A friend in Los Angeles writes:

It’s been two years since I moved to the coast in search of acting jobs. Though my years in off-Loop theater, most notably at Lifeline, had been enormously fulfilling, I was looking for greener (more lucrative) pastures. Since then I’ve been cast on television in such prestigious parts as Disgruntled Customer, Irate Waiter, Delivery Boy, and Lab Technician–juicy roles an Asian-American actor could really sink his teeth into. But now the network karmic wheel has turned and reincarnated me to a higher level. I’m a lama.

The yoga, the fasting, the tinkly fountain I got for Christmas–they were all fate, preparing me for my guest-star turn on Family Law. I play a monk from Nepal who has journeyed to Los Angeles to find the reincarnation of his high lama and discovers him as a young American boy (yes, shades of Little Buddha, but no Keanu Reeves). I get a courtroom scene and a brief airport good-bye.

I have less than a week to attain dharma, or at least look like I know what it is. I rent a bunch of movies–Little Buddha, Scorsese’s Kundun, Seven Years of Brad Pitt’s Hair. I search the Internet and call several monasteries in California and Oregon to get pronunciations. Meditate in front of my tinkly fountain.

My courtroom scene is shooting on a Friday. After a brief discussion in the hair trailer, it’s decided: they’re taking it all off. First they close-crop me and then the Bic comes out. Initial shock is followed by a new sense of freedom. My scalp is very pale, but they swathe it with makeup using paintbrushes (the makeup woman laments forgetting her airbrush at home) and I am one smooth egg.

My costume is gorgeous, from the same wardrobe used for Kundun. Actual monks may have worn these clothes. In fact, when I look inside the collar of my yellow brocade vest, I see the name “D. Lama” printed on the tag. Am I using the very garments worn by His Celluloid Holiness, the actor who played the Dalai Lama? I find my role starting to influence my mind. The costume combined with the shaved head and the carved beads I wear on my concealed left arm all contribute to an amazing sense of calm and peace. People think I am a monk, even on the studio lot. I greet everyone with a placid smile and a nod.

The dialect is a tricky one–it’s easy to fall into sounding like Apu on The Simpsons–but once I get the hang of it, the soft lilt becomes incredibly soothing. I used to hate always having to plug in an “Asian” accent–it seemed like all my parts called for one–but now it’s become something of an acting challenge. Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, they’re as different from a Chinese accent as British is from Italian. True, most casting people would be content with “You want flied lice?” but I don’t have to be.

The shoot in the courtroom goes really well. It’s a long day with many shots of the same scene from different angles, but through most of it I feel surprisingly calm and centered. I give my testimony again and again with no major hitches. After my close-ups, I relax in my trailer, happy to be done. But several hours later I’m called back to the set. Aaargh! I’ve already let my lines leak out of my ears. I finger my beads and regain clarity. Or my accent, anyway.

I emerge from the shoot feeling, somehow, enlightened. At least my head’s lighter. Even if my partner does keep giving me that look that Lee Remick gives Damien right after the goldfish bowl goes over the banister. But showers take a New York minute and no worry about hat head. Aveda who? I’ve been liberated from the ego of my hair.

And I’m thinking of visiting the Buddhist monastery in Long Beach that helped me out with my research. Who knows? The next place I write from could be Kathmandu. Unless I get that Chinese Gang Member role I’m up for.


–James Sie