By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Lily Mariye is no stranger to prime-time TV, having appeared on NBC’s “ER” for 15 years.
But this week marks a new phase in her career — she directed an episode of ABC’s “Nashville” that will air on Wednesday, April 6, at 10 p.m., and more TV directing jobs are in the works.
The episode is a highly anticipated one because it marks the return of rising star Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere) after the actress took a leave of absence from the show.
A native of Las Vegas and a graduate of UCLA with a BA in theater, Mariye got her start as an actress on stage, including a role in Velina Hasu Houston’s “Tea” — a play about Japanese war brides coping with life in America — at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York, the Odyssey in Los Angeles and the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
After being discovered by an agent who saw her in a play, she got a singing and dancing role in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a movie musical starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, and appeared in such TV shows as “Family Ties,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Murphy Brown” and “Jake and the Fatman” as well as the made-for-TV movie “American Geisha.”
Mariye guest-starred as the operations officer of the USS Saratoga in the first episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Although her character was killed during a battle, “it was very exciting — I was a big Star Trek fan and still am — to get to wear a uniform, to get to explode on the bridge,” she said, adding that she received fan mail even though her character didn’t have a name and didn’t get much screen time.
Her recurring role as a nurse on “ER” from 1994 to 2009 was the result of an audition. “I had auditioned for this casting director many times before. John Levey had cast me on ‘China Beach,’ playing the personal assistant to a doctor who only spoke French, and the writer of the episode, John Wells, turned out to be the showrunner for ‘ER,’ so I came in and read for them. I thought it was just one episode. I did one episode, the fourth episode of the first season. They kept asking me back and I ended up doing 127 episodes.”
The character, Lily Jarvik, initially didn’t have a name as the producers wanted to cast an Asian American but hadn’t decided on the gender. When she was chosen, “they asked me if it would be okay if they used my first name … The last name is actually the name of the doctor who invented the artificial heart.”
Other Asian Americans were cast during the run of the show, including Ming-Na Wen as Dr. Jing-Mei Chen (118 episodes) and Gedde Watanabe as Nurse Yosh Takata (58 episodes).
Among her 127 episodes, “there was never one single episode that revealed my back story,” Mariye said. “As with all the characters, my story was revealed in little snippets at a time. Lily Jarvik was divorced, a single mom with kids. She had a sister who often babysat for her. My favorite episode for her character was during Season 2, ‘The Healers.’ And there is a nice special feature in the Season 3 DVD set called ‘The Nurses Station,’ interviews with the actors who played the nurses and administrative staff.”
As a result of her experience on “ER,” she has deep respect for the nursing profession. “I’ve always considered nurses the angels of the ER. We shadowed nurses before we started shooting ‘ER,’ so I went to Northridge and spent an evening following real ER nurses around. Boy, let me tell you, you would not survive a night in the ER if it weren’t for the nurses. They really do save lives.”
Mariye is sometimes recognized in public, but not always by name. Sometimes people ask her, “Do you know my sister? Do you work at my bank? … They know they know me from somewhere but they don’t remember unless they’re in a hospital … Then they realize where they know me from.” Occasionally she gets kind comments from aspiring actors who see her as a role model.
She caught the directing bug while working on the show. “A few years into ‘ER,’ I noticed one of the actors in street clothes at Video Village, where the director sits and all the production team sits behind the monitors,” she recalled. The actor told her he was “shadowing” — learning how to direct by following a director around.
“I asked John Wells … if it would be okay if I shadowed a director on the show. He set me up with a woman named Lesli Linka Glatter. She ended up really teaching me how to direct and not just the actual skills of directing but the other things that no one teaches you in film school — dealing with and talking to producers, actors, negotiating your way around the set. She gave me a lot of support and encouragement and continues to do that to this day.”
It was Glatter who recommended that New York Times Magazine include Mariye among the 63 women pictured on the cover of a November issue about women in Hollywood. Mariye appeared with such noted actresses, screenwriters, directors, producers, cinematographers and executives as Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham, Sherry Lansing, Debbie Allen, Anjelica Houston, Karyn Kusama and Callie Khouri (creator of “Nashville”).
“I shadowed Lesli and Jonathan Kaplan on 11 episodes of ‘ER,’ five episodes of ‘West Wing,’ three episodes of ‘Gilmore Girls,’” Mariye said. “I’ve shadowed since then on ‘Homeland,’ ‘NCIS LA,’ ‘The Night Shift,’ ‘Bunheads’ … and, of course, ‘Nashville’ before I got hired to direct one. I shadowed one whole episode from preproduction to shooting through postproduction.”
Other “ER” cast members who have become successful TV directors include Eriq LaSalle, Laura Innes, and Paul McCrane.
From “Shangri-la” to “Model Minority”
Mariye wrote and directed a short film, “The Shangri-la Café,” in 2000. “It was loosely based on a restaurant that my family owned in Las Vegas … in the 1950s. They owned this restaurant before I was born; I never saw it. But at the time Japanese food wasn’t popular in restaurants, so they opened a Chinese restaurant.
“They’d been suffering post-World War II racism at the time. People were assuming they were Chinese and to sort of get along in the Wild West, in Nevada, they didn’t correct anyone. The irony was that they weren’t allowed to serve black people. Nevada was the last state in the western states to desegregate, so they were living a lie and having to discriminate. At a certain point they said, ‘That’s enough. We can’t do this anymore.’ They decided to serve black people … It’s a story of identity and self-worth and just doing what’s right.”
“Shangri-la Café” was shown at more than 25 film festivals around the world, and Mariye received the National Organization for Women’s Filmmaker of the Year Award and was named one of PBS’ Up-and-Coming Filmmakers of Color.
Mariye also took part in the “Instant Films” project, in which writers were given eight hours to write a script, directors and actors had 24 hours to shoot it, and directors had eight hours to edit it before showing the completed film to an audience. “I directed four shorts for them … I maybe slept maybe five hours for the whole weekend, but it was fun. It showed me that I could shoot really fast.”
In 2012, she wrote and directed a full-length feature, “Model Minority,” which won 11 film festival awards and got her into the ABC/Disney/DGA Directing Program. It starred Nichole Bloom as Kayla Tanaka, a 16-year-old whose mother (Jessica Tuck) is addicted to prescription meds and whose father (Chris Tashima) shows signs of alcoholism. When her parents divorce, she drops out of school and becomes involved with a drug dealer. The cast also includes Courtney Mun as Kayla’s sister and Takayo Fischer as her grandma.
Explaining the inspiration for the film, Mariye said, “I had met a lot of young women and heard a lot of stories about Asian American girls who didn’t fit the model minority, who perhaps didn’t get the support of a family or strayed away from the path and gotten into trouble, and I was inspired by Janice Tanaka’s film ‘When You’re Smiling,’ a documentary (that) talked about how her parents were in the camps and when they came out they didn’t want to talk about it but they were obviously damaged by what had happened to them.
“Rather than dealing with it, they passed on the damage to their kids … The damage that they were suffering was a direct result of their parents having to go to camp. What happens to those kids’ kids? … Does damage get passed on again if nobody ever deals with it? … I started hearing all these stories … falling in with the wrong boyfriends, one girl, a young actress, who got cut up by a drug dealer boyfriend.”
Mariye was trying to show that Asian Americans are “just people (with) the same problems as anyone else,” and the film resonated with audiences whether they were Asian American or not. “A lot of people said they relate either in terms of their daughter or people they knew … They couldn’t wait to show their daughters … They really felt something. They were moved …”
Getting the Gig
For her first network TV directing gig, ABC approached Dee Johnson, a Filipina American who wrote for “ER” and is an executive producer of “Nashville.” “She was happy to have me come and shadow. I stayed in touch with Dee for about a year and told her how much I loved the show and how eager I was to direct … I convinced her to hire me.
“Last year she gave two Asian American and one Asian Australian woman our first shot at network TV. Dee gave Jet Wilkinson and I our first American TV show to direct … She also hired Valerie Chu to write her first episode of TV. Dee put her money where her mouth is and really helped Asian American women move forward.”
As Asian American women are not a familiar sight in the director’s chair, “I could tell that the crew was a little wary because they’re not used to it. I kept my head down, did the work, got us out early, directed a pretty good show … By the end, one of the electricians came over to me and said … ‘We took a vote and you can’t leave. You have to stay and direct all the rest of the episodes’ … That touched me so deeply. Wow I won over this tough old Tennessee Teamster.
“It’s just a matter of getting us out there and having people see us, getting used to having us there. Knock on wood, I did a good job and they won’t hesitate to hire more of us, more women and more Asian Americans.”
She considered herself lucky to direct Season 4, Episode 14, which marked Panettiere’s return to the show after taking a leave of absence in October just before Episode 9 started production. Like her character, Panettiere, who was last seen in the Nov. 18 episode, was dealing with postpartum depression.
Mariye describes Panettiere as “very talented” and Jonathan Jackson, who plays Avery Barkley, Juliette’s ex-husband, as “extraordinary.” In one of the director’s favorite scenes, Juliette sings her baby to sleep while Avery listens from the next room.
Mariye is still busy as an actress. Her recent credits include an episode of the TNT show “Murder in the First” starring Taye Diggs. She also played a Frenchwoman on “General Hospital,” a medical examiner on “Criminal Minds,” a therapist with a drinking problem on “Shameless,” and a werewolf on “Teen Wolf.”
“Her name was Satomi,” she said of the latter character. “In this flashback … It’s sort of a silly story, but there were werewolves in the Japanese internment camps … The producers loved my character so much they brought me back to the present, so I became a 120-year-old werewolf and the head of a pack of werewolves.”
In the 2010 movie “Extraordinary Measures,” Mariye played a doctor treating the child of Brendan Fraser and Kerri Russell. Although Mariye had no on-screen scenes with Harrison Ford, who also played a doctor, “we did a cast read-through before we started shooting. Some actors couldn’t make it, so they asked some actors who were there to read … I did get to spend a day (with Ford) playing a bartender, then his girlfriend, several roles … He was awesome.”
Mariye’s next project as a director is to shadow on a PBS show, “Mercy Street,” which is set in a hospital during the Civil War. “The producer/writer on that show is David Zabel. He was a showrunner on ‘ER’ … He invited me to come to Richmond, Va. to watch for a week or two, so that’s the next thing I’m doing. I’m just taking lots of meetings and trying to get hired.”
Sibyl Gardner, one of the writers on “Nashville,” has written a screenplay about a group of Americans who go to China to adopt babies. “It’s been optioned by a group of producers and fundraising right now. Hopefully that’s the next feature.”