TV WEEK Close Up: In Conversation with Dichen Lachman

Before her roles in sci-fi and action series such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Altered Carbon, Dichen Lachman had to chart her own path to stardom.
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TV WEEK Close Up: Australia first embraced you as Katya Kinski in Neighbours in 2005. Anything a soap character could go through, yours did. Do you have fond memories?

Dichen Lachman: That was the best. I wouldn’t be where I am, most likely, if it weren’t for Neighbours – and you’re right, I did get some really awesome storylines and I’m so blessed and lucky to have had that experience.

How did you get cast?

It really was out of the blue, because they didn’t even have a part for me. I auditioned for Pippa Black’s role of Elle Robinson, which clearly wasn’t going to work out because of my ethnicity [Adelaide-raised Dichen is of Tibetan and German descent].

But Jan Russ [the casting director] had an imagination, and they saw my tape, and I think they were being responsible. They wanted more diversity in the show and they wrote me in.

Like you, stars such as Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie kick-started their careers in Neighbours. Why is the show such a good talent incubator?

There’s no better training than going to work every single day − and also doing that amount of work. In the US, we shoot four to six pages a day. In Neighbours, you’re shooting 25 pages a day. So just the preparation and showing up on time, and you have a green room and everyone spends time together.

Neighbours had a really wonderful community theatre vibe. The older actors were excellent examples to the younger generation in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Dichen (second from right), with her former Neighbours co-stars Jackie Woodburne, Caitlin Stasey, Stephanie McIntosh, and Natalie Blair.

Why did you move to the US after your run in Neighbours ended in 2007?

There were only a few things being filmed here and I didn’t think it was realistic that I would end up in Home And Away.

There just wasn’t the volume in terms of opportunities, and I’m kind of a mixed bag. There are more diverse people telling stories now, so you’re seeing more diversity in front of the camera. But in terms of my generation, I didn’t feel it so much. When they told me, “Oh, your option is expiring in three months”, and there were 12 weeks to go, I went home and packed my bags.

I lived out of a suitcase for three months, because I knew that if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be able to work here. So it was just like a survival thing.

Once you got to LA, you landed the role of Sierra in Joss Whedon’s series Dollhouse, which had huge production values and expectations. Was that daunting?

Ian Smith [the Neighbours actor and writer] told me when I left, “Just remember that whenever you walk onto a set, it doesn’t matter how big it is. Just imagine you’re here and just do your work.” And that’s what I did.

From then on, for the past 10 years, you have worked steadily in series such as Being Human, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The 100, The Last Ship and Altered Carbon. But this year, we saw you as Frankie in Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom was interesting because it’s a little bit of a departure from the action/sci-fi world. It was so different, because Frankie’s very mysterious; you don’t really know what she’s up to.

Are you consciously seeking work outside the genre?

I’ve got to say I do like that sci-fi world, so I’m not making a conscious choice to get out of it.

I love Animal Kingdom because of the showrunners and the writers and the other actors, but I’m not making a conscious effort to get out of science fiction and action, because I find it incredibly rewarding and fun.

I kind of make sense in that world. There’s an ambiguity about where I’m from or how I fit into any situation. At the same time, it’s nice to have a diverse career and to try different things.

Will Yun Lee and Dichen as siblings Takeshi Kovacs and Reileen Kawahara in Altered Carbon.

Has the success of the film Crazy Rich Asians helped gain you more roles?

Because it just came out, I don’t know. I feel like there’s a huge push for diversity, and I’m glad that Crazy Rich Asians was such a huge success, because a lot of the time, at least in the States, when people think diverse, they think of African- Americans and Latino people. They don’t always think about Asians. So it was really exciting to see that movie do really well.

I think my whole life up to now, I’ve been met with a lot of resistance, especially when I wanted to be an actor. I actually had one woman tell me Asian people didn’t make good actors – and this was at a place where I wanted to give them my money so I could study to be an actor!

I guess she wasn’t a very good businesswoman! But around then, a lot of people didn’t want to represent me. People didn’t get me all. They said, “Oh, it’s a white man’s world.”

There have been times where I felt like, “Gosh, if I wasn’t diverse, maybe I’d be getting a lot of opportunities.” But there’s this thing, Malcolm Gladwell said it in one of his books, that whatever you think is your greatest weakness might ultimately be your greatest strength.

As tattooed Veronica Sinclair in Supergirl.

And you discovered that through the career you’ve had so far?

Now, people know what I do, and I’ve got to play some incredibly interesting roles in these far-out futures and fantastical dystopian worlds. So in a way, my unique look has carved out a little niche for me in the business.

When people are like, “We need somebody interesting, someone you can’t figure out”, I bet you my name will be on that list! I’m not saying I’m the only one, but I know I’ll be on the list.

So, as hard as it was for years and years, that thing I thought was a weakness has really become my strength. And I’m so grateful.

Altered Carbon, starring Dichen Lachman, is streaming on Netflix now.

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