Stage & Screen

Sumalee Montano on Heritage, Rebirth and Making It in Hollywood

After a fascinating career that saw Sumalee Montano quit a highly lucrative investment banking job to transition into being a successful voiceover actress, she now steps even more into the spotlight as she takes on the role of Inoue Sato in the new adaptation of Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol'. Here, she sits down with &ASIAN's Yin Ting Lau to chat about representation, being part of such a well-known story, and much more.
Sumalee Montano in 'The Lost Symbol'. Credit: NBC Universal.
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Sumalee Montano on Heritage, Rebirth and Making It in Hollywood

Hey Sumalee! Thanks for chatting to us today: for our readers who might be unfamiliar with your diverse resume, could you describe your career so far in three to five sentences?

I started out with voice-over acting, because at the time, it seemed less limiting than film and TV, where Asian representation wasn’t so great. I figured in voice-over I’d be able to play a broader range of characters, which I love! Eventually my agents asked if I’d be open to auditioning for on-camera roles as well. I said yes, then fast forward 20 years to today and I’m a series regular on a live-action TV show, have multiple animated shows and video games under my belt, and have started producing my own feature films too. It’s been quite a journey.

It is so interesting that academia and investment banking wasn’t something you just tried for a while then decided to pivot from – you achieved landmark accomplishments such as becoming a Fulbright Scholar and working at Morgan Stanley in both New York and Hong Kong. Can you tell us a bit more about what made you realise you’d much rather persue acting?

Realizing that I wanted to be an actor was a two-part process. First, I needed to quit investment banking, which was tough because those jobs are lucrative and tough to land in the first place. But I was in Hong Kong at the time, coming off of working three weeks in a row of 80- to 100-hours per week. I was so exhausted. I remember looking at myself in the bathroom mirror and not recognizing who I saw; my soul was just gone. I knew right then that I had to quit. Life is too short to be working so hard at a job I wasn’t truly passionate about.

After quitting, I didn’t know what to do next. I knew I needed to put myself in a new environment so I could figure out my next career move. Thankfully I had saved enough money from banking that I could throw on a backpack and traipse around the world. It had always been a dream of mine to buy one of those round-the-world plane tickets. So I did and spent nearly a year backpacking through Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East.

And about two-thirds of the way through my travels, it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: I had always wanted to be an actor, since I was five years old. I just never thought I could pursue it as a career. I had been raised to pursue something in medicine or law or business. But on that barge, I realized I could choose a path in the arts and become an actor.

A funny anecdote to that realization is that when I said to myself, “Yeah, I’m gonna be an actor,” I kid you not, dolphins started jumping out of the water alongside the boat! The whole crew came out to see them, smiling and shouting. I took those dolphins leaping in the air as a sign that I should follow my passion.

What did my family think of this decision? Everyone was outwardly supportive, I think because they knew I had had such a hard time in investment banking. But years later my mom admitted to me that privately everyone was worried for me or convinced that I was going to fail and starve. I laughed so hard! I’m grateful they never said that to my face.

Sumalee Montano in The Lost Symbol. Credit: NBC Universal.

Do you think having had theatre in your family’s history made the choice easier to make?

I think my family was accepting of my choice because my granduncle was such a celebrated playwright and my grandmother was also an actress in the Philippines. Perhaps it’s in my blood to be an artist.

But my mom did make it clear to me that as a kid, she hated having to deal with her mom, my grandmother, going to late-night theater rehearsals and running her lines at home. So my mom would cringe a little whenever she would see me rehearsing my lines. It must have been difficult for her, but she never actively dissuaded me from acting.

It’s beautiful to see parallels between your granduncle’s legacy (Severino Montano) of making theatre accessible to the masses in the Philippines, and your work now in LinLay Productions in the U.S. which prioritises stories that begin to address the imbalance of accurate representation within our media for the masses.

Can you tell us a bit more about LinLay Productions and what made you and Grace [Lay] decide to start this company?

Wow, you expressed LinLay’s mission so well. Grace and I produced our first movie together and we had such a great experience, we decided to keep going! We really have complimentary sensibilities, and we connect as Asian American women who both grew up in the Midwest. We both love to learn too. She’s a retired doctor, so for her, Hollywood is a whole new world.

For me, LinLay Productions allows me to expand on my acting career and support other creatives of color to tell their stories too.

Sumalee Montano in The Lost Symbol. Credit: NBC Universal.

We seem to be in a golden period where those of us who feel underrepresented have realised room on the platform won’t be given to us – we must create it for ourselves. With your own intersectional identity of mixed Southeast-Asian heritage, growing up in the United States, and having experinced personal transformations in Hong Kong and Africa…

How tethered is the concept of your identity to a geographical location? Was there ever a period in your life where your identity felt really confusing?

My identity feels less tethered to geography, more to family altogether.

For sure identity felt really confusing. Outside of family gatherings and Filipino parties, I was always in very white spaces, at school, on sports teams, in theater class. My high school graduating class had 700 kids, and I’d bet only 2 or 3 percent of my class was Black or brown.

The exploration of my identity continued into college. My friends used to tease me that if a class had the words “Race,” “Gender” or “Culture” in its name, that’s where you’d find me. I also made it my goal to live and work in either Thailand or the Philippines after graduation, so I could connect more with my roots. I applied for every scholarship under the sun that I would get me to SE Asia, and luckily the Fulbright Scholarship to the Philippines came through.

I had an incredible, amazing year in the Philippines, one of the best years of my life! By the end though, I came to the undeniable conclusion that no matter how long I lived in the Philippines, or how hard I tried to fit in, I would always be an American, for better or for worse. And you know that whole struggle, being too American to be considered Asian, and too Asian to be considered American.

That was a difficult realization at the time. But over the years, I came to peace with it. And now I’m so happy that my life, my perspective is informed by multiple cultures. That gives me insight into so many more experiences.

I wonder if your work in voice acting and animation has actually contributed to your ideas of what an identity is? What do you think of as a character’s identity when you portray one?

Oh definitely how someone speaks, their voice, is a big part of their identity. We express who we are and how we feel through our voice, our vocal energy, pace, tone, and of course, what words we speak. People say, “The camera never lies,” but I’ve always focused on, “The voice never lies.”

There are so many things though that influence a character’s identity. I consider as much as I possibly can, from what their childhood was like to how they’re living now, what drives them, what they’re afraid of, what they look like physically, how they carry themselves, what secrets do they keep, etc. It all goes into building a character.

Sumalee Montano in The Lost Symbol. Credit: NBC Universal.

How do you tie an identity to a voice? Against that, do you have a speaking voice that you think is your voice, the one that most feels like you?

All acting is collaborative. When acting on camera, you’re collaborating with many people in real time and the physical presence of those actors and the sets and wardrobe elements are super helpful in grounding a performance. In VO, you’re also collaborating but your partners are often removed from you in time and space, so you depend on your imagination much more. I wouldn’t say that voice acting is more intense, but it requires a distinct kind of focus as a performer.

Connecting a voice to an identity is always a calculated leap of faith. You have parameters that you have to meet in terms of pairing a voice to a particular character in a particular type of story. But there’s also a lot of room for instincts to take over and sometimes what comes out of my mouth surprises even me! I love it when that happens.

And yes, I think I do have a “Sumalee voice.” Everyone has their unique personal form of expression, and that’s a reason why people are so fascinating. It’s also why acting is so fascinating.

Though many accents for acting are tied to recognisable regions, accents can often themselves give away how diverse someone's background is.

What’s your process in finding the balance that to you feels most authentic and truthful? Is there a line you are conscious of, in regards to what’s appropriate and sensitive for a portrayal?

Storytelling requires shorthand. Voice and accent are part of that. Sometimes a very authentic accent grounds the character in a specific location or culture. And that specificity enhances the storytelling. Like in Ghost of Tsushima, we were very careful about making sure our accents and cultural references were as authentic as possible. And I think that authenticity helps the immersive experience of the game.

On the other hand, sometimes the story is best served by modifying what’s perceived as an authentic accent. It depends on a lot of factors. In some instances, I’ve invented accents on the spot to fulfill some aspect of world-building. But in all cases, as an actor you have to be able to access and express the wants, needs, and feelings that human beings have, in order for the audience to buy in and go along with the story.

Sumalee Montano in The Lost Symbol. Credit: NBC Universal.

You are currently starring on The Lost Symbol (adaptation of the book by Dan Brown) as Inoue Sato, Director of the CIA and also a second-generation Japanese-American (according to the book). This is an incredible thing to see, given how governmental and bureaucratic bodies in reality generally lack POC representation, let alone for such significant leadership roles. To play an Asian-American woman with the power Inoue’s character holds must be so special but also bittersweet when there are not many precedents in our history to look to for inspiration.

How did you construct your performance as Inoue?

Playing Sato is a huge honor. My Sato is similar but also distinct from Sato as written in the novel. Many elements carry over of course, and I studied the book to have a base from which to build my performance. I spent a lot of time preparing by using my imagination and asking questions about Sato’s life experiences. I like to build up a reservoir of “lived experiences” that will guide my moment-to-moment choices during filming. Some are borrowed from my own experience and some are purely made up. Once you get on set, it’s a whole different game because you and the director and the other actors are all bouncing ideas off each other. And if you’re grounded in your character’s thoughts and feelings, then those interactions can elevate your performance.

Your website has a truly amazing section titled “For Fans” where we can see images of every character you’ve played, human, cartoon, creature and everything else. It’s really special to see “you” in all these different iterations!

Can you share with us your top three and why?

In no particular order, ‘Yuna’ because Ghost of Tsushima seems to have touched the most people and I got to be Yuna’s facial capture and motion capture actress too. ‘Arcee’ from Transformers Prime because that was my first lead character on an animated series and I got to learn from the best of the best in that cast! And ‘Sharon McGee’ and ‘Grandma Nin,’ on The Ghost and MollyMcGee because they’re Thai and I get to have multiple conversations with myself while playing both characters.

Sumalee Montano can be found on Instagram and Twitter. She can be seen on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, on the Peacock Network.

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