Eileen Li, who plays Lara on 21 Thunder, was incredibly busy last week with her TIFF schedule. Still, she found some time to answer a few questions—ahead of the show’s first season finale on CBC—about her character, Lara, and her experiences with the predominately male cast of 21 Thunder.
Lara is returning to a dark place that she had fought to distance herself. How is that darkness for you to play?
Eileen Li: It was quite liberating to explore that side of myself through playing Lara. I have a hard time being ‘the bad guy’ in my real life so it was great to play someone who knows what she wants and how to get it. It also taught me that everyone does everything out of place of need. It’s easy to peg Lara as just the bad girl, but there is a need and determination in her to survive and to make something of herself. I think we all can relate to that on some level. She’s definitely been the most complex character that I’ve been able to play.
How do you contrast your character with that of Nolan? You both come from pasts with criminal influences. He found his ‘good side’ through Emma, whereas your character attempted to find that through medicine. Pressures are threatening to pull Nolan under and he is essentially martyring himself to do the right thing, ending his relationship with Emma and pushing her away in order to keep her safe. Lara, on the other hand, is running with this darker side, resigning herself to this lifestyle. What are your thoughts on this as your character has developed?
I absolutely think that through Emma, Nolan was able to root himself into his ‘good side.’ I think that without her love and unwavering support, he would’ve had nothing ‘good’ to fight for. Behind every man is an even stronger woman, am I right? Lara, on the other hand, has been surrounded by nothing but bad influences and nothing to root herself in. She has an innate ability to manipulate and is often one step ahead of everyone. I think that’s why she ends up being fed up with these other guys running her show. She wants to break away because she’s convinced they need her more than she needs them.
How does Lara reconcile her desire to be a doctor, and the Hippocratic oath she will have to take—do no harm, etc.—with her role in this game fixing ring, particularly taking care of Desjardins?
For her, it’s all about being in survival mode. Like she says, ‘I’ve done things I’ve never thought I could do.’ It’s one of those things that she probably was always capable of, considering her family history, but it wasn’t until she was put in that situation, that she realized she could do really do it. What good is an oath if you’re dead? I think that’s basically what it comes down to.
As one of the few females who support a professional men’s team, how was that to live with as you went about shooting the series?
21 Thunder is very much about a men’s soccer team, but if you look at all the female characters in the show, there are all strong and intelligent women. I also think the show really highlights what it’s like to be a strong woman in a man’s world. In terms of shooting, these guys are the best group of guys you could ask for. They really are a team and the chemistry between all of us is evident on screen. We’ve all become very good friends, and that’s why this show has been particularly special to be a part of.
Can you tell fans a bit about yourself? Where you grew up? How you came to the business of acting? How you got this role?
I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My parents emigrated over from China with my two older sisters, but we’ve lived most of our lives here in Toronto. I started taking an interest in acting back when I was in high school but because my parents valued academics, I went to university for kinesiology. Shortly after my first year, I realized I need to pursue my passion and the rest is history.
I was filming Kim’s Convenience last year when I got the call about 21 Thunder. I put myself on tape and eventually had a Skype callback with the producers and director. I thought for sure I didn’t get the part because it was three weeks later that I got the call. It was a surreal moment for me.
What about this role are you most proud of now that the season is wrapping up?
I feel most proud of representing a strong Asian woman on screen. Lara has been capable of holding her own in a room full of dangerous men. She’s smart and she’s a survivor. She may not be making the best choices in her life but there’s no denying that she’s powerful. I think that’s a portrayal of Asian women that we haven’t seen enough of.
My thanks to Eileen for squeezing me in for a few questions!
21 Thunder‘s season finale airs Monday at 9 p.m. on CBC.