The first time we met newcomer Ellen Wong, who scored the plum role of Knives Chau in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it was when we visited the Toronto set of the movie last year. We were instantly smitten with her bubbly and infectious personality, but then we were equally blown away by her performance in the movie. As Knives Chau, the 17-year-old girlfriend of the lead character, played by Michael Cera, she had to show off the widest range of emotions while playing scenes opposite far more experienced actors like Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jason Schwartzman.
To this day, we still have absolutely no idea how old or young Wong really is, but she certainly was able to capture the feelings of being a naïve 17-year-old better than many other actresses we’ve seen, as well as kicking ass in some of the movie’s climactic battle sequences. The many fans who love the character of Knives Chau from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” graphic novels, should be more than thrilled by how well Wong embodies the character.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the young actress earlier this week for a lively interview, ending with a revelation of what might be the perfect follow-up role for Wong after playing Knives, too!
Ellen Wong: Yo!
ComingSoon.net: Hey Ellen, we got to talk in Toronto last year.
Wong: Yeah, last year on set, you got to come to the secret kind of thing? You were one of the few lucky ones that got let on set. (giggles)
CS: I don’t think it was THAT big a secret!
Wong: Weren’t you there watching us shoot the fight?
CS: We actually got to see the very final part of Michael’s fight with Jason, not realizing that it was in fact the end of the fight.
Wong: Oh, cool. Not realizing you were seeing the biggest fight of all time at the end of the movie.
CS: Exactly. I just spoke with Edgar yesterday, and I’m amazed by how zen he’s kept about this whole thing after spending two years making the movie and doing this insane press tour the last few weeks. He’s still very level-headed.
Wong: For sure. I mean, that’s Edgar though. He is who he is, and I think that’s the same with the whole cast, that everyone is just so grounded and down to earth. Everyone’s just cool and I think we were all just passionate about conveying this amazing story, so it’s been a wonderful ride.
CS: How have you been dealing with the whole Comic-Con experience and all the press you’ve been doing?
Wong: It’s been a lot of fun. I think Comic-Con was the best way to start off all the press, because we really got to share the film with the true fans of the series. I think we couldn’t have asked for a better crowd to share the movie with to kick off the whole press tour, because they just loved the film, I think. We were sitting there and it was just nice to be in this environment where everyone was just enjoying it, and there was so much positive energy in the air, and everyone was laughing at all the right parts. It was just really nice.
CS: You must know that Knives has a pretty big fanbase from the comics. Were you familiar with them at all when you first auditioned for the role and did you know anything about her?
Wong: No, actually, The very first time I put myself on tape for the role, I had only been given the beginning stages of Knives, at the beginning when she’s sort of free and naïve and genuinely loves life and is kind of sheltered from the harsh realities of the real world. And so, in a way, I connected with that, because she’s so much fun, and then from that, because I had such a good time with that self-tape, I looked at the project even more and then went out and got all the books. It wasn’t until after that first tape that I actually went through the whole series also that she gets to be this bad-ass ninja, and I was like, “Oh My God… if I don’t get this part, I will die!” I think things just sort of worked out. Edgar came to Toronto and wanted to see me, and I went and met with him and did a few call-backs and then we did a fight test, and then I flew to L.A. for a screen test, and this was all over about five or six months and then it just sort of worked out. I’m really glad to be a part of something so special.
CS: So, you actually live in Toronto then.
Wong: Yeah, I do.
CS: Were you able to relate to any or part of Knives’ experiences or bring some of your own experiences to what the books and movie are covering?
Wong: Well, it’s funny and interesting, because I feel like I was kind of learning with Knives. My personal story kind of paralleled hers in a way, because Scott’s taking her on this adventure, and she gets to see all these great new places all over town, and meets all these new people and her life changes. And in a way, mine did too, because I was just out in the suburbs of Toronto, so I didn’t really get a chance to venture downtown or hang out that much in all the areas we were shooting in, so I felt like “Scott Pilgrim” took me on this journey as well, and I got to learn a lot more about Toronto, and got to share that experience with the whole cast. I thought that was really cool and interesting how it worked out.
CS: I know that a lot of the cast, definitely Allison Pill and Michael Cera, spend a lot of time in Toronto, so they’d probably know the city well compared to everyone else.
Wong: Yeah, Michael knew all these great places to get food and hang out and check out cool video stores, and I was just like, “Wow, this is really neat.” It really did open up a new world for me. Now I just know of all these fun and cool places downtown that to this day, I still go to now, because of the experience on the film.
CS: I love the books, but one thing I love about the movie is that Edgar gave Knives a better arc than Bryan did, where she gets to be more involved in the action, but it’s tough because you have to go through all these phases – comedy, drama and fighting. Were you jumping around a lot between the different sections or was Edgar able to shoot that in some kind of order?
Wong: We were definitely jumping back and forth a lot, and I think that’s kind of the thing with Knives. She’s capricious, and in a way, she’s sporadic. What I envy about Knives is that she’s got this sort of untainted and unconstrained sort of way of living, and her feelings are so uninhibited, she kind of just goes off of what she feels. I kind of tried to see it that way and tried to have fun with it, but there were moments where I would just feel like, “Oh my God, this girl, she’s just all over the place! Just make up your mind and grow up already!” (laughs) But I mean, I definitely had a lot of fun jumping from different sort of scenes and conveying different emotions but I think that’s all part of the refreshing thing about her character is that I think out of all the characters, she’s got that rawness to her emotions, because she’s sort of experiencing the entire journey, everything that she encounters it’s her first time feeling those feelings, those emotions, those circumstances. I think that I had to sort of embrace that aspect of it.
CS: She also has lots of hairstyles in the movie so were you just wearing different wigs to get into whichever version of Knives you were playing fairly easily?
Wong: (laughs) Yeah, I didn’t have to go through as many wig changes as Mary did, because her hair is constantly changing color, but definitely with Knives, we had the short hair was a wig, and then she dyes her hairs and she loses her highlights. I actually had to cut off like 12″ of my hair before shooting because with the ponytail look, she needed a shorter ponytail. I definitely went through a lot of change but it’s interesting because I find with the hair–and not just with the hair but the costumes–in a way it kind of signifies what she’s going through internally as well, the emotions. You kind of see that change with what she looks like on the outside, and in a way I feel like when she gets her highlights knocked out, it’s almost like she gets to start over again. I feel like the different hairstyles symbolizes all the changes that she goes through in her life and what’s going on inside of her as well.
CS: I kind of feel bad for her at the beginning because we already know Scott’s kind of clueless but Knives is just captivated by everything he says and you just want to shake her and say, “No, no, don’t listen to him, he’s not your best tour guide in life!”
Wong: (laughs) No, and I think that’s the thing, it’s that she’s never met anybody like Scott before, so she’s totally drawn to him, but just because he is who he is. He’s charming, and he’s sweet, and I think for the first time, she’s met this guy where he kind of doesn’t really care what anybody thinks about. She’s so used to the routine life and he’s the first person that kind of takes her out of that comfort zone. She gets to go on this journey with him and I think that’s why she’s so fascinated by him as well.
CS: There are a lot of great lines in the movie but you have some funny moments, such as when you’re following behind Mary and copying everything she does or when you appear outside Scott’s window. Does humor come naturally to you or was that something you had to look to Edgar to get the most out of those gags?
Wong: I think the thing is that for me, I realized that Knives’ character was not trying to be funny, because she really is not trying to be the joke of all these scenes. She really genuinely is happy or really genuinely is sad and devastated and heartbroken every time she goes through all the emotions, they’re very real. I think that what’s funny is that she feels those feelings so strongly, but it’s maybe inappropriate or maybe not exactly the most mature thing to be feeling at that time. For somebody who has had more experience in life and to look at that, it’s in a way, it’s just young and in a way pathetic, and you kind of chuckle at that and laugh because you can tell she still has a lot of learning and a lot of growing up to do, but I think the key to playing those scenes was not to try to be funny, but was to try to embrace what she was really truly feeling at those moments of time.
CS: I think we’ve all been there, because no matter how cool we think we are, we’ve all had those awkward weird moments. The backstage scene with the Clash at Demonhead was just hilarious, because you’re meeting someone cool so what do you say? Did you ever have any awkward moments like that when you met any of the cast like Michael or Jason?
Wong: I didn’t actually. Definitely going into shooting, I did feel there was that intimidation factor and I was incredibly nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first film and I’ve never been on a movie set before, so I was really going into this blind a little bit and knowing that I was going to be working with Michael and Mary and Jason, like the entire cast, I definitely was really intimidated, but I think all that kind of dissipated the second I got to meet everybody, because everyone was just so down to earth and grounded and really fun people. Also what was cool was we had about a month or so of fight training before we got into production, so we had a lot of time to kind of hang out as a cast and really get to know one another and just work together in a less pressured environment. By the time it came down to filming, the chemistry we had with one another it was just something we didn’t have to work for, it was already there because we’d already developed those friendships. I think that was really key to the chemistry that you see on screen.
(At this point, we tell Ellen the same story we tell anyone who works with Jason Schwartzman, about how we worked with him when he was a 15-year-old drummer in Phantom Planet. Yeah, we were trying to impress her. It probably didn’t work.)
CS: Obviously, the action scenes are pretty amazing and Edgar’s really meticulous with the visuals and there are a lot of elements involved in the fight scenes, so how is that, to be able to do all these little short pieces and not really knowing how it’s going to end up later? Putting your trust in Edgar that he knows how it’s going to edit together into something cool?
Wong: Well, I think putting that trust in Edgar’s hands, it was something we all just were easily able to do because Edgar, he’s got this amazing vision in his head. His imagination is just really out of this world and we knew that he was going to deliver regardless, and we all sort of trusted that. He was very good with also on set, he would pull us aside and show us the visuals and special FX that were supposed to be going in at post so we would have a really clear idea of what we were doing, but I would say it was definitely a different way of acting for some of the scenes because instead of going through a scene slowly and allowing us to go through the entire scene without stopping, you can see in the movie, there are so many FX and so many different sorts of transitions and so on, so in a way, we had to adjust to how do you organically let all these feelings out or let these lines out but at the same time, time it so you can also allow that space in editing for putting in those special FX and stuff. It was definitely a bit of a challenge to do that, but I think we got it after a while, and it was really fun to be able to see that all come up on screen when we saw the movie.
CS: I imagine it must be amazing to do all these little pieces and not know what it’s going to be like and seeing it later and going, “Oh, wow, that really works!”
Wong: Yeah, and I think that the team that did all the post was just… I was totally blown away by the film when I saw it in its entirety. We had an idea of what it was going to look like, but I feel like it’s definitely a seminal kind of film ’cause it’s almost created this new genre. It takes everything and mashes it all together and it’s just really cool. At the same time, it speaks a lot of truth about relationships and growing up, while still conveying that it’s a work of art. It’s fun and it’s visually appealing. It was a shocker for all of us to sit there and to be completely blown away by it.
CS: Did he show you any of those old Hong Kong martial arts movies before shooting to give you some idea what the fight sequences would be like?
Wong: Yeah, it’s funny because Edgar and I talked a lot about martial arts movies at the beginning before production, and we would be sending Emails back and forth with the movies he was recommending and there was a lot of Jackie Chan stuff like “Police Story” and then there’s like “Supercop” and then I was also really big into the movie “Chocolate,” have you seen that?
CS: No, I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard about it.
Wong: (practically yelling, but nicely) YOU HAVEN’T SEEN “CHOCOLATE”?!?!?
CS: I kept missing it and I don’t know why but I never got a chance to see it.
Wong: That has to be on your “Next movie to see” list. Yes. (laughs) It’s out on DVD now so you can get it and watch it whenever you want.
CS: Okay, I’ll watch it based on your recommendation.
Wong: Good, because I love that movie and I love “Ong Bak” so for me to see a female lead in that kind of a role, it was just really awesome, and in a way, we thought “Knives is kind of like Chocolate,” he kind of instilled that feeling or vibe into her. We discussed that at the beginning, so I thought that was kind of cool, and I really thought about that a lot when getting into the fight scenes, so that was one of the things I think inspired Knives’s bad ass side. But it was really neat to be able to go through all these films with Edgar, because I enjoy martial arts films, so it was fun to hear all the ones he likes, like all the Shaw Brothers movies, and it felt like a mini film class, ’cause he would say, “Oh, watch this movie” and I’d write back with my thoughts in a little review, and he’d write back what he thought. So it was kind of cool that way.
CS: Did you ever watch “Heroic Trio”?
Wong: Yes! Yeah, I have it on DVD. (giggles) Have you seen “Come Drink With Me”? That one’s good, too.
CS: Where do you go from here? Have you had any time to spend in L.A. doing meetings to try to figure out what to do next?
Wong: Yeah, definitely I’ve been going back and forth between Toronto and L.A., but I’m just looking for that next story to tell. I just want to keep being creative and I want to feel inspired by a role, and I want to keep acting. I don’t know what the next story is going to be yet, but I hope it comes sometime soon. I just want to get out there and do this, because I know especially working on “Scott Pilgrim,” I knew even more that acting is definitely the route I really want to take.
CS: Your first movie you work with Edgar and have this great character in Knives, so do you think it’s going to be hard to find another role on par with this one? Or are you not worried about that?
Wong: I don’t know. I definitely think that a role like Knives Chau doesn’t come around very often, and there aren’t too many roles written for someone of ethnicity as well, to show that kind of an arc in a modern setting. In a way, it’s going to be hard to find a role like this, but at the same time, there are so many stories out there, and I really think that the media is changing now, and it’s exciting to see Hollywood and embrace that.
CS: What’s crazy is that you’d almost have to do a TV role to get this amount of a character, because on TV, you can spend time building a role but it would be over the course of a year or two years or three years.
Wong: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that in TV, it definitely reflects our society a little bit more accurately than film does, but because it’s something that’s constantly changing and it’s more of a short-term thing like they are constantly writing new episodes, but with film, it’s a little different. But at the same time, I feel like with film, too, we should be able to start portraying these roles out there, and not just people of ethnicity but also female characters that kick ass, that’s really important. I think we’re starting to see that a lot. It’s funny because getting this role, I really never saw this film as one that had a lot of girl power until after I watched it, and I thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of girl power in this film,” which I think is cool. It kind of puts females on an equal playing field with all the guys. I think that’s really neat and I think it’s cool to put them–despite their flaws and so on–they’re sort of equal to their male counterparts. I think we need to start seeing more stuff like that.
CS: I wasn’t at the Comic-Con “Girls Who Kick Ass” panel but did you and Mary try to pick a fight with the “Sucker Punch” girls? Or were you all friends and got along?
Wong: (laughs) No, we were all friends, we were all up there having a good time. It was a rewarding experience to be up there and to hear from other actresses who have been in the industry for so long and to hear their side of it and what it means for them to be up there, because it was really nice, and I felt honored to be up there with them.
CS: Thanks, Ellen, always nice talking to you and hopefully we can talk again when you get your next project. Best of luck with the movie. Just about everyone who has seen it has loved it.
Wong: Yeah, I can’t wait for the world to see it. It’s exciting to be talking about a movie that’s great, you know?
CS: Do you have any idea if you’re going to go to any of the foreign countries when they open the movie there?
Wong: I have no idea. I mean, I know I’m going to London next week for the UK premiere but other than that, I’m not too sure what’s going on. But I’d love to, I think it would be awesome.
CS: When I talked to Edgar, he sounded like he needed to take a break after his current press tour, so maybe he’ll send you out to one of those places.
Wong: Yeah, he’ll send me, I’ll be his proxy (laughs) but he totally deserves a break. He worked so hard in order to create this film.
CS: He can give you a script so that when someone asks about how he did something, you can read his response.
Wong: Exactly… hmm… and maybe we can create an Edgar wig…
CS: That can be your next role… You can play Edgar Wright!
Wong: Exactly. See? There we go!