New York Film Academy (NYFA) alumna Elena Wang is seeing her name in Broadway lights. Wang is no stranger to the stage. She has performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall with Daniel Dae Kim in “The King and I.” She worked alongside Tori Kelly in “Oz” and has also worked with Shaquille O’Neal through NYFA and Taylor Swift through Sony. Having performed in Australia, Singapore, and England Wang will make her LA stage debut in “Allegiance,” a new musical inspired by the true story of writer George Takei’s time spent in an internment camp on American soil.
NYFA: When did you realize you wanted to be an actress?
Wang: I was born in Singapore but I was raised in Australia. I was blessed to have attended a school (St. Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls) that’s very strong in the arts. When I was 12, they put on the production of “The Wizard of Oz.” I was cast as Dorothy. I realize now how big of a leap they took to cast a little Asian girl for that role, but it was also an eye-opening experience for me. Acting and singing was something I really loved and it was a thrill to bring a character to life regardless of my race. That process was the very first spark of understanding that this could be something I could do for the rest of my life.
NYFA: What was your first acting gig?
Wang: I had to move back to Singapore for my family after high school. As luck would have it, I was able to get into a theater program I had had my eye on. During my graduation show of “Once on this Island,” where I played Asaka, a leading theatre company discovered me. Wild Rice is known for their large-scale production of “Beauty World.” They needed a leading lady and they entrusted me with the role. It was the role that got me ELLE’s ‘Breakout star of the year award’ and opened several doors for me. I was incredibly blessed that it was my first.
NYFA: What brought you to NYFA?
Wang: I grew up loving film. A year after my big break in Singapore, I landed a role in “The King and I” that was to be staged at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London starring Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii Five-O”). After performing for 5000 people every night, I realized that film was still something I wanted to try. So I took the leap, left London, and started fresh in Los Angeles at NYFA. I read that NYFA was hands-on and more practical-based, which was something I wanted.
NYFA: Do you have a favorite class or moment from your history at NYFA?
Wang: Singing has been a huge part of my career. I am an actor first and foremost. I would have to say my favorite class was Meisner class. We really got to dig deep. The class allowed us to be in front of the camera and experience what it was really like to be on set. In the two years that I attended NYFA, there were plenty of similar opportunities for which I am grateful.
NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that helped you most in your career?
Wang: That’s a big question because we covered so many things. I would have to say learning how to be in an audition room, how to cold read, how to break scripts down and how to do it in a short amount of time. They were able to teach me what it is like in the “real world,” so even if it was daunting post-graduation, I still felt confident and prepared.
NYFA: What was the audition process for “Allegiance” like?
Wang: I didn’t have to audition for the cast that will be coming to LA in 2018. I made my Broadway debut in 2015 with “Allegiance.” However, for the Broadway audition, it was intimidating, to say the least. I stumbled upon the open call auditions via a friend whom I haven’t seen in years. This was just two years after graduating from NYFA. At the time, I was mainly focused on my VISA applications to be able to stay and continue working.
Professionally, I’d already performed in music videos, commercials and a pilot. But, I had not sung for four years. I had to wait six hours among hundreds of other hopeful actors because I was not Equity. It felt alien to include singing with my acting audition, but I guess something clicked that day. I got through the first three rounds of auditions, which required me to sing and dance for the panel.
They then gave me two days to learn some material for the lead role. Lea Salonga had set dates off for other commitments, and they needed someone to take over when she was away for those dates. The rest of the cast flew into LA from New York. There is a video online that shows the last round of the audition process, “Trek to Broadway – Episode 2 – ‘All We Need is the Girl.'” It is George Takei’s documentary on their road to Broadway with Allegiance. I’m lucky that I get to look back on the moment they offered me the position. Till this day it still feels like a dream, but now I get to say that it’s my life.
NYFA: Have you had an opportunity to meet George Takei? What was that like?
Wang: I love George and we have known each other for two years now. He was so wonderful, and nominated me for the Paul Green Award 2016 for the most promising young actor. I received the award in front of artistic directors and founders of theaters across the nation. George won the Person of the Year Award in 2016. I have also played the role of Kei several times on Broadway and acted alongside him every day and night across 2015/2016.
It has been nothing but an absolute dream. He is the grandfather I never had and the most loving and sincere person I have ever known. If I were to say something to him, now, it would be “I love you very much.” Five days after I return from Singapore I will be doing a press/promo tour in Hawaii and Japan with George and our producer/writer Lorenzo Thione. It also coincides with my birthday and I can’t think of anyone else better to spend it with!
NYFA: What, if anything, does this play mean to you on a personal level?
Wang: On a broad level, this show is about how Japanese Americans were captured and placed in internment camps after Pearl Harbor. As long as you looked like the enemy, you were considered the enemy. It is also loosely based on George Takei’s life, as he was interned as a child.
This story is important for all to see. Generalization of race is still an ongoing issue today. Having grown up in western countries, being the minority has always been a part of my life. I absolutely relate to the themes within the show of family and endurance.
The character Kei whom I’ll be playing in LA in 2018 finds herself through turmoil and stands up for what she believes. Together with her family and her community, they find strength in faith and love. So much of this within my own life has been true. Through my travels, I’ve had to find a deep inner belief that I do belong, regardless of my race. I intend to fight for my dreams. Breaking convention and showing the world that I belong in this industry has been an ongoing theme in my career so I am so happy to be able to continue to find myself within this show.
NYFA: Tell us a little about the character you play.
Wang: I believe through our troubles and failure, we find ourselves on a level we never knew before. [My character] Kei Kimura had to grow up without a mother. She drowns in her responsibilities, which includes looking after her younger brother, Sammy. But after facing turmoil, she finally finds her vulnerability, falls in love, and gains the strength to fight for her rights. She becomes a new person and a renewed daughter and sister.
NYFA: What has the rehearsal process for “Allegiance” been like?
Wang: For the Broadway show, it was an entirely new experience. I had never been to New York City. The moment I moved, it was press events and rehearsals for both the lead and my feature role as Nan Goto. Lea Salonga was not available until the second week. The show had been in the works for eight years prior but it was all new to me.
After four days of rehearsals, taking on a double track immediately felt like boot camp. The rest was amazing. During previews, we would make changes in the day and perform it to a paying crowd that night. It was hard work but also a dream come true.
NYFA: What’s up next for you?
Wang: There are lots of exciting new projects coming up within the Broadway community. We just had the world premiere of “Bastard Jones” Off-Broadway, and due to amazing reviews, I am looking forward to the next exciting phase of the show. It is the one show that the writers Marc Acito (“Allegiance”) and Amy Engelhardt (“The Bobs”) entrusted me to play what was originally an English comedic ingénue. They wanted the casting to represent “real” America. I love being a part of “colorblind” casting.
We also just went through the first industry showing of “Tiananmen.” It follows the journey of Xirui (whom I play), a young college girl who leads the hunger strike during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I adore this show so I am excited about its next steps.
I am enjoying the flow of my Broadway dreams but I am still very much in love with film. Any support, however, NYFA can give (even this blog) is the support I am grateful of.
The New York Film Academy would like to congratulate Wang on all of her success. Be sure to check out “Allegiance” when it comes to the East West Players beginning February 22. Tickets are available here.