Turning Red stars Sandra Oh, Rosalie Chiang and co-stars talk Toronto, friendship, and fierce moms

by W. Andrew Powell
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Domee Shi, and Lindsey Collins

Disney and Pixar’s Turning Red wears it’s heart, and love for 2000s-era Toronto, on it’s sleeve. Academy award-winning writer and director Domee Shi digs deep for this story about a young girl, finding herself as a teenager, who also just happens to turn into a red panda every time her emotions take over.

The film is hilarious, smart, and it’s unlike any feature film Pixar has released before. It’s going to be a great double-bill next to Inside Out, and it digs a little deeper, especially when it comes to relationships. Turning Red is also so charming because Shi has made this Chinese Canadian family so relatable, but especially if you have a protective mother, or a teenager in the house.

Rosalie Chiang voices Mei Lee, with Sandra Oh playing her “hypervigilant, loving mother,” as the star said.

Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park voice Mei’s awesome best friends, Miriam, Priya, and Abby.

The five stars sat down last week for a wonderful conversation with journalist Melody Chiu to talk about family and friendship, believing in yourself, and debunking how young women are often portrayed on film. Read on below for their lively chat.

Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on March 11.

How would you describe your character?

Sandra Oh:  “I play Ming, Mei’s mother, who is–I’d like to call her a hypervigilant, loving mother.  [laughs]”

“We basically go through this change in our relationship where, you know, a natural change between mothers and daughters when daughters have to become their own independent people.”

What were some of the most relatable moments?

Rosalie Chiang: “For me, well, after watching the movie, my mom and I kinda looked at each other like, ‘This is really similar.’  It’s like, there’s so many odd, really weird coincidences.”

“First of all, my mom’s middle name is Ming. There’s no way they could’ve known that.  [laughs]”

“My favourite animals are actually red pandas.  Before the whole project even started, before I was introduced, but the main thing is that my mom actually called me Mei-Mei before this project, ’cause Mei-Mei means little sister in Chinese.”

“So, when it came to a point where everyone called me Mei-Mei, even the people who are younger than me, which you’re not supposed to do… and when she goes, ‘I’m perfect little Mei-Mei,’ I’m like, ‘hey, I literally went through that,’ where it’s like, ‘I don’t want to be perfect little Mei-Mei either.'”

I love how much of a role friendship plays in this film. How has friendship played a role in your own lives, and seeing this on-screen, just how important is that message that you really have this little built-in family sometimes? 

Sandra Oh:  “You know, in my, well into my mid-life, and actually, you remind me–Miriam reminds me–of my best friend, Margo.”

“I have relationships and friendships that are 40 years old. And so what I love about this film through friendship, and also music, it’s that precious time when you’re starting to figure out who you are, when your friends become really, really important.  You know, for me, the girls that I grew up with in Nepean, Ontario; we’re still all friends.”

Ava Morse: “Yeah, I’m currently a high school student, and everybody is just growing and changing together.  And it can be very stressful and, like, dark at times, ’cause everyone is going through a lot, and not everyone knows how to handle that.” 

“But at the same time, it’s kind of a beautiful thing, ’cause everybody’s in that together, and put it all into living their lives the best they can. I think that’s great, and all my friends mean so much to me.  They’re all very supportive no matter what, and I think I was really inspired by my own friends putting them into Miriam herself, ’cause she is such a supportive, an amazing friend to Mei-Mei and the other girls, because my friends are so supportive and always there for you no matter what.  So it was really cool to kinda give back in that way.”

We have to talk about the band 4*Town. It just felt very real.  Tell me, do you guys have a favourite boy band in real life, and moments that stick out to you where you were kind of fan-girling over them a little?

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: “I remember… and it’s gonna be very Canadian of me, but I remember going into grade nine, going into high school.  The summer, I went to my first concert to see Marianas Trench, and I lost my mind.”

“…As soon as they came out on stage, [I was] bawling.  I was done.  [laughs] I was like, I understand.  I understand why I’m crying.  I was so emotional and I didn’t know why.  But it just, it made sense.  So, yet again, music.  The importance of, like, music growing up totally shaped who you are.”

“But also, like, enjoying that with your friends and shoutout to specifically female friendship, which is so key. I love that we show the importance of four young girls being supportive of each other just to show good female friendships.”

Hyein Park: “I mean, she looked over at me and said “young girls,” but I’m actually kinda old millennial here.  [laughs] I will skip out on the-the boy band part.  [laughs] But, I actually immigrated to Canada right in that age where, I would start to get into boy bands.  So I lost out on it because I was busy learning the language, actually.”

“I was way in on the friendship bit, and the way this movie was very relatable for me is through all those aspects of being goofy together as friends, where you can truly be yourself.  And those are the moments where I feel like, throughout my very ripe age, whenever I had the hardest time, those are the things that push me through and help me through, when I have those friends to be just be myself, cry, or be super-goofy and be crazy.”

“Those are the parts that I related to most.”

What did it feel like to get the news that you were going to be the voice of Mei?”

Rosalie Chiang: “I mean, I kinda had two moments of finding that I was voicing Mei. The first time was when I was 12, it was for scratch recording, and that was when they still had to figure out the plot and the characters and design.  They hadn’t gone to production yet.  So they just needed a voice to animate off of.  At first, they just sent me an email, just like, ‘Hey, congrats, you booked it for scratch,’ and I was kinda half-crying, half-confused ’cause it’s like, what the hell is scratch?  [laughs]”

“But then I found out, and I was disappointed I didn’t actually book it. But all I thought was, during my recordings, is that I’ll just do my best because at the end of the day, it’s an incredible experience whether I book it or not. ”

“But then two years later, at the end of one of my recording sessions, Domee brought in this camera, this documentary camera.  She’s like, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna do a few behind-the-scenes thing,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.  That’s fine.’ Then they gave me a script, and I thought, ‘Why didn’t you give me this to practice? Come on.’  But then we did it, we went through it.”

“And at the end, that’s when Domee said…  she said this whole monologue.  I’m not gonna go into it.  But she just said, ‘We love your voice.  Can you please be Mei?’ And I said, ‘Of course.’  Like… [laughs] imagine I turned that down, though? But I just remember being in shock.  ‘Cause I think at that point, I just thought I’m just gonna do my best.  I’m not gonna focus on booking or not booking it.  And I froze. I didn’t know whether to cry or not.  I was just so thankful. and this is the beginning of COVID, so I couldn’t hug anyone.”

Teenage female friendships are so often portrayed as catty or backstabby, and Turning Red completely rejects these tropes.  Can you talk about the importance of good portrayals of female friends for the younger generation?

Hyein Park: “Well, it’s important because those tropes are wrong.”

Ava Morse: “That was not my experience.  But then we start behaving like those tropes because that’s what we see.”

Hyein Park: “Yeah, I totally agree. And because I’m a story artist at Pixar too, it is actually very important.  And when we finally got the chance to make this female friendship, it was very important that it was authentic.”

“So Domee talked a lot about her own experiences with her friendship, and she would hate to add on to those tropes and make it real, you know?  So we actually shared a lot of different stories of the moments that we love in terms of female friendship.”

“And then she actually asked a lot of different people within the studios too to get a really authentic insight on how girlfriends are really like and how they’re there for each other, and they have the bro thing too with the girls.”

Sandra Oh:  “I totally agree. It’s like, I think that question is extremely important, because having young women and young girls in my life, watching television and films over the years, you just realize… I don’t know who sets this up, that girls are like this, because I don’t think it’s very true.”

“And I think this [film] is an extremely good representation of deep friendships, and the highs and the lows.”

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: “Yeah, but also, with TV and film, we always portray that your love interest is the one that you should be closer with… that always made me sort of skeptical, because wouldn’t the childhood best friend know you better?”

“Don’t they know what your favourite ice cream flavor is? Don’t they know what to do when you’re having like a breakdown?”

“Like, that’s important, and growing up, if you don’t have that, you can then get all the lovely internalized misogyny where you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I only like hanging out with guys ’cause girls are, like, so dramatic.’ [laughs] No.  No.”

“So it’s so awesome that we have this in Turning Red between the four girls because now my little cousin gets to see, like, this is the kinda girl gang you want. Where it’s just… life is chill, you get to be your goofy self that’s able to just be who you are but you also have those crying moments where it’s like, ‘hey, I really need support.’ I need someone who just understands me without having to explain myself and explaining who I am and get that weird validation. You’re already feeling valid.”

“I would say my representation of good female friendships?  Got to kick it to Sailor Moon. Like, they got each other’s back, then they fight crime. And have powers. So that was cool. I like that.”

Setting the movie in the early 2000s was a beautiful nod to many of us ’90s babies.  What was that like exploring a different time period with these characters?”

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: “Yeah.  For me, it’s really cool to just see, when we watch the movie, we get to see the set. And see, you know, Toronto [and] not have the Rogers Centre…

Sandra Oh:  “Sky Dome?  Sky Dome?”

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: “Exactly. The good-ol’ Sky Dome instead of the Rogers Centre.  It was like, ‘oh God.’  Like, that’s a throwback.  I mean, I’m 2001, so not a ’90s kid at all, but it was still really cool to see… ‘okay, this is where I grew up still.’ Like, it’s Toronto. I could tell when we were, in Spadina versus when we’re in Kensington, right?”

Sandra Oh:  “Yes.  I knew exactly the corner.  I saw [the] opening montage. That is the corner of Spadina and Dundas. And then Domee said, “Yes, that’s it.”  I was so pleased.”

Ava Morse: “I feel so left out because I was born in 2005, Chicago… I have never been to Canada before.  But, I feel like I would’ve got to appreciate it much more. And [the] ’90s, it’s kinda trending again right now. Like a lot of trends are kinda coming back, and seeing that, when it was in its prime is kinda fun, ’cause I’m like, ‘yo, I’m wearing that now.’  [laughs] That was weird.”

Rosalie Chiang: “Yeah.  They’re not on their phones the entire time. I think if it was nowadays, if you were to create that story, but in 2022, it would be completely different.”

Ava Morse: “It’d be over Snapchat.”

Have you experienced your own tiger mom moment when you were younger that still lingers in your memory today?

Sandra Oh:  “Oh, my whole life.  [laughs] I’m also not afraid of that concept of tiger mom. I mean, I love my mom, and she’s a fierce, fierce person.  Tiny. Tiny.  But fierce.”

“I actually do have something that I posted a very long time ago on Instagram because it was such an unbelievable quote that my mom said in the kitchen.  I had to write it down on a post-it, and then I put it up on Instagram. And it was basically, she said, I’m not joking, I’m not joking, ‘If only you were neater, I would love you more.’”

“So, I have a really good relationship with my mom, and I know not everyone does.  But I do, and in the way of, like, I can’t stop her from being herself.”

“I’m not gonna stop her, and I’m gonna enjoy her…  [laughs] I’m not gonna do what she wants me to do because that’s just not me.  But there, within that, is that pull that we are always having, I think, with our mothers and with our Asian mothers that it’s very, very difficult to satisfy them.”

Why should girls look up to Mei?  What do you take away from this, and what you hope others watching take away?

Rosalie Chiang: “I’d say her drive.  I feel like she has such a drive. Once she sets her mind on something, she goes for it. She doesn’t half-ass it.”

“She puts all her time and energy to make sure she gets her point across, or whatever goal she has.  Also, the fact that she goes through change, is something that everyone goes through in their life.”

“Especially puberty.  It’s such a messy and weird and awkward time that I literally went through when I was during the duration of recording for Pixar. And I hope people admire what she goes through and how she deals with it.”

“She chooses herself.” 

And that’s such an important message.  It really is.  It’s not easy to do.

Hyein Park: “I would say her ability to be vulnerable. Which is, a really, really difficult thing to do, and to actually own up to mistakes and apologize to her friends. To mend the relationship. Those two things are, I think, so difficult to do as a human being in general.  And the fact that she can do it at such a young age, I think it’s amazing.”

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: “I think it’s, for me, it’s [her] kind heart. Mei has such a kind heart that wants to always do the right thing, and I think that’s so honourable.  And, she’s so giving.  She’s just trying to be who she is.  You know, choose herself and be there for friends, be there for her mom… and she’s learning. She’s growing. And the fact that she makes good old mistakes. Love that.”

Ava Morse: “Yeah, and she’s crazy smart. She crushes school. I remember recording, and Domee was just like, ‘They’re not nerds.’  Like, they are not nerdy. Even though they are nerdy. That can be a very degrading term nowadays.  It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re so nerdy.’  But, I feel like this kinda movie, it doesn’t necessarily romanticize it, but it just makes it seem cool.”

“These girls are honest and it is her drive. And she looks amazing while doing it.”

WE’VE GOT YOUR (FLUFFY) BACK – In Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film “Turning Red,” everything is going great for 13-year-old Mei—until she begins to “poof” into a giant panda when she gets too excited. Fortunately, her tightknit group of friends have her fantastically fluffy red panda back. Featuring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park as Mei, Miriam, Priya and Abby, “Turning Red” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on March 11, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Turning Red film stills courtesy of Disney/Pixar. Red carpet photo by George Pimentel.

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