Gabriella So Chi-ching was having an unpleasant moment in a rural area of Wuxi, on the mainland. She was standing over a primitive toilet hole, and the stench of faeces, urine and other nasty things filled the air. For the young actress, it was just another normal day of filming.
Another time, one of her fellow performers had to jump into cold water for so many takes that his nervous system shut down. They had to slap his limbs to "wake him up".
Hiking up mountains at 3am during a 24-hour shift, speaking dialogue at minus three degrees Celsius, or being mistaken for a drug trafficker during a performance is nothing special to So. "My acting teacher, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, told me that actors can be very cheap. We need to do what other people tell us," says the 25-year-old.
Facing rejection is also as normal as eating rice. Once, So was taken off a film because the director decided her accent wasn't right after all. "If you always take things personally, you'll go crazy," she says, shrugging.
Even Meryl Streep, one of only six people to win three or more Oscars for acting, was once told that she was too ugly to be in a film. "No matter how thin or beautiful you are, there are tonnes of reasons people will reject you. You can even be too pretty for a role," So says.
Instead of leaving her acting career to luck, So decided last year to launch her own theatre production, which she would write, direct and act in. She had just read the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, and found it very different from the film adaptation, which starred Audrey Hepburn. "The protagonist is actually a lot more free-spirited than Hepburn's portrayal. I wanted to do a performance that would bring justice to Truman Capote's book."
Months before she even had a complete script, So went online to look for venues. She saw that it cost about HK$12,000 to rent a 76-seat studio at the Hong Kong Arts Centre for five shows over three days. Then she learned she was eligible for a subsidy that lowered her rental costs to HK$5,000. By enlisting friends to help with photo shoots and make-up, So was able to make her solo theatre dream come true in July last year. But with a busy acting schedule, she only had one month to prepare.
"Everything was so rushed there wasn't time to doubt myself, and it was so thrilling that I don't need to do extreme sports," she recalls. "You can never be 100 per cent ready to do a show. You just have to start doing it, and you'll figure things out along the way."
So makes it sound easy, but her achievement is the result of years of hard work. She began studying ballet when she was four years old, and aspired to be a ballerina after performing Swan Lake when she was 14. "But then I realised that dance is limited in expressing certain things, and I thought theatre might be the answer," So says.
She ended up studying at the school of theatre, film and television at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the US. She was the only Asian girl there, and was frequently invited to act by film majors. Discussing scripts with student directors taught her about writing screenplays and directing. Later on, she worked for six months as a script development intern at Will Smith's company, choosing scripts for the actor to consider. When she returned to Hong Kong, So became a screenwriter for actor-director Lee Lik-chee. "Being a screenwriter helped open acting doors for me. I would keep reminding Lee that I like to act, and introduce myself to the assistant directors," So adds. Finally, she was offered acting roles.
To learn about good acting, So recommends watching Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. "Even for the crazy, overbearing characters, they are able to show a human side of the character."
So is still working on her acting skills. In September, she flew to Malaysia for a five-day workshop by theatre guru Philippe Gaulier. At one point, he asked her to walk onto the stage and take off a veil with the slightest movement possible. "He stopped me after I took two steps. He said I was too elegant. I am always composed, because of my dancing background. So I tried again, making myself oblivious to the people around me," says So. "Suddenly, I realised everyone was staring at me. One person even cried because my performance was so beautifully simple."
Two weeks ago, she incorporated this "natural feel" into her latest solo show, The Ritz-Diamond , which she performed at the Arts Centre studio. Later this year, she is bringing the show to New York. A company there is covering marketing and venue costs for an off-off Broadway production, and even offered her a salary.
"What's important is to take action. When you do, there are a lot of people who will help you. If you don't move, they won't either," she says.