tScottish-Chinese actor Marli Siu appears out of nowhere, calls out my name and hugs me. We are in Camden, North London, close to where Siu lives. We agreed to meet at a Kurdish cafe that she loves, but it’s closed for the holidays – “good for them!” we agree – so instead she takes me to a pub nearby. On the way to our meeting, Siu’s Uber driver was angry, clearly not having a good day, and the experience had made it out of Siu. “I was just about to drink tea,” she says. “But now I’m like, I need a beer!”
We meet to discuss the BBC adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s bestselling memoir Everything I know about love, in which Siu shines. The series follows 24-year-old Maggie and the three friends with whom she shares a house – also in Camden – where debauchery, female friendship and a lot of growing up take place. Siu plays Nell, one of Maggie’s friends, a teacher in a seemingly stable relationship who takes on the role of a counselor until it becomes clear that not all is as it seems.
Siu has been working solidly as an actor for years and mixes theater with film and television work. You may have seen her on a list of “stars of tomorrow” (she’s been on several). Her theatrical work has been acclaimed and nominated for an award (she last appeared in The ocean at the end of the lane, at the National). And she starred in three feature films, including an intense, captivating performance as a pregnant teenager in Runfrom Scottish director Scott Graham, for which she won Best Actress at Bafta Scotland last year.
But Everything I know about love feels different – that it could be something like a big breakthrough. Siu had bought the book in a bookstore dragnet just before one of the lockdowns – her friends were fans – and she says there was excitement in the air during the shoot. “They built the set – our living room, our kitchen, our bedrooms – and to me it felt very iconic. It felt like, ‘This is our house, this is the girls’ house.’” The series was put together quickly , with a short lead time, and still being edited for release when we meet.”I got a reminder on my phone today,” says Siu, explaining how fast production went. “You know, when it goes,” This photo was taken a year ago.’ And it was the tape I made with my boyfriend for the first audition…’
I ask if her life is anything like the life she portrays on screen. Not really, she says, though: “The show is set in your early twenties, [a period that] for me, and I think for a lot of people, it was very difficult.” At the start of her career, Siu traveled by bus to London from her Scottish home for auditions. When she won her first parts in 2016, she moved to a ‘chaos house’ in Walthamstow, East London. “I was offered a part on a Friday,” she recalls, “and while I was staying with my boyfriend for the weekend, I got [flatshare website] Reserve room. A friend from Scotland was also looking for a place – she was doing an unpaid internship so she had no money – and on Monday I had found us a flat, a nine-bedroom house, as in very illegal.”
In Scotland, “Everyone was white,” she continues, “so being Asian was different. But in this house, my friend, who is half Spanish, was the whitest person there. Suddenly, for example, I could talk to the Thai girl downstairs about cooking. In London you can come from anywhere and feel like you’re from there.” She later found out that one of her roommates was on drugs and with so many people going in and out of the house, things started to disappear.The doors were eventually locked, so Siu would have a screwdriver with her in case she needed her keys. “At the time I thought, ‘This is life in London!'” she says. “I was just so excited.”
The daughter of a Scottish mother and a Chinese father, Siu lived in Hong Kong until she was four and grew up in Forres, a town in the north of Scotland, with her mother and four sisters. As she describes it, Siu’s early life was rural. Her memories of Hong Kong are of “little things – the food, the markets, how I was always barefoot, me and my sisters played outside a lot”. The family lived on Lamma Island, near Hong Kong “which is quite hippie”. (Siu describes her mother as “like a big hippie”.) “The island of Hong Kong is so different, fast, full of huge buildings. Lamma was a bit slower. I wish I could go back more. Once we got to Scotland We were too small, and my mom had the rest of my sisters, so she couldn’t really take us back, but the memories I do have are happy.”
In Scotland, Siu enjoyed art and dance lessons, but it wasn’t until she encountered a local drama group at age 15 that she discovered acting. “I didn’t know it was a job, nobody in my family did it. In high school I thought I wanted to go to art school and I went to an open house and ended up in the film department and asked where they got the actors from. Once I went to university and started making student short films, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Siu’s mother always rented houses and the family moved a lot, without changing schools. “We used to live quite far away from where the city was,” Siu recalls. “It was funny how completely dependent on my mother when I was younger. If you were out for a night out, there was no taxi – my mother would come in her nightgown and say, ‘You’d better be gone by 11pm sharp or I’ll be right over!’ It was a beautiful childhood, but sometimes I think I don’t have the best social skills, or I get tired of the fast socializing because we grew up in such remote places.”
It all sounds a bit petite women, I say. She laughs: “That’s so true! And we put on plays. My big sister wouldn’t do them, but my younger sisters and my cousins would. So I wrote them and made them dance, and…I don’t remember what they were about, but they always followed the same structure where one of my sisters was always the bad guy and one of my cousins was always the princess.”
Did she keep the plays?
“I had a notebook I wrote them down in, but we’ve moved so much that I don’t know where many things are. I think because of this mix of mixed race and so much exercise, and also because my mother now lives in a different part of Scotland, there was definitely an element of uprooting, and not really knowing where I came from for quite some time. “
During our time together, Siu reiterates that she has talked about similar issues with her sister or friends who are also actors and people of color. Growing up in a very white environment, she didn’t give much thought to being half Chinese until she started acting. “You generally never see yourself as a person in a box, but within the acting industry they have to have you in boxes, and suddenly you’re kind of forced to think about that.” She was worried about getting a job because she hadn’t seen many people on screen who looked like her. She first considered changing her last name to a Western one, though she’s glad she didn’t. “You’re young and impressionable and you just want to do it right,” she explains. “I grew up with not much representation on screen and with a lot of white people, so there wasn’t really a role model for me to aspire to.”
That links to another fear: “I’m worried about talking about this because there are [Asian] actors who came before me, for whom the industry was so much harder. And black actors who have been fighting for space in this industry… They are the only reason there are roles for people like me.” Siu finds it difficult to talk about topics like this, “because sometimes the honest truth is that it It’s not always that much better. Sometimes you’re just really mad at the industry and you never want to come across as angry or bitter, so I’m trying to focus on where we need to go, but so much more is needed.”
In the past it was crucial for her to read about the experiences of other actors. “Interviews I’ve read with Asian actors or black actors who talked about the struggles, what it was like to work in this industry, I saved them.” It meant a lot, she says, to have someone else “co-sign” your experience. “Then you think: oh, I’m not mad.”
It has helped to live in London and find other people who are going through similar things. In a recent conversation with an actor who is also Asian and biracial (a conversation that felt “healing,” Siu says), they shared experiences of casting directors trying to draw on their faces. “Her casting director told her to come in with ‘more Asian eyes,'” says Siu. ‘And mine, in the room, she said, ‘You don’t look so Chinese.’ I said, “Well, I’m mixed race.” And she said, ‘Well, do you have makeup to make your eyes look more Asian?’” Her instinctive response in these situations was to laugh, and it’s only later that the experience sinks in. Siu told the casting director she wasn’t wearing any makeup,’ and she said, ‘I’ve got eyeliner. I do it.’ I was like, oh my god! Is this woman going to draw on my face? Luckily she couldn’t find one.”
Siu is in his late twenties. “There’s no point doing an interview and trying to come across as if I’m really easy here,” she says. “It’s not helpful to anyone to airbrush your experience.” She repeatedly mentions that the fact that this interview is happening now and not earlier in her career is partly due to the fact that she has reached a point where she can afford a publicist. “I went to college and worked for six years to earn enough money to get here — and get good enough.” [at the craft.] It takes the time it takes.”
Siu says she’s really enjoying life now – doing a good job, with a good community of friends, and she can go out and buy nice drinks, and afford to go on vacation. Is she ready to change everything if? Everything I know about love will it be a hit? She shrugs. “I think I’ve had so many jobs where my friends have been” – she gasps, mimicking her friends as they imagine her approaching stardom – “and then it never happens. And even that term ‘famous’, that is so weird. I don’t know if I’m being naive. I hope people like it – and that I’ll get many more auditions.”
Everything I Know About Love is broadcast on BBC One and BBC iPlayer
Fashion editor Jo Jones; photographer’s assistant Kayla Connors; fashion assistant Peter Bevan; hair by Nao Kawakami at The Wall Group; makeup by Kenneth Soh at The Wall Group with Kat Von D Beauty and FaceGym Skincare
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