Brianne Tju jumped off a cliff — literally — into a lagoon beneath.
The 21-year-old actor was shooting the deadly shark-thriller 47 Meters Down: Uncaged in the Dominican Republic when the producers asked if she’d be down for the stunt; her double didn’t look quite exactly like her and they wanted to get the shot just right. Going into the film, she knew that it’d be an incredibly physically and emotionally demanding role, testing the limits of her swimming abilities and requiring her to get scuba certified. But just as she told director Johannes Roberts when she first signed on, she was game for anything they threw her way. So Brianne took the plunge.
Brianne, of course, is no stranger to thrills and chills. Fans probably best know her as Alex Portnoy on Hulu’s Light As a Feather, a supernatural drama following five teens who become cursed after playing “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” and attempt to figure out how to beat the clock as girls start dying off in the exact way as predicted by the game. Alex, a popular dancer and one of the few out students at their school, made it out alive and to the series’s second season, which has Part B dropping on October 4. After thinking that they finally beat the curse once and for all, there appears to be new trouble looming for the group of friends.
“I’m really excited because we really delve into Alex and her new relationship with Peri. I think I get a little bit more of the spotlight and chance to flex my muscles as an actor,” Brianne tells Teen Vogue about the upcoming installment. “The stakes are much higher and it moves quick. But emotionally, all the characters go through a lot and there are alliances, twists, and turns that you don't expect.”
While nothing too terrifying has happened to Brianne while on the various sets of these horror projects, her co-star and good friend Liana Liberato likes to keep Brianne on her toes. Liana has an entire video compilation of scaring Brianne on set, including times so dramatic that she fell to the floor or was tricked into thinking a bee was on her shoulder that would send her darting off when nothing was there in reality.
“What’s scary is that I keep falling for it,” she says with a laugh. “And it happens so often.”
The daughter of immigrants and one of four siblings, Brianne was raised in southern California where her parents had all of them doing commercials and print campaigns to save money for college. While her brother and two of her sisters grew out of it, Brianne and her youngest sister have stuck with the performing arts. The Light as a Feather star started off as a dancer, before eventually making it to television. Her first major role was five episodes on Disney Channel’s Cory in the House, which was a big deal for a young performer who idolized the likes of Lizzie McGuire and Raven Baxter. After a smattering of more guest roles on series including Liv and Maddie, Scream, and Grey’s Anatomy, she eventually found herself auditioning for the lead of McKenna on Light As a Feather, a project she was excited about because it was very much in the vein of one of her favorite guilty pleasures, Pretty Little Liars. Although she didn’t nab the part of McKenna, she was called back in to meet with the director and read for Alex, a character with a story she ended up personally finding more interesting and dynamic.
“It’s funny. The dancing parts in it [Light As a Feather] stand out for me, but I hadn’t danced in so long so I was really nervous about that. But she’s also gay and it isn't the defining factor of her. We have a tendency to hang onto these tropes as ways to further the story rather than treating them as people with their own lives and their own stories. So I felt like she wasn't a stereotype,” Brianne says. “And then to have one of the lead roles be Asian, that was really interesting to me because growing up I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like myself on screen. There were very few, I remember Sandra Oh, Lucy Liu, and Brenda Song. To tell a story that was diverse and inclusive, I felt very passionate about that. And Alex goes through so many things that people my age go through and she does it in a way that is very vulnerable. I admired that.”
The moments that have resonated with Brianne the most have been when she’s on set and something just clicks, when she fully steps into the shoes of a character or figures out a key scene and it all finally makes sense for her. So when she was nominated for a 2019 Emmy, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Digital Daytime Drama Series, it was nothing short of a “pinch me” occasion.
“Recognition is not necessarily something I've always wanted, but just to know that you've worked so hard and someone sees that and someone cares, is a really beautiful moment,” Brianne says. “I was in the Dominican shooting 47 Meters and I get a call from my manager saying ‘Hey, we need to send in a reel from the show because you're up for a nomination.’ Even that alone was insane to me that Hulu appreciated my work enough to even think that I deserved a nomination.”
Going forward, Brianne wants to play more roles that challenge her and give her the opportunity to branch out beyond horror. She’s also extremely interested in writing, to be in the position to write stories for women and show the diversity of the world. Brianne and Liana are actually working on a writing project together after feeling like they don’t always get the opportunity to audition for characters that feel genuine.
There’s also a shift happening in Hollywood at the moment when it comes to Asian representation thanks to the success of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It’s been an interesting thing to navigate because when she started acting, she felt there were taboos surrounding actors losing roles because Hollywood had no interest in catering to Asians, other ethnicities, or other marginalized groups. So when she was younger, she formed this mindset of being grateful to be in any room, to be silent, sit back, and not step on anyone’s toes because her opportunities could be easily taken away. As conversations about inclusion diversity only become more prevalent, Brianne is finding her own voice and footing, including realizing that she wants to be more proactive.
“Through my social platforms, I'd like to be more vocal. Because I see people like Lana Condor, Sandra Oh, Constance Wu, and Jon Chu. They are not only like stepping in and taking positions that they deserve to be taking, but they're also making more opportunities for other people, including myself. They're portraying Asian Americans in a way that hasn't been done before,” she says. “We're not stereotypes, we're not just mechanisms to further the story anymore. That's really incredible and it's making me realize that I want to be behind the scenes in positions of power where I can make decisions. I think we need more diversity behind the screen and in positions of power in order to not only hire more diverse people but to write stories that are culturally accurate and for people to relate to. Because unless these stories come from us, it's not going to be as real.”
When it comes to being authentic, Brianne also acknowledges some of the pitfalls of social media and how the machine can affect body image and mental health. The curated nature of places like Instagram can often make people compare themselves to others, but that it’s important to prioritize yourself. And that if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
“There are so many different aspects of every human being. If we can just celebrate every little bit including our bodies and love ourselves, we are going to be better people, happier people,” she says. “Communication is huge. Asking for help is huge. It is not a shameful thing to do, it is very strong to ask for help. Take care of your mental health. If I could, I’d tell my 16-year-old self to go read a book, focus on what you want to do with your life, focus on amazing people you have around you and what you want to achieve — not what you look like. Because I think I wasted so much energy and time on something that is very unimportant.”
Photographer: Josh Aronson
Stylist: Lindsay Peoples-Wagner
Makeup: Heith Chanel
Hair: Zeta Korqa
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue