Karena Lam's on-screen kids call her mum off-screen too

Actress forged a strong bond with the two girls after they hung out together for two weeks before filming started for American Girl

To cultivate a sense of kinship with her on-screen daughters in Taiwanese family film American Girl, actress Karena Lam spent two weeks hanging out with co-stars Caitlin Fang and Lin Pin-tung before filming started.

The 43-year-old tells The Straits Times: "I'd make breakfast for them. We'd have meals together, go bowling, chat and listen to music. They called me mum outside of filming too, so we had a really natural chemistry. It didn't feel like acting, we felt like a real family."

The film, which is showing in Singapore, is based on Taiwan-born director Fiona Roan's life. She moved to the United States as a child, returning to Taiwan as a teenager during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic.

The film had four wins at the recent Golden Horse Awards, including Best New Director for Roan and Best Newcomer for 15-year-old Caitlin.

The film reflects Roan's struggles to fit in after years in the US.

Lam, who grew up in Canada before moving to Taiwan as a teenager, says she faced similar struggles. "Back then, I couldn't read or write Chinese and yet everyone was speaking Chinese to me.

"So I had that frustration, 'Why is everyone expecting me to know Chinese?'"

Roan, 31, says the toughest thing about portraying her own life was putting herself in her mother's shoes. Her mother was battling breast cancer at the time.

"To write a mother-daughter story that is rich, I need to make the character of the mother someone who's three-dimensional. I have to look at her beyond what she was as a mum and to think about what her dreams and life were like before becoming a mother," she says.

As a result, Roan saw her mother and her own life through a new lens. Though she did extensive research into how people battle and survive cancer, she says she was too young during her mother's illness and did not witness her treatment process.

"It was only when we filmed Karena going through chemotherapy that I felt like I was given the chance to glimpse something that I had never seen before. I was very touched."

Lam, who was a self-professed rebellious child, says she thought a lot about her own experiences while making the film.

She recalls: "There were times when my mother would hit me and cry as she did it. I used to think, that's so crazy. If you want to hit me, then don't cry."

Is she worried her own daughters, who are eight and 11 this year, might act out the way the elder daughter does in the film?

She says: "I think going through a rebellious phase is perfectly normal. My children will have to walk their own path and all I can do as a mother is to let them know that I'll always be there for them."

Anchoring the film as the titular American Girl is newcomer Caitlin, who was picked from online auditions of students attending international school in Taiwan.

She says: "I think the more emotional scenes where I cry and fight are easier to portray. But the scenes where the emotions are more restrained are harder to express. I just try my best to think of my character Fang-i's problems as my own problems and bring out the Fang-i as I imagine her to be."

Lam says of Caitlin: "Her ability to pick up emotions is great. There was one scene where we had an extended argument. And we had to stop in between to adjust the cameras and everything and she lost the emotions she needed in that moment.

"But she asked us to give her some time and, after a while, she told us she was ready."

Caitlin says her most memorable scene is one in which she lovingly strokes a horse. "It was my first time acting with an animal. We filmed it really late and the horse was tired and annoyed, so when it stalked off, there were sparks flying from its hooves."

•American Girl is showing in cinemas.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2021, with the headline Karena Lam's on-screen kids call her mum off-screen too. Subscribe