For Fiona Choi, the opportunity afforded by The Family Law proved to be life-changing. After a career in the US where she had a successful run of guest roles, she returned home for what has proven to be her most substantial role yet.
During a set visit to watch the filming of the second season of The Family Law late last year, there was an interesting trend that developed while discussing the show with all of the behind-the-scenes staff on the set - everyone wanted to talk about Choi's character, Jenny Law. More than any other character, everyone has become obsessed with her.
The SBS Guide sat down with Fiona Choi to discuss her work on the show.
What is it about the character of Jenny Law that people are connecting to in such a meaningful way?
I’m so thrilled that everybody has embraced Jenny Law. I think she’s universally appealing as it is the universal mother love. People have come up to me and said “Oh my gosh, you are just like my Greek grandmother” or “My mother-in-law from Finland is exactly the same”. She’s a character everyone can recognise and relate to - this is a lady who gets her words wrong and says the very thing everybody is thinking without a filter, but with such a good-hearted, optimistic way about her. It’s just a raw truth, calling it how it is. Mothers, in particular, relate to the way she loves her children. Her children and family are her whole world.
It’s rare on TV to see a middle-aged woman and the struggle that she feels balancing being a mum and a wife, and trying to figure out for the first time in middle-age: "who am I? What is my identity? What do I want out of life? Can I be something other than simply somebody’s mum, somebody’s wife?”
When you got the script, what was it that you connected to? What made you feel you needed to be a part of it?
Benjamin Law’s writing is so beautiful, it really cuts to the heart of how people relate to each other. The messiness of family and how it can be absolutely disastrous, and embarrassing, but you wouldn’t have them any other way. The first time I read the script and this has never happened to me in the 30 years I have been working, on the first read of the script, I was alone in my office laughing out loud and then the next second I was crying. Genuine tears because I could see how real these relationships are and how poignant. It almost feels like he ripped real conversations… like a photographic memory remembering the conversations from his childhood.
As a mum myself, I related to her from the beginning. Often on set, in the scenes when we’re filming, we’re so close now that the lines between acting and reality are quite blurred. I think that rawness and genuine affection for each other is what makes the show so appealing.
The situations are so out there, and I credit our directors and producers for keeping it real, at the heart of it, it’s just a real, honest, genuine story about families dealing with all these different situations.
You were working in the US. Is this what brought you back to Australia?
Initially. My husband and family are still in New York. The chance to play this character and be a part of this project, it was a no-brainer. Painful as it was, I was willing to come out here for two months and be separated from my own family to shoot it. Now, coincidentally, not even having to do with Trump having won, but we’re moving back to Melbourne. Come January, I’m moving my kids and husband to Melbourne for the new year. I just felt like it was time. I wanted my kids to have more of an Aussie upbringing. It was time for a change and this show had taken off so much, it made me miss being an Aussie.
Going through your filmography, you have been on some major shows in the US, like Homeland, Person of Interest, The Newsroom...
You know, Homeland and The Newsroom… They were my favourite jobs. They were shows I was a fan of. I was so excited to be able to be a part of that world. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan from way back.
Thinking about [West Wing/The Newsroom creator] Aaron Sorkin in comparison to Ben Law, there feels like a very clear authorial voice. Ben was more collaborative than Sorkin. But, do you find yourself drawn to work with such a strong vision?
I really do. Both are brilliantly smart, while so full of heart. What I love about both Aaron Sorkin and Benjamin Law, is they aren’t afraid to put their agendas and their politics and their big-heartedness on the page. It’s very sentimental. Sorkin is very sentimental, that’s what a lot of people criticise him for. But that’s the very thing I love him for. I love that he unabashedly is romantic. He loves America and loves fighting for a better world. Apart from the funny, fun, and cynical one-liners, that’s what I connect to. It’s the same with Benjamin. He puts it all out there, commenting on judgments against homosexuality, and comments against racism. In season 2, we have a couple of One Nation jokes and reverse racism jokes. We kind of flip the tables because we’re now the normal family and the strange exotic creatures coming to our world are the white parents who come from Mt Isa. “What do the white people eat? What do the white people listen to?” We make statements like that.
You’re working with a younger, less experienced cast on the show. You said it was like a family unit, but professionally was it a challenge?
I have so much love and respect for Trystan, who plays Ben. he came into this completely green. He was such a sponge, such a natural and able to absorb things. It was wonderful to be able to mentor him. Anthony, who plays Danny, and I both took all the children under our wing and tried to give them tips, leading by example. I remember early on, there were a couple of quiet scenes between Trystan and I and all we had to do was remind him he doesn’t need to speak out loud. You don’t need to deliver it like you’re on stage. You’re whispering to your mum because she’s right next to you. He picked that up straight away. It’s been really great. What we do on set, it’s not like we stay in character, but we treat each other like a family - even when the cameras aren’t rolling. All of those kids call me mum. Even the older ones. Sometimes it makes me feel a little old. The adult kids still call me mummy. We keep the relationship.
We spent the first two weeks not even rehearsing the script, he just had Anthony and I take the children out. We took them to the movies, we took them to dinner. We just spent time together. That was the best thing because we learnt how to act like a family with that familiarity.
For both yourself and Anthony, this seems like a great opportunity to have roles more meaningful than the stereotypical guest parts on a series.
It’s amazing. I have been in a lot of big American shows, but I’ve pretty much always played the same type of character. I’ve played a reporter, an authoritarian figure, or very smart. Those kinds of characters. It’s great to have something with such an emotional range and to really feel like you’re playing. It’s ironic that I put on this crazy accent and wear these fabulous costumes and yet it’s the most fully realised character I’ve ever had the pleasure to play in my whole career.
It really affirmed that Australia was ready for this, an Asian Australian family to be at the centre and it wasn’t something strange to look at that people can’t relate to. People really embraced it. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for ethnic actors to be a part of the landscape of Australian TV.
It feels like there is a moment happening…
At various functions lately I’ve been meeting a few fans saying “I love Jenny law, I think you’re fantastic. I love that they’re not just Chinese people. They’re all sorts of people - all different colours and races and classes of Australians who come up to me to say they relate to Jenny Law.
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The Family Law airs on SBS every Thursday night at 8:30pm. New episodes and the entire first season are streaming now via SBS On Demand: