The first time you see Tara Macken and Emily Kaiho, you think “showbiz.” In Philippine entertainment, where half-Asian, half-anything sells like hotcakes, these two biracial actresses would be shoe-ins for the celebrity It-Girl status. But having set their sights on Hollywood, both 23-year-olds have experienced a whirlwind of opportunity and rejection that taught them to believe in their own talent—even if no one else does.
It is with this conviction that they embark on their latest adventure, “Enraptured,” a joint independent film project the pair has written, are producing, and will campaign for until its completion. With the assistance of a network of creative minds befriended in Hollywood as well as in their respective homelands, these lovely ladies are determined to get their picture made, even if they have to do it themselves—proving their mettle in an industry that would otherwise swallow them up.
“I wanted to try out acting in LA—if anything, at least I could say that I tried,” says Macken of her drive to be an actress. She certainly looks the part: with an exotic half-Irish, half-Pinay bloodline and a sassy attitude to match, the tan beauty blends right into the Cali scene she now calls home. Born incredibly inside a car in Kuwait, Macken moved around the Middle East before settling in Manila for middle school and high school at the International School Manila (ISM). “I loved living in the Philippines; there’s so much personality to it,” shares the actress, a Parañaque local for nine years before moving to the US for tertiary education. Little did she know that after graduation—and two short-lived desk jobs—the desire for a career onscreen would redirect her entire life.
Kaiho, on the other hand, spent every one of her formative years in the Land of the Rising Sun. Raised in Tokyo by a native father and an American mother, the “little Japanese girl,” as she refers to herself in our interview, was a print model and dancer before she realized she wanted to act. Sadly, it was too little, too late for Japanese show business, which apparently avoids the casting of new faces. “You have to start out very young to be successful and get actual roles,” shares Kaiho, whose mixed breeding also deterred her progress in an industry centered on the standard Asian look. It was at this point that the eager performer uprooted herself from Japan and flew to Hollywood in hopes of achieving the American dream.
Both newbies started from scratch before more promising prospects came their way. Kaiho was in the middle of a brief waitressing stint when a casting agent spotted her on her shift. The agent auditioned her for a part in an upcoming action flick—a role that required fluency in both English and Japanese. The rookie actress nabbed the part. Three days later she was flying to Romania to begin filming the picture “Bunraku,” in which she plays the love interest to Josh Hartnett’s protagonist, joining an impressive cast with the likes of Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, and Japanese superstar Gackt. “Bunraku” is set for release in May of next year.
Macken, on the other hand, booked a string of print and commercial modelling jobs and bit parts on television before getting her first big break. Recently, she was cast in “Macau Chase,” another action-thriller rumored to be starring “the guy from Prison Break,” as the actress laughingly puts it (we hope it’s Wentworth Miller). Like Kaiho, Macken will play the love interest—this time, of the bad guy. Both her role and Kaiho’s in “Bunraku” required a lot of physical work, particularly martial arts training; but given their shared background in dance, it wasn’t as difficult as expected. Says Macken, “We’re really good with our bodies, so we book a lot of action stuff. People think we’re black belts!”
Shortly after filming wrapped on “Bunraku,” Kaiho and Macken were cast together in a Nike commercial and became fast friends. Soon, the pair was inseparable. So much so, in fact, that when Macken told Kaiho about a crazy dream she’d had one night, light bulbs flashed above both girls’ heads: together they agreed it sounded like the plot to a movie. “So we met up everyday, and we just wrote,” says Macken. “We came up with an 80-page script.”
The script, now entitled “Enraptured,” is a twist on “The Wizard of Oz” with the two actresses playing sisters as a dual-Dorothy. Set in the near future, the storyline revolves around popular new gadget Oz which allows its users to participate in a separate virtual world. Problems arise when a number of mysterious suicides take place around the sisters’ campus, leading them to believe that the deaths are linked to Oz. Familiar faces like the Wizard, the Lion, the Tin-Man, and the Scarecrow turn up, but in reversed roles—they are the bad guys. With its sci-fi/fantasy undertones, Macken and Kaiho describe their creation as part-Matrix, part-Pan’s Labyrinth, imagining it to be visually “dark-pretty.”
After the manuscript came an ambitious ultimatum. The actress-cum-writers wanted to get their work turned into a movie—and by a top production company, at that. But how? With the amount of screenplays being pitched at leading picture companies by the day, how could two virtual unknowns with absolutely no influence make sure their script landed in a producer’s lap, rather than his trash bin? The answer: by making an irresistible, memorable pitch-package that would get their pages to the top of the pile. “We decided to shoot a teaser-trailer [for “Enraptured”]. If [the producers] can watch a one-minute clip and it hooks them in enough to read the script, then we got ‘em,” explains Macken.
Thus began countless days and nights of planning for the teaser video on relatively no budget. The budding filmmakers browsed through modelling catalogues and Facebook profiles for potential cast and crew members; created comprehensive scene lists and storyboards with artist friends; bought, borrowed, or made equipment, props, and wardrobe; and basically emailed everyone they knew from Tokyo and Manila about possible locations. “Both [cities] are really different from Los Angeles. I think it will be something really interesting for Americans to see,” says Kaiho, who finished filming in Japan with Macken a week before coming to the Philippines. Locally, the two actresses worked with thespian-director Joaquin Pedro Valdes (recently of “Spring Awakening” fame) to shoot the remaining scenes for their teaser.
Who knows where this will go? In Tinseltown, it’s one in a million—will they be the lucky ones? Macken and Kaiho certainly believe they’re going to make it, despite the fact that they belong to so many minorities. “Because not only are we Asian, but we’re female, and we’re so young, we don’t want to go to [the level] where they assume we would go—we want to blow them out of the water!” declares Macken.
Kaiho cites the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck partnership as a constant inspiration to Macken and herself. In 1997, then-Hollywood-nobodies Damon and Affleck shot to prominence after their screenplay for “Good Will Hunting” was picked up by Miramax Studios and made into a widely-acclaimed feature film. If she is as lucky, Kaiho hopes to use her success to break stereotypes about her race. “A lot of people in America think that China, Korea, and Japan are all the same—and that they’re the only Asians. They have a set image,” says the Tokyo native. Macken echoes these sentiments: “Everyone looks different. Accept it.”
Without a doubt, these two half-Asian talents have never forgotten where they came from—and they’re downright proud of it. You can’t help rooting for them, in spite of the odds that they face; their passion for the work is as evident as it is unpretentious. Such brightness and optimism in a generation of premature cynics is refreshing—in any country.
“They told Fred Astaire, ‘You’re never going to make it, you’re not good enough.’ And he’s Fred Astaire,” shares Macken. “It’s not about them saying ‘No,’ if in your heart you’re always saying ‘Yes’ to yourself.”
Do you think Tara and Emily are being brave or foolhardy by making their own film? Do you think they'll make it big in Hollywood? Leave a comment below or talk it up with other GIRLTalkers on our forum!
(Movie stills courtesy of Tara Macken and Emily Kaiho. Interview photos by Betty Tianco.)