The Psychology of Storytelling with Jim Punnett

Interviewed by Michelle Lim

What makes a character tick? What is authenticity and how can we attempt to convey this through our storytelling? Jim Punnett (Punnett being a stage name, né Nguyen) is one of the sons of Vietnamese migrants, who found passion in exploring the psychology of the human condition. An established actor, his resume boasts impressive films such as Hacksaw Ridge, Mortal Kombat, Thor: Love and Thunder, and most recently ShangChi. Jim talks about ShangChi and the authenticity of the story and characters, and what it means for future Asian diasporic films.

What does being an Asian Australian mean to you? Can you tell me more about your upbringing?

Being Asian Australian means accepting that you may always be different. Accepting that you may always be seen differently, and always be stereotyped. I’m a minority, but I’ve come to accept that’s the way it is. A lot of us have thought about what is fair and or not in how we’re treated, but I’ve come to the decision that I’m a minority and that’s the way it is. It’s been a strange journey accepting that and accepting who you are and how that reflects in the world and your immediate environment. Being born and raised in Canberra, there are a lot of white people, I don’t have a lot of Asian friends, except in Sydney. I can see discrimination against us. But those who perpetute the discrimination are a minority, maybe one in ten people who have that distorted view.

My parents migrated from Vietnam after the War. I don’t know much about my Dad’s side. Mum’s family was in the middle of the Vietnam War, in the midst of the bombings and (she) was separated from her family. They sailed to Hong Kong and then came to Melbourne. My parents lived in Melbourne for a bit, my brothers were born there, then moved to Canberra where I was born. Because of my brothers, I spoke more English and went to Vietnamese school to keep my vocabulary somewhat good. At the end of primary school, my parents split up and I became more creative, or it could’ve been me escaping into creativity. It was mainly music and playing bass in a band. I played in a few bands in college. Acting came around after college. I started doing martial arts, stunt stuff and gymnastics outside of school with friends doing creative things. I thought about covering acting while I do stunts, and that just opened a whole new world for me, an endless world. On the side, I’ve always been interested in psychology, so if I followed the more academic route, I would’ve gone down the psychology/psychiatry route. A lot of books I read were based in psychology. Acting was a recreational version of that. It worked out really well in the end because my first drama teacher had a Masters in Psychology. 

Out of curiosity, on your IMDb, your name is listed as Jim Punnett, why have you chosen to use Jim Punnett over Jim Nguyen?

When Facebook first came out, my friends couldn’t find me because of the thousands of Jim Nguyens. So then I added my middle name Lee to my Facebook name, then I was sick of people mispronouncing my last name. There were people who would mispronounce my name and then laugh at their mispronunciation. People of Colour can get work when they (have an) angelicised surname. I didn’t want to be boxed into roles specifically for Asians, so I started to play around with my last name. Punnett is the surname of my drama teacher. I  saw her as family, so it felt like a good name. Sometimes I still think about changing my name, but ultimately I decided to keep it. I’m not trying to hide ‘Nguyen’, but ‘Punnett’ saves people stuffing up the pronunciation. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong with this. 

Photo by Shaun Steinebronn

Can you tell me about your relationship with your drama teacher? 

She was a Drama Director. I started doing stage with her. What stuck with me is that she believed in me from the start when I wasn’t very good. She also gave me major roles, my biggest roles were the stage plays she wrote for me. Since then there has been nothing like that, main characters, main lines. Fully human and fleshed out roles. Something she told me was to always think outside the box. I don’t know if I believed in me before she believed in me, but she was certainly one of the first people from the start to (believe) that I would go far. I’ve been acting for 10 years, I haven’t had a role so meaningful since the one’s she’s written for me. She pushed me to reach that potential. I’ve also had people support me and people who told me that I wouldn’t make it but deep down I believed in myself. My Drama Director hundred percent knew I was going to go far and pushed me down the deep end. 

What drew you to the film industry? In the shorts that you have directed and written, most of them are action films. Is there a reason why you prefer action over other genres?

I prefer comedy, especially with friends. Nothing is better than making people laugh. Comedy is one of the challenging ones. Comedy has pushed me more in every aspect, because you have to go from zero to ten in some aspects. The action I do is just for fun. The latest scripts I’ve written, I have written in mind knowing that producers may not even pick up the script without any action in it. My Drama director told me to embrace and accept the skills you have, so the latest scripts I have written have comedy, drama and action. But in terms of writing action and putting that out there, it’s kind of for fun. I like choreography and that is something I enjoy. But I have to make it clear that acting comes first, and that I don’t want to be a stuntman. I’m open to all things, but comedy is my preference. 

Without the success of Black Panther, I wouldn’t have a job today

Simu Liu – Time Magazine Interview (28 January 2021)

Stunts is a very particular and specific industry within films. Why did you choose to go into stunts?

I watched a lot of martial movies growing up, because there are a lot of Asians in it. I have enjoyed martial arts since I was 7 or 8  years old. Around college, I met a good friend of mine and we just trained in martial arts outside of school. I don’t know  if I was escaping school because I was practicing almost every day or every two days. I was interested in film, and did some stunt courses. When I left college, I went to Canberra Institute of Technology and studied Film. I have a filmmaker’s mind. I was studying acting as well. The thing is, acting is like taking a gamble, whereas if you put the hard work into stunts, you’ll get there. The lifestyle of a stuntman is rigorous, you go to the gym, and have to be good with the falls. The lifestyle of being an actor is the psychology behind the character and reading script. Even though I still practice martial arts, I still enjoy learning the psychology behind characters.  I’m not trying to disparage between acting and stunts, but I love martial arts and I love acting. 

Photo by Tina Nikolovski

Your acting resume is very impressive. Being in immensely successful films such as Hacksaw Ridge, Mortal Kombat, Thor: Love and Thunder and obviously ShangChi, which all have great storylines. What is the importance of authentic story-telling?

Storytelling has been around for a long time before film. It’s a way to draw out people’s emotions that they didn’t know were there. It’s a way of eliciting emotion from people without them knowing. It’s an artform, like going to a concert. Storytelling can provide messages and philosophy. Storytelling is woven into everything, religion, psychology. Being authentic is just being real, where people can relax and get into it. It’s the difference between when you’re sad and watching a movie, and that makes you feel better. Everyone has a story, it’s a form of exploration as well. Hacksaw Ridge was wonderful, it was about the main character’s sense of mind, and a way of protecting that life he lived. Everyone has felt like that in some way. Storytelling can be a way of healing as well, it’s a way of self authoring our stories. It’s a process where we can evolve from.

What was your experience like working on ShangChi? In a movie where you can personally relate to?

It was hard work, and action is hard work, whether you were in the background cast  or in the main cast. The Special Abilities Crew did a lot of fighting in the background. Even that was hard. We had to do ten takes in a row, to get the shot. There are some war scenes, which were super hard. But it was good hard work. It was interesting to see the first Asian-Western film being made. As in seeing the story revolve around Asian Westerners. Being in the background, I get to watch them act. Awkwafina stood out to me the most. Simu and Awkwafina, their characters are regular people and vulnerable and flawed, but we get to see their fighting  evolve and  progress. ShangChi was great, I made a lot of friends. I’m keen to see it. It does get me excited to see where it takes film in the future. 

There have been a lot of great martial arts/martial arts inspired films in the last half century (Enter the Dragon, Drunken Master, Ipman, the Matrix, Kill Bill, John Wick). What sets ShangChi apart from these films?

I think ShangChi is like Enter the Dragon. Hong Kong films are mostly action and Western films are mainly drama. ShangChi is like a coming together of the two. It’s very evident in the stunt team, Brad Allan and Andy Cheng (from the Jackie Chan Stunt Team), who provided the action portion of the film. Which more resembles Enter the Dragon in that way. It’s a story of us (first generation) Asian Westerners, that we haven’t seen before. It’s a big new thing. It’s quite remarkable that it happened. First Asian American film besides Enter the Dragon. It’s something we haven’t seen before. Even Simu says, ‘without Black Panther there is no ShangChi’. I remember watching it and crying, because it was so new. It was a film about a Black superhero who was vulnerable and has flaws and overcame those challenges. ShangChi is following in those footsteps. It ties so well with the real world. 

Photo by Shaun Steinebronn

There has always been an Asian presence in Western films, such as Lee Byung Hun in G.I Joe, Rain in Ninja Assassin and George Takei in Startrek, Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels. Why do you think their presence has not been as acknowledged as much as their non-Asian counterparts?

Because they’re the minority. We need more writers, we need more writers for these characters. They’re the people in power. All of the actors/actresses you mentioned, I do think they stand out. Particularly with Lucy Liu and Michelle Yeoh, I didn’t think much of them before, but as time passed, I look up more to them. For my partner Michelle Yeoh is the only Asian female representation for her. They’re not in the background as you say. 

Do you think films will move away from action into less known genres such as drama and comedy?

It’s a hard question. Hopefully, newer films would be grounded in drama and it’ll be authentic, and there is someone we can relate to. I think there’s things coming out like that. As long as the character is fully fleshed out, that’s where things are going. ShangChi is a big stepping stone. We just got to find the stories, they’re out there. The Farewell is a good example. It is a story about the cultural differences between Western and Chinese cultures. The dramatic and comedic way it is depicted and told in the movie is interesting. There will definitely be more comedy but also more drama. 

Photo by Tony and Dave Cosplay

In the world of Rush Hour films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where do you think ShangChi fits in this spectrum?

Pretty much in the middle. Awkwafina is pretty funny, so that’s the comedic element you’d get from Rush Hour. The action is from the Jackie Stunt Team (like in Rush Hour). There’s  dramatic action, which is insane and can be high flying. The story telling is about the characters and the psychology behind them. There is the epicness of them being superheroes (like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but it’s grounded in regular people (like in Rush Hour). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a love story with action, ShangChi is more realistic with the characters. 

How can the Asian community continue to authentically tell stories about our lives without having to simplify the nuances of our experiences for a non-Asian audience?

Encourage writers to write what they know and what they experience. Write those characters and stories. It’s because writers matter and they are the ones who make the stories. Actors bring the story to life but it’s all reliant on the writing. Sometimes you watch a bad movie, and I’m just thinking, just pay for a good writer, you have millions of dollars. There are times where there are movies with large budgets but the let down is the writing. I say be truthful, say what you want. It’s a safe place to do storytelling. 

Recently, there has been a revival of interest in Asian media. ShangChi, Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, Squid Game, Minari are just some to name a few. What do you think this revivalism means for Asian stories, individuals and their communities?

I think it offers a range of diverse stories. I’m sure people want to see their stories being told and it’ll offer people their story to be told. I would love to see Raya made into a live action film. Raya was pretty cool because there’s so much Vietnamese culture in it. People like to see things that are relatable like that. Raya is fiction that’s inspired by nonfiction elements, I think people love that. The revivalism and renewed interest means a space to break stereotypes. It sounds weird but it offers people a place for expression, because it provides an opportunity to see themselves in the story and to form that connection with the characters. When I was in Mortal Kombat, I thanked Ludi Lin for breaking stereotypes, and he was very appreciative of that and it was good to see. It may also lead to people seeing us as more human, even if it only changes the mindset of the minority of the people that are discriminatory. The minority can be malicious with their stereotypes. We’re people with emotions, faults, vulnerabilities and we’re working to be better. It’s good practice for them to learn empathy. 

Jim recommends watching:

David Choe

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