Gemma Nguyen on HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON LIVE SPECTACULAR
by Gene Ching
In 2010, the 3D film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON turned Cressida Cowell's eleven-volume children's book series into a major franchise. The movie was a huge success for DreamWorks, earning a half billion dollars worldwide as well as two Oscar nominations and several other distinguished awards including ten Annies (animated film awards). In the film's wake, DreamWorks partnered with Global Creatures, an Australian-based entertainment group that produced WALKING WITH DINOSAURS: THE ARENA SPECTACULAR, a live stadium show based on a popular six-part BBC documentary. WALKING WITH DINOSAURS premiered in 2007, and since then the show has been seen by over seven million people in over two hundred cities. It continues to tour the world. DreamWorks has already had great success with a live theatrical version of SHREK and two film sequels for HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON are in the works for 2014 and 2016.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON LIVE SPECTACULAR debuted last year. It has been touring through to this year of the dragon, and is currently in North America. With music by John Powell and Jónsi from Sigur Rós, the show features 24 life-sized dragons. The wizards at Global Creatures have created lifelike dragons (based on the ones in the film) that walk, fly and breathe fire in a spectacular fusion of puppetry, animatronics and special effects in a $20-million-plus show for the whole family.
Alongside the dragons are a cast of actors, stunt people and martial artists. We caught up with Gemma Nguyen, a 3rd degree black belt champion and one of the actresses that plays the lead character Astrid.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON LIVE SPECTACULAR
GC: Tell us about your martial arts background - you started at age 5?
GN: Yes, I started when I was five at Charlie Lee Karate. He taught Taekwondo; it was the Jhoon Rhee curriculum, but he just called it Charlie Lee Karate because it was more marketable (laughs). I got my third degree black belt in Taekwondo under his school. Then I competed in Sport Karate for about ten years on the NASKA circuit. N.A.S…
GC: Yeah, I know NASKA (laughs)
GN: Yeah, I won a bunch of titles, six world titles. I moved to Los Angeles right after high school and pursued stunt work.
GC: What got you started in the martial arts at that age?
GN: Oh I was such a tomboy growing up. I was obsessed with Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles - a huge, huge fan - and my dad used to take me to Chuck E. Cheese right next door to the Karate school. I would always be peering into the windows. I loved it so much. And my dad surprised me one day with an introductory class. I just fell in love with it and the rest is history.
GC: What made you want to try out for HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON?
GN: I was doing some stunt work and dabbling in acting as well. My manager called me to audition for this but I had already auditioned. He was trying to get me into the callback. And so they accepted. I auditioned for this role mainly because I found out that I was going to be auditioning for Astrid. They were interested in looking for Viking teens at first. Then they specifically asked me to audition for Astrid. From the movie, I knew she had a lot of martial arts movement and prowess. So I thought for me it would be a great role just because I could translate my martial arts skills onto a stage for the role that I'm playing.
So I auditioned for Astrid and I had high hopes. And when I found out I was cast, I was just ecstatic.
GC: How rigorous were the tryouts?
GN: It was definitely an interesting audition. The first couple of auditions - there was like five or six, I think - I had callbacks so much because they wanted to make sure, like really narrow it down. The first two auditions were just improv line reading and I did some martial arts here and there, like inside the improv. But then, by the time the fourth audition came around and I found out I was auditioning for Astrid, they really wanted to see what I could do martial arts-wise. And so I basically just did my form that I normally do when I compete. And they were impressed and they offered me the role.
GC: You had seen the movie before the audition, yes?
GN: Yes. I saw it in theaters in 3D. It was so cool.
GC: What did you think of Astrid?
GN: I thought she was fierce and determined and an awesome role model for girls. There are very few times when they have the female heroine character in a cartoon, and I thought it was really good message for young girls everywhere.
GC: I have long supported martial arts in live theater as a great expression of the martial arts. It's like pro ice skaters who do Disney on Ice shows. How do you feel about live performance?
GN: Like in the show, or when I compete?
GC: Both actually, but I was thinking specifically in the show.
GN: I pride myself in being a performer. I really love to express myself, especially in the martial arts. That's what I've dedicated a lot of my life to. So when I competed on stage, it was like being able to express all of the hard work.
I love the feeling of competing. It's exhilarating. But it's a lot different on stage because not only are you trying to showcase your skills, but at the same time, you're also storytelling. It's the drama. There's still acting and all of these developments involved. That's also exhilarating in a different sense - like in the sense that I'm able to take what I'm good at, do what I love, perform in front of audiences worldwide, and tell a story at the same time.
GC: Was it challenging to transition from being a competitor to a stage performer?
GN: No, actually. It was a pretty smooth transition for me. I think the hardest part was trying to move more loosely. A lot of times in the martial arts when you're competing, it's very technical, like with your front stances, the way you punch, the way you set up and chamber and kick. It breaks down into a lot of technicalities. Whereas on stage, you have to worry less about those and be more worried about what the character would do. So for me, I had to learn to still keep my martial arts but move in a kind of more agile way, you know. She (Astrid) wouldn't be so rigid, I think, as with martial arts like Karate. So that was probably the hardest part for me to transition into; but otherwise, it was really easy.
GC: So you've been on tour for like a year, right?
GN: Yeah! Actually, we just had our one-year anniversary on the 26th. We auditioned earlier that year, and then we went to Australia to open there. And then we toured Australia and New Zealand, and now we're touring North America.
GC: Is life on tour demanding for you?
GN: The role is very physically demanding, which is why we have two Astrids and two Hiccups. We switch off every show, so that's definitely a nice bonus for us.
GC: How much do you have to practice while on tour?
GN: We still do train. We have an allotted warm-up time before the show when we can stretch and make sure we're warmed up. But as far as training goes, I try to do open gyms as much as I can. It's just travelling from city to city. We travel from city to city every week, so it's hard to find an open gym and make it there in time with our busy schedules. But when I do, I definitely do my best to maintain all the tricks I already have and techniques and all that stuff.
GC: What advice might you have for martial artists aspiring to live theater?
GN: Oh my gosh. Expect the unexpected and be passionate about what you do and what you love and one day it will lead you where you want to be as long as you keep pushing and really believe in yourself.
GC: Here's a question I don't get to ask often. What's it like to ride a dragon?
GN: (laughs) It's definitely a new experience. That came as a first. I'd never even worked with animals, let alone dragons.
They're very realistic. They're puppeteered live every night, so every performance is different. So you're acting against something that's really live - live acting next to something that you think that, like, 'Oh, you know, they probably have everything rehearsed and choreographed.' But sometimes I forget that he's not real. Does that make sense?
GN: Yeah. Flying on a dragon is really cool because we're suspended over thousands of people in an audience and it's really breathtaking.
GC: After the tour ends, do you have any plans?
GN: Not yet. Right now, we are open-ended. So it depends if the show goes for two, three, four, five, six years. Like I said, just expect the unexpected. I feel blessed to be part of this production and hope to continue going on and we'll see where the road leads.
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