Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Kathy Uyen worked as an actress in Los Angeles for several years before she got the opportunity in 2008 to work on her first Vietnamese film, Passport to Love. Though she was quickly accepted in Vietnam’s show business world — she received a Best Supporting Actress award at the 2009 Golden Kite Awards (the Vietnamese version of the Oscars) — she still felt like a fish out of water.
“When I first moved to Vietnam, I’d go to [industry] events, and everyone would be dressed up in really beautiful gowns,” Uyen remembers. “And I’m coming from L.A.; we don’t wear gowns. But I had to get all these long gowns made in order to be respectful. I felt like this klutzy girl on the inside. Everyone was all properly posed on the red carpet, and I would just smile and pretend, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.”
After a few years, though Uyen had achieved a certain amount of fame and celebrity in Vietnam, she realized that roles for Vietnamese American women were still few and far between. Though her Vietnamese language skills had become more fluent, she still spoke with an American accent and found herself losing roles to Vietnamese locals. That’s when she decided to take matters into her own hands, come up with a story idea for a film she could star in, and pitch it to producers.
“I’m not a professional writer, but they say you should write from your own experiences, and that’s what makes it honest and genuine,” says Uyen. “So I’m surrounded by all these women, and, as modern-day women, we gotta have it all. We gotta make money, have a great husband, be a great wife, be social, look good, wear the latest trends. … The expectations are overwhelming, and I wanted to write a character who was trying to juggle all of that.”
The resulting film, How to Fight in Six Inch Heels, which was eventually fleshed out into its full form by scriptwriter Tim Tori and directed by Ham Tran, stars Uyen as Anne, a fashion designer from New York who has a very rigid three-step plan for career, marriage and babies. She’s got the career, and she’s got the fiancé, Kiet, but her life takes a detour when Kiet is sent off to Vietnam for work overseas, just months before their wedding day. After a late-night video chat with Kiet where he seems to be hiding something, Anne becomes suspicious that he is cheating with one of the models he works with. She secretly flies to Vietnam to infiltrate the entertainment industry and poses as a model in order to get to the bottom of her fiancé’s philandering.
Much of the comedy comes from Anne’s transformation into a believable model, which is kick-started by a boot camp led by her stylist friend Danny (Don Nguyen), a character based on two of Uyen’s closest gay friends, her real-life stylist and makeup artist.
“It sounds silly, but a lot of these moments really happened,” says Uyen, referring to how she needed to be taught (and to practice) how to pose on the red carpet and in photo shoots. “When I first walked the red carpets, the photographers would always catch me in [an awkward] half-smile. I didn’t want to be fake, so I’d do a real smile, then I’d stop, and then give another real smile. And my makeup artist was like, ‘No! You have to hold your smile the entire time you’re standing there!’ So I had to practice thinking of positive things the whole time while posing and hitting the marks.”
There’s a scene in How to Fight where Anne is on the catwalk for the first time, and she gets hit with an unfortunate bout of indigestion. But she somehow turns her violent stomach cramp into a comic catwalk pose. “That came from a joke between me and my makeup artist,” says Uyen. “At photo shoots, we’re always joking about the poses. ‘Oh, my cheek hurts,’” she demonstrates, brushing the back of her hand lightly on her face. “‘Oh, my shoulder aches,’” as she moves her hand oh-so-delicately across her chest to grasp her opposite arm. “We’re always making fun of ourselves when we’re taking pictures.”
Anne’s journey in the modeling world went through multiple transformations before the How to Fight creative team eventually arrived at the film ending that they were most satisfied with. “It was important to show that the more Anne tries to be someone else, because she’s wearing this mask of makeup, the uglier she gets [in her behavior],” says Uyen. “Whereas when she’s not wearing so much makeup and able to show her fears and insecurities, she’s able to be herself, open up and make new friends.”
When How to Fight in Six Inch Heels premiered in Vietnam, it was the number one film at the box office for weeks and eventually earned Uyen a Best Leading Actress prize at the 2014 Golden Kite Awards. But more than that, Uyen is proud to have created and starred in a female-driven film where the male characters were there to move the women’s friendships forward and not the other way around.
Next up, Uyen will star in a martial arts comedy directed by Charlie Nguyen that starts shooting at the end of the year — another script about empowering women that Uyen calls a cross between Kung Fu Hustle and Nine to Five. She’s also looking to develop and produce more films, including a fantasy musical for teens and another women-centric drama.
How to Fight in Six Inch Heels is being released in American theaters this fall.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here.