Q&A: Get to Know Isla Mayo, the Rising Chinese-Kiwi Artist in Night of the Living Dead

Silo Theatre is bringing back to life the 1960s cult classic film, Night of the Living Dead, but with a modern twist. The Asia Media Centre was granted a sneak peek during one of the production’s rehearsals before its Halloween premiere. We also spoke with one of the leading actors, Isla Mayo, an up-and-coming Chinese-Kiwi artist.


Q: Isla, tell us your journey.  How did you get into the performing arts?

I started playing piano at the age of four and I think that’s very common amongst a lot of children with Chinese background, learning instruments at a very young age. At that time, I really enjoyed it, but it was hardcore because my mum really pushed me, she kept making sure that I stuck to it. At that time, it was really hard, but growing up, I’ve realised the benefits of that.

I was playing piano for most of my life and then I became a hip-hop dancer in my teen years, [I did] hip-hop and Latin, and then I only really picked-up acting in the past few years and I decided to train in acting.

I just graduated from the Actor's Program last year, I’ve done shows beforehand, here and there, mainly theatre shows and dance shows, but I feel like with this project, it’s like bringing back my childhood in a way – it’s been a while since I have touched the piano. I did my grades, and then I just decided to focus on dancing in my teen years, but now I have to bring [those skills] back in this [project].

But that’s the whole reason why I wanted to become a performer anyway, is because I have these three different passions with music, dance, and acting – trying to figure out how to incorporate them all together – and this is the perfect example – I can play the piano as well as act and also have the dance mind in terms of coordination, making sure that everything is on time. So, I’m really grateful for all those things in my belt – in my little kit.

Q: Many Asian children who began learning music at a young age did so as a hobby, but as they grew older, their parents pushed them to pursue a different career. Did you have a similar experience?

I was three when I decided that I wanted to try the piano and my mum took it seriously, she’s like, okay, you want to try? Let’s make that a career for you. 

At the beginning, yes, it was just a hobby.

We kept taking classes and obviously it became tough and there were times, I was like, ‘I don’t want to play anymore,’ and she was like, ‘fine, we’ll quit then.' And I’ll be like, 'no… no… no.'

So, there’s always that kind of back and forth of like making sure that, if I want to do this, then she makes sure that I can do the best that I could. She always pushes me in the best ways.

I guess that’s kind of like ingrained in my childhood and what I was used to in my life, and growing up became more and more serious, but I think it got to a point where I realised, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do as a career, just like solely piano, but I know it was something I wanted to add in the future.

Q: Did your family pushes you to try a different path? Away from Arts?

I’m very lucky that I have a mixed culture, I’m half-Pakeha and half-Chinese, and on my Chinese side, which I’m more aligned with are mostly artists. My grandfather is a singer, my grandmother is also a singer, and my auntie who studied music is now working in the film industry.

So, I think in that sense, I’m grateful to have come from that artistic family. So, there’s not so much judgement, but the only judgement I would say is having and needing some type of qualifications in these areas.

I did my acting training in different schools, which didn’t give me a university piece of paper, but has the same amount of training. In saying that there’s also that kind of perspective, okay, I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t have a university degree, but I decided to pursue the Arts. So, I feel like the perspective of the arts in New Zealand compared to China is very different. There, the bar in Arts is extremely high and there is an expectation that you need to succeed in the field.  

So, that was kind of the struggle I’m having in terms of my mixed environment. But I was saying that stirring away from the arts – that pressure wasn’t really put on me growing up. I’m very grateful for that.

 Q: It appears that your Chinese family is doing well in the arts scene. Did you feel pressured to follow in their footsteps? Even though you grew up in New Zealand, which has a more relaxed lifestyle and atmosphere.

I totally understand what you mean. But I think I’m stuck in the middle completely, especially growing up mainly here, I’ve adopted that [laid-back] mindset.

Recently, I was in China with my family for three months, and as someone who just finished my training, I am in that stage of finding my career. But my mum’s family, they expected that – okay, you’ve got this job, what is your next thing? And I’m like, hold-on, let me have a break. I just finished all my training; can I just spend time with the family first.

So yeah, I’ve been stuck in the middle because I think with my mum, she always wanted my sister and I to do whatever makes us happy and I’m very grateful she had that mindset, she raised us that way, but she’s also like do what makes you happy, but do well.

It’s a half and half, I’m grateful that I have those two mindsets, which help me adapt in different environments, and I guess my goal as a performer is, I want to be international one day, because I’ve been able to live in different countries and also experienced different communities.

I love New Zealand, but I know that I want to go bigger.

Mayo finishing her training in the Actor's Program. Photo: c/o Actor's Program


Q: Coming from a mixed-culture-background, did you struggle to find your identity?

I was born in New Zealand, but I’ve lived in Singapore for few years when I was younger and lived in Japan. Being in international environments, being in international schools, and in New Zealand I was always in the Mt. Roskill area, which is one of the most diverse suburbs in New Zealand. So, I’m very grateful to be around a multicultural community growing up.

But the only struggle is, I never fully felt like I fit in with just the Chinese side or just the Pakeha side.

Here in New Zealand, my friends are all Māori or Pasifika. I think it’s because, I felt more at home with them. I have such a big energy and I love performing, that’s always something we have in common. So, I always felt at home with that Community.

But regardless, growing up I am finding more ways to be in touch with my roots and honouring where I came from.

Obviously, there are times, that you feel like that you belong everywhere and nowhere at once. You don’t feel secure. But I think there are blessings and struggles in that too.

I’m still new in the industry – I’m still starting off. But I think, there hasn’t been much of a struggle for me so far and I think there is an advantage because I am mixed, and I look like I’m from lots of different places, and people don’t necessarily put me in a box. But because I am proud, and I am in-touch with my Chinese side – those are the stories that I want to tell.

So, I think, what I struggle sometimes is probably not feeling Chinese enough in the past. Even though the Community is growing within the industry and it’s so great to see. I think, sometimes, it also feels like I don’t fully belong and sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to tell these stories because I’m not fully Chinese, and that’s something I really want to push for.

It’s what really grounds me in my identity, and I do want to be able to feel like I deserve to tell those stories.

 Q: What is your goal as an artist especially being an Asian-Kiwi?

A massive goal of mine is representation. The thing is, there's a lot of mixed Chinese and Pakeha kids within New Zealand, but I think not many are artists. I want to be able to represent us on screen.

I truly desire to see our representation in media, to see more faces resembling ours. If the younger version of myself had witnessed that, it would have meant so much. Back then, I rarely saw mixed individuals on screen. I hope that as we progress, this inclusivity continues to expand.

 Q: What advice would you give to young Asian-Kiwis out there, who also aspire to enter the industry?

Just do it!

Even if it is uncomfortable, it will be worth it, you won’t regret it. It is tough but also, it is important to find that community. Yes, we believe in ourselves, we’re pushing ourselves, which is the most important thing, but I think if we don’t have that community to support us as well then, we could only go so far.

First, do it. Then, push yourself, and find that community or message me. I can help you. I can be part of your community.   

Isla Mayo, playing the piano during the rehearsal of Night of the Living Dead. Photo: c/o Carla Teng, AMC.

Q: Let’s talk about your new project. How did you secure one of the lead roles in Night of the Living Dead?

I auditioned.

Early this year I was doing a show called ‘Not Woman Enough’ with the Proudly Asian Theatre, which was my first theatre show outside of my acting training. That was all female cast and crew and all predominantly Asian cast and crew as well.

So, during that time I was rehearsing for that show. On our opening night, I auditioned for this show. I almost didn’t go because I was so busy, but I’m so glad I did because it got me here. This is I guess my first big show, my biggest production, and I am learning a lot.

It’s very hard, it’s lot of hard work, but I’m having so much fun. There is a great working culture in the room and the people are very patient and very supportive as well.

Q: How different is this project compared to your previous ones?

This kind of show is very different, because there’s lots of different performance elements. So, this was not just acting, there’s voice, and there’s all the other kind of sounds that you have to make. Also, the story is different – this is a horror. I’ve never done a horror before.

The stories I’ve done in the past have been more touching the heart or sending the message across, but this is like we want people to have a fun experience and a thrilling experience when they gone into that theatre. It’s also switching that mindset, that this is a different project, a different vibe, a different intention we sent across.

Also, my goal as a performer is to bring my different skillsets and my passion into one, and when I heard, 'oh, music and acting, okay, I can do that!' These are the two things I can do, so let’s bring that together, and it was just really exciting to even hear that the music was composed by Leon Radojkovic, and to hear that ‘oh I can see it all coming together,’ and that’s quite exciting.

It really is a dream come true for me. I feel that it’s not a show that comes to you easily or comes to you quite often – it’s quite a unique experience.

Live Live Cinema: Night of the Living Dead. Photo: c/o Elephant Publicity.

Silo Theatre’s Live Live Cinema: Night of the Living Dead will run from the 2 to 12 November 2023 at Hollywood, Avondale for a limited season.

At the helm of this wickedly immersive production are directors Sam Snedden (The Wasp, Burn Her) and Sophie Roberts (The Writer, The Wolves), leading Jack Buchanan and Isla Mayo as they perform at breakneck speed to bring this film to life. As the muted action of Night of the Living Dead unfolds on the cinema screen, an original score, composed by Leon Radojkovic (Peter and the Wolf, My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak), creates a unique atmospheric soundscape.

For more information, check out this website.

 -Asia Media Centre