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In Movies & TV

Milwaukee-born actress Chuti Tiu stars in "Pretty Rosebud," which she also wrote and co-produced.

Fighting gender and race role disparity blooms into "Pretty Rosebud"

Milwaukee-born actress Chuti Tiu – most recognizable as the overstressed Yo-Yo's overbearing mother in last summer's Google comedy "The Internship" – first got the taste for performing all the way back in first grade, playing Snow White at St. Matthias Parish School in West Allis.

Her latest role in "Pretty Rosebud," however, finds her playing anything but a perfect Disney princess. And considering she's the film's writer, she has only herself to thank.

Tiu stars in the independent drama as Cissy, a career-driven woman whose veneer of a perfect life starts peeling away. Her marriage has become strained. The cultural divide between Cissy and her traditional Asian parents – who make no secret of their desire and expectations for grandchildren – has only gotten wider.

And while she feels like a disappointment to her friends and family, her life is even more of a disappointment to herself. Faced with an identity crisis, Cissy moves down a darker path, starting up secret affairs in the hopes of reawakening her seemingly empty life.

"What I wanted to delve into was the dark or shadowy side of a woman stuck in a situation where she feels like she's between a rock and a hard place," Tiu said. "There's no way out, no feasible option, which makes her feel claustrophobic. Household expectations, parental expectations, cultural pressures, religious pressures, things at work, the economy; I think a lot of people feel that."

The idea for the film – directed by Oscar Torre, Tiu's husband and an actor himself ("The Hangover Part III") – came to the actress as she was building her career out in Los Angeles. Though her resume was growing, she was finding herself disappointed by the seemingly limited types of roles being offered.

"As an Asian American actress, sometimes it's a little frustrating when I get thrown very similar, typical and sometimes stereotypical roles," Tiu said. "It threw me for a loop when not only the roles I audition for, but the ones I see on TV and film tend to be kind of mono-dimensional. They don't have a lot of depth. They might be a sidekick or something like that, but you don't really get to dive into idiosyncrasies and the flaws of that person's life."

Seeing almost nothing but the same types of roles being offered to herself and to other Asian American actors – as well as other minority actors – Tiu decided to take a stand.

"I think Steven Spielberg said something around the lines of don't wait to be in somebody else's project; make or write your own," Tiu said. "Let's say you have a Caucasian male writer. I cannot expect him to really know what I know and vouch for what I've gone through. If I want a story that captures some of the things that I understand and can vouch for, I'd better write it myself. So it's kind of like taking control of my own destiny."

The resulting screenplay was "Pretty Rosebud," which provided Tiu with the kind of meaty, flawed and fascinating character she wasn't finding as compared to most of the scripts being offered in Hollywood.

It wasn't just for herself either. Tiu wrote the story to feature a very multicultural cast in the hopes of creating more strong roles for other minority actors and actresses underserved by most big studio productions.

"In the world I live in – and the world that lots of my friends live in – just because you're Asian doesn't mean all your friends are Asian," Tiu said. "Just because you're white doesn't mean all your friends are white, and so on. We constantly work with, come into contact and become best friends with people of completely different backgrounds. So I thought it was important to portray that."

Tiu also noted that Torre, the other key main creative force behind "Pretty Rosebud," comes from a very different background himself – while Tiu is an Asian American, Torre is a Cuban American – helping to add a different perspective to the feature as well.

However, race and ethnicity are not the only topics that were on Tiu's mind while writing and filming "Pretty Rosebud." Women – oddly viewed as a minority, niche audience by most major studios – have traditionally been ill served by many major Hollywood scripts, in both quantity and quality of strong, challenging and complicated roles.

"In mainstream media and culture, the whole theme of a man cheating on a woman seems to be a pretty commonplace thought, whereas the opposite seems much more rare and taboo," Tiu said. "It always bothered me, this whole idea of 'Oh, he's the man. That's just what they do. You have to forgive him for that,' but if a woman does that, it's the whole scarlet letter on her chest. That's so hypocritical in my mind. If you cheat, you cheat; it hurts somebody no matter the gender, and one gender shouldn't be more forgiven than the other. It just kind of got under my skin, so I wanted in my mind, in my own little way, to balance the score of the story there. Let's flip the script a little bit."

The film screens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Marcus Majestic Cinema, 770 N. Springdale Rd., in Brookfield. The showing is technically sold out according to the event's Tugg page, but Tiu noted that some seats will likely become available as the screening approaches.

Even if it is sold out, "Pretty Rosebud" is currently touring the nation on the festival circuit, picking up buzz and hopefully wider distribution, so it may make a return to Milwaukee soon (the movie's website and Twitter page are updated with news of future screenings). As a Milwaukee native herself, Tiu certainly wouldn't mind finding a reason to return home again.

"(L.A.) is definitely a lot of fun, but I can tell you I often miss my Milwaukee roots. It's definitely a more grounded, more down to Earth existence there in Milwaukee."


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