Here’s how the actress who played Twin Peaks‘ fortune-hunting cookie evaluates herself: “I’m OK.” Yeah, right. The Shanghai-born Chen is OK like David Lynch’s TV series was talked about only a little. “I was taught to be modest,” she counters. “I’m more recognized now since that show. I’ve received more offers to play that same kind of character—I just turned down the role of a vampire. But it’s still very hard for me to say anything good about myself, because I’m shy.”
Except, that is, when the camera’s rolling. Her urbane parents, both physicians, were sent to re-education camps during China’s Cultural Revolution, but Chen was nonetheless selected by the state at 14 to train as an actress. Although she “always played a country girl,” she quickly became one of the country’s top box office draws. In 1981, at age 20, Chen was permitted to leave China and ended up a film production major at California State University, Northridge. A part in the 1986 turkey Tai-Pan led to her portrayal of The Last Emperor‘s drug-addicted empress. Newly married to second husband Peter Hui, 35, a San Francisco cardiologist, she now splits her time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Chen says that “for an Asian to be successful in this industry is very difficult—there isn’t an empress in every film. But people are coming to me with creative offers.” As well they should. Lynch, who recently finished directing her in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, this summer’s big-screen prequel to his ABC series, says of Chen: “She’s the best thing from China since pasta—and much more beautiful.”