Black Lightning Actress Chantal Thuy: The F.A.D. Interview

Hers isn’t a household name yet, but actress Chantal Thuy’s growing body of artistic work will undoubtedly win her many more fans soon. Among her various projects, she has a recurring role on The CW’s Black Lightning, DC Comics’ first ever TV show centered on an African American superhero. 

Chantal plays bartender, bookstore staffer, and comic book geek Grace Choi, a bisexual Asian American woman who has a budding romance with one of the title character’s two daughters, a medical student named Anissa Pierce (played by Nafessa Williams). Grace’s special powers have yet to manifest on the show, but her back story is laid out in the DC Comics source material; she’s half-Amazonian, giving her a common ancestry with Wonder Woman. Thus, in the comics, she possesses superhuman strength, endurance, and self-healing. Hopefully, we’ll see her powers at work on the TV version of Black Lightning this season!

Grace and Anissa Bookstore
Grace (right, played by Chantal) and Anissa (left, played by Nafessa Williams) meet for the first time. Grace holds an issue of The Outsiders comic book, an allusion to the DC Comics superhero group that includes both Grace and Anissa.  (Image: The CW)

But Chantal doesn’t just portray an extraordinary character. She’s an extraordinary person, which I’ve found as we’ve interacted over the last year. In this Feminist Asian Dad interview, Chantal discusses bisexual and Asian American identities, her family’s refugee experience, what she does for fun, and much more. It’s a truly heartfelt conversation which I know you’ll enjoy! (And it’s been gently edited for length and clarity.)

FEMINIST ASIAN DAD: You’ve gotten quite a response from viewers who identify as LGBTQ. What’s that been like?

Chantal: I’m moved by the support and love from Black Lightning fans in the LGBTQ community. They are my favorite people in the world, and I want to give them so much love! I’m super proud and honored to play Grace Choi and to do my part to give them voice and visibility, especially young LGBTQ women of color.

What is one bit of fan feedback about Grace being bisexual that has been particularly meaningful for you?

I understand how identifying as bisexual is still confusing for society, and that some people don’t think it’s a legit thing. But it is! I remember years ago reading an article arguing that we all fall somewhere on the sexual orientation spectrum. It’s important to me that I am neither straight nor a lesbian; I am bisexual, and that is its own thing. I’ve loved hearing from fans how much it’s meant to them to hear that proudly and unequivocally spoken.

Grace is one of only four Asian sheroes on TV with superpowers in their storylines, along with Daisy Johnson on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Clarice Fong on The Gifted, and Nico Minoru on Runaways. What’s that felt like for you, to be in such a select group repping Asian North American women? (UPDATED: With the conclusion of the second season of Iron Fist, Colleen Wing is now the fifth!)

That statistic is shocking! For real, are there that few Asian American female superheroes on network TV? Hopefully the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before shows networks that Asians can be television leads, have a voice, and kick ass.

Grace Sewer
A graphic novel version of Grace, who can definitely kick ass. (Image: DC Comics)

Many Asian North American women I know have talked about missing out, when they were growing up, on seeing faces like their own on TV and in film. What was your experience with seeing representation?

Part of the reason I chose acting as my craft was because there was such a huge lack of diversity on TV and cinema in my hometown of Montreal, Quebec. To this day, the industry there still lags behind in terms of representation, and that’s something I have always wanted to defy.

Hopefully, I can do my part so young people of color in Quebec can grow up feeling like they matter – that they’re seen and have a right to exist with all their colors, quirks, and weirdness. It also just makes me mad that Asian Americans are largely ignored in popular media. This has got to change! Acting has given me my voice, so I am deeply grateful that I can live in a way that satisfies both my social activist and artistic sides.

Chantal and Dr. Tran
Chantal doesn’t shy away from activist causes. Here she is with another friend of this blog, former congressional candidate Dr. Mai Khanh Tran! Read my interview with Dr. Tran here. (Image: Chantal Thuy)

I know you’re a proud Canadian. What led your family from Vietnam to Quebec?

I am a proud Canadian, and actually, it’s “Quebecoise”, as I grew up in the French part of Canada. So even though I’ve had some resentments and frustrations with the Quebecois culture, I do feel a deep sense of pride for the language, culture, and city I grew up in.   My family fled the Vietnam War by boat and ended up in Quebec because we had an aunt already established there. Otherwise, we would have immigrated to California.

On Father’s Day, you posted a beautiful word of appreciation for your dad. Tell us a bit about him.  

My dad left Vietnam with my mom during the war. She had told him that if he didn’t come with her on the boat, she would stay behind with him. My dad didn’t want to separate her from her family, who were all fleeing, so he went with her. He didn’t even have time to go home to tell his parents he was escaping.

It was only after 2 years apart that his parents finally got word that he was alive and living in Montreal. It took him another 18 years before he made enough money to return to Vietnam to visit them. By then, they were very old. I can’t even imagine what that was like for him.

He worked so hard for us. He made his way through engineering school while working at KFC for ten years to provide for us, and he spent his entire work life afterward at IBM before finally retiring a few years ago. Now he goes back to Vietnam every year to spend time with his family. He also plays golf and reads a lot of books on health and Buddhism.

God, I love him. It took growing out of my rebellious teenage years for me to really appreciate the magnitude of his journey and the immense sacrifices he’s made for the well-being of his family. I love him so much.

I visited your hometown of Montreal years ago, and it’s got a true European vibe. What do you enjoy doing when you go back?

Yes! Montreal is best during the summer months, when all the festivals are up and running. This is still my favorite time to go home – to check out the Tam-Tams drum circles, the Jazz Festival, and the Just for Laughs festival, and to just walk around the city in bloom. But first and foremost, my favorite thing to do there is spending time with my family, nieces, and nephews and seeing my friends.

You seem to really enjoy traveling overall. Recently, you visited Sri Lanka. What’s one of your favorite things about traveling?

Chantal Sri Lanka
“Left my heart in Sri Lanka,” Chantal says. (Image: Chantal Thuy)

Yup, I have wanderlust. Sri Lanka was a surf and spiritual trip. Next, I’d like to go to Vietnam to visit my family, then Atacama to stargaze, and Mexico to eat the better Mexican food.

You’ve spent substantial time in a lot of places – including New York City, where you studied at the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting. These days, what city do you consider “home,” and why?

Los Angeles has been a solid base for me for the past several years. I’ve acclimated to the winterless months; it would be really hard to go back to shoveling snow everyday!

You’ve put in quite a few air miles in the service of your profession. Black Lightning takes you to Atlanta, all the way across the country. It all exemplifies how acting takes a lot of commitment! What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an actor? (In particular, I’m thinking about the two girls, ages 12 and 9, who live in my household.)

Yes, the air miles! I am so grateful to Black Lightning for my air miles.

But seriously, I think with any craft, you need persistence, discipline, commitment, and the willingness to bring yourself to your work. I always remember the Malcolm Gladwell quote that it takes 10,000 hours to master any art or craft. I believe that.

Stella Adler helped to really shape my expectations – that the goal of an artist is to be a working actor. It’s not about accumulating wealth, or likes, or being famous. The path of the artist is a marathon, with plenty of ups and downs. But as long as we keep growing, and giving ourselves to our art form, there is some satisfaction and a sense of purpose.

“Growth as an actor and as a human being are synonymous.” I’ll never forget that. Our primary skill and duty as an actor involves caring, understanding, and awareness – to be a human being to others in this world.

Chantal Fierce
Chantal says, “The path of the artist is a marathon, with plenty of ups and downs. But as long as we keep growing, and giving ourselves to our art form, there is some satisfaction and a sense of purpose.” (Image: Michael Chinnici Photography)

What else are you working on these days? Perhaps a personal project, something in media, or even something in theater, where I know you have an extensive background.

I acquired the options for a Vietnamese-Canadian book that I adore and that I’m working on adapting for cinema. I have some experience with script writing, but this will be the biggest project I’ve undertaken. And it is absolutely thrilling. I really believe in this story, and I’m anxious to have more dedicated time to developing it. I believe creating and telling our own stories is an integral part of being an artist, and I look forward to making this one happen.

I wanted to close with this: In the comics, Grace has a ton of tattoos. Do you have any?

I got a tattoo of an “anarchist star” on my wrist in dedication to a friend who died in 2014. It’s inspired by one of my favorite Rumi quotes: “We come spinning out of nothingness, scattering stars like dust.” I like to be reminded that our time here on Earth is short, but that we have each other, this precious human family. And also that we are made of stardust!

Thanks so much for chatting!

Thanks for having me!

You can follow Chantal on Instagram (@chantalthuy), Twitter (@Chantal_Thuy), and Facebook (@chantalthuyofficial). Season 2 of Black Lightning launches Tuesday, October 9, on The CW.