Episode 223: Follow Your Katra

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
cover of jennifer wright's "we came first"
Cover art for Jennifer Wright’s “We Came First” Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

Wisconsin martial arts teacher and actor Mike Moh on his dream role. Plus, we go behind the stories from Apple TV’s “Little America” and get life advice from some of history’s greatest women.

Featured in this Show

  • 'Little America' Anthology Series Takes Personal, Apolitical Approach

    “Let’s just tell immigrant stories as regular stories,” said Joshuah Bearman.

    When Bearman, the journalist and executive producer of the Apple TV+ anthology series, “Little America,” sat down with Doug Gordon for WPR’s “BETA“, he explained right away where the original idea for the series came from.

    Lee Eisenberg, a well-known writer and show runner in film and TV, approached Bearman with the pitch at the beginning of 2017 right around President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

    Eisenberg had been reflecting on how different his relationship to America was from his father’s, who is an immigrant.

    Bearman said, “The reality of the new political era was setting in, and that’s when he called and he said, ‘Do you wanna do something like this?’”

    Bearman was already well known for finding stranger-than-fiction true stories for the big screen. He wrote an article for Wired in 2007 that later became the basis for the 2012 Oscar and Golden Globe award-winning film, “Argo.”

    “It was sort of astonishing,” said Bearman. “I thought, like, eh, it’s pretty good … they know what they’re doing. And you know, it came out and sort of right out of the gate, it felt like something different.”

    Fast-forward to the creation of “Little America,” Bearman feels a bit like it’s lightning striking twice.

    “It’s very hard to get anything actually made, much less make it good,” he said. “But the reception has been much greater than I imagined, and the full-throated enthusiasm. And it feels like, oh, maybe there’s something special going on here in a way that we hadn’t even anticipated.”

    Finding Stories To Tell

    Bearman and Eisenberg joined fellow executive producers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote 2017’s hit film “The Big Sick,” for the “Little America” project.

    Bearman said finding stories was a very time-consuming: “We probably started with 100-plus leads.”

    From there? After around 75 interviews, about 40 in-depth follow-up conversations, Bearman eventually published 15 profiles. From there an initial batch of eight episodes of “Little America” were filmed.

    “We had stories from Idaho and Kansas and Florida and Ohio and Texas,” said Bearman.

    He said that, even as the stories were taking shape, they could tell the show would work well as a sort of mosaic portrait.

    “We wanted stories that were widely representative,” he said. “People from different parts of the world living in different parts of the country. People who were here as refugees or to study in school. People who have just arrived or people who have been here for decades.”

    The Politics Of Immigration Stories

    The content of “Little America” naturally comes up against United States immigration policy. But Bearman said they chose not to be overtly political.

    But they’re political by virtue of just sort of telling stories from the lives of immigrants and portraying them as people with the same struggles as everybody else,” explained Bearman. “And sort of trying to break the notion of a narrative where there’s an ‘othering’ of people or a simplification of all immigrants and refugees.”

    “At its basis, the show makes a more general point of everybody is the same,” Bearman said.

    “When people come here, they have the same hopes and dreams, or fears and frailties that we do. And there’s no ‘they’ or ‘we’ anyhow, really,” he said.

    Bearmen mentions a certain level of irony related to the final episode of Season 1 when production came up against actual U.S. immigration policy.

    The episode, titled “The Son” tells the story of a gay man who flees his home in Syria after his life is threatened by his family. He is eventually granted asylum in the U.S. where he could live more freely, and meets his now-husband.

    “That’s a very emotional and inspiring story and says some very nice things about what America represents,” said Bearman.

    “The Son.” Photo courtesy of Apple

    However, America’s current travel ban restricted many of the episode’s actors from entering the country.

    “And so, here we are telling a story about how America, like, opens its doors, let’s people who have to flee for their lives so they can be themselves, and we couldn’t actually shoot that episode in America anymore. We had to move production to Canada. We shot it in Montreal,” he recalled.

    The Secret Ingredient Is Truth

    The first episode in the series is called “The Manager” and tells the story of an Indian family of three who own and operate a small hotel in Utah.

    When the parents make what they believe will be a brief return to India to sort out their immigration status, their 13-year-old son is left to manage the hotel in Utah.

    “The Manager.” Photo courtesy of Apple

    But then the paperwork took 10 years, and the son grows up managing the hotel alone, while in the care of an indifferent family friend.

    When his parents finally return to the U.S. 10 years later, their reunion is melancholy as they realize their son is now an adult, and they don’t know about each other’s lives anymore.

    That story might be hard to fathom, which is why Bearman thinks that the viewer knowing the stories are true is the secret ingredient for the series.

    “Those things would read as false, right, if they were invented. But because they’re real, you can connect to them in a different way,” he said.

    And now that “Little America” has been renewed by Apple for a second season, Bearman and his staff are looking to expand on their already-large storytelling palette.

    Bearman believes the first season had a good range of stories and styles. “But I think we might even try to stake out more territory and experiment a little bit more in a couple places,” he said. “You know, widen the range a little bit, so that it’s not just eight more really good episodes like last time. They’re taking sort of different risks.”

  • Once Upon A Time … In Waunakee: Actor Mike Moh On His Dream Role

    Mike Moh was teaching a martial arts class in his dojo in Waunakee when his agent called to inform him that acclaimed filmmaker and auteur Quentin Tarantino was making a new film and that iconic martial artist and film star Bruce Lee would be a character in it.

    Moh was an ardent admirer of Lee’s work. Lee was someone Moh viewed as a trailblazer in terms of Asian American representation in films and had long desired to portray him on the big screen.

    “To be able to play Bruce has been a lifelong bucket list thing for me ever since I started acting,” Moh told WPR’s “BETA.” “There’ve been a few opportunities, where I was very close to playing Bruce, but for whatever reason, some of those things didn’t go my way. So to have it all come together in a project like this with a maestro director like Quentin Tarantino — it’s been worth the wait.”

    Since a chance entry into acting via the 2006 Jackie Chan film “Rob-B-Hood,” Moh had been splitting his time between Wisconsin and Los Angeles. So, he packed his bags that same night and flew to California to film an audition tape.

    “I was given this very covert and secret manila envelope which had the scene from the movie with Bruce Lee. And they wouldn’t let me take it home. So I had to study it. And then the next day I did the audition and I went home,” he said.

    It would be a few weeks before Moh would hear back about this project which would end up being the Academy Award nominated (and winning) film, “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.” However, when he did hear back from his agent, he heard Tarantino liked his tape and wanted to meet him.

    The meeting went great as the two bonded over a mutual love of Bruce Lee and Shaw Brothers Hong Kong cinema.

    “He knows more about kung fu movies than I do,” said Moh. “He’s probably the world’s foremost movie fan, and he knows everything.”

    Moh had developed a quick chemistry with the director, but Tarantino needed to find out if Moh would have chemistry with the rest of the cast, which included Academy Award-winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Oscar-nominated actor Margot Robbie. So, Moh was invited to a table read of the script.

    “I settle into this room, this long table with a bunch of placards and a bunch of people hanging around producers. And I see Dakota Fanning, I see Emile Hirsch, I see Luke Perry,” said Moh. “And I think I was the only person at that table read that had not been officially offered the role.”

    Moh relied on his stringent discipline of practice. He’s never going to be out-prepared by anyone in any situation whether competing in a martial arts studio or sharing a scene. He had memorized the exact page his scene was on in the script and knew once he had his shot, he was not going to play it safe.

    “Every page that was read by all those actors across the table from me got me one page closer to when I was going to have my moment,” explained Moh. “I made sure that I was full on Bruce mode, full on performing. And Brad and I actually started getting into it, like eye contact and just like this fun banter and everybody at the table is laughing.”

    Moh said he believes the table read was when he officially landed the role. He was asked to fill in for a few more parts during the read, which was a good sign, and he felt very comfortable by the end of the session. A few weeks later while he was swimming in his neighborhood pool back in Waunakee he got the news.

    I’m swimming in the pool with my kids and I get my call and I get the news and I freak out a little bit. I’m sure my neighbors were wondering what I was so giddy about, and I do a big belly flop into the pool to celebrate and it was a good day,” recalled Moh.

    Moh then began a rigorous prep for the role. He let his hair grow out and re-watched all of Lee’s films and interviews to nail down the icon’s cadence and mannerisms.

    “As far as his energy and as far as his presence and his attitude, that’s what I really wanted to capture,” said Moh. “You would notice certain mannerisms he would have with his hands or with his body or how he would physicalize a lot of his phrases, kind of like he does in martial arts. So he uses all of his being to accentuate a point.”

    Sharing a scene with Pitt on a Tarantino set would be nerve wracking for any actor. Moh said Tarantino treats each of his films like a child and his crew is as tight-knit as a family. To up the ante even more, Tarantino wanted Moh to deliver a four-minute monologue in one continuous shot that ended in a stunt.

    “Before we started shooting, he said, ‘Look, it’s all on you because I have an idea of how I want to shoot this scene. It’s going to be a one-shot take. This is how I want to do it, and if you don’t nail it, I’m gonna have to change it. And this is the way I want to shoot it. But I wouldn’t have hired you if I didn’t believe that you could do it.’ So as my knees are quivering, I said, ‘Yes, yes, sir,’” Moh said.

    Moh and Pitt nailed the scene on the fourth take and even though Moh’s presence in the film is only about five minutes in a nearly three-hour movie, he left not only an impression on the audience, but on his co-star as well. When Pitt accepted the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he thanked Moh specifically.

    While Moh’s performance was universally praised, Tarantino’s depiction of Lee was met less enthusiastically from Lee’s family. Lee’s daughter Shannon called out the director on his “disrespectful” depiction of Lee as cocky and brash.

    For his part, Moh understands Shannon’s position, but also understood the gravity of Lee’s position as one of the lone faces of Asian Americans in TV and film of the era and the fight he needed to have for that visibility.

    “Even though he was kind of on his way to super stardom, he never got to experience how famous he became. So he was still fighting his way, trying to change the perception of what an Asian man is on screen representation-wise,” Moh said. “So he had to be a little cocky and a little boastful, and that’s what was so important to me. To see that, ‘Oh, an Asian man doesn’t have to be subservient or weak. You can be strong and confident and have a little attitude.’”

    Moh still teaches his classes in Waunakee. He said after the premiere and awards season he’s “creatively hung over a little bit because I had just come off my dream role. So now I’m trying to figure out what is it that I really, really want to do.”

    “I’ve got a new belief in myself that I don’t have to just do the action roles. I can do the drama roles, I could do comedy roles, I could do different things,” said Moh. “Variety is the spice of life, and I’m excited at all the opportunities that may or may never come.”

  • Dear Cleopatra: Author Offers Advice From Historical Women

    When author Jennifer Wright was running the now-defunct fashion and beauty website The Gloss, she was shocked to learn that her column called Shelf Dolls — about fashionable women in history — was the most popular feature on the site.

    I didn’t realize there was such a hunger on people’s part to learn more about these women who had existed 50 or 100 or 200 years ago,” Wright told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Wright herself has always been fascinated by strong historical women. She has parlayed her personal, now professional passion into a series of witty pop history books.

    2015’s “It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History” captured some of history’s most disastrous heartbreaks. Her follow-up “Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them” provided a light-hearted touch on a dark history and ended up winning Audible’s history book of the year for 2017.

    Now she returns with “We Came First: Relationship Advice from Women Who Have Been There” which playfully doles out life lessons on love, dating, divorce, self-sufficiency and flirting from over 40 of history’s iconic women.

    “The premise is that it’s written in a ‘Dear Abby‘ style, where somebody writes to a woman of the past asking for advice on something going on with her life. Then based on how that woman responded to events in her life or hopefully letters that we have from her, she writes back with advice on what she did in a similar situation,” Wright explained.

    Wright jokes she and her husband refer to the historical figures she studies as her “ghost friends” and that she has always enjoyed using their life experiences as useful guidance in her own life.

    “It’s nice to see how people I admired or at least people I’m very interested in — sometimes people who I desperately don’t want to end up like — responded to different situations in the past,” she said.

    “We Came First” is broken up into five main sections dealing with different elements of life and Wright makes it clear that not all of her subject’s life experiences comport to useful or “good” advice.

    “Some of the women that were the most fun to write were women who were giving advice that I did not think I would give,” said Wright. “I have no desire to murder my mother-in-law like Marguerite de Valois.”

    One of her favorite examples of poor advice comes from the entry about Nell Gwynn on dealing with competition. Gwynn was the mistress of King Charles II who famously derailed competing mistress Moll Davis’ time with the king by sneaking laxatives into her lunch.

    Wright sums up the devious maneuver in Gwynn’s fictitious advice entry, writing “she spent the night on the chamber pot rather than in the king’s bed. And then I swooped in like the kind of sexy angel who poisons people.”

    “Yeah, don’t poison your rival’s food,” Wright advised. “But I did think that it was a very sassy, very Nell Gwynn type move. She was known as pretty witty Nell and she did a lot of very funny, very brazen things in her life.”

    Wright was adamant that she wanted to capture a wide range of advice that would be helpful to a broad spectrum of people and situations.

    “I personally love being married. I love what it represents,” said Wright. “But, if you really feel pressured into that and it’s not an institution that’s for you, you might find comfort in Simon de Beauvoir’s advice about how marriage can be very detrimental for both parties and how it’s not something that works out well. Or Queen Elizabeth or Coco Chanel, who talk about how their careers became much stronger because they chose to remain unmarried.”

    And Wright isn’t finished with her series. She notes that her next entry will be called “Slay” and will focus on famous women assassins from history.

    “It’s about female assassins and poisoners throughout history. And I wanted to write it in because as a woman, I feel scared so often in such a real way,” she said. “I was interested in what it would be like to be a woman who actually makes it a scary time for men and what it’s like for what it was like for female assassins to exist.”

    That may mean a sequel entry for Marguerite de Valois.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Joshuah Bearman Guest
  • Mike Moh Guest
  • Jennifer Wright Guest

Related Stories