In preparing for an onset of fame and attention, the average person would likely scour the Internet and delete any old embarrassing photos or posts. Not Gemma Chua-Tran. The Heartbreak High actress instead booked herself a therapy appointment.
Because, hey, when a show you’re starring in is about to premiere on a lil known streaming platform called Netflix, it’s maybe good to rein in all the support you can. Heartbreak High, a re-imagination of the popular 90s show, follows an ensemble of Australian teens through their coming-of-age experiences. The show has become a quick classic due to its powerful representation of race, gender and boundary-breaking portrayal of neurodivergence.
Gemma plays Sasha So, a non-binary teenager whose bubblegum pink hair has now become iconic. She’s elated about what the show’s place in pop culture reflects —
“To be accepted in mainstream media as a person and not as a stereotypical token means so much to marginalised people. And especially with the way that the Heartbreak script operated, we were portrayed as characters undefined by ‘diversity points’. We as actors were able to then play real, comprehensive people with storylines that didn’t operate around our specific identities.”
It’s been her Chinese-Australian upbringing that has shaped Gemma’s disarmingly wise and grounded nature. She undoubtedly has her head screwed on right bolt-tight. As she wisely muses, “Having immigrant parents definitely taught me the hardships of life from a very early age.” Like many other Asian women, she was acutely aware growing up that no one onscreen looked like her or her culture. Now, she’s able to fill that hole on a global screen.
Kismet would always have it that the Sydneysider fell into acting. What first drew her towards the craft was the opportunity to be a sounding board for the audience's emotions. But her first love before this was fantasy, a place where creatives tend to inhabit most happily. Pretty magical to think that she’s now able to facilitate this escapism for others.
Outside of acting, our sweet Gemma feels most herself when she’s boogieing with her friends in the kitchen, her por por’s pork and scallop congee is her forever meal, and she loves Julia Jacklin. And if you haven’t already discovered her epic style, her method of everyday dressing is to view it like little costumes. As she tells us, “I either dress like a grandmother or a twelve-year-old boy, and there’s not much in between.”
Don’t you just want to propel yourself into her world? Well, lucky for you, you can below. Her candour will leave you inspired, and her optimism is so pure, it’ll make you want to jump on your bed. Read on!
Could you please give us an elevator pitch of yourself in haiku form?
Pretty tired all the time.
How do you think your upbringing helped to shape your worldview?
Having immigrant parents definitely taught me the hardships of life from a very early age. Navigating race and gender from the moment I stepped into society has obviously shaped my perception of the world; I was quite hilariously jaded from a young age. It’s taken me such a long time to accept the space in society in which I occupy, but I feel like I’m now equipped to utilise my anger in a productive way.
What drew you towards acting?
I’ve always adored fantasy, living a separate life, escapism. And being able to inhabit a persona separate to myself has been a rush. I would write little scripts for me and my friends to act out in front of the class, and receive those reactions; whether it be joy or sadness or even boredom, I loved to be able to extract emotion from an audience.
What spoke out to you about the Heartbreak High script?
The realness of the world and of the intricate characters really spoke to me, I was so excited to see what people would do with such an amazing script. I was really passionate about the issues touched upon, and seeing a script that resonated so clearly with my specific demographic was so exciting!
Can you tell us about your creative process?
I really just go with my gut instinct! Each and every time! Figuring out those initial beats and learning the lines and internalising the arc of each scene are always my first steps. But of course leaving room for the director or dramaturg to turn it into something else.
With playing a complicated character like Sasha on the show, how do you then create those clear lines of separation between yourself and work?
I definitely draw on aspects of my own life to inhibit Sasha, but formulating her own backstory and habits and nuances definitely helped me leave her behind after the work day. I definitely took a lot from the people I knew around me and wove them into Sasha’s experience. And having those anchors in other people allowed me to separate her from myself.
It’s pretty epic how diverse the Heartbreak High ensemble is, what kind of impact do you hope its boundary-breaking representation creates?
Hopefully normalising the diversity within the cast and creative team, other forms of media can take this as a successful example of representation in the entertainment industry. Seeing yourself represented on screen is so very important. To be accepted in mainstream media as a person and not as a stereotypical token means so much to marginalised people. And especially with the way that the Heartbreak script operated, we were portrayed as characters undefined by ‘diversity points’. We as actors were able to then play real, comprehensive people with storylines that didn’t operate around our specific identities.
The show has seen such massive commercial success, how has becoming more prominent influenced your day-to-day?
Being recognised for my work and the work of my peers on a global scale has been so very heartwarming! The reception has been so insane! I’m definitely a little bit more nervous about leaving the house if I’m not in a sociable mood, the fans of the show are so very lovely but being recognised on the street is a very new thing for me and it’s a little overwhelming at times!
What’s been the biggest win for you as a queer woman of colour in the film industry?
The fact that I’m employed?
What is something that you've watched, read or listened to recently that completely changed your mind on something?
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I don’t even want to comment because everyone should read this.
Growing up as an avid pop-culture consumer, but also a fellow Asian young woman, diversity used to not even be a factor for casting. I'd love to know — was there anyone in the film industry that you really looked up to?
I’m not too sure! I suppose Sandra Oh! I don’t think I had a chance to consume media with other Asian women in lead roles until more recently.
Your dressing equation? E.g. Do you put shoes on first or choose a colour?
I go with how I’m feeling that day! I feel like I don’t have outfits, I have little costumes. I either dress like a grandmother or a twelve year old boy and there’s not much in between. I pick a frock or a pair of cargos and go from there. I do love to find a colour to keep cohesive in my look, whether that be matching my shoes to my shirt or my skirt to my hair. But I always get housemate approval before stepping foot outside.
When do you feel the most 'you'?
When I’m surrounded by my closest friends having a little boogie in the kitchen with some excellent music playing.
What spot do you feel the most present in in your city?
I got my banking year in review and the two most frequent places I visit are both cafes. I’m a massive cafe snob.
A meal you could eat forever?
My por por’s pork and scallop congee. It’s actually like a drug to me. I make it all the time but it’s not the same without her specific blue bowl and green spoon.
Favourite piece of vintage you've ever found?
It’s not necessarily something I’ve found but my friend was giving their clothes away and it’s this gorgeous red velvet Laura Ashley gown! I feel like a real life princess frolicking about the house when I put it on.
If your 2022 could be encapsulated as an album, what would it be?
Probably Julia Jacklin’s 'Pre Pleasure'. I’ve been playing it non stop and I’ve booked tickets to her concert in March. (You have no idea how excited I am).
We acknowledge the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which this shoot took place.