Sook-Yin Lee - lead actress from the film "Shortbus"

by Yuki Keiser June 2007


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1. A character of my own

●Director: John Cameron Mitchell
●Cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, PJ Deboy
●2006, United States
●Distribution/Marketing in Japan: Asmik Ace
●Image/Photograph credits: © 2006 Safeword Productions LLC
For more information see:
Shortbus' Myspace page, and/or the
Shortbus Japanese site

Profile: Sook-Yin Lee
Born in Canada, Sook-Yin Lee is a well-known media and music personality in her country. In addition to working as an actress, she currently produces and hosts television and radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Her creative musical ability as both a singer and songwriter rings out powerfully in "Beautiful" on the Shortbus soundtrack.

Here we are, five years since director John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" hit the theaters and began attracting devoted fans around the world. And, at long last, his newest and much-anticipated release, "Shortbus", has made it to Japan. This, his current feature, brings to the big screen several icons from the American lesbian scene, including JD from the legendary feminist punk band Le Tigre, Daniela Sea - who plays Max on The L Word, as well as singer and songwriter Bitch!

Tokyo Wrestling brings you a frank and fun interview with Sook-Yin Lee, the lead actress in this playful and edgy film.
 
Lee's character, Sofia, is a couples' counselor who, while professionally counseling lost lovebirds to help them solve their problems, has an unspeakable secret of her own. But then, a strange twist of fate takes her to Shortbus, a real-life underground salon in NYC. The salon welcomes people from all walks of life - artists, S&M princesses, stalkers, and even a former New York City mayor - to come together and mingle. People of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations and backgrounds should be able to relate to the film's portrayal of our universal human quandaries: longing for love and struggling with solitude. Shortbus has already come to be known for its unique pre-filming workshops, its improvised performances, the actors' deep involvement in creating their own characters, and - last but not least - the fact that every orgasm shown in the film is unsimulated...the real deal.
 

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--First could you introduce your character Sofia for us?

Sofia is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown when we meet her in the movie. She's very busy in her head, and her life is too busy. She's very career oriented and does well - she's a sex therapist. She wants to have a happy marriage, she wants to be successful, but she has a very big secret that she hasn't shared with anyone. She has never in her life experienced an orgasm. She's been faking them because she doesn't want anybody to know. She thinks she's some kind of a failure. So, when we meet her at the beginning of the film, she's at a crisis point where her husband is ready to catch on - and she has to do some pretty fancy footwork to get through that.

-- I read that the actors in Shortbus contributed to the creation of their own characters. Do you feel that you are close to Sofia?

Yes, I feel very close to her. I feel she's like the most awkward aspect of a person. She's not glamorous, she's like the most embarrassing traits all put together in one person (laughs). In part, I created a fictional character, but I created her personality so that she was somebody I could actually identify with and relate to.

-- What is it about her that you relate to?

When I was a teenager, as a first generation Chinese kid living in the suburbs of Vancouver, where there was almost no Chinese kids around me, I felt very alienated culturally. I wasn't quite Chinese and I was not a Canadian of European descent, so I sort of fell in my own category. I felt very alienated - not only from the world around me, but also from myself. And in terms of my own sexuality, I couldn't even conceive being intimate with another person. I couldn't even be intimate with myself. But then I was finally able to create a space where I could explore my sexuality. It was like being a young adult and not really understanding how to have an orgasm and thinking, "Oh, everybody else is with somebody else, and I'm by myself. I don't know how to orgasm, what do I do?" That among other things has inspired the story of my character, Sofia. In the movie though, the character - instead of being a teenager - is a full grown woman. So John and I went about piecing this character together. I could identify with her struggle, you know, and I talked with many friends of mine and found that having never experienced an orgasm is very common amongst women. And they often feel bad about it, like there's something wrong with them. I talked to a lot of sex therapists too, world renowned sex therapists, and discovered a lot of them were very confused - about their sex lives - and that's what drew them to their work. So, it's something that people aren't talking about. We have the media surrounding us with images of perfect people, engaged in awesome sex, and that's not reality! (laughs)

-- Was there anything about Sofia that was difficult for you to play?

Sometimes it was really hard for me. I would tell John, "I can't be her today! I don't like her right now. I'm embarrassed by her!" (laughs) And he'd be like, "Don't talk to her like this. Be nice to the person you've made!" It was very tough sometimes because, compared to some of the other characters, she's very square. She's very dorky. She's not cool (laughs). It was very tough, because I feel like she was in many ways some of my most embarrassing aspects, put together, that I had to embody. I remember thinking, "Her clothes are terrible!" (laughs) But then I just wouldn't look at the mirror, and think, "Ok, I have to be this very awkward person." I was trying so hard (laughs).
 

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Sook-Yin Lee, lead actress
  
 
-- (laughs) I read that the sex scenes in the movie are real. In the first scenes we are made to think you are having orgasms with your partner. But then we learn that you haven't. So, in those scenes, were you faking orgasms as Sofia, or were you having them?

Everywhere where Sophia was faking it, I was faking it, because that was what the scene required. But when she had the real one, it was real. It was important for me, because I had been this character for two or three years - creating her.

-- Did you hesitate at all acting in those scenes?

John had said to me "Sook-Yin, you know you don't have to do it for real." But it was important to me to do it for real. What happened was we were in a hotel, and I asked the camera operator to set a camera on a dolly above the bed, and looking down on me. And I asked all the crew to leave the room. Only John could stay, but I said, "John, you can't stay in the room, you have to go to the bathroom." (laughs) "You can direct me from the bathroom, I'll be over here." Then I got my vibrator. It was interesting, because it was important to me to capture the moments of orgasm. For me an orgasm is symbolic of freedom: freedom of thought, freedom from criticism, freedom to feel, and freedom to feel oneself. I wanted that to show on my face, so I asked just for the shot to be the face only - not anywhere else. But finally I had to ask John to leave as well. So, everybody was gone (laughs), and I was by myself.
 

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Sofia and husband Rob

 
-- Why is she able to have the orgasm at the very end in your opinion?

I think she's able to have it because she has finally taken all those pressures and thrown them out. At that moment of breakdown is the possibility for vulnerability. She's acknowledging herself, and caring for the embarrassing side of her. She's taking care of the failure that she's undergone.
 

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