Lea Salonga Talks 'Yellow Rose,' 'Mulan' Criticisms and the Power of BTS (Exclusive)

Lea Salonga
Walter McBride/WireImage

The Broadway star opens up to ET about the timely indie film and why the K-pop group is revolutionizing what it means to be Asian.

More than a year after Yellow Rose, a timely indie film about a Filipino teen, Rose (Hadestown's Eva Noblezada), with aspirations of leaving small-town Texas to become a country singer amid possible deportation, made the rounds on the festival circuit in 2019, it's made its way into theaters -- albeit at a time when many cinemas have shuttered or are struggling to stay afloat amid a pandemic. For Broadway icon Lea Salonga, who co-stars in the movie alongside Noblezada, the wait has been worth it.

"It's very exciting that people will be able to experience this movie in the way that it was meant to be experienced, that people will be able to sit in the theater and be able to see this film and be surrounded by this story and by the music. It's a film that I'm very, very proud of," Salonga, 49, told ET over a recent Zoom call. "When the pandemic began, I was filled with quite a lot of uncertainty as to what was going to happen with this [film]. No one had any way of knowing just where we would be, however many months past those first quarantines. And now here we are and theaters are starting to open. I'm hopeful, but I'm also hoping that people stay safe and be smart with all of the stuff they need to do to stay that way."

In Yellow Rose, Salonga -- who worked on the film for two days -- plays Rose's aunt, Gail, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, married an American and is tough and hardened from a life of hardship. Rose's dreams are shattered when her mother suddenly gets picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), forcing Rose to leave behind the only life she knows as she searches for a new home and beginning. It's been a minute since Salonga has seen the movie (last year, to be exact), but her relationship to it has evolved in the last year and a half by way of how much things have changed in the world. "I think things are going to land very, very differently," the singer forecasts of the movie.

In a candid conversation with ET, Salonga talks about the importance of the film today, criticisms over Mulan and why BTS is revolutionizing what it means to be Asian.

ET: How do you think Yellow Rose will land now that it's in theaters during a pandemic versus when it was screening at festivals last year?

Lea Salonga: It's interesting how things developed because now it's opening during Filipino American History Month, which is October. It felt completely appropriate that this would be the time in which this would happen and it's happening a month before the election. I'm hoping that people will look at the film -- from their own political views they might have -- from a place of empathy, from a place of being able to see themselves in the characters that are onscreen. That is what I'm hoping for. We're not trying to change anybody's minds. We're not trying to tell them to make whatever decisions that we might want them to make as far as politics [goes]. That's not it. We're portraying the truth as to what happens with people that go through this. Everything has been meticulously researched. I think [director] Diane [Paragas] and her crew and her cast have been able to achieve that. That's what I'm hoping for, that they see this as something that's ultimately a very human experience so that they see people vulnerable and crying and angry at the unfairness of what is happening and to try not to judge any one person or entity when they see this movie.

Has your relationship to the film evolved or changed over time?

Diane did such a beautiful job at creating this world in which Rose exists and to see the hardship that she goes through, and what her mother goes through and what Rose goes through in trying to get help from an aunt who has not really been in her life but feels obligated to try and get help from her. As what happens in the film, things don't always work out in the way that we think. There is such beauty in what was created, there's beautiful music that has been written just for this film. And when I first finally saw it from beginning to end, I went to a screening room and they ordered lunch for us. I'm digging into a salad and watching this film and going, "Oh my gosh, look at what you've been able to do. This is beauty. This is a work of art that our people can be really proud of." I still feel that and I'm hoping that people see it for that first, but I'm also hoping for conversations between family members to take place after seeing what happens with these characters. Nothing is sugar-coated, nothing is politicized per se, nobody's pointing fingers. Nobody's saying, "You people are evil." There's none of that. Ultimately, people will take away what they will take away. Obviously, none of us can control that, but we hope that they at least come from a place of empathy and love for these characters.

You and Eva both have the Broadway connection, and you both played the same role in Miss Saigon nearly three decades apart. What was it like working with Eva and forming this contentious dynamic in this movie?

She has a very honest face and a very honest portrayal. My mission for this was the opposite because the character that I play, Gail... All I can say is that I have relatives like her. We all have that relative, that aunt, that uncle. All of us have that member of the family that you don't really like very much. When I talk about certain relatives with my cousins, the expression on our faces just, it's like this wash of disdain and judgment. There's immediate understanding amongst all of us when certain relatives are being spoken of. So Gail is that, and she's not the most likable character. She's not an antihero in any way because there's stuff that we can assume she went through in order to get to the place that she's in now, and I have to come from a place of not judging her. I have to be able to justify everything that she does and it's not always the easiest thing when she's not someone easy to like. She's a tough nut. Getting to work with Eva, who's pretty much the antithesis of Gail, where she is so much more in touch with her emotions, whereas Gail, I think, has learned to shut off the tap in order to do what she had to do and get to where she needed to be. To be with somebody so refreshingly candid and honest, and to see Eva very skillfully portray that, her face really lights up on a screen. I'm hoping for more film work to come her way only because she's luminous, 40 feet tall.

Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga star in 'Yellow Rose.' - August Thurmer

And even more impressive that it's Eva's first movie role.

Yeah, it's her first film. Everything is so visceral, everything is just so. She wears her heart on her sleeve as a human, so she brings that quality to her acting and you really see it here. It's like the role was written for her even before Diane met her and got to see her in Miss Saigon and thought, "Yeah, this girl is the right person for this movie." She absolutely was. I can't see anybody else having played her because Eva can be feisty and tough, which is exactly what Rose is. A lot of the acting choices that Eva made to create Rose were so spot-on and there is humor, there is laughter, but there's also so much vulnerability. Her connection to this character is so strong and people are going to leave that theater feeling for her. Not so much for Eva, the actor, but for Rose. How Eva got to play it, that is what's going to bowl a lot of people over.

Last time we spoke, there was a big wave of Asian stories being told about varying communities. Just curious if you could offer a temperature check from your standpoint. What are you seeing and what has been inspirational for you?

"Dynamite" by BTS came out on the 21st of August, so let's begin there. At around the start of the pandemic, March/April, I see status updates on Facebook by my friends of Asian persuasion, so Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Japanese. One of my Filipino American friends wrote that she was on her way to the post office and that somebody called her using an Asian slur and spat in her direction. So I'm like, "What on earth?" And this is New York City. So I'm like, "This is already the most melting-est melting pot in the United States, and this happens?" So there's that. Fast forward, Aug. 21, "Dynamite" comes out and all of a sudden, people are watching this boy band made of seven gorgeous South Korean young men and I'm watching with a lot of interest, not just because the performance was great or that the video was a lot of fun or that they sang all in English. I didn't latch onto BTS until "Dynamite," and I think a lot of people felt the same way. Finally, there was a way to access them because there is a language barrier, and I call it a Trojan horse because here they come with "Dynamite" and now that you're interested, here's all the other interesting music that they've done. It's a rabbit hole I've not gotten myself out of, and all of a sudden the language barrier no longer exists because I'm watching all of these music videos. I'm watching interviews, I'm watching things that go back to the beginning of their career when they debuted in 2013. I'm like, "Oh my god, these guys are just so effing amazing."

Their performances, their work ethic, their perseverance, their persistence, their drive, their ambition, everything. It's been inspiring to catch up to everything and they're keeping me sane during this pandemic. This is the rabbit hole that I've jumped into. Seeing that, being able to represent their country -- they're unapologetically Korean, these seven -- they perform dance numbers in hanbok, in front of this big palace in South Korea with lights. They are unapologetically who they are. They are spreading positive vibes in the face of anti-Asian racism. They are representing everything good that there is about coming from this part of the world. I'm watching that and as an Asian performer, as somebody that's been doing this forever, as somebody who is scared for my friends in New York City because of the racism that's happening and then to see them being unapologetically Asian, performing in Korean, and doing so with excellence, they are beautiful men and doing things in their own way. I'm like, "It is a good day to be Asian." It makes me feel very proud, makes me feel very happy. It's a great way of saying, "You want to come after us with your racism, we're going to come after you with positivity and love and beauty. And excellence in performance and drive and ambition and perseverance." These are the qualities that so many Asians and Asian Americans possess. It's wonderful to feel seen and represented in that way. I guess a lot of Asian performers just have to keep doing what we've been doing for however many years, always striving to do the best that we can and represent our people in the best ways that we can.

"Dynamite" is a very catchy song.

It's bubblegum pop. It's a lot of fun, it's great to dance to it. We're finally given a reason to dance and be happy about something, and the dance steps are not too difficult compared to say "Idol" or "Black Swan" or "On." "On" is just... forget it!

Since you provided the singing voice of Mulan in the 1998 animated film, what are your thoughts on the new live-action take and what do you make of the mixed response to it?

I already knew that I would not be able to be objective about it because I was part of the first movie and when you're so closely connected to that, anything that comes out later, I have zero objectivity. I thought the cinematography was beautiful. I thought the casting was great. I have friends in the movie. I got pulled out of the action because I saw Tzi Ma, who plays her father. I saw Hoon Lee, who played the guy on horseback that starts announcing the names of people that would have to join and enlist. I love Gong Li in anything she does. She's a luminous presence onscreen and so strong that she doesn't have to do anything. She just has to do resting b***h face for however long onscreen, and you're like, "OK, you were brilliant. I know you're not doing anything, but it's so brilliantly done." Seeing somebody like her and Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee with so much guyliner, and to see Ming Na's cameo at the end, I was screaming and furiously texting her. I'm like, "What? You're in this? Oh my god!" She's like, "Am I?" It was a really beautiful celebration of something that has been so close to the hearts of a lot of people, particularly those who were involved in the first one. To see Yoson An, a holy gorgeous man, I was  like, "Yes, thank you!" To see Rosalind Chao, I felt happy that she is still so beloved. As for people's reactions to it, you can't really control how people react or where they're coming from, but there are people that love it. There are people that don't love it. There are people that just flat out hated it. I'm one of the people that really loved it, so there you go. It is what it is, you know?

What other projects should we keep an eye out for?

On the 27th of November, I have a Great Performances performance coming out on PBS. It's my concert at the Sydney Opera House. It was a sold-out engagement. My brother, Gerard, conducts, and we're performing with the Sydney Symphony. It's my second time singing under the sails. Five years before, and my manager reminded me of this, we took a private tour of the Sydney Opera House and we were standing in the balcony at the very back. I whispered to him, "I would love to sing here someday," and he looks at me and says, "I'm going to make some phone calls." Five years later, it's going to be shown on the part of Great Performances on PBS. I'm really pleased and excited for people to see it and get to see what it is I love to do.

Yellow Rose is in select theaters now.

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