There’s an allure to Steph Song that is both guileless and beguiling. Song, the thirtysomething (she is noncommittal about her age) Australian-Canadian actress who appears this month alongside the Hong Kong martial-arts star Jet Li in the action film War, has a sort of disarming look, a strange combination of a worldly come-hither mien and fresh-faced girlishness. Onscreen, she can go from innocence to elegance in a flash. When she does, the effect is captivating.
In 2006, testosterone-fuelled readers of the Asian edition of the lads’ magazine FHM responded to these looks by voting Song the “Sexiest Woman in the World.” The tribute surprised her. “On one hand it’s phenomenal,” she says by phone from her Vancouver home. “Of all the über-beautiful women in the world, they thought I was up there. On the other hand, the award means you do get seen in a certain way. It’s gratifying, fulfilling and kind of embarrassing.”
Last spring, Song starred in the feature film Everything’s Gone Green, an original screenplay by fellow Vancouverite Douglas Coupland, the iconic author of Generation X. Coupland offers a less discomfiting perspective on Song’s appeal. “She’s got this Monroe-like face,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what she’s doing, or what angle you’re shooting her from, she always looks great.”
Song was living and working in Singapore in 2005 when her Canadian agent sent her Coupland’s screenplay. A fan of Coupland’s novels, Song immediately identified with a character in the script named Ming, a strong-willed but drifting Vancouver film-set decorator. “I opened it up,” she says, “saw the big words ‘Douglas Coupland,’ and there in my hallway I read Doug’s script from cover to cover, then picked up the phone and said, ‘I’m coming. I’m on the plane.’ ” Her performance in the romantic comedy so impressed Coupland that it helped win her a role in a CBC-TV series he’s producing based on his novel jPod, airing in January.
Before Coupland and the CBC, Song had established herself as a bona fide television star in Asia. In 2004, in fact, she had walked away from a lead role in the sitcom Achar!, a popular TV program in Singapore. For one season on the show, she’d been a major star, playing a progressive Chinese woman married to a traditional Indian man. But it was an artistic dead end. “I knew the series could go gangbusters huge,” she says, “but I felt I had taken the role to the fullest extent already.”
Song was no stranger to the idea of making detours for a career. Her father’s work as a researcher in plant genetics took the family around the world, first to Edmonton, where Song was born, then eventually to Colombia and Australia, where the Songs – with their three children – finally settled. Song’s mother, now retired, was a university lecturer on Asian politics.
Mom and Dad wanted her to be a doctor, but she yearned for the spotlight. While attending university in Queensland, Song completed a double degree in nursing and journalism to appease her folks, but it took only three weeks working as a nurse to realize her mistake. “You have to have a calling to be a nurse,” she says. “I didn’t have it in me.”
She had studied acting as an elective in school, and to the shock of her parents, she abruptly quit nursing and took off for Los Angeles in 1999. “My Hollywood bubble pretty much burst that year,” Song says, indicating that she didn’t know anyone in L.A. and work was scarce. “I lost my idealism about the industry, and that’s a good thing to lose.” When a friend in Australia called the next year to ask her to star in his indie film, The Long Lunch, she returned to Melbourne. The film premiered at the 2002 Singapore International Film Festival, where a Singaporean agent noticed Song and signed her. “I went over to help promote the film,” Song says, “and didn’t leave Singapore for three and a half years.”
Now, with War, Song is back in Hollywood mode. The film stars Jet Li as an assassin being hunted by Jason Statham (the tough-guy British actor best known for the 2006 film Crank). Song plays the wife of an FBI agent, and while the role is not large, it’s pivotal to the film’s action-heavy storyline. “I padded up for a few stunts,” she says.
The part, naturally, calls for a head-turning stunner. But on the subject of her looks, Song remains equivocal. “No, you’d have to see me in the morning,” she laughs when asked if she thinks she lives up to her Sexiest Woman label. So what’s her idea of beauty? “Owning up to all your weaknesses and insecurities,” she says, which for her can include baggage ranging from professional doubts between acting jobs to “more typical female insecurity: ‘I’m too fat for all my clothes, and I look like a turd onscreen.’
“Having the strength to tell yourself, ‘Yeah, I’ve had a crappy day, but the world is going to be great tomorrow.’ That’s a kind of courage.”