Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Lady Emerges: Aimee Eccles speaks!



A pair of perpetually sad eyes staring from a face obscured by cloth. A naive high school girl so genuine in her belief in flower power a cynical detective can’t help being fond of her as he lifts her lingo in mocking condescension. A working woman taking stumbling, comical, but ultimately liberating steps into polyamory. These are the standout memories for me in the career of the beckoning performer Aimee Eccles. Her poise and conduct have always presented the best blend of old European propriety with laid-back California charm. There is not as much air of mystery about her as some of the other women I’ve spoken to in this ongoing series, since she has had the good fortune to amass a larger body of work, and has maintained a more familiar presence in both cult and mainstream cinema. But like them, she has not previously been given a forum to speak at length about that rich history. Thus, I was enormously happy when she agreed to invest the time with me to share her memories about her life before, during, and after being an active actress.


What would you like to say about your background, and what your formative years were like?

This is a complicated question for me and I'll have to make it brief. I've been told my childhood is what books and movies are made of. My early developmental years were in Hong Kong. I was from a mixed marriage. My dad was British and my mom Chinese. My father passed away when I was 4 and my mother became a single mom. She was a loving mother, but both my older half-brother and I had to share her with her gambling addiction. It was feast or famine depending on her luck that day. Nuns from our private schools and our maid were our authority figures and since they weren't our parent, we both did what we pleased. All that changed when my mother passed away and I was adopted into America at the age 10. My father was a college professor and my mother a secondary school teacher. Both lovely people but so different, and yet had the utmost respect for one another. My mother was very religious with an Elizabethan sense of morality and my father was agnostic and progressive. I went to Catholic schools, and attended an Anglican Church or a Unitarian church on alternate Sundays. My life went from very little structure to accountability for every moment. At the age of 17 when my adopted father passed away, I moved from NY to CA to get away from the chilling winters. In retrospect, I think I learned very young that the only guarantee in life is change.

Did you have any previous interest in the arts in general, or movies in particular, before you appeared in films?

No, I wasn't raised watching TV in Hong Kong, and both my mother & brother preferred traditional Chinese films & plays. Both of these art forms in China were torture to me. The traditional Chinese films were mythological, period pieces where humans at midnight would turn into animals or large reptiles and revenge bad people in town. I would watch with my hands over my face, slid down in the theater chair. Chinese plays or operas are something you can only watch once. The high pitched sing song voices of the actors is an acquired taste, which I never developed. When I came to the States, I discovered my passions. In my school library I discovered art books and learned about the Impressionistic movement, Dadaism, Modernism, etc. and fell in love with art. I spent the majority of my time sketching, at the ballet barre, or visiting museums. I really never got addicted to TV and still don't watch it except to watch reruns of “SEINFELD” to fall asleep. However, I did discover I liked films. In my freshman year in high school, they showed A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Mother Superior talked about camera angles and touched on the filmmaking process. I was fascinated! Then I saw WEST SIDE STORY and became a fan. I than added my love for cinema to my list of passions.

Did you have a favorite film or TV show back then?

I enjoy all genres of films except horror. Dark comedy is perhaps my favorite. A few of the directors I enjoyed at the time were Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, and Akira Kurosawa. On a lighter note, the one TV show I enjoyed as a young adult was “BEWITCHED”. The idea that reality could be changed by a twitch of the nose was delightful! It was shot on the Columbia lot, where I was studying to be an actor after my arrival to California.


How did you become involved in your first movie, NO MORE EXCUSES?

It was a pure accident...as was the beginning of my acting career. I was modeling in NYC and had just left a print job interview. Robert Downey Sr. approached me in the street and asked me if I'd be in a short commercial. He was an ad man at the time but explained this would be for his personal project. I had no interest in being an actor, nor did I know what it would entail. Downey Sr. promised it would be painless and quick, so we agreed on a date and time. And true to his words, the shoot was quick and painless.

What else was going on in your life around the time that you were cast?

Not much... I was modeling and it was an exciting time to be growing up in NYC. There was so much creativity; art and music happening everywhere, especially in the Village.

What were your impressions of Robert Downey Sr. and his associates?

Robert Downey Sr. was a creative, spontaneous, and gentle person. After shooting my part in NO MORE EXCUSES, I walked away and never gave it another thought. Years later we would reconnect in LA, he as a director and I as an actress. He invited me to his home in Brentwood to do table reads of his scripts in progress. I remember a teenage Robert Downey Jr. watching us from his bedroom door, when he should have been doing his homework. Who would have known at that time, this was the making of a successful actor today.

Did that appearance help steer you to other early acting jobs?

It didn't impact on me at all. I wasn't pursuing an acting career. In fact, if Jack Gilardi from ICM had not seen me on the closed circuit TV at the old Playboy Club on Sunset, and approached our table to ask me to go on an interview at Columbia the following day, I would not have ventured into acting. I had literally just arrived from NY that week and I was set up on a blind date when all this happened. Apparently they were looking for my type for a role in a David Swift film about students who attend an international boarding school in Switzerland. I met Jack Gilardi at Columbia the next morning and I was introduced to the producer, Jerry Tokofsky, and a few other executives at Columbia. Then it was decided by all these adults that I should be put into the new talent program at Columbia directed by Walter Beakel, who became my mentor and later my agent for the duration of my career. I remember being asked by Jerry Tokofsky if I'd like to be an actress. My response was, "I don't know...I've never thought about it."
Outside the studio, after my meetings, Jack Gilardi said, "Everyone thinks you're right for the part, but they said you have no personality."
"What am I supposed to do?" I asked.
"TALK!" replied Jack.
I was mystified. "But about what?"
"ANYTHING!" replied an exasperated Jack.
And that's how my acting career began...
The film I was training for, DEEP FREEZE GIRLS, was never made. About 6 months later, Columbia sent me to CBS to meet with Arthur Penn and I got the role of Sunshine in LITTLE BIG MAN, which was my first feature.


How did you become involved with PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW?

My agent talked me into it. It was Vadim's film debut in America. He said that being in a Vadim film meant I would be considered one of the beautiful women in Hollywood, since Vadim is known to work with beautiful French leading ladies such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.

Was the sexual tone of the story and your character’s relationship to it intimidating?

Very much so! Don't forget I attended Catholic schools all my life & having a very religious mother, I strongly objected to the nudity. Both my agent and Vadim reassured me, it would be a closed set. I finally agreed. Little did I know that this film would later prepare me for GROUP MARRIAGE.

What was it like on the set? Did you get along with the leads and the other players?

Working on a comedy is always fun. Cast and crew joke around and there's always a jovial feeling on the set. Our set in particular became a popular place for agents to visit with so many beautiful ingénues on the film. Vadim had an easy going style about him, and the cast of students we portrayed were all close in age.

Were there any fun moments during shooting or off the set?

We didn't hang out off the set. The hours are so long when we're shooting, we rarely do. There was extensive publicity associated with the film, which required all the "pretty maids" to attend. We had fun with each other and Rock Hudson on the set and at the still shoots. I think the PR photos show that we all genuinely enjoyed each other's company.


You were clearly very fond of June Fairchild. Did you maintain any further contact with her or anyone else involved in the film?

June was a sweet person, gentle soul with a great sense of humor. We spoke several times after the filming but lost touch when I traveled to Europe. Years later, I ran into a friend of hers who recognized me, at the Canyon Store in Laurel Canyon, and he shared with me that June had a baby and was living in the valley. He and I didn't exchange numbers and June apparently had a new one, as did I. That was the last I had heard of her until you contacted me.

What was the reaction of you and your friends when PRETTY MAIDS was released?

Of course in Hollywood, everyone thought it was cool. But I hid it from my family. With so much publicity, they found out anyway. My dear mother, who is an English and speech teacher, reviewed my performance as "I had the best diction of all the actresses in the film."

What kind of attention, if any, did you experience from the film, and did you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

I didn't receive any negative feedback from the film. It just became part of my body of work, so be speak...another learning experience, another credit.


Who or what was responsible for your casting in ULZANA'S RAID?"

As my memory serves me, Robert Aldrich contacted my agent. I had a brief meeting with Robert Aldrich and Burt Lancaster and was cast immediately.

I understand you were supposed to have a substantial role in the film. What were the original plans for your character?

I never had a large role in this film. I was only in the beginning of the screenplay with Burt Lancaster as his squaw. They wanted someone who could look attractive with the tip of her nose cut off. I was told the punishment for a woman's infidelity in the Apache custom was to cut off the tip of her nose and shame her publicly. I presume the establishing shot with Burt Lancaster was to show his humanity. After he leaves his camp, the movie is just one battle after another with the US infantry and the "savages." It took almost one month in makeup to get the nose they wanted for a couple of days of shoot.


Did you change your acting approach as a result of the changes to your character...try to do more with your eyes and physical presence to make more from your reduced screen time?

There were not much choices for a character in that era who has been broken, rejected from her tribe and now living with "the white devils." I just played inferior and submissive as directed.

I was the only woman in the film and on location. We were in the middle of the desert close to Nogales, NM, a border town. The production had a bus that would take the actors and stuntmen to Nogales in the evenings. The stuntmen enjoyed going into town every night, to get drunk, and get into fights with the locals. The next day they would laugh about their exploits and the red light district. I was curious about this red light district. So I asked Bruce Davison if he'd take me there. So one night Bruce mustered up his nerves and agreed. As we were strolling the street of this red light district, three Mexican guys stepped from a poorly lit doorway in front of us. The leader starts shoving Bruce and asked him what he thinks he's doing there. Bruce didn't know what to say or do and just kept backing up. Tired of the bullying, I slap the guy in the face and said "Shame on you, what would your mother say about this?" He was stunned when he heard me speak perfect English. I guess he thought I was Mexican hanging out with a white guy. Bruce and I walked off and when we were out of the reach of the guys, he looked at me and said angrily, "You could have got us killed!" My answer was, "But I didn't. I saved you." Crazy times, good memories.


How did you become involved with GROUP MARRIAGE?

Stephanie Rothman and her producer husband, Charles Schwartz, contacted my agent. When I found out it was a woman director, I was very interested! My agent was not in favor of me doing a "low budget, independent film that was sexually exploitative". Female directors didn't exist at that time. So I jumped at the opportunity to work with her. I had been attending film school at Los Angeles City College at that time. I had never thought about being an actress until I became one. But I discovered while acting, the filmmaking process fascinated me. I loved the illusion of the visual image. I later transferred to UCLA film school for a couple of years. I was successful in getting a few jobs as a crew member of several independent shorts, but I think I was born ahead of my time. When I broached the subject of wanting to work on a film crew as an assistant, I was rebuked with the same sentiment every time, "Why would you want to do that dirty work? Being an actress is much better."

What were your feelings about getting cast in such a significant role in the film?

I didn't think about it. I guess I don't think in those terms...And I still don't. In film school, I learned that a film is a collaborative effort. I observed this on the set. To me every actor, including atmosphere and stand ins, are a critical aspect of the film. Perhaps that is what is flawed in my thinking. I should have been more ambitious as an actress and valued the money and prestige, like so many in the industry do. Instead I believed in the aesthetics of the process and looked at it as art.


Did you take particular pleasure in being an Asian actress headlining a film, and playing a non-stereotypical, everyday Asian character, at a time when those instances were still a rarity?

That is a great question. From my observation, it's still a rarity. With social media, our world has become a smaller place with diversity being common. How is it and why is there still constant dialogue in Hollywood about whitewashing and inclusion? The majority of Hollywood films and TV do not represent the diversity in real life. It seems not much has changed since I left the industry. I was lucky to have had the career I did. It is disappointing to see with the advancement of technology that Hollywood is lagging in it's storytelling with representation of the world today. Unless the story is about a specific race of people or a period piece, actors should be considered and cast based on their talent and not their ethnicity.


What are your memories of the cast?

It was a small cast and everyone was a professional. We worked as an ensemble to make each other look good. Stephanie chose well in both her cast and crew. The process of making GROUP MARRIAGE flowed cohesively.

What was your impression of Stephanie Rothman as a writer/director?

She was great to work with! Stephanie and her producer husband, Charles Schwartz, were a wonderful, professional team. She wrote a story that was pure entertainment, reflecting the exploration of the new sexual revolution, free love, and women's lib of the time. When she cast me in the lead, she never saw me as an Asian actress. She compared me to a Leslie Caron. The atmosphere on the set was relaxed and non-pretentious. I'm glad I chose to do the film.


What sorts of roles were you reading for during your ‘70s and ‘80s activity?

I began my career playing a Native American and once it was discovered I was Asian, it seemed I went out for only Asian parts. That's why working on GROUP MARRIAGE was so refreshing. After GROUP MARRIAGE I flew to Toho’s studio to play a part of a Chinese princess in “MARCO” with Desi Arnaz Jr. and Zero Mostel. Type casting was prevalent in the 70's and 80's as it still is in Hollywood. 
I [recently] attended a screening of THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED). It just so happened there was a Q&A after with cast members including Dustin Hoffman. I've always appreciated Dustin's candor. When he was asked the secret of his longevity, he answered it all started with luck. He couldn't land a play and if it wasn't for Mike Nichols' exhaustion of trying to cast the two young leads in THE GRADUATE, he would have never gotten the part because it was against type. He mentioned that in his career, he never did as many films as his college roommates, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. Now he was frank in stating that he had turned down the part in THE MEYEROWITZ STORY for two years. The scripts he's been receiving recently are all for his character to die of cancer or a heart attack. He referenced that in THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES, he was in a long coma in the film. Type casting isn't just reserved to ethnicity in Hollywood. Age and gender are also discriminations that actors deal with.


What was it like for a young Asian actress as yourself in that time?

It was frustrating to go out once or twice a month for auditions, if that, when my Caucasian contemporaries went out 2-3 times a week. Anyone who was considered to be a person of color at that time experienced the same affects of type casting, whether you were African American, Hispanic, Indian, Muslin, or Asian. There wasn't the exposure of very many immigrants other then in a few large cities, nor was there the internet and the exposure of social media to bring us all together. 
With the high visibility of African Americans/Blacks in music and sports today, there is more acceptance and we see more cast in Hollywood films and on TV. The Black community of filmmakers have been proactive about the lack of work available in the industry and have created content for themselves. The recent films they've made such as MOONLIGHT, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, GET OUT to name a few, have been box office successes, with one winning an Academy Award. Even then, discrimination still exists. This was the subject faced by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts in the past few years. Other ethnic races have been overlooked in Hollywood and they need to follow the example of Black filmmakers. Being vocal and creating content for themselves is so important today. The industry is a very different place. From my recent research into the industry today, I can't say I'm very impressed. I feel sorry for young actors starting out. They literally need to create content for themselves to be seen. The casting directors are overwhelmed by the amount of submissions, because everyone can submit themselves. Being a union member is almost a detriment. Non-union is preferred in many commercials and films. And there are too many union members, because it's so easy to get a SAG-AFTRA card now. What I see is the same people working and working, and very few new faces in major Hollywood productions. It's about safe casting that brings in guaranteed revenue as opposed to creative casting. After all, the film and TV industries have always been a business. It's more so now with the new media.


Have you ever received criticism over your presence/performance in a film from POC or other minority viewers? What sorts of things were they objecting to?

No, I've never received criticism from fans...I still receive warm letters from fans today, which surprises me since I've been absent from the industry for so long. When I was working, I would receive criticism from producers that I wasn't Asian enough. The two shows that came to mind was Jack Lord of “HAWAII FIVE-O”. He refused to have me on the show because my eyes were too big. And the producer of “KUNG FU” thought I wasn't Asian enough, and yet I would star opposite David Carradine, who made a career playing an Asian kung fu artist. How ironic!

How did you deal with those situations then?

Personally there have been no objections from fans, only admiration and love. The objections from the industry were handled by my agents. It's difficult being mixed. You're not white enough to play Caucasian roles, but sometimes not ethnic enough in the eyes of the director, producer, or casting director to play the ethnicity you are mixed with. Surprisingly, the group that embraced me the most have been the Native Americans. I am treated as family. I was just approached by a young artist working on a mural of the Dakota Pipeline. He asked my permission to include me in the mural. I felt humbled and honored. I checked out some of his work and was surprised he never went to art school. Everything he learned was from his father, who is an artist as well. Through our communication, we have become friends. It's always a pleasure to meet good people, especially artists who are creative.

Have some of these criticisms dissipated over the years, or have they changed shape?

Fans still love me and based on what I observe in the industry today, I'd still be typecast.


What was your experience making Sylvester Stallone’s PARADISE ALLEY?

I would prefer not to go into details about that shoot. Sly was going through some growing pains and he shared them all with his cast and crew. I think now that he is older, he may have found some humility.

Did you ever get to see the film in his longer intended version versus the one that was released?

Yes, I did and I am comfortable with the one released. Don't forget, PARADISE ALLEY was adapted from a book Sly wrote and it was his first directorial venture. It received terrible press after release.


Aside from the films given prominence here, what are the other performances and/or collaborators from your body of work that you are particularly fond of?

LITTLE BIG MAN was my first film and probably my favorite. Everything I know about films to this day, I learned from Arthur Penn. He was a brilliant filmmaker, a perfectionist, a purist, and a visionary. He wanted the film to be authentic and was trying to cast only Native Americans. He had traveled to reservations for two years casting various roles, but couldn't find anyone to play Sunshine. I was his first appointment on his first day of casting in Hollywood. I was terrified and I wasn't afraid to show it. This was apparently what he was looking for. He continued his interviews at CBS on Radcliffe throughout the day but wouldn't release me. He called an actor to work with me at the café across the street from the studio. The more I objected to being in the film, the more he was convinced I was Sunshine. Since I was under age, he called my mother to get her permission to sign me onto the project. Arthur kept me on location through the entirety of filming to overcome my shyness and my reticence to be in the film. I spent most of my days hanging out on the set watching Arthur work. It is because of him I fell in love with the filmmaking process. In his soft spoken, unassuming style, he made a large production seem like a small family. Arthur Penn was probably the most influential person in my life.


Was stepping away from acting the result of cumulative events, or was there a specific one that steered you to do other things?

I had gone from one continent and culture, to another, and then Hollywood. My proverbial quest for the 'meaning of life' had led me to extensive literature on spirituality and long trips away from Hollywood to find myself. With all the material comforts Hollywood provided, I felt an emptiness in my life. I thought marriage and a family was the next progression in finding myself. It was not my intention to stay away for so long. But like all things, your perception of what will be or what you anticipate will happen, is not what will manifest as reality. My failed marriage turned out to be a gift. Two beautiful daughters resulted from my marriage and because of them, I discovered strength, re-evaluated my values, learned unconditional love, sacrifice, a higher sense of self, and that failure is never an option.

Did you learn anything from your experiences that helped you later in life, in any kind of field or moment that is not necessarily artistic?

Acting taught me to overcome my shyness. Although I'm still a bit of an introvert and a private person, I'm able and am known to start conversations with strangers in passing about anything, everything, or nothing. Here's something that may sound strange to you or not, but anything I pursued that was left brain, I approached it as an actress playing the part. By doing so, anything new was possible and I was undaunted. Also, acting and filmmaking taught me endurance, tenacity, and gave me improvisational skills. All very useful life skills that proved helpful, especially as a parent. Being a single parent is a never ending indie production that requires long hours and dedication.

What is the most unusual encounter, conversation, or life event that has taken place when someone recognized you from one of your films?

I don't have any experience that stands out, other then the most recent incident. I have kept my acting career private while raising my children. It was easy at the time, because my children and I used my ex-spouse's last name. I'm back to my own name now and a librarian in town just discovered my acting credits while researching films shot in the area. When she saw me, she lost her composure. I kept shushing her as she excitedly bombarded me with questions. It was hilarious our exchange!

If you’re willing to share, what have you been doing over the last 30 years since you had a credit?

Has it been that long since my last IMDb credit? I know I shot my last commercial in 1993, because my babysitter flaked and I had to take a six month old to an audition. Anyway, my years away from Hollywood have been about trying to be the best single parent I could for my daughters. Maybe because my childhood was so fragmented, it was important to me to provide a safe, creative, stable home for them. I didn't feel they should be victims because of the actions of their parents. Acting is a self-absorbed profession and I didn't want to subject my children to the demands of the industry. I wanted to be physically and emotionally available to them during their developmental years. I chose to work as a realtor because it afforded my time to be at every field trip and event with my children. I became an Art Trek parent representative and taught art in my children's classrooms. I helped my daughters plant vegetable gardens at their schools. This provided fresh salads to their school lunches. And I supported my children in their rescue of animals and reptiles. In retrospect, I wouldn't deprive my children of any of these experiences. These experiences gave them a sense of empowerment and made them into conscientious young adults about their community and the environment.

Now that you have indicated your interest in returning to performing, what kind of roles are you seeking?

I'm not sure I want to go back into the industry. I've been spending time investigating and learning about the changes in Hollywood and the new media. With the advent of digital technology and live streaming, so much has changed in the industry. Age has always been a taboo in the Hollywood and there are few parts for older actors. The little work available seems to be going to seasoned career actors, that are guarantee box office. Again, TV is another media that also caters to the young market.

Here's a couple of enlightening exchanges that I think you will enjoy. I was in line at grocery checkout and saw a headline that Sandra Bullock had adopted another child. I mentioned it out loud to a girl in her early 20's standing behind me. She just looked at me with a blank stare. Then I realized, "You don't know who she is, do you?" She just shook her head no. Another incident shortly after was at Rite Aid on Sunset and Fairfax. The clerks were both in their early 20's exchanged this dialogue while one of them was checking me out. Male clerk asks my checker, "Do you think I should follow Drew Barrymore? I don't know..." My checker says, "Why??? No, she's so inconsequential." Male clerk mutters, "But she eats people on the ‘SANTA CLARITA DIET’. That's kinda cool." I burst out laughing. They realized their absurdity and laughed with me. Walking out to the parking lot, I started to think? These actors have more recent credits then me, what would this make me. Lol...perhaps beyond inconsequential...obsolete. So unless the right role came along, I may consider it. Meanwhile I will continue and learn more about the new media and help my youngest daughter, a filmmaker, work on her projects.

What will you remember most fondly from your cumulative years in the movies?

This is the most reflection I've done, answering these questions. I'm not one to reminisce. Having been in the industry for so much of my life, these cumulative experiences are just part of the fabric of who I am. Of course, we are more then just the culmination of our past experiences. We have the ability to learn and grow from them. It is in this reality that I look towards the future, enjoy the present, and never look back.



3 comments:

  1. This was simply wonderful to read. I think I am even more in love with her than I was before, if that is possible. I've always enjoyed seeing in movies and had always wanted to know more about her life.

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  2. A well written article about Ms. Eccles, with thought provoking questions. Her answers are equally as thoughtful...what an interesting life she's led!! The article is a pleasant read, chock full of rich detail and anecdotes from her time as a working actress in some of Hollywood's most memorable films/TV series. Given that she's worked with many of the industry's heavy hitters, she comes across as very grounded and down to earth. It's refreshing to read about how acting came to her...that she wasn't looking for it...and how she set it aside without question in order to play her most important role: that of a mother who wished to be present for her two young children. I'd love to see her acting again, which sounds like that could be a possibility. No matter what life brings, Ms. Eccles seems like she's ready for it. Thanks for the peek behind the curtain! Nice to discover there's a very real person back there.

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  3. Lovely article. I found it encouraging and inspiring. A great person :).

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