Cover Story: Nana Ou-yang being Asia’s new rising star at only 17 years old
January 2, 2018
Imagine a little girl at the age of six, telling her parents that she wants to play the cello professionally. Just the sight of a tiny human trying to handle that massive instrument is enough to evoke an “aww” and a chuckle in most. But that’s Nana Ou-Yang’s story – and she hasn’t stopped playing since. Now 17, she has an arsenal of accomplishments under her belt, including being the youngest-ever performer to debut solo at the National Concert Hall of Taiwan at age 12. A year after that, she was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the most prestigious music schools in the world, on a full scholarship. Most recently, you might know her from her high-profile cello rendition of See You Again with rapper Wiz Khalifa at NASA’s 2018 Breakthrough Prize, hosted by Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman. It marked the first time any Asian performed at the event, nicknamed the “Oscars of Science”, and has since gone viral on social media.
Hailing from a family of performers, it would be difficult to say her upbringing was typical. Both her parents were television actors in Taiwan, and her aunt, Fei Fei Ou-Yang, was a pop and disco sensation of the 1970s and ’80s, with her superstar status spanning all of East Asia.
It would be reasonable for one to assume that coming from these roots, Nana would have had her future handed to her and her life would have taken a very clear trajectory into acting. But her move from musician to actress was purely coincidental and met with hesitation on her part. That initial “yes”, however, led her to land in her first movie at the age of 14, Beijing Love Story, starring alongside Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Carina Lau.
You were a musician before you were an actress. How did your interest in classical music begin?
Although I come from a family of performers, nobody was into classical music. I have an older sister and growing up, I think I was 3 or 4 years old, I would watch her practicing the piano. She was a big influence on me and I wanted to do everything that she did, so I asked my mom if I could play the piano like her. Thankfully, she didn’t enjoy practicing very much, so it wasn’t a problem that I took over. I think this is when my love for music ignited. When I was 6, I decided that I wanted to play the cello – I remember my dad would joke about me ending up as a musician, performing for diners at a restaurant.
Your latest album is a collection of Disney classics. Do you have a favourite Disney princess?
My favourite princess is Cinderella because I love her attitude and the way she faces the obstacles in her life. She is brave and kind, and I’ve always looked up to her. I have a song from Cinderella on my second album: A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.
You’re not only a musician, but also an actress who’s quickly gaining recognition and momentum within the industry. If you had to choose between one or the other, which would it be?
It’s not something I can answer right now. Music is something I know I will do for the rest of my life, but if I weren’t an actress, I’m not sure as many people would have known about my music. At this point, I don’t think the two things can be separated.
How do you think you can get more young people to appreciate classical music?
Many of my fans are quite young, but I’ve done a lot of crossovers and remixes so they’ll be interested in it. And also, I think music is the best language in the world!
Being so successful at such a young age, especially at a time where social media plays a huge role in our everyday lives, have you ever had to deal with cyber-bullies?
Behind the anonymous shield of the computer or a phone screen, I think people of this generation are so quick to spout negativity and point out your flaws, because their identities are protected and there are few consequences to what they say. I get a lot of hate from people I don’t know – and who don’t know me either. I know this is a big problem with kids nowadays, but I was brought up by a positive and happy family who taught me that whatever I do needs to bring me happiness. So yes, sometimes you will still get a lot of negativity even though you’re trying your best.But if you have your goals in sight, then this shouldn’t be something to worry about.
When you were 14 years old, you starred in your first movie, Beijing Love Story. How did you manage to land that role? How did you feel being on a film set for the first time?
When I was 12, I got offered a place at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During my summer break there, instead of going on holiday like the other kids, I got a message from a director who wanted to meet with me in Beijing and have me in his movie. He had seen a photo of me playing the cello on one of my family friend’s WeChat posts – and he said he thought he could see the wings of an angel on me in that photo.
Growing up, I saw my parents act and I was always unsure about following in their footsteps, because I wanted to live my own life. So naturally I was a little bit hesitant about meeting the director. I later found out that he was looking for a young girl to play the role of a dancer, but I can’t dance at all, so I declined the role. The director must have really wanted me to be in his movie, though, because he changed the storyline of the dancer to a cellist to suit my abilities. He asked me again if I wanted to be in his movie if the script was changed for me – I told him maybe, because I’m still young and the world is full of opportunities. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “that cello-playing girl”.
After a while, however, he convinced me and I agreed to take on the role, which led to my parents being worried that I had bitten off more than I could chew since I had never taken a single acting lesson in my life. Knowing this, I put in extra effort in preparing and learning my lines. After a while, it became second nature and I realised that besides music, acting might be my second calling.
We’ve just entered 2018 – what are you excited for?
This is a very important year for me because I’m going to be turning 18! I’m also going to be touring around Asia to perform while working on my 18th-birthday album. It’s kind of a present to myself.
Are you still in school now? How do you manage to fit education into your work schedule?
I’m now in my last year of secondary school and I’m home-schooled in Taiwan, so I still have to send in my homework and take tests from time to time. I’m considering going back to the United States to attend college because I think it’s important for me to have that experience, besides just working.
Besides being an actress and a musician, you’re quickly becoming an It-girl and a fashion icon. Have you always been interested in fashion or did you accidentally fall into this role?
When I was little, I wasn’t interested in fashion and I wore whatever I want. My everyday life was to wake up, go to school and then practice on the cello – there wasn’t much room for fashion. But my aunt [Fei Fei Ou-Yang] loved fashion and she changed my view on dressing. I remember going to her house and looking at the mountains of fashion magazines she had, and learning about things such as what the trends were. But my true interest was in the history behind the brands, rather than what was trendy, so I could have my own style and be aware of what I was wearing. I also follow bloggers and models to stay aware of what’s happening in fashion.
What kind of bloggers and influencers do you follow?
Right now, I’m really into Cindy Crawford’s daughter, Kaia Gerber. I think our style is similar: simple and comfortable, but very cool. I also like Chiara Ferragni and Irene Kim because they’re very colourful and healthy while portraying a very positive image. I also like to follow Chinese models such as He Cong and Fei Fei Sun. Of course there’s Liu Wen, who’s at the top of the model game, but it’s also important to recognise newcomers such as He Cong. I like her because her face is like a doll’s, and when I attend fashion shows and I see a familiar Chinese face like hers, I feel immense pride that we are being represented internationally.
Having just acted with Jackie Chan in the sci-fi movie Bleeding Steel, what was it like to work with him?
I can only think of one word to describe him – legend. He’s everyone’s father on set, because he isn’t only doing things for himself, he also takes care of the whole crew.
It really surprises me how he’s never tired! We could be filming until midnight and he would still have the energy to be orchestrating the whole team down to the details, such as how a wire should be pulled. Meanwhile I would be exhausted and collapsed on the floor, and he would come over screaming at me to get up. He’s very aware and on the ball on set, always knowing exactly what he wants to do.
I’ll never forget the invaluable acting and life advice I received from him. He told me that you only live once and I should give it my all while I’m young, so I don’t have any regrets when I’m old. Whenever I’m tired and don’t have the motivation to work, his words of wisdom inspire me to keep going.
Which actor do you dream of working with?
If we’re talking about dreams, I’d love to work with Emilia Clarke, who I discovered in Game of Thrones. I think she’s so flexible as an actress; she can play completely different characters and utilise her life experiences to further enhance the roles she plays. Acting is a skill that builds as you live more life.
Photography / Win Tam
Styling / Kieran Ho
Production / 李宗祥
Hair & Make-Up / Lili 李莉
Outfits / Burberry
This feature originally appeared in the January 2018 print issue of #legend