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Q&A with actor Roy Vongtama

Born in Buffalo, New York, Roy Vongtama began pursuing a career not as an actor, but as a doctor.

In addition to earning his medical degree from the University of Buffalo with residency at UCLA in Los Angeles, he is board certified in radiation oncology, and completed undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania where he received a degree in Biological Basis of Behavior, with an emphasis on depression.

But it was acting that led to his working with veteran actors such as Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List, as well as a recurring role on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives.

He's currently writing a book about the business of acting and has formed a non-profit organization for artists called Actors Helping Actors, which is devoted to helping improve healthcare for low-income actors, who often cannot afford proper health insurance.

First off, not only are you an actor, but you're a Board Certified Radiation Oncologist. What inspired you to pursue a career in entertainment after earning a degree in medicine?

Great question. I started acting in 2001 taking an intro class at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia PA. After giving a try at a monologue, the instructor asked me what I did during the day, and I told him I was a doctor, and he said, "maybe you should stick to that?" (laughing) I took it as a challenge and kept coming back. So in the beginning it was simply that I was competitive. Yet, as I've learned, as time goes on the motivations for my behavior turn out to be more complex, and truths are revealed. Looking at it now, I started to really find myself within acting, becoming freer and happier, something that I think was lost somewhere along the line. So as I have moved forward and have been working more and more on the craft, not coincidentally it has been working on me. As long as that remains true and I keep feeling that passion inside of me for it, I'll keep going.

How have you managed to juggle two careers? What are the challenges?

Juggling two careers has been interesting -- I've found it's about listening to myself, planning and managing the relationships in both fields. I've found that the world will tell you that you need to choose between things, your family OR yourself, what you love OR what you need, etc, but in my reality, you can do both. As my friend Dr. Andrew Mayer calls it, the genius of AND rather than the tyranny of OR. The challenges? Dealing with other people's perceptions. As an actor, people like to assume that it's my hobby and I have to quickly correct them on that, because I am very serious about it. As a doctor, the perception is that I don't know my stuff because I don't do it full time. Also a big challenge honestly is enjoying my life in a moment to moment way, especially when tests are set before me. I read an interview with Michael J. Fox yesterday (who has Parkinson's) and I love what he said: "Don't wish for smaller problems, wish for bigger shoulders."

Roy Vongtama

What did your parents think of you becoming an actor?

Man, great question again. I think most Asian American first generation kids will understand this story: When I got done with residency training, I got offered a movie role (The Wrath) starting the week after I finished my training. That's also when I was supposed to start working as a doctor in the real world. I realized I couldn't do both. When my mom called to find out when I would start working (as a doctor) , I told her, "Well, the movie starts in a few weeks." (laughing) She didn't speak to me for a while. It transitioned into criticism and now it has come to the point of silence about acting, which is a big change for her. So I am at peace with it. My dad has always supported my dreams, with a typical condition: "You can do whatever you want -- as long as you finish med school and finish residency." (laughing) Now my dad is getting more verbally supportive and trying to understand why I don't book every audition I go in for, like I did in sixth grade taking math tests. "Dad, in acting 15% is actually good."

How did you get your first big break in Hollywood?

I had an audition for a great lady named Felicia Fasano who was the casting director for a show called Windfall on NBC (since canceled). My agent at the time told her I was SAG, which I wasn't, so they booked me on the show. My manager called me and told me of the lie and that the production would have to pay a penalty to use me, so what should we do? I said to tell them the truth, because I didn't want the casting director to get in trouble because of me. He told me that I would probably lose the role. Of course I was bummed because it would have been my first SAG job and it would have gotten me into the union. For some reason, I knew that being true to myself was the best (and in this case hardest) choice. Then we found out that Felicia had pushed for me to still get the role, and they agreed! I got the role! As Mark Twain said, "When in doubt, tell the truth."

Do you find typecasting or stereotyping to be a limitation to your career?

I will answer that this way -- I think a breakout role has yet to come along for me, as I see myself as a leading man. To be Asian, really be a doctor, and have this as a goal, I really have to believe it to be truth. Which I do. For the doubters, I just point and say look who is running our country. Also, from a business perspective, international sales are at least 50% of the take in feature film revenue nowadays and the industry is forced to consider Asian talent in their decisions more and more, especially with Asians being over 60% of the world's population. Personally, I have found that the best way to do this is to be prepared for when opportunities are at my doorstep. To that end I'm training with a great coach, have a great manager and a great girlfriend, all three who believe in me.

You've worked with some major stars including Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. What kinds of advice or tips have you gotten from working with them?

I have had the opportunity to work with so many great actors already, and from each of them I have learned something different. From Jack Nicholson, I learned that preparation is the key to success, even at that level. He makes it look easy because even at 70 years of age, he literally lost sleep the night before because he was so concerned about making it right on set the next day. That's why he has 12 Oscar nominations and three wins. From Morgan Freeman, I learned perseverance, humility and respect for the craft. There's so much I can tell you about him, but the main thing is he approaches life from such a grateful perspective that it literally stopped me in my tracks. This man was so generous as to give me an interview for a book I am writing on the business of acting, right in the middle of his day during off time in the production of the Bucket List. The book is going to benefit actors knowledge wise and also help with an organization that I started to increase awareness for health care for artists, (www.actorshelpingactors.org) so he found it a great way to give back. How awesome is that?

Do you have any words of wisdom you'd like to share with other aspiring actors?

Always (laughing). Being a doctor I like to give advice but from my girlfriend I've found to only give it when asked. Since you asked, here it is: (1) There is always room for improvement. Look to improve yourself as an actor, from two perspectives: from a technique and also an emotional perspective. Find someone who can help you be focused, real and specific in auditions. Find someone who can teach you a way to access your emotional depth in response to situations -- find someone who can help you take that journey quickly. There isn't much time between the waiting room and the audition and neither is there much time on a set especially in TV. (2) Submit online and go to every audition you get. There is no substitute for experience. You'll meet other actors, you'll meet casting people, directors, directors of the future, and also refine your technique. After booking at the level that you are at, you'll know when and what to submit for, and also be compiling material for (3) Getting a great reel. Put on your reel the work you've done and also the work you would like to do. Make it easy for casting people to see the talent you have. There are a lot of companies for a few hundred dollars will shoot professionally done scenes and even edit them for you. That way you can: (4) Get great representation that can help on two levels: Where you are and where you need to go. You need to get access to the auditions to have any chance at making a career out of acting. By doing #1 #2 and #3, #4 will come and so will #5 which is: Slow down and enjoy the process!

What's next for you?

I'm looking for a new agent that can move me forward, producing a short film called Juche Rules (based on an award winning play by Mark Niu), as well as working on my own writing -- I have two features in development that will be produced at some point. One definite thing I can tell you: I have a recurring role on Days of Our Lives starting April 21 and 22nd on NBC. If readers are interested, they can certainly check out www.RoyV.com for more current things.
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