James Hiroyuki Liao can pinpoint the moment his life passed from empty to brimming with possibility. It happened nine years ago at the doorstep of a studio in Greenwich Village. One push of the doorbell and bingo! The embers of a hotheaded adolescence began to be swept away.
"I think this was the real birth of the person I'm glad I became," Liao says. It was his older sister, Marguerite, who had in a sense led him to this spot. She had told him about a publication called Backstage, a trade newspaper for actors. He'd never heard of it, and why would he? Liao had never been in a play in his life, and had hardly ever seen one. His Taiwanese father and Japanese mother, who raised four kids in the rough-and-tumble Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, certainly did not have in the forefront of their concerns drama camps and Broadway splurges. And anyway, their youngest son, angry, mixed-up James, was an unlikely candidate for an immersion in the arts.
Back to the fateful doorbell: He answers an ad in Backstage, placed by a woman who teaches acting. He walks in for a brief interview, stays for three hours. Next day, lacking anything else to do, he begins classes. "The very first thing she says is, 'The theater is not for you!' She, like, screamed it. I'm like, 'Is this woman on crack?' " The teacher, Marjorie Ballentine, did not mean it was not for him in particular -- she was speaking, as he would come to understand, on the grander scale: An actor merely serves the play and the audience. Still, they clicked. He liked her theatricality. And, in a very real sense, he'd found a home.
Speed forward to 2004: Here is James Hiroyuki Liao, perched on a sofa in an office at Arena Stage. He can't sit still. He is pounding the furniture, gesticulating wildly, replying with a shouted "Thank you!" when an observation meets with his approval. He is seated here in a capacity that no one could have imagined a few short years ago: not as lost soul but as actor. And not as unemployed actor or obscure actor or -- perish the thought -- run-of-the-mill actor. No, at 28, Liao is a terrific actor and, more to the point, receiving thunderous ovations nightly for his performance as the cross-dressing, double-crossing Chinese concubine of a gullible French diplomat in Arena's revival of "M. Butterfly."
The character he plays, Song Liling, a Peking Opera star and sometime spy, undergoes an astonishing transformation in David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning drama. For the first two hours or so, we see Song as a woman of ethereal allure and stylized gesture, in tight-fitting beaded gowns and ornate kimonos. In the final third of the story, Song slips out of femininity, stripping down to confirm the breadth of the hoax that has been perpetrated on the vice consul, played by Stephen Bogardus.
It's a sublime bit of theater sleight-of-hand, watching Liao (pronounced Lee-ow) go from girl to boy. And given the distance this actor himself has traveled, the metamorphosis is more remarkable still.
"I realize that an opportunity like this may never happen again," Liao says. He speaks at high volume and in an accent so alien to the world of the play that you think he's putting you on: His Brooklynese makes him sound just like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever." "I realize what significance this has, this early," he continues. "And I'm trying to enjoy every moment."
His colleagues understand the magnitude of this carpe diem event for Liao. "You could see that this role was for him and he was for this role," says Tazewell Thompson, "M. Butterfly's" director. Bogardus thinks of him in meteorological terms. "He's like a tornado," he says, "a real find. He's still young, and underneath all that radiant talent is a Brooklyn kid who's loud and brassy and impetuous. And I hope he doesn't lose any of that."
Apparent, too, in the comments of admirers is an undercurrent of worry, not so much over whether success will spoil Liao but over whether, given his circumstances, success can be sustained. It's somewhat horrifying to discover, in this day and age, the degree of doubt he and those around him express about the opportunities open to Asian American actors, whatever their gifts. In his first television job last spring -- a featured spot on "Law and Order" -- he played a recruit in the Japanese mob. The gig was great, but the handwriting was there: For many an Asian actor, the likelier track takes you to martial arts rather than "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"He's like a stallion that you let loose but that has some angel guiding him to pasture," says Ballentine, with whom Liao studied for nearly three years and who now teaches in Los Angeles. "He has size, and you know that most actors don't even know what the hell that means." Liao seemed to her larger than life. She, too, fears that he will be stymied, that ethnic pigeonholing will prevent him from displaying his range. "If people," she muses, "would just give him a chance."
Arena did, thanks to Thompson. "He came in for an audition in New York," the director says, "and I found him fascinating right at the start. I chose two scenes for the actors to prepare, and they could do one. He did both, and they were totally memorized."
Actually, Thompson had met Liao before, at Juilliard, from which Liao graduated this past spring -- another improbable pivot. The distinct slices of his life do not make up the most coherent pie. He was, he says, a teenage roughneck and indifferent high school student, hanging with the wrong crowd and headed for serious trouble. But he was also extroverted -- "always doing impressions," says his sister -- and smart: He got into Stuyvesant, one of New York City's premier public high schools. Although he left before graduating, he received his diploma from another city school.
He needed the diploma to make a change. He set his sights on the military, in particular the elite Army Rangers. "I wanted to be a bad [expletive] soldier," Liao says. After several months at Fort Benning, however, he received a medical discharge because of an ailment inflamed by the swampy Georgia heat, the details of which he prefers to keep private. The outcome was not the corrective for a raging case of low self-esteem. "I was enraged, and I felt like the biggest piece of [expletive]," he says.
It was in this state of paralyzing fury -- "I'm laying around my mother's house, watching TV" -- that he was approached by his Yale-educated sister, Marguerite, who suggested a path. She recalled him taking drama at Stuyvesant. ("I took it because it was the easiest English class," he says.) "I said, 'You know, what you liked in high school was your acting class,' " says Marguerite, now a graphic designer in New York.
Back again, to the doorbell. For the longest time, he was lost in Ballentine's class: "She might as well have been talking pig Latin." But the course was cheap and her passion -- rooted in the idea, acquired from Stella Adler, of the actor serving the words of the playwright -- somehow tapped into his anger. So he stayed and soaked it all up. "I think she taught me that you must be as truthful as you can possibly be."
The truth, however, can hurt. As one might imagine, it was a wee bit stormy between the fiery teacher and the brooding 19-year-old. "The thing with James is, he's a street guy and I'm a street gal," she says. "We talked the same language. I don't know if he told you, but we had big fights. Three times, I practically kicked him out of my school."
By the time he was ready to move on, he learned that clawing your way up from the bottom is particularly brutal in the theater world, so he took jobs to pay the bills, eventually entering the catering business and becoming a kitchen captain. Three years later, his sister returned to a familiar refrain: Why didn't he audition for Juilliard's undergraduate acting program? He did, got in (with help from a speech from "Julius Caesar") and proceeded to chafe during what he characterizes as a tense wrestling match with a program that places great emphasis on technique. The priorities of an Asian American kid from blue-collar Bensonhurst were not always in sync with a conservatory education.
"My girlfriend told me to say, 'I'm very fortunate to have gone to Juilliard,' " he says.
Liao, wiry, with thick jet-black hair, laughs a bit nervously. He doesn't want to sound mean-spirited, but neither is he eager to seem grateful. The school clearly must have helped him develop the sophistication for Song Liling: His elocution in the play betrays not a trace of Brooklyn. Still, you get the sense that he relies heavily on his own resourcefulness and imagination.
Bogardus says, "One of the things that just sort of blew me away was that Taz did not bring in anybody to work on movement with James." (There was, however, one day when an expert on Chinese opera was invited to demonstrate some of the choreography.) "He watched movies, he found his femininity, all that stuff, on his own. For a young actor to take that on, to have that kind of foresight . . ."
Indeed, Liao marches to his own Song. He's a bit amazed himself at how much he feels for this character; playing a girl, he explains, would not go over big in his old neighborhood. "I don't know what it is to be a woman -- I don't," Liao says. "But I get closer to it than I ever thought I would."