Joanne Deng has had two identities since 2015: actor and writer. After a number of short stories and essays, she attempted her first novel and immediately received recognition, winning the Taipei Literature Award. The title of this novel about “actresses” is Second Lead, the term used to refer to a supporting actress.
From her auditions as a 20-year-old model to now, as she enters her forties, Joanne’s twenty years of experience in the performing arts have included roles in both film and theater, and directing as well as acting credits. As a creator, she believes her role is a passive one, and it is the ideas that seek her out. She wants to explore what she has seen and heard over the years, distilling these experiences in her writing.
When can an actor, perpetually relegated to supporting roles, expect to become the lead?
The protagonist of Second Lead, Claire Huang, is the second of two daughters. Launched into an unexpected acting career because of her resemblance to a Japanese actress, she starts out as a stand-in and then endures an endless wait for her chance to play the lead. “She has been playing a supporting role her entire life. When someone is acting, no matter how small the role, we have to help them create their personal backstory. Even if an actor is playing a supporting role in this particular story, there will be other stories in which she is the protagonist. The same is true for Claire Huang”. Whether she is on stage or in front of the camera, the audience sees Claire in these supporting roles, yet we also see how exciting her life script is as a woman. We see her persistence in seeking out an acting career, her emotional choices, how she faces up to the relationships in her family of origin.
The story’s zoomed-out perspective is divided throughout the novel into leading and supporting roles. As she waits for her place on stage, Claire is fully aware that her sister has the lead role at home. An absent father and seemingly never-there mother have made Stella Huang caregiver as well as big sister to Claire. This relationship between the sisters, says Joanne, is a common situation in dysfunctional families. The elder sister takes on the role of the mother and becomes the caregiver. Even after the younger sibling has become an adult, she retains the habit of using her elder sister as a reference. Stella does more than simply take care of Claire; her love enables her sister to pursue a life untroubled by family relationships.
The story cuts too close for comfort
Joanne says that while she was writing Second Lead, she read almost every literary work there was about actors, then supplemented these sources with real-life examples. She concluded that there are only two types of actresses. One type becomes the eternally youthful, diabolical diva; the other gets married and becomes a wife. Apart from these two outcomes, can there be any other possibility that isn’t boring? “What are the good and bad endings for an actress? This, too, is a question I reflect on in my work.”
To determine Claire’s ending in Second Lead, Joanne asked herself this question, but also turned to her own acting experiences. Writing with a crazed intensity for five months, she endured both physical and mental discomfort. The physical pain was caused by repetitive strain injuries and inflammation in her hands. As for the mental pain she felt, Joanne describes it as “a deeply overwhelming and terrifying state”. An actor retains 10 percent of their rationality because there are still things to do after stepping off the stage. A novelist is completely sucked into a state of writing down whatever happens to come to mind: “It seems as if in writing Second Lead I tried to revisit some of my decisions and then experienced new outcomes for these.” To recall a past that cannot be altered is sure to create some difficulties in addition to bringing a sense of change, especially when the story is one so close to the author.
Director, actor, writer: Which identity has the lead role?
Writer’s block happens in the places an author is most deeply connected to the work. A desire to explore human relationships led to research on the Family Constellations psychotherapy method, an answer for how to position Claire’s family members, and to many rewrites and revisions. In reflecting on the performing arts, the author had Claire participate in a Chinese reality television show, which involved sorting out improvised exchanges with the male actor, devising back-and-forth dialogue, and inserting the host’s questions as a counterbalance to these. Planning out the improvised dialogue section was a mirror for Joanne’s motivations. “That section was very much about sorting out my feelings on the performing arts. I couldn’t let the writer step too far into the leading role, though. I had to let the actor imagine the best way for that scene to be performed and put that in, and at the same time, I couldn’t let it become exposition.” The scene had to be carefully penned and revised many times to let readers approach its central idea more gradually.
As she mastered her roles as actor and writer, she also developed greater self-awareness. “I have a weakness. I’m not very good at writing malicious people.” The definition of “malicious”, says Joanne, is “hurting people who are completely irrelevant to you”. Claire meets an actress who appears to be a manipulative schemer and the director named Mr. W who plays with others’ emotions. They aren’t actually bad people, however. They are simply interested in their own self-gratification, just as Claire is.
Joanne humbly admits her weakness as a writer, but for a reader, her singular use of language invites an enjoyable contemplation of the smallest details. This is especially true of her “picturesque descriptions”. Joanne shares her method for creating these. “The way I write imagery is to describe the characters’ positions relative to each other and their postures. For example, in this conference room now, everyone is focused on different things. This is the part I like to describe. It allows the reader to enter into the setting right away and instantly feel the tension in the relationships.” Through Claire’s role in the book, we see a play and a performance in which there are not just the actors but other individuals, too, who are invisible to the audience and have the ability to control the actors.
Five years isn’t enough; the distillation process can begin only after twenty years
“If I wasn’t an actor, I would never have written this book.” The deepest impression that remains after reading Second Lead is the changes that occur in the protagonist throughout the course of her mental journey as an actor. Claire’s desire to act stems from fear – we see that waiting is the inevitable fate of an actor, and that the power structure in which actors find themselves can sometimes make them uncomfortable, but that it is also something they can do nothing about. In-depth analyses such as these peel back the surface beauty of the performing arts. Joanne is frank, saying that having some acting experience would not have been enough to write Second Lead. “If I had only been acting for five years, I couldn’t have written this book. I have been an actor for twenty years. I live in Taiwan. So, the book’s characters align with that timeframe and place.”