Liz Eng cares a lot
In the summer of 2019, Liz Eng found herself surrounded by cameras and staring into the famously blue, piercing eyes of Rosamund Pike. She and the Gone Girl actress were about to share a scene. Eng reread her lines and made small talk with Pike. Every time the fangirl inside her brain tried to pipe in, she composed herself once more. Eng belonged on this set and she was determined to prove it.
Eng was not predestined for success in the film industry. A product of Boston Public Schools, she is the oldest daughter of a single mother and has to fight for representation in a field that rewards white actors over an Asian American woman.
But over the last decade, Eng has built a career in the Boston film industry while also fighting for its survival.
A Bay State production
Most recently, Eng, 28, landed a role as Pike’s secretary Adelaide in the 2020 movie I Care a Lot. In the film, Marla Grayson (Pike) uses her role as a legal guardian to swindle the elderly out of their homes and savings. Grayson has a high profit margin, until she realizes her latest mark has underworld connections that could threaten her geriatric empire.
The film had a star-studded cast, including Peter Dinklage, Dianne Wiest, and Chris Messina. But Eng, a born-and-raised Boston actor, held her own.
During one take, Messina’s character, a self-important lawyer, was chatting with Adelaide outside Grayson’s office.
“He started improvising. I was at my desk and he’s sitting over there, and he goes, ‘Oh, are you dating? Do you have a boyfriend?’” Eng said.
“I’m gay,” she shot back as the sound guy chuckled behind her.
I Care a Lot was picked up by Netflix in 2021 and rose to the top of its US streaming charts within days. Pike won a Golden Globe for her performance. But this instant success was no mainstream Hollywood production.
If Bay Staters watch closely they might notice some familiar sites. Eng said at least 85% of the film was shot in Massachusetts, including scenes at Norfolk County Superior Court in Dedham and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Natick.
“I remember going to set and thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the Boston Marathon route. This is familiar,’” she said.
Eng said I Care a Lot is just one example of the increasing film presence in Massachusetts. Over the last 15 years, the industry has grown because of a state tax incentive designed to attract producers. The incentive has made it possible for local actors to build a career outside of Los Angeles or New York City.
If that incentive sticks around, Massachusetts has the chance to become a major hub of the film industry. And Eng might just be one of its success stories.
Eng fell in love with acting on an elementary school playground.
“I remember when I was in like, maybe kindergarten, and we were playing something called monsters,” she said. “I had borrowed someone’s ski mask and put it on and I was running around as a monster, and I was just having a ball.”
Almost automatically, Eng started to slip into a performance as she recalled this far-off memory. She raised her arms and amplified her voice as if she were running around that playground again. Eng’s brown eyes glanced away as she seemingly rewatched this memory; she shrugged her long black hair behind her shoulders and a look of childlike joy spread across her face. It’s easy to see how she fits into the acting world. She commands the room.
Whether running amok as a playground monster or portraying a pilgrim in the school play, Eng said she was drawn to acting from an early age. It didn’t matter if the character was a good guy or a bad guy. The act of transforming into someone else was magical.
Acting remained a hobby and elusive dream throughout Eng’s early education. She focused on perfecting her stroke on the crew team and taking acting classes at school. When senior year came around, Eng found herself playing a numbers game with college financial aid. As a first-generation college student, she was looking for a program that didn’t send her into debt. UMass Boston offered an affordable education and a double major in psychology and the performing arts.
At the same time, Eng is also a businesswoman. While many of her classmates were dipping their toes into college classes, she was braving the audition room; she joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and became eligible for union jobs and paid residuals each time her image was used.
Before long, she started landing roles. One of her first jobs was a Chevy car commercial.
“I’m [on set] imagining that I actually had the ability to own a car and was old enough to own a car. And two weeks later the casting director calls me and tells me that I [got the part],” she said. “It was my first big and real, serious job.”
In the years since, Eng has landed roles as a Japanese bride in 27 Dresses, a manicurist in Betty, and a nurse in New Amsterdam. She also does commercial work. If you watched the Beijing Olympics in 2008, you might have seen her in a Subway commercial. Or if you walk down Newbury Street in Boston, you might notice her in posters for the Boston Sports Club.
Eng said roles for Asian American actors were in short supply when she first started. A lot of the available jobs were stereotyped characters. But diversity in casting calls has increased over the years. Again, she credited the tax incentive for bringing a wide range of films to the area. These opportunities helped Eng jump from Chevy and Subway commercials to bigger TV and movie roles.
“Ten years ago, I was not asked to audition for recurring roles. Just this past December of 2020, I was asked to audition for Dexter for a recurring role,” she said. “Jamie Chung [Big Hero 6, Gotham] ended up beating me and booking it. And that says a lot about all the opportunities that are coming in. And again, it’s all because of the tax incentive.”
Naheem Garcia made it clear that the budding film industry isn’t the only reason behind Eng’s success. Eng and Garcia met on the set of 27 Dresses and established a long-term mentorship and friendship. He said Eng has found success through hard work and adaptability.
“She wants to do it, and she wants to do it right,” Garcia said. He explained that the two often rehearse together, and Eng is quick to pick up on feedback. She’ll adjust her approach and come back with a new take on a character.
Garcia is a well-known Boston actor in his own right. His credits include The Equalizer 2, Black Mass, and Joy. His Boston roots date back to 1968, when his family arrived from Cuba. He has watched this new generation of actors with pride as they celebrate their own Boston roots.
“I’m very proud of what they’re doing. They’re not just saying, ‘I’m an actor.’ They’re saying, ‘I’m a SAG actor from Boston,’” he said. “They’re the new blood and they’re the ones that take it to another level.”
Room for living
The COVID-19 pandemic tested Eng’s ability to adapt and work in Boston. She has not done an in-person audition in a year. In fact, she’s hardly left her living room.
“I live in my living room. Shooting off emails, doing work, Zooming,” she explained.
There is nothing extraordinary about Eng’s living room. The neutral-toned furniture includes a couch, table, and lamp. She has five basil plants gifted from a friend; Eng admits that sometimes she chats with them during their morning watering. But the most important part of Eng’s living room is a blank, cream-colored wall. It has been her acting canvas for the past year.
“You can take any space and turn it into an audition room. A plain wall, a phone, and a ring light. That’s it,” she laughed, gesturing at the empty wall behind her.
Despite these changes, Eng is confident the pandemic won’t ruin the Boston film industry. But another threat may arise soon.
Massachusetts lawmakers passed a tax incentive in 2006 to bring filmmakers to the Commonwealth. This incentive, the same one Eng credits with helping her build a career, is set to expire at the end of 2022. House members passed a budget amendment last week to remove the 2022 sunset clause on the film tax credit program, and it’s now in the hands of the Senate, where members seem more reluctant to advance it to Gov. Charlie Baker for approval.
If the incentive isn’t renewed, producers planning for movies and TV series will look elsewhere for filming locations. Many already have been for years, since the fate of the tax credit over the long term has been unknown. Eng notes this could also impact local businesses that supply food, rental properties, Porta-Johns, and more for filming.
Andrea Lyman, president of New England SAG-AFTRA, met Eng on a film set. They struck up a friendship and started seeing movies and participating in 48-hour film projects. Lyman described Eng as a talented actor and “fiercely loyal advocate for justice.”
So, she was not surprised by Eng’s reaction when Lyman told her about the tax incentive expiration. This initial conversation took place at noon. Lyman said Eng brought 10 new actors to a second meeting that night. Eng also produced a PSA with several local actors to raise awareness about the expiring incentive.
Eng could move to New York for work. But Boston is her home. If Massachusetts lets the tax incentive fade into the history of its film industry, success stories like Eng’s are likely to disappear. Eng says they’re already starting to see the impact.
“It’s like a faucet,” she explained. “They’re starting to turn the water off, and you can start to see the pressure.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its BINJ Arts initiative.