Stage & Screen

Bosch: Legacy's Michelle Lukiman: "All my hyphened halves are half-full, and make me more than whole."

Michelle Lukiman is having a hell of a ride in Hollywood. From featuring in 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' with Samuel L. Jackson, to now starring in 'Bosch: Legacy', she continues to trailblaze and raise awareness around her Indonesian heritage.
Michelle Lukiman. Photo: Angela P Tafoya.
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Bosch: Legacy's Michelle Lukiman: "All my hyphened halves are half-full, and make me more than whole."

Halo Michelle, dan terima kasih untuk bercakap dengan saya hari ini! Thanks so much for chatting to me today! Could you sum up your career in only five words?

Aimée! First of all, can I just say how exciting it is to be greeted in Indonesian for something work-related? It’s a first. Halo!! Dan terima kasih for the bilingual translation too because my Indo is functional but not amazing… yet. 

Hmm, this career in 5 words: “Always another boss to beat.” Climbing up the steps of this industry, it’s like defeating the boss in a video game only to realize another level of gameplay awaits you. I’ll think I’ve figured things out and then learn that there’s so much more to learn. But that means there’s always room for growth!

It must be so exciting to be part of such a big franchise as Bosch! Can you tease our readers with how Bosch: Legacy develops on the stories and themes in Bosch, and what your character Preeda Saetang brings to the table?

As some of the Bosch team puts it, it’s the same house, getting a huge remodel. Technically Bosch: Legacy is a spinoff, but it builds upon the previous seven seasons of Bosch. Don’t worry, Harry Bosch is still very much kickin’. And it’s been super cool for me to enter such a storied world.

A big part of this first season is seeing Harry's daughter Maddie really come into her own, as she follows in Dad’s footsteps careerwise. My character, Preeda, is a strong woman in a vulnerable position, who gets thrust into a very established world and has to learn how its bureaucracy works. As they fumble with the system from opposite ends, Preeda helps shape Maddie’s path, challenging her to reflect on the kind of purpose and legacy she wants to pursue.

Michelle Lukiman. Photo: Angela P. Tafoya.

You've had an amazing few years in the industry, with a now steady career on screen. What has your path as an actor been like? What would you say are the biggest obstacles that you've faced to get to where you are now?

It’s been a slow boil. Haha. Aside from the huge help of having family to put a roof over my head in LA, I didn't come into the acting game with many industry connections or advantages. I started from scratch and left my poor immigrant parents scratching their heads at my choices.

I think the first obstacle I had to face was just my own doubt that I could do it. Especially when it came up against other people's doubts. All the usual suspects – my parents, my extended family, my friends, my friends’ parents – were surprised at my ambitions. So I first had to accept my desire to pursue acting, and then had to actually prove to myself and others that I could. 

Before I dove into acting as a career, I spent a few summers working as a set PA and other gigs in and around the industry to get a feel for how it all worked, previewing the ride before I hopped on it. That helped me to not only feel like I could handle it, but also to appreciate many different positions on set. Then it was time for a lot of classes and a lot of failing forward. 

I think the biggest obstacles overall have been just finding where I fit in. Especially in the beginning, it was really hard for me to get in the door using the rigid boxes I was being offered; the way I see myself is often at odds with the industry’s read on me. I think we know how that goes: wasn’t neutral American enough, but doesn’t act Asian enough either (whatever that means). Or I didn't speak the right languages, or enough of the right one. The goose chase is more amusing to me now, but it can be really frustrating when you never feel like you’re anything enough because the demands put on you are not on your acting skill but on your ability to fulfill a cultural expectation.  

I’m still working through some of that, but being able to play several very contrasting characters in a row, from Ordinary Joe’s sassy music girl to Ptolemy Grey’s sharp lawyer to Bosch’s raw everywoman, feels like exciting progress. The back-to-back roles showcased different sides of me, and in doing so, served as industry acknowledgement that all those facets exist in one person.

But, at the same time, you know, once I met with an agency taking both English and Spanish-speaking clients. After I finished my English read, I said, “oh I prepared Spanish as well!” and they quickly said, “Nah, it's okay. No one's gonna call you in for that.” Which, to be fair, the stats are probably much lower. But I remember that dismissal, because within a week, I was sent a casting request for Chinese actors who spoke Spanish. 

It’s been a journey of finding my place and owning that all my hyphened halves are half-full, and make me more than whole. The obstacles are still there, but the change for me has been embracing the complication and knowing that sometimes we bring something to the table that people don't yet realize they want.

It's so interesting that you've spent time in both Spain, the East Coast of the US and Los Angeles: how did such a contrast in experience change or inform your perception of yourself as a person? What were your biggest takeaways from your time in Europe versus the USA?

As I moved away for school and kept traveling more East, it reset my notion of “normal”. I met so many people from around the world who were doing their own thing and it started to widen my set of given possibilities. A fun, if not cliché, example: When I got to Spain, I was like, “wait, I'm sorry, things just close in the middle of the day? For siesta?” I was heavily napping and snacking on tapas-like things before I ever went to Spain, so I felt like I’d found my brethren when I arrived. A lot of societal scripts get eviscerated when you change your environment. Reminds me that there are no absolutes really. 

Trying to communicate in a language that is not your own is also a very humbling and inspiring experience. It makes you realize communication can be so much more than words, at the same time that language and word choice can heavily color a culture’s way of thinking. 

Being put in increasingly foreign situations reminded me and made me further appreciate that my versatility is a trait that’s developed over time to find connection and equity in unexpected places. It also confirmed that sometimes I can adapt everywhere, but never feel like a full fit anywhere.

I’m very grateful for the privilege of having glimpsed more of our little map. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, you know? 

Michelle Lukiman (Kokoro) in Ordinary Joe. Photo: NBC.

How does your time and studies in education and psychology affect how you approach the creation of a character and delving into their lived experiences?

Do you find yourself going back to theories that you've studied in order to get to the core of a character's complexities and motivations?

I think what we’ve learned in the past stays with us consciously or subconsciously, but honestly, I’m not consulting the DSM-5 textbook for every character. Being aware of a character’s context is a necessary starting point, but if I start to think too abstractly or get too heady with analysis, it can actually pull me out of the moment. Part of the reason I switched my major to theater was because I was finding myself more and more engaged in those classes, where I was getting up on my feet to play with, for example, body language and how subtle mirroring and physical shifts could immediately impact a character relationship - that’s the stuff that intrigued me most. 

I’m a visual/experiential learner — I learn best by doing, and seeing process. And I never feel that I've truly learned something until I can walk through it with someone else. So I am constantly operating in a weird hybrid student-teacher mentality as an actor, because I learn by walking in my character’s shoes, and then if I portray them well enough that someone else can connect with that experience through the screen, it’s a success for me. 

Our readers might not know that when you were on The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, you requested for your character's name to be changed to reflect more of your character's Indonesian heritage.

I was honestly so moved by learning you'd done this as in mainstream media, characters with Indonesian heritage or consider themselves orang Indonesia just aren't visible. I'd love to hear more about what spurred you on to request that name change, what that process was like for you, and what the response has been like from family, friends and the wider community.

Folks are excited and proud, as am I! I’ve encountered a lot of roles with very Asian-sounding names, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone out for one that was Indonesian-American. In bringing Angela Liem to the screen, it was the first time I was able to name my Chinese-Indonesian-American background on TV.

My own surname, Lukiman, has been a prominent part of my identity thanks to having to explain it to so many people who get confused or intrigued because they’ve “never heard that name before”. It stressed me out as a kid, but I’ve grown to fully love my name. 

At first, I didn't know how big of an ask a name change would really be, and also wasn’t sure the right way to go about it. Often, production moves so fast and it feels like there’s barely any time to chat between booking a role and shooting it. But, for one, they had already changed her name from the book version of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, so I didn’t feel like I was going too much against the original vision by changing it. As I got the script and read that her full name would be mentioned out loud multiple times, I didn’t want to let the opportunity go by. 

So I floated the question to our director, asking if we could reflect my actual heritage. Luckily, the creative team was super receptive to the idea, and swiftly replied, “What would you want to change her name to?” Now… this is silly, but that question actually took me by surprise. Like, I was not expecting them to let me specifically choose my name, and I started stressing about what name I actually wanted. I mean, it made sense and was super empowering but served a lesson: ask for what you want, but also make sure you know exactly what it is you want. 

In choosing a new name, I knew I wanted it to reflect my Indonesian background, but also be true to my dual influences as an Asian-American hyphen kid. Y’all, sometimes an Asian-American woman’s name is just a simple, Westernized “Michelle”, “Jessica”, or “Angela”. I ended up picking “Angela”, reminiscent of “angel”, loving that it matched her role as a watchful guardian of Ptolemy and Robyn’s best interests. As for “Liem”, I think it first came up because I thought of a lovely casting director who shares that last name — I remember being so excited when we met and I found out she was part-Indonesian. But because I’m a nerd, I also went down a quick etymology rabbithole and looked up name meanings and stuff. According to the internet, “liem” can mean “honest” among other things, which fit with her mission as well. 

But did you know that name changes have to go through a whole legal approval process?? I was hoping it was as simple as like, “hey does this name sound good, can you cross that out and put this in?” I was wrong. If I hadn’t asked before arriving to set like I did, there might not have been enough leadtime to approve the name change. Luckily it cleared, and it was really cool to see the new name go up on my trailer door and have the cast come up and confirm pronunciation with me and everything. (Big shoutout to my Indo WhatsApp threads for helping me vet names, too.) 

And I think and hope the more people hear Indonesian names and sounds in the media, the more it raises awareness and appreciation for us consciously and subconsciously. I've encountered many well-intentioned people who stumble over foreign-sounding names because they haven’t had much exposure to them. But there’s no shame in where you’re coming from, as long as there’s genuine effort to get to where you’re going — a lot of folks have heard “Tchaikovsky” pronounced 100 times and never once met a “Lukiman”. So I hope we continue to bridge those gaps and that little wins like “Ms. Angela Liem” help us welcome Indonesia into mainstream media consciousness.

Samuel L. Jackson (Ptolemy Grey) and Michelle Lukiman (Angela Liem) in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Photo: Apple.

As a young actor myself, seeing someone with South East Asian heritage like yourself is incredibly inspiring and encouraging, especially since South East Asian visibility is still minimal on screen (so thank you so much for doing what you do!)

It would be great to hear more about why you think visibility for actors of South East Asian heritage has only just started to grow, but also why and how it's important to differentiate actors from this part of the Asian community from their East Asian counterparts?

Yes!! Keep it going. And thank you for saying that! I am very proud to be part of our growing community in the film industry. Let me tell you: I hadn’t spent much time with other Indonesian peers until recently. I grew up with a bunch of Korean-Americans and other Asian-American folks though, and generally got lumped in as part of the “Asian crew” in school. Which was a great and fun community, but I definitely came out knowing more Korean words and customs than vice versa. When I finally started hanging with one or two Indonesian-American creatives… it was a new level of connection. Just the way we can shorthand with each other in Indlish or commiserate about how we actually have no idea how to say something in Bahasa Indonesia; more specific shared experience about the industry and beyond. 

Asia is so, so big and Southeast Asians deserve to feel specifically seen and written for. I often don’t even refer to SE Asia as a whole, because with our varied languages and histories, there are still so many cultural distinctions within the region. Our medium has got a ways to go in fleshing out those nuances, but I hope SE Asian visibility keeps growing. I feel like between milestone projects like Crazy Rich Asians and more recently, Everything Everywhere All at Once, we’ve finally unlocked the front door, and now can start exploring the rooms inside. 

Often the greatest distance exists between 0 and 1. Just having one other person to look to or connect with can really make us feel less alone. In terms of pan-Asian representation, we have the 1 now and that’s awesome, but the more rep we have, the less pressure on each thing to represent all the things.

Actually, going back to the name change conversation, I think someone told me that, if a real person has the name that you want to use in your fictional story, a handful of other individuals in the real world have to exist with that same name already. So that the story can't be unintentionally linked to the one real person who shares that name. If there’s a handful of them, then the name’s common enough that the public won’t associate whatever story you're telling with any real-life namesakes. And I think the same goes for representation. The first step is being seen, but then as we can see more of us and more facets of ourselves, we can embrace that we have different experiences and don’t have to speak as a monolith.  

The handful of Indonesian-American actors I personally know? We don’t tend to go out for the same roles, because our energies are different, and I think that’s really awesome. We’re a diverse group within our community. 

Something a little more fun; different actors have different rituals before they perform.

Do you have any processes - whether they be specific things you wear, things you eat, or songs you listen to - that you have to do in order to help you get in the zone?

Ideally I do yoga and meditate. In my experience, once I pull up to set, people pop up like groundhogs knocking on your door, so sometimes I’ll even pull over somewhere right before I arrive and sneak a quick session in my car. I also keep my phone time to a minimum on big days, so my energy isn’t zapped by whatever headline or message comes through unexpectedly.

Whenever I learn from a mistake on the job or think of some kind of best practice for set, I'll add it to this little running sticky note I have, and before a new project, I’ll just reread it to remind myself of little learned lessons that will make my or someone else’s time on set easier. I'll always pack certain comfort things in my bag, like bite-sized dark chocolate and gluten-free snacks. And my thermos of tea, so I don’t have to deal with those little disposable cups from crafty. I prefer to have a giant, less spillable, and forever-piping-hot source of caffeine through long set days. I avoid coffee. 

I also have a secret tradition of dumb dancing in my trailer at least once a shoot. Ideally in costume. On my first network gig, I did a few spirited shimmies in my narrow trailer out of pure joy, and I’ve been trying to keep it up ever since. Everything can get so stressful with work and I lose myself in the minutiae sometimes, but there’s nothing like a dumb dance to celebrate and remind myself how incredible it is that we get to do what we do.

You've starred in some amazing projects in your career, not just on screen, but also on stage as well.

What top three roles stand out to you and why?

I'm going to confess that I probably give a different answer to this question every time it comes up. Each project requires its own special labor and I cannot choose between my children. So answering this with what comes to mind in no particular order:

I feel like I’ve talked about family and representation a lot, and working on NCIS was cool especially because of the family recognition. We grew up watching it at home. It was one of my earlier TV roles and not a ton of screentime, but a show that my family had actually heard of and could watch. Not only my parents, but also my family back in Indonesia… eventually. They get NCIS there but it sounds like distribution is just a few seasons behind.  

Often when I reminisce on projects, I first remember the adventure it took to get there. I booked NCIS after auditioning for maybe 6 or 7 roles in a short period of time — they were really trying to figure out where they could fit me in. I love that casting office. It was actually really nice to be able to return to the same office multiple times a month and kind of feel like a regular, since so much in this career is irregular. 

In college, I played Queen Marguerite in Exit the King, a 1960s French play by Ionesco. It was a lead role I did not ever see myself in. I was dressed like regal European royalty — I wore a very heavy, very hairsprayed, 2-foot-tall white wig (which I almost lit on fire on stage one night, oops) and whipped a monstrous dress train around. Wild. BIPOC Bridgerton vibes, way before Shonda let us know that her Queen and the Sharma family could set Netflix ratings on fire. It was fun and intense to play her and command the stage like that, but what makes it stick out to me now is: a few years ago, I met a younger BIPOC alum at an event, who told me she remembered me because watching that performance was a big reason she decided to join theater.

Third! Better Things is the kind of well-thought-out ship with a badass captain that I’d want to keep sailing on. I originally auditioned for a smaller role that I didn't get, but they called my agents to let them know that, though I didn’t get it, they loved my audition and wanted to check my availability over the next few months. Of course, I was like, “Um available, just let me know when!” When I finally did get an offer, it was for a different, bigger role like 3 months later. We went to New Orleans for it and threw a fake wedding party with Pamela Adlon and Molly Shannon and so many other hilarious angels and it was just so much fun. A really good set and a really well-made show that gave me such a warm reception and strong vote of confidence. 

But also, obviously this past year has been amazing with Ordinary Joe, Ptolemy Grey, Bosch: Legacy… ahh I'll probably change this whole answer tomorrow. But those are just some of the adventures that have meant a lot to me.

Lastly, what words of advice or motivation would you give to young Asian actors who wish to follow in your footsteps?

Take copious notes on your own life, you’ll thank yourself later. Try not to neglect your heritage thinking you’re doing a service to your social or career success. At the same time, find a way to explore outside of your own shoes and core community — we’re in the business of sharing experiences and learning new stories. Educate yourself a bit about what makeup/products work for you, because unfortunately not everyone will know how to let your complexion or features shine best (I’m still navigating this one). Hydrate and nap as necessary!

Terima kasih banyak atas masa anda, kamu sangat menghargai. Thank you so much for your time, we appreciate it very much!

Sama-sama, sampai jumpa lagi! Thank you!

Bosch: Legacy is airing on Amazon Prime now. Michelle Lukiman can be found on Instagram and Twitter.
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