Pisay Pao (pAh-SAY poW) plays Casandra in the SyFy Network’s HIT show Z Nation! (www.syfy.com/znation) now in it’s 2nd season, which premiers September 11 at 10/9c. She’s trying to survive in a Zombie Apocalypse on TV and survive a hectic shooting schedule in real life!! But, she wouldn’t have it any other way So, how did this girl become a TV Star overnight? Read on!
ASeals:How did you get started in acting?
PPao: Well, I’ve always been a performer, which I think most actors are. My parents really encouraged us to sing, dance, and do a lot of theater at home. It was sort of a way for them to teach us about our culture. My first official acting gig was in middle school. I did some musicals and then took a few drama classes in high school. But, I didn’t really pursue it back then. There was a lot of pressure from my parents to focus on my academics as I got older. I made a compromise by going into Fashion Design, which is also something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I thought it would allow me to be creative, and have a safe and stable career. But, I didn’t really feel creative at all. Instead, I felt stuck. So, I was always looking for a way out, what most people do when they’re in an unhappy situation.
I remember there was an ad in the local newspaper about breaking into acting without getting scammed. And it’s funny, because it ended up sort of being a scam! But, I did meet somebody there, a friend and fellow actor, Bob Rousseau. Bob ended up seeing a posting for a local indie film and really encouraged me to go out for it. Honestly, without him I would have never known about the audition. I went for it and the director Rich Cranor was generous enough to write me a role in the movie after going with someone else for the lead. When a girlfriend of mine found out I was interested in acting, she introduced me to her agent. She was actually a model, and not an actor. But, she was constantly being sent out on these auditions for “Asian” roles and hated memorizing lines. In a way she sort of begged me to take her place in these auditions.
That might be a long and detailed answer. But, I think it goes to show, there’s no straight path in this industry.
ASeals:Who was that agent?
PPao: Melissa Baldauf. I remember taking a meeting with her over sushi. It was really casual and I didn’t think anything would come of it. But, she was probably taking notes the whole time.
PPao: So, she started sending me out on auditions, and I think I started booking right away. That’s always good ya know, to have such a positive start!
ASeals:Yeah, for sure. Sometimes, it just works right off the bat. You get on camera, and you got ‘it’. People see “it”, and then you just start getting one gig after the other. That’s how it works.
PPao: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I went into my first auditions and I remember thinking, “Just be yourself.” Which is exactly what they want in commercials. Things got a little more complicated when I started doing film. I didn’t have any formal training or any methods to fall back on. So, I started worrying way too much and getting in my head. But really, what helped me get those first couple of jobs, is that I didn’t know any better. I was just being who I was, and being present in the moment. And ya know, I continuously have been trying to get back to that place. (Laughs)
ASeals:So, you basically started in commercials, right?
PPao: I did. Yeah.
ASeals:And then you started going out for everything? Did you jump to a different agency, or did you stay with that same agent?
PPao: Because it’s Seattle, and the market is a little bit smaller, you can be with one agent, and that one agent can represent you for all the different departments. Whereas, LA and NY are a lot different. You’ve got your print department, your commercial department, and your theatrical, and film department. My agent, Melissa Baldauf really believes in me, and has always worked really hard for me. That’s another thing, that I think is important. It really helps to have someone that is constantly fighting for you. Z-Nation is essentially my big break into television and Melissa was there every step of the way.
ASeals:After you got the Z Nation audition, what was the process? She called you up, and said, this is a new show that’s casting. We need to put you on tape. Did it work like that?
PPao: Sort of but with a few more steps. I knew that a big network show like this could have 5, 6, or 7 auditions. It wasn’t that intense, but it wasn’t just one or two auditions either. I taped my first audition and sent it in. Then I got a call back with the Producers. After the callback I got a phone call saying that they were seriously considering me for the role, but that there would probably be more auditions to go to.
I had heard that they may have been concerned about whether I was sexy enough for the role because Cassandra is a pretty sexual character. So, I did a 3rd audition tape, and based on that note, I gave it to my agent. No one asked me to tape a 3rd audition. I just did it on my own. I didn’t know what she would do with it, honestly. It was just something that she had, in case there was a 3rd audition, and I wasn’t in town to do it. But she did send it out. I don’t know if that’s what got me the part. But, I went off to New Zealand on vacation, thinking; okay, I’m clear. I did everything that I possible could in my power to go for this role. Then I got the call while I was vacation that I got the part and it was pretty unbelievable.
ASeals:What was next in the process? Did you meet with them again and have a pre-production meeting?
PPao: Next in the process was getting my life in order. I had less than two weeks to fly back from across the world, unpack, repack, and then fly up to Spokane, Washington, where we shoot the series. We did have one table read before we started shooting and a couple of dinners as a group just to get acquainted with one another. But, everything happened very quickly.
Eden Bernardy, one of my favorite acting coaches from Margie Haber Studios once said, “Be there before your get there.” And I didn’t understand what that truly meant until I booked this role. You have to be prepared, absolutely, all the time, every time, before you even show up to the audition room. In TV everything moves fast.
ASeals:Did you know if they wanted you to do stunts beforehand?
PPao: I didn’t know for sure but I anticipated it. I did end up doing my own stunts for season 1, and so I knew that would probably be the case for season 2. This time around though, I had a good 2-3 months to get my body ready & get into character. I worked out a lot, and even met with a few stunt fighters to prep for the season.
PPao: Yeah, it’s a beautiful learning experience. I’m so grateful.
ASeals: As you’re shooting, what is your usual week like? How fast do you get the scripts, versus when you’re shooting?
PPao: It’s so fast. Everyone tells you it’s fast. And you’re like, yeah yeah yeah, I got this. But you have no idea until you’re in it! Normally it takes 9-12 days to shoot a tv episode, but we shoot ours in 6 days which is really insane (laughs) for the kind of show that we’re shooting. There’s lots of zombies, make-up, and special effects. My day on average is 12 hours. Maybe a little bit more. It’s 5 days a week, and on the weekends, we usually do a table read on Sunday. I don’t really have a day off. I have to be very diligent about working out, eating mindfully, meditating, and resting. Resting is so HUGE, and so hard to do. Ya know, when you’re working so hard, you want to reward yourself. There’s that term, “work hard, play hard. But, in my case, it’s more like work hard, rest hard.
ASeals:How much rehearsal do you do before you shoot a scene with someone?
PPao: It’s really quick. We might have 1 or 2 rehearsals. Or maybe even 2 or 3, if it’s an action scene. There’s very little rehearsal time. You gotta be ready and make strong choices. I’ve taken the time to work with my fellow actors off set if we think a scene is important and we want to get it right. Otherwise, we get our shots and then we’re on to the next thing.
ASeals: What tips do you recommend for people who are trying to memorize their lines?
PPao: I hate the term memorizing lines, personally, because then it’s about getting the words down versus getting the character down. I have this bad habit. I’m one of those people that wait til the last minute. I’ll try to set aside 2-3 hours to work on a script really intensely as if I’m drilling test answers into my head. That never, ever works. What I find though, is that if I can work on something a little bit every day, be it my lines, or my character motivations, it slowly starts embedding itself into my brain in a more natural way. That… is tremendously helpful for me.
ASeals:Do you work with an on-set coach or do you take classes outside if shooting?
PPao: Right now, I’m working with Nike Imoru, who also happens to be the executive casting director for the show. She’s been amazing. Before that, I was taking classes here in Los Angeles. I’ve been at Margie Haber Studios. Eden Bernardy is awesome. I’ve done some one and one coaching with Robin Dale Meyers. She was great. She helped me with my Z Nation auditions. Sal Romeo is also wonderful. His relaxation exercises took my work to another level. That combined with the body and voice work I did with Nike is the foundation of who Cassandra is in season 2. I’ve danced most of my life so I’m big on body work.
ASeals:What kind of work do you want to do after this show is done or in addition to the show?
PPao: I wouldn’t complain if I continued to do sci-fi, fantasy, and action. I love shows like Grimm, and Vikings. I also want to push my work a little more though. Although, I’m South East Asian, it would be great to play characters from all kinds of ethnicities and backgrounds; someone who is Native American, Hispanic, or mixed. I dream about learning different languages and accents through playing different characters. The more I can push myself the better.
ASeals: What kind of things do you, your agents, and/or management do to help you find new work?
PPao: My manager and agent probably do more for me than I will ever know. One thing that I try to do for myself though is work on my craft every day, whether it’s taking a class, writing, keeping up with social media, or staying in touch with friends who are in the industry. Whatever it is, I make sure that I’m making an effort every day.
ASeals:What practical advice would you give, to a young person starting an acting career?
PPao: There’s such a huge market for young people in the industry. I don’t know if this is practical advice or not, but if acting is truly want you want to do, and you believe in yourself, and you’re not afraid of rejection, then save up your money and move to LA. There’s just so much more opportunities for young actors there.
ASeals:What happens when someone goes to LA or NY? What happens next?
PPao: Okay, when you go to LA or NY, you should find a safe place to live and get a stable job. Save up some money and take some decent head shots. Once you do that, then find a manager and/or an agent. Hopefully, they will suggest classes you can take. If that doesn’t work, still take some classes. Find some scenes that you’re really good with and do casting director and talent agent workshops. But, don’t be the person who shows up and thinks you’re going to book something right away. Show people that you are here for the long run and that you’ve got your life together. Then, maybe they’ll actually trust you with carrying a huge tv or film role.
ASeals:That’s all really great Pisay.
PPao: Thank you. I know I said a lot. But, I’m very passionate! Thank you Aron for taking the time to chat with me. I’m super grateful and really appreciate it!