Abigail Fenton 22nd February 2019
Picture this: it’s the eve of your thirteenth birthday. You’re on the brink of a rebellious phase, trying to figure out where you fit in, and you somehow just bought a motorbike you’re going to have to hide from your mum. Typical stuff.
Then your cool older sister decides to stop by for the big day. And with a revelation, everything changes. Turns out, she isn’t your sister — she’s your mother. And your mother? Well, she’s actually your grandmother.
This is the premise of Disney Channel’s hit show Andi Mack, in which Lilan Bowden stars as Bex Mack, the sister/mother of the titular character, who is just trying to figure out this whole parenthood thing.
Bowden, who comes from Castro Valley, California and graduated from UC’s drama department, has her roots in comedy.
She cut her teeth as a member of premiere training troupe Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), which was founded by comedians including Amy Poehler in 1999 (notable alumni include Donald Glover, D’Arcy Carden, Ellie Kemper, Aubrey Plaza and pretty much everyone else you’ve ever heard of), then wrote for comedy website Funny or Die before landing the role of Bex.
Somehow, between filming and preparing for upcoming UCB shows, she found time to talk to The Overtake about working ridiculous hours to get into comedy, what it’s like to be an Asian American actor and her brief stint on Parks and Recreation.
So we know a bit about you here at The Overtake. Obviously you’re on Andi Mack at the moment, and we know you come from UCB and you’ve written for Funny or Die in the past.
I like that resume.
How would you describe your career? Can you give us your highlights?
Yes. So when I moved to Los Angeles, I started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade and doing live comedy. I found peers who were aspiring actors like myself, and we would get together and do sketches and write videos — basically be making our own content before any of us had actual representation like agents or managers.
And then after a while, I got an agent. I had a manager from the beginning, but once I was able to produce a little bit more of my own content that kind of helped get the ball rolling. And then I started auditioning for TV shows, stuff like that, and I had been acting professionally for a little bit before booking Andi Mack, which was obviously a complete game changer.
How did you end up playing Bex? Was it just like any other audition?
It was an audition. I got it like any other one. I got it in my email inbox. They had already cast Andi Mack, and they were looking for a woman who could believably be her sister or her mother. I remember looking at Peyton’s picture and the [casting] description and thinking, wow, nothing has felt more right for me.
As an actor, over time auditioning makes you very humble. You learn not to get cocky. But the character description — I felt like it spoke to me in a way other auditions I had gone out for didn’t.
You’re obviously very young to be playing the mother of a 14-year-old.
It definitely creeps me out a little.
Was that an idea you had to adjust to? Did you have any concerns about it?
Yeah, I don’t think it was the idea that I would be the mother of a teenager that really spoke to me about Bex. In the [casting] description, they didn’t even reveal it. They said they were casting for her sister because they didn’t want anybody to ruin the surprise.
But even so, you read the script. And so you know the twist. But what spoke to me more about Bex was the dialogue — the way she makes jokes, the way she deals with conflict, and the way she is trying to be a better person but there is so much standing in her way. All that, I thought, wow, this is so real. I understand this person. I understand this character.
Was the fact that Andi Mack is centred around an Asian American family a big draw? Obviously it’s a big opportunity given the small percentage of Asian American TV roles. Were you excited to work with other Asian American actors and be on a show with real Asian American representation?
I hadn’t really thought about the Asian American aspect at the time, even though that’s obviously very important to me. What was more exciting to me was that Disney was trying something different. They were trying to push the boundaries. They were trying to show a real family on TV. They were trying to embrace very flawed characters, and that was exciting to me.
It wasn’t until we got the whole cast in the room and it was me, Peyton [Elizabeth Lee, who plays Andi Mack] and Lauren Tom who plays Celia, together, that I was like, oh, this is a show about an Asian American family, and we are leading the show.
Andi Mack has — and this is by no means an exhaustive list — an Asian American lead, an Asian American family at the helm, Jewish representation, LGBT+ representation — it’s the first Disney Channel show to feature an openly gay character-
That is correct.
It has a cast that is mostly made up of people of colour, and it explores topics like teen pregnancy, anxiety, learning disabilities, military families, sexism. Did you know any of that would be part of the package when you signed on?
I had no idea Andi Mack would be a show that deals with so many issues that kids’ television has been missing for a long time. But I think it’s really important. The world is very different now than it might have been when I was a kid watching TV. Kids in real life are going through the same issues [as those addressed on Andi Mack], and to be able to see it on TV makes kids feel so much less alone.
And a bonus on top of that is it makes adults feel so much less alone. I get a lot of feedback from people who are my own age or from parents who watch the show who are saying, this show makes me feel seen. And man, I wish I had the show when I was a kid, but I’m so glad it exists now.
Being on a kids’ TV show, do you feel a certain level of responsibility to the audience that you maybe didn’t when you were doing improv and sketch comedy?
I do feel a level of responsibility that I didn’t feel before. Absolutely. And it’s a positive one. I could not predict in my wildest dreams that I would be on a platform where kids internationally would be watching me and looking at my show and looking at my Instagram. And I take that responsibility really seriously.
I think it’s important to show who I am and not dilute who I am as a person. I know children are watching and I want to be a good example for what I stand for.
That’s a big responsibility.
Yeah. It’s interesting to be in this position but it’s not something that feels like a burden.
Backtracking a little bit, do you mind if I ask you some questions about your time at UCB?
So you spent six years at UCB, and you’re still doing stuff with them, right?
Yeah, I am. I started my first UCB class in 2007, and I’ve been active at the theatre since. So it’s been a while.
You have a couple of upcoming projects. I saw at least four — by the way, you seem incredibly busy. Would you mind telling us a little bit about those? I’m particularly interested in Jeff Goldblum’s Oscars Spectacular.
Oh, yes! Jeff Goldblum’s Oscars Spectacular is a character show done by a bunch of comedians. Disappointingly, I don’t think Jeff Goldblum will actually be there, but you never know because that’s happened a lot. At UCB shows it’s usually comedians, but you never know who’s dropping in. I remember one night Robin Williams was randomly at UCB and asked to play improv with the team in the next show.
And of course they let him.
Of course they said yes! So that’s one that’s going to be a lot of fun. After that, I’m doing one for St Patrick’s Day, hosted by not actually Liam Neeson but somebody playing Liam Neeson.
There’s also a show I do every single month called Asian AF. Talk about Asian representation, this is the mine. It’s 90-100% Asian performers, and it’s a variety show. So sketch, comedy improv, stand-up comedy. We’ve had amazing guests at that show like Randall Parks and Margaret Cho. And it is just so much a joy to be a part of. I’m so proud of it.
I don’t think funny is the first characteristic that comes [to mind] when we think of Asian people. But I feel like if you go to the show, you’ll come away thinking, wow, Asians are really funny.
There’s that stereotype that Asians aren’t particularly expressive, which obviously isn’t true.
Yeah. You can’t categorise the whole group, because you’re going to get some variety within a culture.
Coming from improv, do you get to bring any of those tools with you to Andi Mack? Is there room for improvisation there?
If there isn’t, I really try to make room for it. As an improviser, you want to be able to try things. You want to be able to expand on lines when you’re in the moment. The creator of the show, Terri Minsky, has been so supportive of letting me try things. If we have a really tight schedule, even then sometimes I’ll ask the director of that episode if it’s okay to try a couple of things, and usually they’ll let me.
When you’re doing improv in front of an audience, you kind of have a barometer for what’s funny. You have instant feedback. What is it like not to have that? Is it an adjustment?
It’s definitely an adjustment. I live for that feedback. And on a set, it’s quite the opposite. You have to remain quiet, no matter how funny you think it is. You don’t want to add extra sound where there’s not supposed to be sound. So even if people do think you’re funny, everybody is really, really quiet until the director yells cut, and then people are allowed to laugh.
So yeah, it definitely takes some adjustment, being like, er, am I funny or is this totally sinking?
When you were first pursuing your career, did you think you wanted to be an actress or a comedian? Did you always know you’d end up being both?
I didn’t realise there was a difference. I think I’m just realising now you’re saying that, oh, I guess there is a difference.
I feel like being a comedian is synonymous with being an actor — in my experience. I know that’s not true for most people. But for me, as long as I was on stage, whether I was making people laugh or cry, if I was making jokes or not, all of that to me is being an actor.
Six years is quite a lot of time. Something I’ve heard a few UCB alums say is that it’s quite all-consuming. I remember listening to D’Arcy Carden last year talk about how because you have all these UCB goals, like “I have to get on this team”, “now I have to get on this team”, you can kind of end up with a bit of tunnel vision.
Totally. D’Arcy is totally right.
Was that your experience? Were you pursuing other opportunities while you were there, or were you focused on working your way up through UCB?
UCB is a great community. And once you’re in it, your goals and your aspirations start to revolve around the community. Everybody is doing the same thing — they’re going to show up every night and they’re taking a ton of classes, and they’re working two jobs so they can take more classes.
My experience was, I was working at a cafe and I was picking up work on the side. And I was doing an internship at night at UCB so I could get class credit. So I would leave my eight-hour shift at the cafe, do an eight-hour intern shift at UCB, then go back the next day for another eight-hour shift at the cafe. And I was just exhausted all the time.
But the flip-side of that is everybody is focused and locked, and what that does is create an incredible energy, work ethic and drive. I don’t know if I would have been successful as an actor if I wasn’t able to cultivate that at UCB. I don’t know what it’s like to be an actor and not have a community you can pour mind into.
What UCB has done is it’s kept me sane. Not having any control [over] who’s going to cast you, where is your next paycheck coming from — all of that can make you crazy. But if you have a community or a theatre you love, or even a hobby, it sets your brain right.
What shows did you watch when you were a kid, and how do you think they compare to shows for kids today? Where does Andi Mack fit into that?
I didn’t have cable TV when I was a child, so I watched sitcoms. I watched Full House, Family Matters, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Boy Meets World — that was my TV experience. And then when I would go to a friend’s house, I could get the exciting Disney Channel or Nickelodeon experience. But they weren’t the shows I was dedicated to, because I just didn’t have access.
I feel like the material I watched when I was a kid was either only for kids, or it was for an older audience — kids could also watch, but maybe you wouldn’t get all the jokes. Or maybe you would have to hide from your parents that you were watching shows they wouldn’t want you watching — like the Simpsons. My parents let me watch the Simpsons, but I had a lot of friends whose parents did not.
Now we have a nice blend. We have shows that are really accessible to kids but adults can also watch and get a lot of value out of too. I think kids’ programming is understanding that kids can absorb a lot more than we think they can and understand a lot more than we think we can, and so they’re ready for challenging ideas.
Considering the Disney Channel brand historically, Andi Mack is probably one of its first shows to do that.
Fans on social media have been quite vocal about how much they want, and how much you guys deserve, a fourth season. Are you feeling optimistic?
I would love the show to go ten seasons. I’d be happy doing the show for the majority of my life, just because I’ve been having so much fun doing it. As an actor, you kind of just get used to what the television gods want. You’re used to change and you’re always prepared to go on to the next thing. But of course I would want the show to go on forever and I’m ready for it.
And it’s so exciting that fans are being vocal about it too. It means so much because I feel our show really has made an impact and really has made a deep connection. My job as an actor is just to wait and see.
We asked some of your fans to contribute some questions.
Oh, so cool!
So Elizabeth wants to know, which Andi Mack storyline has resonated with you the most?
I love the storyline of Bex learning to be a mother. We get to see how human Bex is and how fallible she is but also how lovable she can be too, and that’s really special to me.
Other than that, I’ve really loved Cyrus’s storyline. I just think it’s so precious and special. I mean, I still go back to that scene at the beginning of season two when he comes out to Buffy, and every time I’ve seen it it’s made me cry.
Maggie wants to know, what aspects of Asian culture that show has portrayed can you identify with from your own upbringing or your own life?
What’s cool about how Andi Mack has portrayed some Asian holidays is it’s really representative of what it’s like to be second generation and celebrate them in America. It doesn’t feel like, oh yes, I know all the rituals and I know what to do, and this is my culture. You see in the show that this is something Celia needs for [her own] reasons, and Bex and Andi are connected through family but also feel like outsiders.
I think that’s very representative of the Asian American experience — or at least for me and a lot of my peers — where we do feel connected, we do identify with this culture, but in some ways we weren’t brought up with the same rituals. So we feel like we’re familiar but also strangers.
Amanda wants to know, what’s your favourite type of comedy to perform, long-form improv, short-form improv or sketch?
Oh, good question! It’s a real hard choice between long-form improv and sketch comedy. I can’t choose. I’m sorry.
Ali wants to know, who is your biggest inspiration?
Oh my goodness.
That’s a hard question to answer off the top of your head.
I know! I’m really inspired by female comedians who came before me, because as a female comedian you have your own challenges that are unique. So I’ll say someone like Amy Poehler — somebody I really look up to, and it’s really cool [that we have] that UCB connection because she is one of the original founders of the theatre.
You were on Parks and Rec, right?
I was, yeah!
You worked at Gryzzl.
I worked at Gryzzl, yes! Sadly, my scenes weren’t with Amy. They were with Adam Scott and Chris Pratt, who were amazing — just so fun and warm. I was only working for that day, and they immediately started conversations with me and made me feel welcome.
It must have been cool even just to be on Amy Poehler’s show since you admire her and come from UCB.
Absolutely. It’s so great when it feels like your life comes full circle. Like, I was watching her on TV as a kid, and then I was taking classes forever at her theatre and now I get to be on her show.
Last question: quite a lot of people wanted me to ask you who you’re closest to on the Andi Mack set.
I guess this is not a secret, or not a surprise I should say, but Peyton. Peyton and I have had so many scenes together, and we’ve really grown together over the course of the show. I’ve been able to watch her grow. And now she really does feel like a family member to me. She does feel like a little sister.
I’m not ready to say she feels like a daughter yet. I’m still too young. But she feels so much like a little sister to me.
Abigail Fenton 22nd February 2019