Lily Mariye, an award-winning film director, award-winning screenwriter and actor, made her episodic television directorial debut with this week’s episode of ABC’s “Nashville,” titled “What I Cannot Change, ” written by Taylor Hamra, which features the return of Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere).
Kyle Fowle notes in the “Nashville” recap on EW.com,
“I don’t know if it’s just the presence of a healthy Juliette Barnes on the screen, but “What I Cannot Change” is perhaps the best episode of this season of Nashville so far — and by quite a long shot. There’s nothing overly dramatic or depressing or out of character. Just good ol’ fashioned drama and country music, which is exactly what Nashville is supposed to be.”
I met Mariye in 2012, when her debut feature, Model Minority, starring Helen Slater, Nichole Bloom (Shameless, Superstore), Marc Anthony Samuel (“General Hospital”), Robert Bailey Jr. (“The Night Shift”), Chris Tashima and “ER” alum Laura Innes, was screening at the Asian American International Film Festival.
She received The Audience Choice Award for Narrative Feature that night and Model Minority has won 10 other Film Festival Awards including Best Film (Sacramento, London Independent, Asians on Film); Best Director (London Independent, L.A. Asian Pacific, Las Vegas, DC Asian Pacific American, Asians on Film), Best New Actress and Best Cinematography (LA Asian Pacific). Since its July 2013 debut on Hulu, Amazon.com, IndieReign, Mgo and SnagFilms, it has had over 750,000 views.
The film stars Nichole Bloom as Kayla, an underprivileged Japanese American girl with a drug addict mom (Jessica Tuck) and an alcoholic dad (Chris Tashima), who endangers her promising future as an artist when she becomes involved with a drug dealer (Delon De Metz).
Mariye’s opportunity to direct her first episode of television for ABC’s “Nashville,” comes after her participation in the 2012-2014 ABC/Disney/DGA Creative Development Program as a director.
Mariye is also an actor, best known for her role as nurse Lily Jarvik on the award-winning TV series “ER” for 15 seasons, for which she won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble in a Drama Series four times.
Born in Las Vegas, Nevada, she graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Theatre Arts. She has appeared in many films such as Extraordinary Measures, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Mighty Joe Young, The Shadow, The New Age, and The Doctor. Lily is recurring on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and has guest-starred in over 30 TV shows including Criminal Minds, “NCIS: LA,” “Shameless”. She is an award-winning theatre actress, performing in New York, Los Angeles and other regional theatres around the country.
Her award-winning short film, The Shangri-la Café, has shown in over 25 film festivals around the world, including the BBC British Short, Seattle International and Palm Springs Short, winning Best Short Film at Moondance and Best Screenplay at Brussels Independent. Her short film was based on her feature screenplay The Shangri-la Café, which won Best Screenplay from the Cynosure Screenwriting Awards, the Page international Screenwriting Awards, GAFFERS Film Festival and the Ohio International Independent Film Festival and was also a top 15% finalist for both the Nicholl Fellowship and the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. Mariye was named one of PBS’ Up and Coming Filmmakers of Color and received the Filmmaker of the Year Award from the National Organization for Women.
A resident of Los Angeles, Mariye lives with husband, 4-time Grammy-nominated Concord recording artist/saxophonist Boney James, who also contributed to the soundtracks for The Shangri-la Café and Model Minority.
Lia: What was your path to directing your first episode of “Nashville”?
Lily: The showrunner is a Filipina American woman named Dee Johnson whom I know from “ER.” She was a writer/producer on “ER” and we’ve stayed in touch. Getting hired to direct “Nashville” was a real confluence of events; it really took a village for me to get my very first episode of directing television. I was in the ABC Creative Talent Development program from 2012-2014. When I got in the program, Janine Jones, the program executive said, “Do you know anyone who works on any of our shows, here at ABC?” They were trying to get us shadowing assignments, so the production and producers would like us, look at our work, and hire us to direct an episode.
So I said, “I know Dee.” ABC set it up so I could go shadow. Then I stayed in touch with Dee and let her know how passionate I was about the show, and what I had observed. I guess I showed her that I was mature, professional, capable and intuitive enough to understand how the show works and she hired me to direct one.
Honestly, although I am a fan of country music, you don’t have to be an expert on Country music to direct an episode of “Nashville.” Directing anything is really just telling the story, looking at the words on the paper and making the story come alive on screen. Directing “Nashville” required me to know the show inside and out, to understand the characters, and to understand how the music business works. My husband is a musician. Everything that the characters go through on “Nashville,” I’ve watched my husband go through, from dealing with his record companies, touring, working his way up from playing 50 bucks a night playing in a window of a restaurant, to headlining at Hollywood Bowl. There’s a long myriad of events that get you there and I understood the process.
Having been an actor on a television show for 15 seasons gave me an understanding of how television works as well as a really deep understanding of what television actors want from their directors. The directors come and go and the actors have to stay there. It’s a crapshoot for the actors. From one week to the next, you don’t know what you’re going to get, you don’t know if your director is competent or can talk to actors. I had to assure them that I understood what they went through and being an actor myself, what actors want from their directors. They don’t want instruction, they want direction. They want a mirror. They want to know that you see what they’re doing, and that what they are trying to do is translating on-screen. So it was a lot about my gaining their trust. And gaining the trust of the crew.
I understand that showing up on the set, at this point in time, it’s unusual to see an Asian American woman sitting in the director’s chair. I’m sure that the crew was a little wary and nervous. I just did my job, focused on what I needed to do. I got the crew out early or on time. We progressed along really well together. I was able to communicate with everybody. A few days in, I got the crew out an hour and 45 minutes early. One of the grips came over to me and said, “Ma’am, I just want to say thank you for getting us out early on a Friday night. I can go home and have supper with my family.” That just meant so much to me, that one of the teamsters came over and said something to me. On the very last day, one of the electricians confided in me with a little tear in his eye, “Lily, we took a vote and you can’t go. You have to stay and direct the rest of the episodes for the rest of the season.” I’ll carry that with me to my grave. That just made me feel like, “Wow, this Tennessee teamster, I won him over.” It’s just going to take women, especially Asian American women directing one episode at a time to get people used to us. Hopefully, I can do a good job so it’s easier for the next person who comes along.
Lia: When did you start the program and who was in your village?
Lily: I started the program in 2012. I shadowed on “Nashville” in end of 2013, and I got hired to direct my episode at the end of 2015.
As part of the program, I had an executive mentor at ABC Studios, a woman by the name of Sydnee Rimes. She really pushed for me to get hired. She really believed in me. She introduced me to the ABC network executive, Jo DiSante and the Lionsgate executive at the time, Cara Dellaverson. Between the three of them, Dee Johnson, and the men and women at the ABC Creative Talent Development program, Janine Jones, Emerlynn Lampitoc and Tim McNeal, it took all of them to really push for me to get hired. It wasn’t any one person who made this happen. It really took a village.
Lia: Was directing a television show always something that you wanted to do?
Lily: It was certainly one of the things that I wanted to do. I learned how to direct from shadowing on television. When I was on “ER,” a few years into the show I noticed one of the actors sitting in video village in street clothes with headphones on. I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m shadowing.” I said, “What’s shadowing?” He said, “I’m watching the director, I’m learning how to direct.” I said, “Well, I’m sitting here 16 hours a day, I want to do that too.” So I talked to John Wells and he introduced me to Lesli Linka Glatter and said, “You can shadow Lesli if she says okay.” I shadowed Leslie and Jonathan Kaplan on 11 episodes of “ER,” 6 episodes of “West Wing,” 3 episodes of “Gilmore Girls.” I shadowed Leslie and Clark Johnson on “Homeland.” I continued to learn how to direct from what I call the “ER” College.
We were all there for so long, that I was able to do something that was so invaluable:
I was able to go to each department and ask, “How does this crane work? What does the property department do? How does the sound mixing board work?” I really learned how to direct from my friends on “ER.” Directing television was always on my radar to do, but it’s a tough nut to crack. Finally the stars aligned and I was able to do it. I’m really grateful that it happened on the show that it did.
Jeananne Goossen is half Chinese, from Canada originally. I shadowed on a show called “The Night Shift” and she was a regular on that for a while and we really hit it off. When I learned that I was going to direct “Nashville,” I was really excited.
There was one other Hapa woman, Christina Chang, she’s half Chinese-Filipino. She played an attorney and Charles Esten’s love interest before his character got back together with Connie Britton.
Lia: In November, you were included a New York Times Magazine “The Women of Hollywood Speak Out”. What was it like to part of that group of women and addressing those issues?
Lily: It was amazing! I couldn’t believe it. My friend Lesli is an executive producer on “Homeland” and was interviewed for this piece. Maureen asked her, “Is there anybody that you help? Do you help other women?” Lesli said, “As a matter of fact, I mentor several women and one of them is Lily Mariye. She’s about to direct her first episode of “Nashville.” So Maureen said, “Do you think she’d be willing to talk to me?”
It was exhilarating to be part of this group and to talk to Maureen. At this photo shoot, in line in front of me was Kathleen Kennedy and Jill Soloway. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in the same group as these women!” We’re all going to make-up together, talking and getting ready to take our photos. It was amazing, really amazing.
Lia: What did you take away from it? Did it inspire you to go forward in a different way than the path you are already on?
Lily: What was empowering was that Vanity Fair retweeted the article, and said, “Hollywood only needs to look at these 63 women if they really want to change Hollywood.” I thought, “Wow, I’m part of this group? That’s incredible.” I did feel empowered, I did feel that if Maureen and the New York Times felt that I was worth being included as part of this, that I need to live up to their confidence in me. It still reverberates in my life. People still talk to me about it; it’s put me in a different light in terms of trying to move forward, to work more in television, direct more films. Being on the cover of the New York Times Magazine certainly didn’t hurt! I’m still the same person that I was before Art Streiber took my picture, but I think that sometimes perception is everything.
When I first started shadowing, I didn’t know anything about directing. It was the way that I learned how to direct. I still feel like I learn something new everyday, but once I felt that I had learned enough so that I could actually direct something, then shadowing became about learning how each show operates. It’s like being invited to someone’s house and understanding the dynamics of their family. What time they eat dinner, what they like to do at night? Do they like to sit around and watch TV, do they like to go out? So you have to figure out the dynamics of each family and how it works. That’s been really valuable it terms of preparing myself to be in all of these different situations. It’s really not much different than what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years as an actor. You walk into a new television show or a film and there’s a whole new group of people. You have to figure out who you are going to sit with at lunch! It’s all the same thing. I think my experience as an actor has really helped me a lot in terms of understanding the dynamics of each new show. When I’m directing my own scripts, I try not to set up a too dysfunctional “family” of my own.
Lia: What other projects are you interested in working on?
Lily: When I finished on “Nashville,” I turned to the producer and said, “I never want to direct another show except for “Nashville!” I honestly felt like that. I fell in love with the cast and the crew. I really enjoyed it so much. Everybody was so talented. The show was such a pleasure to direct. I thought, “Oh no, I don’t want this to end, I just want to keep directing THIS show.”
In terms of what I’d like to direct-I’ve been a huge fan of Vince Gilligan since “Breaking Bad.” So my wish list includes “Better Call Saul.” “Homeland.” “Man in the High Castle.” “The Night Shift.” “NCIS:LA.”
I would love to do more indie films. One of the “Nashville” writers, Sibyl Gardner, just had a script optioned and asked me to come aboard as the director. The producers are going to start fundraising soon. It’s called Dumplings, and it’s about a group of families that go to China to adopt babies. It’s based on her own experience and it’s really a wonderful script. I’m still working on my own scripts, the feature version of The Shangri-La Café and I have another script called Loyalty. It’s about a Japanese man that moves to the United States right before WWII. His whole family is killed in Hiroshima. It’s about his inner battle of “Do I stay in a country that just destroyed my whole family? Do I stay in the country that I have learned to love with my new family? Where do my loyalties lie?” It’s a little intense. It’s kind of what’s happening in our country now.
As an actor, I would love to do a play. I haven’t done a play for a while. When I’m directing, I like not having to worry about my wardrobe or my hair and just focusing on what’s happening on the set. When I am acting, I like that I just have to focus on my role and not worry about anything else. It’s two separate mindsets.
It is about the successful women, like Dee Johnson, affecting change. This year on “Nashville,” in addition to hiring me to direct my first episode of television. she hired a woman named Jet Wilkinson, who is Chinese Australian and has directed a lot of Australian TV, but has never broken that barrier of American television. Dee gave her her first shot to direct an episode of “Nashville.” She also gave another Chinese American woman, Valerie Chu, her first shot at writing an episode on “Nashville.” This all happened this year. She’s very quietly doing her job and doing the right thing. Sometimes I think the real heroes don’t get the flashy credit because sometimes the positive stories aren’t perceived as interesting as the negative ones.
Lia: Anything new going on with Model Minority?
Lily: SAG sponsored a screening and a Q&A, which was really lovely. I’m working on a pilot for it, at the suggestion of a friend of mine who when I told her that Model Minority had almost a million hits, on Hulu and Amazon and these other online venues, said wow, maybe there’s a TV audience for that.
Lia: Are you someone who likes to binge watch?
Lily: I only binge watch if I come in late to a show that I start watching and I think, “Oh I really like this show.”
I did that with “Breaking Bad.” I started watching it in its second season, so I had to binge watch the first season. Right now, I’m watching “The Good Wife,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Mercy Street,” “Man in the High Castle,” “NCIS:LA,” “The Night Shift,” “Homeland,” “Better Call Saul,” “Game of Thrones” and “Nashville.”
Normally, I wait for each episode to come out. I think the waiting is one of the most exciting aspects of television that you miss when you watch 12 hours at once. When you watch a show for a half an hour at a time, or an hour at a time, that episode stays with you all week and you get to experience the anticipation of the next episode. I think that is the fun part of the art form, the waiting.
Lia: From when you were on “ER” to let’s say the last five years, how do you think the color landscape of television has changed? Do you feel it’s changed enough?
Lily: “ER” ended in 2009, it started in 1994. I think even during the run of “ER,” the only Asian American Show was Margaret Cho’s show. And it was a shame that didn’t last. It’s sort of like what I hear on television shows when they say, “Oh, we had a woman director once, it didn’t work out.” I think that’s what happened with “All American Girl.” Oh yeah, we had an Asian American television show once, it didn’t work out.” But then since then, there have been more Asian American television shows that are doing well and getting an audience. I think it’s because they’ve gotten a chance to thrive. I think the networks and studios have worked hard and given them a chance to get it right. I think there is a lot more diversity on dramas and comedies, than during the 15 years that “ER” was on. I’d like to think that “ER” was one of those shows that helped break the mold. We had a lot of diversity on the show. I’d like to think because of that; these other shows had a leg up.
On Women in directing.
Lily: The successful women directors that I’ve met, they quietly go about their jobs and nobody asks them about how hard it is to be a director in Hollywood because they’re doing really well. Yes, I think the statistics are low, but I also think that it’s really hard to be a film director and especially a television director, in terms of getting hired. And yes, it might be a little harder for us. I’ve been trying to do this for a long time. My goal is to be one of those women who keeps persevering, does the work and continues to do what I can to get hired. It’s like acting. I remember when I first started acting, people would say, “ Oh you’re an Asian American woman, there aren’t going to be a lot of roles for you, you’re not going to be able to work much.” If I’d listened to other people, I would have just stopped. It was up to me to keep going, I certainly know enough blond hair blue eyed women who tried and gave up. It’s hard for everybody. All I can do is to keep forging ahead.
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.