Chloe Bennet finds her Asian voice in Abominable
When it came to casting spunky teenage protagonist Yi, it was an easy choice for the makers of DreamWorks Animation’s new animated family adventure Abominable, which opens here on Nov 7.
Chloe Bennet, best known for her work as Daisy ‘Skye’ Johnson/Quake on the TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., gave them everything they hoped the character - who encounters a young Yeti on the roof of her apartment building in Shanghai and embarks on an epic quest to reunite the magical creature with his family at the highest point on Earth along with her mischievous male friends Jin and Peng - would be.
For Bennet, whose father is Chinese and mother Caucasian, the role of Yi had unexpected echoes with her own life.
“My agents called me and told me that DreamWorks and Pearl Studio were doing this new film, and the character is a young Chinese girl who lives with her grandmother in China as a teenager,” the 27-year-old US actress said.
“I also lived with my grandmother in China as a teenager. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a weird coincidence.’ When I went in and talked with them and learned about the person Yi is, and how strong-willed she is, her journey resonated so deeply with me. It paralleled my life. I left that meeting and said, ‘If I don’t get this movie, I’m horrible at my job. That is me.’ It felt almost too good to be true.”
The coincidences between her life and Yi’s didn’t stop there.
“It’s all been a very destined process,” said Bennet, who has seven brothers - four biological, two foster and one adopted.
“I grew up with brothers in the city of Chicago, and they’re similar to other characters in the film. I was so very similar to Yi, doing odd jobs like mobile lemonade stands and dog walking. I always felt like an outcast because I wasn’t a girly girl and didn’t know how to interact well outside of my own big family. I felt surrounded but isolated in a way that anyone who feels differently, especially teenagers, can feel.”
For Bennet, Yi is an important, vital step in expanding the representation of Asian people, and Asian girls in particular, in popular culture.
“Maybe this character came to me as a nice gift for not having her as a 10-year-old,” she said.
“It did just as much for me as a 25-to 27-year-old in the process of making it. The power of representation is everything. You don’t realise that when you don’t see someone who looks like you on TV, on film or in music, you start to idolise the people who don’t look like you. It becomes this big snowball effect. ‘Those people are successful, and they have blonde hair. If they don’t have eyes that look like mine, maybe I’m not good enough because I don’t look like them’.
“That’s the power of having someone who looks like you on screen. I really hope that whether people acknowledge it or realise it, it makes a difference to young girls who feel different or left out — whether they’re tomboys or Asians and feel that they’re weird. Because they’re not. They’re really cool. You can be who you are and be a badass at the same time.”
How did writer-director Jill Culton pitch Yi to you in the first place?
I went into a meeting at DreamWorks and it was just a really big conversation with them explaining the film, and me hearing about their version of Yi. Everything that they said, I responded to. “I have to show you this picture of my little brother, he looks just like Peng!” It all fell into place in a really organic way. It was like a really fun hang session with people that I felt like I’d known a long time so it was effortless.
Was there something that you wanted to bring to her?
I just wanted everything to be as authentic and grounded as possible. I wanted the reactions to be honest. There’s an element of heightened emotion with animation and the extreme circumstances of the movie and the whimsical element, but I really wanted for people to stutter when they speak, to have that air of clumsiness that I feel every teenager has and even adults. There was a grittiness I wanted to bring.
Was it important for the movie to be representative of Chinese culture and at the same time for the characters to be people not defined solely by their location or culture?
It was everything. From the beginning of my journey through this industry and as a young Asian-American woman, you are told that you’re supposed to be this or that, and the narrative changes with each person that you’re around - what you show, what is trendy at the time.
And it’s really, really important for me to see characters that are Asian and that we are represented both on and off-screen.
But the heart of the movie is about people. What’s special about this film is that everyone can see themselves in an Asian character, because we are all people. It highlights the human experience so much more than anything else, and that’s what’s important. This brings a layer of texture that is unique and will change the way that young kids view Chinese culture, but it’s also such a relatable story in every way.
You have Yi the dreamer, Peng and Jin and everyone who has a different outlook in the story. And that’s what makes this film dynamic. I don’t want to be defined by one thing, even if it’s a huge part of who I am. I don’t want to be a trend. Hollywood tends to make trends out of everything, and what this movie does is not play into a trend, it just is. It happens to feature Chinese characters, and it happens to be created, produced, written and directed by women, people who are just really good at their jobs.
Did you draw on your own experience with animals for Yi’s relationship with the yeti whom she names Everest?
I grew up in the South Side of Chicago, which was a concrete jungle, and I dreamt of living on a farm. We had these three huge dogs that we had no room for. I loved animals and rescuing animals, and would go and look for cats in the alleyway. I had a pet squirrel hidden in my closet for two months. Not a yeti, but definitely not allowed! He became one of my best friends - Sneeps.
I related to having the urge to rescue animals and connecting with them. There’s an unspoken bond for anyone who loves animals.
This film is actually a quiet film in some moments, it’s very still and that comes from the relationship between a human and an animal. It’s a very magical thing to get to connect with something and to take care of it.
This film sits in nature in a really beautiful way and for all the elements that are whimsical and magical, they’re all really rooted in a nature. The waves of the canola field are still waves, they just happen to be flowers. The dandelions we fly on, they’re still a flower, it’s all very organic. It has this really authentic quality.
How was the experience making the movie?
It was an incredible experience, seeing the teams of people working on things like the movement of the hair. Every moment, every frame, everything was created from scratch and I was certainly aware of the art of animation before this film, but I have a new appreciation. DreamWorks is an entirely different level of craftmanship.
How has your experience with the Marvel world prepared you for this scale of project?
It was one of those things where I was new to the world of animation buffs. I have friends who tell me they’re fans of animation, have a secret love for it. But with Marvel, I was generally shooting with them on green screen. A lot of the physical attributes of my powers were not there, and learning how to work with very little resources was useful. I don’t have superhero powers. So when I’m in a room with Jill and it’s just me and a microphone, I’m a little conscious of imagining the environment with nothing physically there. It’s rooted in character.