FEARLESS CINEMA: A Word With PROTECTRESS Star, Actress Joanna Ke
If there was ever a film festival I wish I could attend, it would be the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival in Santa Monica. I’m not just saying that, either, lest I sound patronizing and fake (really, I live in New York City, so that’s an issue) – there are a LOT of festivals that bring some terrific headliners and sideshows to the table, but the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival is an especially important one.
Between the need for better representation and gender parity for women in film and stunts and the widespread brushfire of protest against sexual misconduct that is the #MeToo movement, the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival couldn’t have come at a better time. 2018 marked the festival’s fourth annual installation hailing a gathering of impressive film projects, their directors and performers and much more.
Reading about it and browsing through one of the shortfilm line-ups, it was how I learned about America Young’s tenth and latest shortfilm, Protectress, which is a currently a year in since screening it online briefly with Film Shortage before subjecting it to exclusive audiences. Actress Joanna Ke had a hefty hand in sharing its creative vision with Ms. Young – one that would go on to help garner Protectress numerous awards and screenings in its wake.
Ke, who is also a professional script reader and has been acting professionally for well over ten years, stars at the forefront of this amazing undertaking with actress Charlotte Bjornbak, and is resoundingly joined by a director who completely matched her rhythm in bringing this project closer to a hopeful feature film reality. I got to send Ke a few questions to help talk more about this project and spread the word in hopes of seeing this feature film happen someday soon.
Normally I edit quotes and summarize as part of a new format I’m experimenting with for interviews. After reading Ke’s responses, however, I’ve concluded in simply letting her tell her own story. She tells it so beautifully and with such fullness that I think it’s worth exploring and I’d hate to undermine the reading experience of it. Enjoy the following interview, and keep up with more Protectress updates at the official website!
|Photo: Mikel Healey|
Tell us about yourself and how you initially got into acting and stunt performance.
I’ve been acting my whole life. When I was young, I would perform skits for my sisters. In high school, I wrote and directed a couple plays and made short films with a Sony camcorder that I still have. I’ve always been interested in more than just acting. I’m curious about the human experience from every aspect of life and the unique perspective each person has. Everyone has a story. I started my professional acting career in Phoenix, AZ, working my way up through student films until I booked my first role in an indie feature in 2007. I made the move to Los Angeles in 2009. That same year, I was on national TV for the first time, acting opposite Sarah Chalke, which was very exciting!
Protectress was my first experience with stunts. I wanted to play a woman warrior, so I wrote a film with a sword fight in it. My first stunt training session I ever had, I got a concussion. I wasn’t taught how to fall properly, so I hit my head on the ground when I fell and was literally seeing stars after. It’s so important to get proper training and a stunt trainer that knows how to teach well! I also hurt my tailbone from that incident. It took a couple months to recover before I could start training again.
I still have fears of doing stunt falls from that, but I don’t let it stop me! I trained for a total of four months before we shot Protectress and haven’t stopped since. I love broadsword, but double weapons are also a favorite. I use a short broadsword in Protectress. I can also wield cutlass, double cutlass, quarterstaff, and rapier & dagger now. It’s fun to be the hero, but I swear it’s way more fun to get beat up!
Our fearless fantasy action director @america_young!❤️⚔️? . . Meet America and writer/producer/actor @joanna_ke at the film festival premiere of Protectress at #GeekFest on 2/17 at 12p at @longbeachcomicexpo followed by a panel at 1p! #femalefilmmakerfriday
Tell us about Protectress and how you and America Young met prior to collaborating on this particular project.
Protectress is a female empowerment fantasy action film that’s a proof of concept for a feature. It’s currently on a festival run. The film showcases women in leadership and has a theme about the power of choice, that we are what we choose. I made it in response to everything in the industry that frustrates me. I’m not just a writer/producer/actor, but also a professional script reader. I see the roles written for women in my profession as a reader and then see the breakdowns for these roles as an actor. I realized the roles I really wanted to play just weren’t being written.
Protectress was born from my dream to play a sword fighting warrior, my passion to see women represented more realistically on screen, my desire to see a portrayal of female leadership, and because when I was growing up, I never saw someone like me, a half Asian woman, portrayed as a hero.
America Young is our fearless director for Protectress. We met through my search for the right woman to helm the project. I was clear that I wanted to give the opportunity to direct a story about women to a woman. The first time America and I talked, we just clicked right away. She got the story, understands on-screen action from her extensive experience in stunts, and saw eye to eye with me in bringing forth the feminine side of leadership. America was a perfect fit. I’m thrilled she’s attached for the feature.
I absolutely loved the change in weapons for the principal fight between you and Charlotte Bjornbak. How challenging was it for you to learn, if any?
I’m so glad you enjoyed that! The second weapon I wield in the film (which we’ll keep a secret for those that haven’t seen Protectress yet!) I chose specifically because I have related skills that I could apply to it. I know poi, which is fire spinning. I’ve been doing that for over a decade and wanted to choose a weapon that could showcase those skills. While I had to learn stunts and sword fighting, the second weapon wasn’t as much of a challenge to learn because of that. The swords we used on set are steel stage swords, meaning they aren’t sharp, but that second weapon I use is a real weapon. There’s no faking that. I had to be very careful with it on set.
How did Charlotte come aboard Protectress?
|Charlotte Bjornbak/DP: Leo Kei Angelos|
Charlotte was recommended to me for the role of Leonora by a couple people. We needed an actor that not only could portray a woman that comes across a bit masculine with gravitas as a leader, but also someone that could look believably menacing on screen, switch that attitude on a dime, and pick up a sword fight with ease. I was really excited to meet her, and she was everything and more that I was hoping for!
Were there any other concerns about the production?
Oh gosh, absolutely! I location scouted literally for months before we shot to find a location that not only had the right “look” for the fantasy world and the space we needed for the fight, but that was isolated so that we could avoid lookie-loos and neighbors complaining about noise. I guess I did my job a little too well, because on the last day we shot, the production RV broke down and we couldn’t get a tow truck to come out to us in the middle of no where in the woods to help us! We all made it out fine with ferrying cast and crew from the location back to base in a car, but that was certainly an adventure after a hot day of sword fighting.
What are some inspirations you drew from in order to enhance your own performance? Any TV or film faves of any genre?
I love sci-fi and fantasy. One of my favorite shows of all time is Xena. It was the first time I ever saw a woman in a lead role that went on adventures and her story wasn’t centered on or dependent on a man. It was the first time I saw a lead woman who was athletic rather than stick thin, funny, and took charge. She could be a leader, but she also wasn’t perfect. Xena was certainly an inspiration for Protectress. There are a couple nods to her in the film. One of them is the corsets we wear for our costumes.
Lucy Lawless inspired me, because when she took on the role of Xena, I read about how she was afraid of the stunts. She did it anyway. She learned, and she obviously nailed it. (And she had some help from some amazing stunt performers and trainers!) Knowing that she did that bolstered me up to feel I could do it, too. Robert Tapert created the character of Xena and Lucy Lawless brought her to life. We need more female heroes. I decided if I wanted to see more of them, I need to create them, and I could fulfill my dream of playing one, too.
Any favorite swordfights in film or TV?
It’s so hard to pick one! Now that I know more about stunts, I’m fascinated when watching fights on screen to see how they’re performed, shot, and the way the editor puts them together. I love the double broadsword fight with Ser Arthur Dayne in “Game of Thrones” season 6, episode 3, even if it isn’t practical. Visually, it just looks bad ass. You know I love those double weapons.
|Behind The Scenes of PROTECTRESS (2017)|
What was the reception like upon debuting it in front of an audience for the first time? Was it at Artemis?
I decided to first debut the film online for a limited time before we commenced a festival run, which we’re currently on. We premiered Protectress with Film Shortage online, and the reception was more than anything I’d hoped for. You can never predict who will see your film, how many will see it, and how they will react to it. I just decided that I wanted to make a film I was proud of that I wanted to watch myself, and if my friends and family watched it, I would be happy. 7 awards and 18 festival selections later, it’s gone way beyond that, and we’re still not done with our festival run.
Talk about some of the biggest and most important lessons you take with you after Protectress?
A big lesson I learned is that I am capable of so much more than I used to think I could do. Your mind really limits you, trying to protect you out of fear. It’s one of the reasons I love stunts so much. It’s overcoming fear over and over and requires a trust in yourself and others. It’s a life lesson. The more you overcome your fear, the more trust you have in yourself and the world around you, the more confidence you have. You get to see what you’re really capable of. I remember the first day on set with Protectress, I was just so nervous thinking, “What the heck was I thinking?? Why did I think I could do this?” But I did it. I made a film that I’m really proud of, and what’s more is that it’s touched others.
One of the most moving messages I received was within the first week after Protectress debuted online from Michelle Linski, a lead youth advocate from a non-profit called Eve’s Place that supports young women that have been through sexual abuse. I found out that a group of their young women watched Protectress and were crying at the end of it. She told me that they imagined fighting their own demons and felt more confident to overcome their own victimization from seeing our film. They went even further and made their own film to help spread awareness about sexual abuse. They’re amazing and so brave. It still moves me to think of them.
Throughout making Protectress, I felt it wasn’t just for me. I thought about those that might watch it after, the feelings they might have seeing it, the messages I’d like them to take away from it. My whole goal was to create a female empowerment film. As artists, I think we all want to see our work make some kind of impact on the world. It’s not just for you. What I learned was that when I stayed committed to my vision and I didn’t compromise on it, I can help others and what I do makes a difference.
Tell us what lies ahead for Joanna Ke and Saint Joan Productions?
I’m expanding more into writing and producing as I continue my acting career. I’ve got a couple features that I’m writing/producing in development, all with female leads, and I’m super excited to be developing the Protectress feature right now. Many people have asked where they can see more after watching the short, and it makes me so happy to be able to tell them there’s more coming! Like the short, I’m writer, producer, and star for the feature. America Young is attached to direct, as I mentioned. I’m about to launch an online course on writing female characters, because from my experience as a professional script reader and actress, I have seen that there’s a habitual way women are portrayed on screen. I want to help shift that in the industry so others can have empowered female characters in their stories that don’t get stuck in the pitfalls I always see.
On the producing side, I’m in post on a female empowerment short film called “A Period Piece,” written and directed by Sylvia Ray, which will debut in 2019. I must say that I’m itching to act since I’ve been such a busy bee as a producer and writer! I’m currently looking at projects for myself as an actor, and would love an action film where I can use my sword skills!
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
July 9, 2018 @ 9:34 am
I am testing.