Brenda Song: ‘I’m Really Proud of the Woman I’ve Become’
Song opens up to Glamour about her experience as an Asian American child actor, choosing The Suite Life of Zack & Codyover Harvard, and passing on the importance of family to her son.
As told to Ariana Yaptangco
For AAPI Heritage Month, Glamour spoke to actor Brenda Song about what it was like chasing her dreams in Hollywood as the eldest child of a first-generation Thai and Hmong family, and how the resilient love of her immigrant parents motivated her.
Below, Song recounts the early days of her acting career, passing up Harvard University for her role as London Tipton on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, andbecoming a mother to her one-year-old son, Dakota, with Macaulay Culkin.
I got in this industry really young. I used to watch Star Search all the time and loved Cindy Crawford. One day, my mom and I were in the Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento and an acting school was doing a model search. My mom was at a kiosk while I was watching. I started doing the modeling walk, so they came up to my mom and gave her the whole spiel to try to enroll me.
My mom had me at 17, and my dad was a teacher and still in school. My grandma was a maid working at the Marriott hotels. We had no money, but I was enthralled with acting. For the next few weeks, acting school was all I talked about. Then I got really sick and would not take my medicine. My grandma said, “If you take your medicine, we’ll take you to acting school.” I took the medicine, and she moved on with her life, but I wouldn’t shut up about it. So my grandma took everything out of her savings—$527—and took me to this acting school that was not legit at all. But through them, I met a real agent and started doing print modeling work that led to commercials.
We were living in Sacramento, and everyone talks about going to L.A. It was all I wanted. So for my sixth birthday, that’s what we did. My agent in San Francisco set up an interview with a very small agent in L.A and I booked my first job. We would drive up for auditions and drive back, the whole five and a half hours. My mom used to always say that when I stopped booking work, we’d go back to Sacramento.
It wasn’t until I booked my first series, a Nickelodeon show called 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd, that we moved to L.A. I always say that my career has been pushed in the right direction. I was so fortunate to have my mom. She didn’t know what she was doing. I was that kid by the door with my portfolio and headshot ready to go. I had a little brother, so my mom would have to sit in the car and I’d sign myself in.
I have a very different experience as a child actor. I was really lucky that my grandparents were so supportive. My dad was also a second-grade school teacher, so he would work five days a week in Sacramento and come on the weekends to see us and then drive back. We did that for years. Our relatives thought what we were doing was insane. It’s funny because it’s insane until you garner success and all of a sudden you’re the prized child. But we felt shunned because we were taking a risk no one else was.
Acting didn’t become a career until I was 16. That year my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer, and I booked The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and got accepted to Harvard University, all within a few weeks. I sat down with my parents and they were like, “You can go to college to figure out what you want to do. But if acting is what you want to do, you have an amazing opportunity to do it. But this is no longer an after-school activity. Mom can’t take you, Dad has to work, so you have to drive yourself.”
There was no hesitation to choose acting, but it was hard because Harvard was a dream of mine. Working for Disney Channel, I was still able to get my education in a different medium and do what I love to do. But in this industry the highs are so high and the lows are so low. It’s so inconsistent. There’s so many times where I’ve questioned myself: Should I have taken my degree and done something a little bit more steady?
But my mom always said, “Find your passion and make it your job because you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” I think that’s because she watched her parents have to grind with factory jobs, working as housekeepers, picking up odd jobs here and there. She wanted more and better.
There’s tradition that has been instilled in us to do what needs to be done. I’m the eldest child and a girl, so it’s always: “You have to set the example.” I was also ignored because of my younger brothers. I knew that we were looked down upon from our extended family for my acting. I definitely put pressure on myself. Then all of a sudden, when I gained this success, it was a different story. It was so hypocritical to me.
I feel like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio are famous people. I was just on people’s TVs all the time, so the public felt like they knew me. During that crazy Disney phase, it was very jarring for me and started a lot of anxiety because I was trying to figure out who I was at 16. My body and hormones were changing. Suddenly you feel like you always have to look great when you leave the house because what if someone takes a picture?
I didn’t go out for a long time. I wasn’t Miley Cyrus, but I was getting recognized at the mall. It made me feel like I couldn’t be myself because they were expecting London Tipton. I didn’t go to my first house party until I was 20. I saw marijuana for the first time and thought it was potpourri and threw it away. That’s how naive I was.
The Suite Life on Deck movie was the last thing I did at Disney. I was 21 years old. A lot of people told me, “You’ve got to do something racy.” Maxim wanted to do something. I just wasn’t ready for it. It was at the time when all of the Disney girls were becoming young women. Even before that, I was getting weird prison mail at 16 despite being on a kids’ show because it aired on Saturday morning.
I don’t think you have to compromise yourself to be successful. I felt so much pressure. I thought, Do I need to change myself to take myself to the next level? Honestly, I know some very successful people who are the most unhappy people because they’ve spent so much time being what everyone wants them to be. My mom would tell me, “Don’t do it.”
My mom lives with me right now. I bought my parents a house, which was always a goal of mine, and she still has her home, but she’s here because of my son. My brother has two daughters and they come over all the time. My family is super close, and I’m grateful that my partner is okay with it because people probably think it’s crazy. It’s hard for people to understand that closeness if you didn’t grow up with it.
My new lesson I’ve learned is saying no, which has been really hard because it’s still ingrained in me, being an Asian American actress in Hollywood, that this opportunity may be my last one. I just stop and go, “Brenda, you need to take care of you. You need to be with your son.” I went right back to work filming Dollface when I was only 12 weeks postpartum. We shot for four months and I’d be gone for 15-, 16-hour days. I questioned, “Oh my God, I’m away from my son so much.” After I finished this last season, I needed to take some time off. He just turned one. He’s still very young, so it’s hard.
I feel like I’m a better person when I take care of myself. There are certain things that I can’t do because being a mom is my number one priority now. I’m really proud of the woman I’ve become. She’s not perfect. She’s been through a lot. People always ask that—“What would you change? Would you say yes to a certain project that you said no to?” But I wouldn’t a change a thing. I’d never even considered thinking that way because that’s not where this Brenda Song is supposed to be.