When you encounter the unstoppable Celia Au, it’s impossible not to end up with a smile on your face. She’s the rare breed of human who exudes so much positive energy that it not only lights up the room but an entire city block. Born in Hong Kong & raised in a close-knit community in Brooklyn, New York, she was blessed with the gift of limitless imagination and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Celia’s unconventional journey ultimately led her to the doors of the entertainment industry, where she promptly kicked them open and began her meteoric rise as one of the most intriguing actors in the game. Her dedication to her craft, coupled with a never-say-die attitude and an ever-evolving skillset, has allowed her to land many captivating roles in various genres. Those roles include Ying Ying on Netflix’s “WU ASSASSINS” (Netflix), Alice Ba on AMC’s “LODGE 49”, and starring opposite Awkwafina as Grace in “NORAH FROM QUEENS,” a true fan favorite.
Her latest project, ‘In A New York Minute,’ serves as the latest step in her creative evolution. Based on a Chinese short story of the same name, the film takes a slice-of-life look at relationships highlighted by its Asian and Asian American-led cast. The film marks the impressive feature film debut of first-time writer/director Ximan Li, who leads a female-driven production crew to create an intimate character study that interprets love from three different points of view. Celia stars alongside a powerhouse cast that includes Ludi Lin (“Mortal Kombat”), Amy Chang (“Billions”), and Yi Liu (“The Blacklist”) ‘In A New York Minute’ premieres on digital May 3rd via Gravitas Ventures.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with this star on the rise to get an inside look at her career. The pair discusses Celia’s origin story as an actor, her aim to bring empathy to the masses, the inspirations that keep her creative fires burning bright, and much more!
You’ve had a truly unique career trajectory. How did the ball get rolling for you as an actor?
I went to school for advertising and marketing. I wanted to be a creative who made commercials and ads. It started when I was in school, and I went to this Museum of Radio and Television. They were talking about 30-second ads with subliminal advertising. It would be something like a jingle that would, in a way, brainwash you—for example, Marlboro. Every time people from the 90s think of a running horse sound, they will be like, “Oh, Marlboro cigarettes. Cool.” Of course, we all are familiar with McDonald’s jingles and Coke and Pepsi. I was like, “Wow! That is so cool! I can make a 30-second ad and brainwash people or change their perception!” So, as I was studying that, I realized that there were all these steps. I love the creative process, but I didn’t love the corporate aspect. As I was working as a graphic designer, I started dabbling in acting. I just found it so cool.
I believe that storytelling means so much and can change people’s perspectives on a group of people, a scenario, or an event. I learned so much from TV and film, and they had a massive influence on my upbringing. My parents owned a video store. I would also watch TV, something like ‘ Law & Order,’ and think, “I want to be a lawyer. I want to bring justice to these criminals!” Then I would see a show about police officers and then want to become a cop to fight injustice. Then I saw firefighters and wanted to save people! Then it got to things like jet fighter pilots and the military. [laughs] I thought, “Wait a second. I can’t do all that!” Ultimately, I realized that you could play all of these roles as an actor. I can be a Power Ranger if I want, and that’s not even real, but I can play it!
How did you get your start, and when do you feel you came into your own?
Man, that’s a good question. When I first started, I did a lot of music videos because I was a terrible actor! [laughs] You don’t want to see me in any of that stuff! So, I started in music videos. In Marketing 101, I remember my professor talking to us about shampoo bottles and why they are marketed in specific ways. The kid’s shampoo bottles are usually in brighter colors and on the lower shelves, so little kids will grab them and say, “Mom, I want to buy this!” At the same time, the more elegant shampoo bottles are curvy, almost the shape of a women’s body. Subconsciously, you find the shape of the bottle really attractive, but you don’t know why, and you gravitate towards it. Then something cheaper has more of a typical, standard type of packaging. It’s easy to grab, and you don’t have to think about it. You know it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg by looking at it. I found that so intriguing, and I had never thought about it.
As an actor, I thought, “If I’m a shampoo bottle, how do I market myself? How do I make myself stand out?” I was like, “Okay, the kid’s bottles are always happy colors, bright, and have fun shapes.” So, I started to design my hair into this mohawk, like a faux-hawk look. As I was telling you, I was terrible at acting at the time. So, I was rocking a faux-hawk and a tie in the beginning. Many of these people casting music videos were like, “You look really cool. Let’s bring you in!” So, I started learning certain things from working on these music videos. I remember the first few commercial auditions I went on, and they were like, “Oh my gosh, you have such a cool look!” I would get brought back for a callback, and they would give me the sides and scripts. I just couldn’t do it! I was reading it like a robot! [laughs] They would be like, “Okaaaaayy. Let’s try again.” Often, I would get the job, but they would give me a non-speaking part. At that point, I decided I should probably take some acting classes.
The manager I was working with said, “You don’t know anything about acting, so it will be nice for you to take some classes to get to know what everything means.” I had taken a class, Acting 101, in college at a business school. It was like, “Hey, this is an easy A for me!” [laughs] I took classes and began learning how to build characters. I also took a class with Anthony Abeson. I think he is one of the guy’s who changed my life. He talked about how to prep for a character and what the situation before the scene starts might be. I booked a film and then TV shows from going through his class. It started rolling from there. Most of the people in the class began booking shows and movies. It was so weird you were literally in a class with someone and then would see them on “Orange Is The New Black.” No matter what channel you flipped to, you’d say, “That’s my classmate! That’s my classmate!” [laughs]
You have many unique projects and fantastic roles under your belt now. Which of them had the most significant impact on you In terms of acting?
“Revenge of The Green Dragons” was one of my first major roles. How the director worked was something that changed my mind. When we are on set, I’m usually the young one jumping around saying, “Tell me about this camera? Tell me about that. I want to learn everything!” When I was shooting that movie, he was like, “Hey, by the way, no one goes back to their trailer. Come to video village. Sit in a chair, watch and learn. It doesn’t have to be your scene. Watch and learn how the crew works.” That was awesome, and I learned a lot about acting and how the crew and cast work together. The only way you look a certain way on the scene is because of the crew. Then you see how the director gives a note, an adjustment and how the actors take it. That is such a fascinating thing for a new actor. I learned a lot on that set!
After that, I did a bunch of little short films and smaller roles on TV shows. I was really learning on the go. I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of really great actors around me who are very giving. When I did “Lodge 49,” everyone was like, “Welcome to the Lodge 49 family!” We would spend time together. If I had a scene with Sonia [Cassidy], she would suggest we grab dinner so that we could build a relationship so that there is a rapport by the time we are on set. Building that chemistry allows you to feel as if they are friends instead of two strangers pretending to be friends. She was great! Then there was “Wu Assassins” where I was on the show with one of my best friends. We booked it together! When we auditioned, she said, “If you get the show. I won’t get the show. The universe doesn’t work that way!” [laughs] “Two friends never book a show together.” So when I got the role, I called her and “I booked the show. Did you get it?” She said, “I told you, it doesn’t work like that. If you get it, I probably won’t get it, man. I haven’t heard back, so no.” I asked my manager who else they cast for the show, and they were like, “Don’t say anything because they haven’t told her yet, but she got it too.” I was like, “Yeeeeeessssss!” [laughs] The whole cast of that show spent a lot of time together because we were shooting in Vancouver, and it wasn’t local. Same thing with “Lodge 49,” where we were shooting in Atlanta. We weren’t around our family and friends, so our family became the cast and crew. We hung out a lot, and that was fun, and I think that comes through on screen!
You had an excellent role in “Norah From Queens.” That show is a true gem, and the cast is terrific. What was that experience like for you?
That was so much fun! We traveled for that episode. In the episode where we are supposed to be in China, we actually shot in Taiwan. I remember the first day we were there shooting. It was the opening scene, the airport scene where I was greeting Norah at the airport. I have a line where I say, “Hi, Norah! Norah, Norah! Welcome to China!” Everyone in the airport went silent. As you probably know, there is a lot of tension between Taiwan and China politically. So Awkwafina and I turned around like, “Sorry, sorry! We know we’re in Taiwan. Sorry! We’re shooting a show! We’re shooting a show!” [laughs] That was a lot of fun. We also got to explore the food market. Working with Awkwafina is great because she is a very giving person. We became friends, and I loved the banter that we had. She’s so awesome!
You don’t get to the point you have in your career without a unique blend of drive and hard work. So how did that end up in your creative DNA?
Man, I don’t know! It’s hard. I had friends who went to business school with me who tried the acting stuff, and they were like, “I can’t take the rejection!” You have to have very thick skin in this industry. If I told you how often I’ve been rejected, you wouldn’t believe me! [laughs] People are like, “Oh my gosh, I see you on all these shows. You’re doing so well!” They aren’t accounting for the days where I say, “Life sucks. What did I do wrong? I can’t get a job. I just got rejected for the 100th time!” [laughs] It happens to everyone. I came to the realization that not everything is for you. If you don’t have thick skin and handle that rejection, then maybe you need to start thinking about finding another job that might be a little more steady, where one “yes” in an interview can lead to a job for a couple of years. Nothing is perfect. You might get on a TV show, and it does well, and you think, “Perfect! Now I get to make money!” That doesn’t always happen, and you might land a TV show, and then it gets canceled! So, then it’s back to auditioning! [laughs]
Your latest project is pretty exciting. Tell us about “In A New York Minute” and how it ended up on your radar?
I know one of the film producers, and he brought the film onto my radar. I thought it was a really cool story when I read the script. I auditioned for it by sending in a tape. The call back is where I met our director, Ximan “Mandy” Li. I remember her first reaction was like, “Oh, ya know, you were really girly on the tape, but you’re kinda like a tomboy, aren’t you?!” [laughs] I’m like, “Hey, what’s up, everybody!!! My name is Celia!!!” [shouting] Very high energy! She said, “Okay, tone that down. I want it to be a little more girly, and we have some guys that we are matching you up with.” So, one guy came in, and we did a scene. Then another guy came in, and then we started reading with a bunch of guys. Then the woman who plays my mom, Yan Xi, comes in, and she is a long-time friend of mine. She walks in and is like, “Oh! It’s Celia. I can do shit to her!” I was like, “Ohhhh, let’s see how this will go.” We got up in each other’s faces and got really intense. Mandy asked, “Um, do you guys know each other?” We said, “Yeah, we do.” She said, “Okay, good because you guys were on top of each other and in each other’s face!” So, she ended up being my mom. Roger yeh, who ends up playing Ian, I didn’t read with him until later on. I was shooting “Lodge 49” in Atlanta, and Mandy said, “Hey, so we found Roger who will play Ian. We want to have you guys chat on Skype.” When I went back to New York, we did a little rehearsal to get to know each other more. Roger and I bonded over Disney songs when we were finally on set! We were literally singing in between takes the whole time! I told the sound guy, “I’m so sorry, Viktor. But, I’m sorry, I’m not sorry… A whoooooolllle neeeeeewwwwww world!” [laughs]
What goes into bringing a new character to life?
It starts by doing research. For the role of Nina, Mandy gave me a film from Hong Kong. I can’t remember the name off the top of my head. She said, “Study the main character and how she portrays the feeling of emptiness or loneliness that comes from having no one around her. I think that is what Nina is like.” I was like, “Cool!” So, she sent me a link to this film, and I was alone in my hotel room in Atlanta. She didn’t tell me that this was a thriller and a scary movie. I watched it in the middle of the night before work, and I couldn’t sleep that night! I literally had the blanket around my head saying, “Go to sleep, go to sleep! She didn’t tell me that this was scary, but yes, I get the character! Go to sleep!” [laughs] Then I also watched some other films on my own about escorts and even “Cinderella.” That has a little connection with Nina. It kind of has that evil stepmom thing. Cinderella works as a domestic worker at home, but Nina takes a step out where she earns her own money to support her dad.
Bringing a new character like Nina to life seems to be very fulfilling. What speaks to you about the process?
Through acting, I can influence other people by giving these characters humanity and soul where the audience will have empathy. ‘In A New York Minute,’ I think, is the perfect scenario where you empathize with these three characters even though everything they do might not be the greatest choice. Nina is an escort, Angel is cheating on her husband, and Amy lies to herself by saying, “I can date a guy.” As an audience, you are looking into these characters, but usually, you would just judge a book by its cover. “I look at you, and you are X, Y, and Z, and this is X, Y, and Z of how you will act.” By watching the film, you give them a backstory and humanize them to the audience. It makes you look a little deeper. This instance allows the audience to look at this escort and say, “Okay, maybe this person isn’t what I think they are. Maybe they are trying to support their family, and there is no other way for them to make a salary like that.” You can empathize with that and see that they still try to lead an everyday life.
What were some of the challenges you faced on set?
This film was shot before the pandemic, which was a lot easier! I think Mandy will tell you this; “The most challenging thing for me was to make Celia super girly!” [laughs] Personally, I’m not a purse person. I love to wear a backpack or a shoulder pack. She gave me a purse the first day, and I struggled with it for a few moments. She was like, “Oh my gosh, Celia! You where it here. You don’t sling it back like a messenger bag!” [laughs] So, there was that, and we were shooting in the wintertime. It was really, really cold. If you’ve seen the film, you’ve seen how skimpy some of Nina’s outfits are. It was SO COLD! I really had to power through it. Roger, who plays Ian in between takes, was like, “Come over here; I will keep you warm.” I was like, “Okay! Wait, why do you have a jacket and I don’t!” [laughs]
What were the biggest takeaways from your time on set with this incredible cast and crew?
I made a lot of good friends on this film! This film is just coming out, and we need a lot of people’s support, by watching or renting, for it to gain some traction. I love that Mandy, as a new director, took a leap of faith and wrote a story about three female characters and their struggle. Additionally, we went on to hire an almost full-on female crew. All of the department heads are female. That film was the first time I worked with an almost entirely female cast and crew. We do have guys on the set as well. Mandy said, “I think everyone will empathize with these characters, and they can be a little more sensitive to certain things.” Our DP, Mego Lin, is a badass! It’s really interesting because you can see that every story has a slightly different type of cinematography. Amy’s story was shot all on sticks, Angel’s story was shot on Steadicam, and Nina’s story was all hand-held. Nina’s story was shot in that way because her life is a little more chaotic, so things are a little shakier. I find that fascinating and I love that about the film!
What do you look for in the projects and material you take on these days?
For an actor, the idea is to be a chameleon. I want to play as many different types of characters as possible. That is fun and the reason I was drawn to it. I get to step into other people’s shoes, explore their world, and learn about their stories. I’m also shooting a rom-com called “Asian Persuasion” with Dante Basco. That’s been fun! It’s a FilAm film, so there are a lot of Filipino stars in it. It’s my first-time getting introduced to the Filipino-American market. That’s been so much fun. In addition to Dante, it stars Kevin Kreider from “Bling Empire,” KC Concepcion, a bunch of Filipino stars, and then me! [laughs]
Inspiration can come from anywhere. What has inspired you recently?
I have a niece who is a year and a half old. Seeing her explore the world is so amazing. The other day, I took her to the park, and she saw pinwheels for the first time. She literally stopped in her tracks and dropped her jaw! Then, she walked over to them and was like, “Wooooooow! So pretty.” She was just as mind-blown when it stopped spinning. Seeing her bright, wide eyes as she discovered something for the first time was amazing. To us, it’s just a pinwheel, but to her, it’s something truly special. It was so fascinating. She will also randomly start dancing and singing. She’s only a year and a half old, but she’s already singing, dancing, and asking me to read storybooks to her. She will bring me a book and say, “Read!” She can’t read yet, but she will explain everything that is happening on the page. She’s got such a vast vocabulary as a little baby. Then, as I flip the book’s pages, she will tell me the story she perceives through the pictures. It’s pretty amazing and a source of inspiration for me.
As you’ve said, you’re a sponge in learning more about your craft and the filmmaking process. Do you see yourself branching into other areas of storytelling outside of acting?
Yes, of course! Like I said earlier, I think film and TV are a way for people to look into other people’s lives and change perceptions. I’ve been producing, and I have directed here and there. I’m not the best writer, but I’ve written one or two things. I want to make more content, and I don’t have to be on screen the whole time. I want to create content that will help promote more empathy in the world. Through the last few years, with everything that’s gone on around the planet, it’s a lot! The hate amongst people, the war that is happening, and of course, the global pandemic are all things we should learn from. We should have empathy for one another. My parents would always tell me about the old days and how the neighbors would all help each other. Now, we don’t even know who our neighbors are most of the time! I wonder what happened to that sense of community. My mom would tell me about times when our neighbors were struggling and didn’t have enough food. My mom would go and bring food to them. I wonder if that would even happen now. It sounds so sweet and warm, a neighborhood of people coming together. I hope that we can bring that back to the modern-day.
I grew up in Brooklyn, and there was a real sense of community in that neighborhood. I would hang out with a guy, and someone would go to my parents and say, “Hey, Celia is hanging out with a guy. I think she’s dating so and so.” My mom would say, “No, that’s Celia’s best friend.” Meanwhile, I’m like, “What the heck! Who are these people reporting back!” [laughs] I got old enough to go out but not old enough to drink, and I remember going into a karaoke venue. The next thing you know, someone approached me and said, “You’re Celia, right? I told your dad that you were here.” I was like, “Do I know you?” She was Like, “No, but I know you.” My dad called me and said, “I hear you are at so-and-so place. Have fun. Let me know if you need anything. Auntie will cover the first round of drinks or whatever you guys are going to order.” That’s how small the community is and how much people care about one another! Where my dad’s friend would say, “Hey, I saw her out with friends. Just so you know, your daughter is here.” As a kid, I hated it. Looking back on it, there is a really supportive community there who wants to keep their kids safe. The world could use a little more of that.
Are there clear milestones for you along your path as an actor?
When you start as an actor, you are always looking at it like, “Okay, if I can get here. I’ll be good.” Then, when you’ve arrived at that spot, you say, “When I get here, I will be good. If I book a TV show as a recurring character, that’d be awesome!” That leads to “I need to get a TV show as a series regular!” Then it becomes, “I guess if I get a lead in a film.” Once you achieve that, you are still thinking, “Okay, well, maybe if I do a Marvel movie.” It never seems like enough when you are in the moment, but when you turn around and look back, you’ve come a very long way. The Celia who just started would have been like, “What is she talking about? She’s done so much. That’s so cool!” Of course, Celia from right now is like, “What are you talking about? There’s so much more to do!” [laughs]
If you could go back and give younger Celia some advice, what would it be?
That’s a fascinating question. Maybe I would tell her that sometimes the stuff you worry about, and stress over isn’t relevant. You will get it, and something else will pop up. There is never an ultimate goal because your goals change as you get older and continue evolving. I remember during “Wu Assassins,” I was asking the showrunner if Ying Ying turned bad. They’re like, “No, why?” There was a scene cut out of the show where the scene was written that she was warning the villain that we were coming. I thought, “Why would she warn him that we are coming if she isn’t part of it.” She used to train him, and then they broke apart, turning him into a villain. I was like, “Maybe Ying Ying is evil too!” The showrunner was like, “No, no. That was not the point!” [laughs] I was like, “Oh, okay. Fine!” [laughs] I just love seeing characters with depth and changes. Have you ever watched “Orphan Black”?
Yes, I have!
I think that it is fantastic for an actor to play multiple characters! I find it so fascinating, but at the same time, I don’t know how her brain can handle all the dialogue! The story is so good, and she is so good. Every single character she plays is so different!
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Damn, that’s an excellent question! From the outside, everyone sees the glitz and glamour. I think you should know that we are all still just human. We are still struggling and trying to hustle. Whenever I talk to newer actors, they ask, “How do I get to where you are?” I tell them that I still don’t feel like I’m at a place where you think I should be. When you look up to someone, you focus on how successful they might be. When you talk to them, you realize that they are human too. The important thing about this journey is to keep moving forward and creating. That’s so important. Yes, you can act, but try to learn about everything on set as I tell new actors. Talk to the cinematographers and the sound guys. When I first started, I took an internship at a production company, did post-production for a TV station, and worked in casting. I just want to learn as much as I can about how the whole machine operates. I think by doing that, it gives you a wider view. It comes down to teamwork, learning how to work with your crew and how to talk to fellow actors.
There also has to be a lot of empathy on set because people work such long hours to create something for the audience to experience in 2 hours when it took months to make. I also feel like we need to nurture new filmmakers and original storylines. These days, everything seems like it’s a reboot or sequels 5, 6, 7, and 8! They’re just afraid of originality or investing in something new and different. I think we need original stories, which is why “Coda” was so amazing. It really gave a voice to the deaf community. Watching that film, you walk away with empathy for others! Projects like that speak to so many people.
Your compassion speaks volumes about your character. Are there any causes close to your heart that we can help shine a light on?
I support a couple of different organizations. I donate money to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital because I truly believe our children are the future. I love that there is a hospital that helps support the families of children with cancer. Cancer sucks, but cancer for a little kid is the worst! I have also been a part of the campaigns to end Asian Hate because of what’s been going on over the past few years. I think we should be in a position where we see past color or race. Growing up, we learned about Martin Luther King and all of the things for which he fought so hard. It’s hard to believe that we are seeing history repeat itself. We also learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and were told it was a terrible thing that happened in American history and wouldn’t happen again. However, we are still dealing with this Asian Hate stuff. I thought we were supposed to learn from our past! [laughs]
Thanks for your time today, Celia. I know I speak for many of us when I say I can’t wait to see where the rest of the journey takes you!
Thank you so much, Jason! You are awesome!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.