Jen Huang's cutting-edge role 'I like hard-hitting stories'

The Auckland-based actress plays a doctor in a play written as a ‘love letter’ to Middlemore Hospital

By Dionne Christian
If dissections in high school biology classes hadn't made her queasy, Jen Huang might not be portraying a doctor in one of New Zealand's most hotly anticipated theatre shows. Instead, she might
be a real-life emergency department physician.
The 31-year-old Taiwanese-Kiwi actor thought about becoming a medic and joining the health profession that her dentist parents Wesley and Grace, and older sister Stephanie, a biomedical researcher, work in.
"When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor because I just liked helping people, but I quickly realised that blood was not a friend of mine," tells Jen, who plays a young doctor in Auckland Theatre Company's newest play Things That Matter.
"We had to cut up things in biology like mice and a sheep's eye. While it was quite interesting and I didn't faint or anything, I didn't like blood."
Jen in Things That Matter, co-starring Shorty star Nicola (below, middle).
Jen acknowledges that many children of immigrant parents come under intense pressure to pursue professional careers, but says her parents did not fit that stereotype. Instead, her dad told his daughters that the most important thing was to find work that made them happy.
But while she may now have had starring roles in the Amazon Prime series The Wilds and Kiwi fave The Brokenwood Mysteries, finding her happy place took time.
Jen studied graphic design at St Cuthbert's College in Auckland and was in the chorus of school shows but wasn't extroverted, preferring to keep to herself and not in the spotlight. Not knowing what she wanted to do, she left school and spent three years working in a pharmacy in an upmarket suburb.
"It was sort of like an OE except that I stayed home and worked full-time," she says, her cheeky sense of humour coming to the fore. "It was busy all the time and some customers could be quite demanding. It didn't give me a lot of insight into our health system, but I was shocked at some of the prices [for prescription medicine]."
From there, Jen studied business at the University of Auckland, but it didn't exactly light her fire either. "I was failing and hating it. My mum noticed I was home all the time and not going to classes, so she asked me what was going on and I told her that I hated it. She said, 'Well, why don't you quit?' And I was like, 'That's the least Asian thing you have ever said!' I was expecting her to tell me I was this far along and I should keep going because it would be a waste of a degree."
She did enjoy the university's Glee Club, saying she loves to sing, so meeting weekly to sing, dance and rehearse for an end-of-year show was a bright spot. Then Jen came across an advertisement for a three-day intro course at the South Seas Film and Television School. "After the first hour, I thought, 'This is it! I have found it!' I was 25 and I knew I had found what I wanted to do."
After a year at South Seas, she was accepted into the actors' programme. "What drew me to performance was watching other people and how their performances impacted on me. I wanted to know that I could possibly change someone's life from being in a role. I like stories that are really hard-hitting and make people think, and open conversations up about certain things, especially about personal prejudices."
There's no doubt her biggest theatre role to date will provoke conversations about our health system. Jen stars in Things That Matter, based on the best-selling memoir by intensive care specialist Dr David Galler, who has spent more than 30 years working at Middlemore Hospital in South Auckland.
Award-winning playwright Gary Henderson adapted the book for the stage and it was just hours away from its first preview when the August 2021 lockdown saw it cancelled. It was a distressing time for the crew and cast, who include several actors well-known for appearances on another local medical drama, TV's Shortland Street.
Fan favourites Nicola Kāwana (Huia Samuels), Donogh Rees (Nurse Judy Brownlee) and Ian Hughes (Dr Martin "Sticky" Stickwell) are among the cast, playing medics and patients caught up in a stressed and failing health system. But Things That Matter has been described as a "love letter" to Middlemore Hospital that asks what a truly healthy Aotearoa could look like.
It's not the first encounter Jen has had with Middlemore Hospital. She worked as a production assistant on the reality TV Show The Big Ward, which followed six morbidly obese Kiwis on the road to healthier lives with help from the Middlemore staff.
Jen says hearing the emotional stories of how people became obese changed the way she thinks about the health issue, making her realise that it's more complicated than simply not having the self-control to stop eating.
"It didn't change my mind about wanting to be a doctor, but it left me with a lot more respect for people."
Things That Matter is on at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from 12 – 27 August.
  • undefined: Dionne Christian

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