodness! Here’s the thing, and I think this goes for any good therapist, all they do is listen, help you compartmentalize and repeat the things that you already know about yourself. I think that we keep all in our own head all the time, so I’d tell the girls to listen to themselves and to listen to the people they love, which are each other because even though it sounds like harsh sometimes, the people who love you will give you the best advice.
What’s your life motto?
Happiness is not a destination, it’s the mode of travel.
I truly believe that. I feel that people are always vibrant, like “if I do this, I’ll get happy,” “if I get this job, I’ll finally be happy,” “if I get that cute boyfriend, I’ll be happy,” “if I’ll get that house, I’ll be happy” and I’ve realized that happiness is not a destination, it really is a way of life.
I use this analogy a lot: for the first time in my life I found the car that I like, I’m in my car, I can see the rear-view mirror, I can see my past, but I’m looking for the future; I’m finally on the right road, but everything else is up to me, and I’m okay with it. It took me a long time to get to that place where I can genuinely be open and happy to just keep living and keep going. I think it’s really important to enjoy life and our job is just our job, while life experiences, time with your family, time with your loved ones, those are the things that you’ll remember. As much as we enjoy our 15 hour-days at work, the memories we’re going to remember are the crazy nights with our girlfriends, the dates with our partners, the dinners with our family, those are the things that we would need to relish in and not to skip over, because I’ve done that, in my early twenties I was rushing at holiday dinners because I had my own things, and these are the moments that I’m going to remember, these are the moments that make life worth living.
“Happiness is not a destination, it’s the mode of travel.”
You have a “voice,” since you are looked up by many people: in what way would you like to keep using it?
I feel like I’m the perfect example of someone who was in a situation where if someone told me that I’d be where I’m sitting now, I would have never believed them, but I’m also the sort of girl who never takes no for an answer. I look back at my younger self and I wish I was as her sometimes because she knew what she wanted and she just wanted to do it. What I would do is always use this power to remind people that there is only one you.
I would say steer into your own skin, find what you are good at and do that. My mom always told me that if you truly love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life, and I truly believe that. My brothers and I all do different things, one is a personal trainer, one is a chef, and then my personal trainer brother decided he wanted to go to medical school and my mom has always been such a supporter of thoughts like “find what you love and do that for the rest of your life.” For me, it’s just spreading that message and knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes: girls in social media today should learn that making mistakes is fine. Everything happens for a reason, I truly believed this when I was younger: every no, leads you to the right yes.
What’s your superpower, the one that you have or that you wish you had?
I wish I could teleport, that would be amazing because I hate traffic. I’d like to teleport to Italy or Paris. If I have a superpower, it’s probably talking very fast [laughs] and loving my animals way too much: my two cats and my dog, they’re my children.
“I would say steer into your own skin, find what you are good at and do that.”
What’s your happy place?
My house, with my animals and my loved ones, my bed, there I’m happy and I feel safe.
What’s your must-have on set?
Water and almonds. Energy. I always need energy and I’m always munching.
What’s the book on your nightstand?
I’m reading “House of Leaves” right now, it’s a thriller and I’m only four chapters in. I would read anything, but I love a good thriller!
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self entering the Cinema industry?
That everything happens for a reason and that you are who you are for a reason so don’t try to change yourself for other people. We’ve all done that, but specifically me, because I didn’t know where to fit, but I am what I am and there’s only one me.
“Don’t try to change yourself for other people.”
“I’m happy and I feel safe.”
Comedy or drama? Do you have a favorite to play?
This is hard because comedy is obviously where I feel comfortable, but drama is so much fun; I did this movie last summer that was so different and it’s the kind of movie that I actually like to watch, I like dark thrillers and that’s funny, since a lot of my work is not that way, people see me differently, but that’s what I like to read and watch. It was fun because I felt like I got to play on a fantasy doing a thriller.
Have you ever had an epic fail on set?
I’ve had so many! One of the biggest ones that I would say to this day is when I was working on “The Suite Life” and every single day we shot on a live audience, so everyone ran out and introduced themselves in everyone’s way and we did almost 200 episodes of “The Suite Life” and I came out with this big heels, crazy clothes. It was our last day, we were all crying and Phill Lewis, who plays Mr. Moseby, said to me: “Look, Brenda, you did it! You made all these episodes and you never slipped; you never did anything! We did it, guys! No one ever slipped, no one ever hurt themselves!”. Then I go out, and what do I do? I slip, land flat on my back in front of the whole audience, and I’m crying because I’m sad, so I get up and I laugh-crying. That’s my big epic fail on set.
Have you ever thought about writing or producing or directing?
I would love to! It’s actually funny because when I was working on “The Suite Life,” by the end of it, our showrunner knew that I was feeling stagnant, that I wanted to grow creatively and he let me sit in the writers’ room, so I could start to see behind the scenes, how this well-oiled machine was working and he made me fall in love with it. I have produced, but directing is so hard because everything falls onto you, but I’ve had a show in development before which was not for me to star in, it was just a project that I did and I loved it, and I’d love to do more of that. That’s something I’m feeling braver about, because as an actor I’m just so used to being like “okay, tell me what to say and I’ll do it!” and to take those sort of liberties and take that next step is very scary, because it’s something I wasn’t used to doing, but I would definitely love to produce and write more in the future.
The Film Wall
35mm & Fuji Instax
Earrings : J.ING
Top: Kheir Sannai
Shoes: Steve Madden
Trench: Sies Marjan
Earrings: Isabella May
Dress: Abel Honor
Dress: Nadya Dzyak
Thanks to Waive Car