WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Loss of her brother puts soap star Elizabeth Sung on a quietly active path
Elizabeth Sung isn’t going to march in a protest or gather in a vigil, nor will she be passing out flyers or standing on a soapbox.
But “The Young and the Restless” soap star says she is an AIDS activist, though she prefers “a quiet activism.”
“I’m showing my activism by telling my story,” says the actress who plays Luan Volien on the CBS soap. Sung’s brother, fashion designer Philip Sung, died of AIDS in 1985. “I’m hoping my version of activism will help bring a certain awareness to people who may be careless, so they’ll take care of themselves better.”
Sung, 40, a fellow in the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, is telling her brother’s story in her 30-minute film project, “Requiem,” which begins shooting next week. She’s written the film with her husband, actor Peter Tulipan.
“For me, this is the best way I can share my feelings and make a tribute to my brother without stepping on a podium and being a spokesperson,” she says from her San Fernando Valley home. “That’s not for me. I feel my strength is in what I can share on screen.”
She drums up strength daily for “Young and Restless” fans as Luan, long-lost Vietnamese love and now wife of Jack (Peter Bergman). Unlike many soap story lines, the Luan/Jack rekindled romance (Sung started the show on Valentine’s Day 1994) didn’t drag on interminably and their wedding was celebrated a year later. At presstime, the marriage was still happy and intact.
Sung describes her daytime character as “very strong but vulnerable in the sense she’s a believer of true love and has a strong sense of family.” That sounds a good deal like Sung herself.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, she began studying ballet at an early age and continued through her teens, despite her father’s strong opposition to any career in the arts. Desperate to experience life in the United States, Sung and her sister Diana attended college at the University of Hawaii and studied their father-approved program of hotel management. “It was a decoy for us to come to the States,” she says.
When their father died suddenly, they returned home briefly. But once back to the U.S., Sung headed for New York, where she auditioned for and was accepted at Juilliard.
Eventually, brother Philip, who was older and also had attended school in the United States, returned to China, then came back to New York, where the three Sung siblings lived together. “Philip thought it would be more inspirational to be in New York,” she recalls.
After graduation, Sung danced with the Alvin Ailey dance company for three years before a back injury sidelined her. “I was frustrated with acting work, too,” she says of a dark period in 1985. Sung took on a job in marketing, which coincided, she says, with her brother’s illness.
“The times when Philip was in and out of the hospitals is when I realized it’s going to be a tough battle,” she says.
Before Philip died, he encouraged Sung to go back to her first love, acting, which she did, returning to and making movies in her native Hong Kong. When she returned to the United States, guest-starring jobs followed, as well as a role in 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club,” where she played “the barren second wife, who gives the fake string of pearls to the young stepdaughter.”
“The Joy Luck Club,” such a significant film for Asian performers, only confirmed what Sung believes: “We need to be seen first and be accepted in roles. Then we can move toward getting a greater understanding of the differences in Asian cultures.”
As for her own roles, she says she can only focus on “Requiem” now, but is interested in “playing a good role, a character who reaches the audience, one who is three-dimensional, who is human. I think the way that I can say it right is to say that I hope I will be able to help in Hollywood’s understanding of Asian Americans.”
In acting, as it is with activism, Sung believes, it’s the doing and teaching rather than preaching.
“The Young and the Restless” airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on CBS.