Elodie Yung may kick some serious ass (with double katana swords!) as Jinx in the upcoming film G.I. Joe: Retaliation, but we get to the heart of what really matters to the French Cambodian actress. Story by Kanara Ty, photos by Diana King.
When I meet French Cambodian actress Elodie Yung in her hotel lobby in Santa Monica, Calif., for this interview, I’m half expecting a polite embrace, maybe a cheek-to-cheek kiss. Instead, with a broad smile, the natural beauty envelopes me in a warm hug, as if we are old friends. Dressed in jeans and an oversized sweater and wearing no makeup, she asks me in her French-British hybrid accent (it’s amazing to hear) if I need anything, like coffee.
Cambodians can get pretty excited when they find other Cambodians, especially if they’re from the other side of the world. Even though I grew up in Long Beach, Calif., often referred to as the Cambodian capital of the United States, there aren’t many high-profile ethnically Cambodian role models out there, let alone a gorgeous actress (Elodie’s mother is French, her father is Cambodian) who is about to star in the Hollywood action sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, premiering March 28.
And if there’s one thing that two Cambodian strangers can bond over apparently, no matter where they’re from, it’s their love of donuts. “I love donuts,” says Elodie, while be- moaning the strict dietary regimen her coach had put her on while filming. Now, I know Cambodian Americans love donuts — 90 percent of the donut shops in California are owned by Cambodians. But in France? I ask Elodie whether her love of donuts was a French thing, and she says no. I tell her, “It’s your Cambodian side.”
That ignites a flurry of questions, with Elodie asking me about my family as much as I ask her about hers. One unique aspect of the Cambodian diasporic experience is how crucial the exchange of stories is in developing one’s identity, especially for those in the second generation (like Elodie and me). Our parents and grandparents lived through the horrors of the labor camps and genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, so it’s understandable that they would prefer to forget rather than retell these stories. As a result, there is a hole in our history, with many of the second generation yearning to connect with others who may have gone through similar experiences.
We share personal stories for hours. Elodie didn’t grow up around a lot of Cambodians other her own family, she says, and she wishes she could speak better Khmer (“I [only] know all the bad words”) and learn how to cook more Cambodian dishes (“My dad is an excellent cook — he makes the best caw”). She wants to visit the many Cambodian restaurants in Long Beach but is worried her schedule won’t allow it.
“My dad managed to escape [the Khmer Rouge] because he was in the army,” explains Elodie. “He was on the Lon Nol side. They had [military] training in Thailand, so he was not in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over. The last time that he saw his mom, he told her that it was getting really bad and that he would never see her again. My dad likes to throw bad jokes, but that was actually the last time he saw his mom and the rest of his family. He lost everyone in the war.”
After a year in the army, Elodie’s father sought political asylum in France, which was where he met her mother, while working in a supermarket. The couple raised their three children (Elodie’s younger brother is a break dancer, her younger sister a graphic design student) in District 93, an impoverished neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris.
Because of the rough neighborhood, Elodie’s father suggested that she and her brother take karate classes. Elodie was a tomboy anyway, so she opted for that instead of classical dance classes. A decade later, she earned her black belt, which would later play a significant part in her future career.
Elodie never had childhood dreams of becoming an actress. It happened by chance, while she was in law school, after a friend suggested she audition for a commercial to try and make some extra cash. While she didn’t land the role, another casting director for a TV series in France cast her in a popular teenage drama, La Vie Devant Nous, which aired from 2002 to 2003.
“After I got the job and I did it for a year, I went back to my studies,” says Elodie. “At that time, I didn’t really want to be an actor. I was doing both school and acting, but [deciding to focus on acting] was a process for me. Later, I met some directors and actors and realized this is actually a real and proper job.”
Elodie went on to star in a number of French TV and film productions, but she received her first break in Hollywood when she was cast as Miriam Wu, the lover of Lisabeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara) in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Shortly thereafter, she decided to try out for the role of the ninja Jinx in the sequel to the G.I. Joe movie. She sent numerous tapes to director Jon M. Chu, but it was Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the film’s producer, who had previously seen Elodie in the French action film, District 13: Ultimatum, who pushed for her.
Playing Jinx would be no easy task, so Elodie began her training early in London before she was scheduled to fly out to New Orleans to shoot. In addition to working with a dialogue coach (Elodie developed a British accent on top of her French accent), she also had to train with her stunt double, Ming Qiu, to learn the action choreography.
“You have five months to shoot, and you have to be really on top of everything, physically,” says Elodie. “There’s no rest, and you have to take care of yourself constantly. I had to fight with two katanas [Japanese swords]. It required a lot of coordi- nation and was very difficult.”
But she’s not complaining. “If I’m hired for an action film, there’s no point in me not trying everything, or at least as much as I can,” she adds. “This is not Shakespeare. It’s not about what I’m going to say. I’m not going to have a beautiful monologue. It’s about the action. As an actor, you should invest yourself as much as you can. I want to give 100 percent. It’s more fun that way.”
Now that the 27-year-old is on the verge of her Hollywood breakthrough, she reflects on her journey. “In the last 10 years, there have been good years, and there have been bad years. Sometimes I don’t understand why you work so much when you don’t [even] have work,” she says, referring to the grueling process required to even land roles in the first place. Thankfully, her family has always supported her in her endeavors. “We didn’t grow up with artistic parents, but they are very [free- spirited] in their minds,” she says. “They told me, ‘You have one life — enjoy it. We had a hard life, so find something and be serious about your work.’”
Interestingly enough, it was Elodie’s career as an actress that helped her father reconcile with his past. “My dad, for years, didn’t want to go back [to Cambodia]. I actually went to Cambodia before he did,” she says. She had gone to Thailand to shoot a movie and decided to visit her father’s native country while she was there. “When I called him from there, he was crying on the phone with me,” she remembers. “After a couple of years, he decided to go back. He was going back and forth [between France and Cambodia], but now he’s living [in Cambodia]. He’s happy living there now.”
It’s something she constantly carries within her, this bond to her father’s native land. She and her brother are hoping to do something creative to give back to the country. “When I went last year [to Cambodia], my brother and I said to ourselves, ‘We’re not here as tourists. Let’s just meet people and see what we can do,’” she says. “We went to an orphanage and some NGOs. My stepmother is from there and is aware of a lot of things because she works there. She told us that this country is difficult — you have to look where you go and be selective of how you work with people. We want to do something, but we have to do it properly.”
While filmmaking may be in Elodie’s future (“If I were ever to direct anything, it would have to be very personal,” she says), for now, the actress has a lot on her plate. She’s filming a couple thrillers and a romantic comedy with Evan Rachel Wood (10 Things I Hate About Life, from the director of 10 Things I Hate About You), and will be running to another audition after this interview. Since she’ll be in Southern California for a while, she’s hoping to take up yoga and perhaps get her driver’s license.
As we depart, Elodie gives me another warm hug. And at that moment, from one Cambodian woman to another, I’m just so thankful that there’s a kick-ass, donut-loving Cambodian role model we can all look up to.
This story was originally published in Audrey‘s Spring 2013 issue. Get your copy here! (And scroll down for our behind-the-scenes video!)
STORY Kanara Ty
PHOTOS Diana King
ON-SET ART DIRECTION Nazanin Alvarez
STYLIST Sarah Kinsumba
MAKEUP Mia Yang
HAIR Tony Vin
Photo Assistant Kevin Burnstein
Photo Assistant & Video Sabrina Hill
Stylist Assistant Devorah Phillips
Producer Olivia Wu @ Zoie Events
Venue The Mountain Mermaid, Topanga Canyon, Calif.
Go behind the scenes of the cover shoot (see video below):