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Meet Quyen Ngo

Today we’d like to introduce you to Quyen Ngo.

Quyen, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I often say to people that my middle school years shaped my life. In other words, the things I was into in middle school are… the exact same things I’m into today. It’s sort of a joke (but also not really a joke for people who know me) when I say that I’m basically the same person today that I was then. My music taste is certainly the same. So let me try to start there. There are two key things that happened during that period of my life: leadership and acting. I’ll talk about them in that order. Being in the student council, I was lucky enough to get sent to these leadership training programs (by an organization called CASC) that would end up shaping my life. Sounds corny, but most of the folks in my life who grew up through this program say the same. These were peer-led programs where I learned the foundations of all these skills crucial to being a human in the world — conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, leadership and management, cultural competency, empathy… Peer-led meant as a 6th grader, I was getting trained by high school freshmen and sophomores, and we were all talking about what it takes to change our communities and change the world. I can’t emphasize how powerful it is to grow up in a community of people who truly believe in these things. To this day, I still work as a trainer — but more on that later.

The second thing was acting. I’d always love performing (I was in 5 acts in the 5th-grade talent show–talk about going overboard. my teacher and I are still friends, she can vouch), but it wasn’t until middle school that I formed my taste–and ultimately my vision to work, and perform, in film. During the summers, I would stay up until 4-5am every night, religiously watching IFC, the Independent Film Channel (with a sprinkling of anime, infomercials, and reality tv). In 8th grade, I had Tivo’d Y Tu Mamá También and my dad confronted me, asking me why I was recording porno on our Tivo. No regrets — 17 years later, I still get the same feeling when I watch the film (it was more than just sexual titillation! Although IFC also happened to be the only place you can watch NC-17 films on DirectTV). During the school year, when I couldn’t stay up all night, every few weeks, I’d rent about a dozen DVDs from the library and just consume them like it was a sport.

And so, I started my acting journey, dreaming of playing challenging roles like Gael Garcia Bernal’s Juan/Angel/Zahara in Bad Education or disturbing like Geoffrey Rush’s Marquis de Sade (I rented both of those films from the library). This was the start of my obsession with stories that allow us to see the world with greater nuance. I gravitated toward stories about people typically seen as “bad” — drug dealers and addicts, sex workers, those seen as “degenerate”. It took little time in this exploration to discover that social norms are full of shit. To get started in acting, I turned to theatre–like most kids who don’t have access to a film industry–and continued training every year of my life from that point on, until I was no longer in school and didn’t have that resource. I whispered it to myself back in 8th grade that I’d be pursuing this professionally as an adult, and now, here I am, doing it in Los Angeles.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The road wasn’t “rocky” per se, but it was colored by some important challenges. One was a broader, existential one — trying to balance the reality of doing and being many things, with the intention to pursue a career to do and be that on-screen — and the other being, simply, physical. In college, one of the things that really dominated my life was everything that had to do with sound — I worked in radio on both the music side and the news side, and I worked on sound art installations, something that incidentally, my acting led me to. I like to think that nothing is a coincidence. I worked as the program director as well as a dj for 95.5 WBRU’s the 360° Black Experience in Sound and producing news for the station’s news program. This is where I learned sound production, how to grow comfortable with my voice and perform over the mic, and also what it means to really learn people’s stories before attempting to tell them.

I hosted an R&B program called The Gentle Touch, and every week, we’d receive stacks of letters from folks in prison hoping to get a shoutout on air to their loved ones. Every week, I’d deliver both love music and love letters on air. This experience, combined with the stories I’d been producing, helped me grapple with issues of inequality and incarceration. Now, the balance dilemma was already evident then, but as you might imagine, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. These insights were foundational to my politics today, and the skills I gained through this time ended up proving invaluable later on–whether it was while I helped build a podcast, or getting involved with voiceover acting work, and most recently when narrating The Mountains Sing, a novel that was a collision of many parts of my life.

At that same time, I figured I’d take advantage of the opportunity to take classes at RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design; I was a student at Brown and we got access to RISD classes), so I learned some behind-the-camera skills in the Film/Animation/Video department. I filmed a documentary in Vietnam the summer before I graduated and that was a crucial moment. That same summer, I got a motorbike exhaust pipe burn and dengue fever in the same week, and I was alone because the last thing I want to do is produce an unauthorized documentary film talking about sensitive political issues with a film crew in Vietnam. While my head was splitting open from ongoing fevers (that’s what it felt like) and I had a burn that blistered into the size of a tennis ball, along with a few other health struggles, I laid delirious in my bed in a hotel in Hanoi and asked myself “well, clearly life, aka my physical body, is fragile, and maybe I’ll die young, so what do I need to do to ensure I don’t die with any regrets?” and that’s when I charted out my plans to move to LA after I graduated.

But the move wasn’t that swift. I ended up getting offered incredible opportunities to travel the world to run different training programs (including ones similar to those that I was involved with in middle school). And as much as I thought I’d learned during college, it was these years of my life that rocked my worldviews in the most serious way. I worked with people from all different walks of life — from a group of Pakistani young professionals to Vietnamese migrant workers to youth in Beijing and Russia, to some of the world’s top plastic surgeons. These people, from ages 13 to 70, taught me lessons about Islam, Catholicism, expression and repression, the exploitation of factory workers, and indeed, the origins of lasers in plastic surgery.

Before finally making the move to LA, I worked briefly in municipal government, serving as the Director of Community Affairs for the Vice Mayor’s office. Initially, it was to save up money to pay off student loans before my move. What I got out of it was the chance to intimately learn about San Jose, CA, the city I grew up in, in a way I had never known it. The lessons I learned during this period were, once again, priceless, but I needed to get to LA. It took several years, and I’m still working on it, but I’ve finally been able to establish somewhat of a balance between my different lives, with my acting and creative life taking the priority.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
Nowadays, outside of acting and the industry, I work as a facilitator, trainer, and consultant. I am grateful to be working with journalists, the digital rights community, and human rights activists. I specialize in building highly participatory and engaging programs and environments. Particularly, in the Covid-era, I have been working with people to convert their programs to virtual environments that are still engaging and exciting.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
As I mentioned, I am so grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and each part of the journey led to the next, so it’s hard to say that I’d do anything differently. But if we lived in a society that was able to respect how sacred the work of acting (and artistic pursuits in general) can be, then I would have been louder with my intentions.

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Image Credit:

Limbo Lin, Matthew Oquendo, Nogen Beck, Fernando Saiz, Joanna Nguyen, Michelle Migliori, Raphael Mimoun

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