Since that first acting class 4-year-old Brenda Song begged her grandmother to enroll her in, the now-33-year-old has been steadily building one of the most well-rounded careers in Hollywood—collecting parts on the Disney Channel (most notably Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody), on network TV (New Girl, Scandal, Station 19) and in movies (The Social Network, Changeland).
And yet should she be forced to give it all up tomorrow, she'd do so without question.
"I never thought that I could really put my career in the backseat," the mom to 10-month-old son Dakota exclusively shared in a recent interview with E! News, "but, at the end of the day, if I had to stop doing what I'm doing to be a better mom, I would do it without blinking an eye because my son is the most important thing and I just want to be the best mom for him."
Such is the utterly life-changing, earth-quaking, soul-shaking phenomenon that is parenting.
"I think being a parent changes a lot of your career choices," she explained. "Because now I really think about where things are being shot, how long they're being shot for because everything revolves around my son."
Fortunately, abandoning ship isn't even remotely on the table thanks to the success of Dollface, her Hulu series as supportive of an environment as you might expect from a show that explores the complexity and awesomeness of female friendships.
Returning to filming just 12 weeks after welcoming Dakota (with fiancé Macaulay Culkin, 41) in April 2021, "I was very fortunate that even through COVID, I was able to have my son visit on set so I could breastfeed," Song raved, "so I could see him."
And though some parts of returning to the person she used to be were undeniably difficult ("I didn't feel like myself for a long time"), certain logistics like finding time for once-every-two-hour pump breaks were made that much easier by the series' executive producer Kat Dennings (who leads the ensemble cast as suddenly single and repentant Jules) acting as her unofficial postpartum doula.
"I'm so lucky that I had a showrunner and a group of women who not only supported that, but forced it on me," Song described. "More times than not, Kat was like, 'Have you pumped? Go pump.'"
Admittedly, it was a bit weird being surrounded by people after a year-and-a-half of essentially becoming "shut-ins," joked Song, who lives with mom Mai Song, a four-time breast cancer survivor. Particularly while filming a second season (all 10 episodes drop Feb. 11) that focuses on the women emerging from the most stringent part of the COVID-induced lockdown and embarking on the milestones of their 30s.
"It was very surreal to jump straight back into a full set of, like, 100 people," shared the actress. "And it was really jarring because there was part of you that felt like no time had passed at all. But at the same time, I needed to, like, re-learn social skills, almost."
Fortunately the initial panic over taking off her mask indoors was quickly replaced by the sheer thrill of being around the trio that has become her real-life squad.
Song knew the light-hearted, surrealistic comedy about a woman rediscovering the pals she inadvertently ditched during an all-consuming longterm romance was a must-book well before she, Dennings, Shay Mitchell (go-with-the-flow party girl Stella) and Esther Povitsky (Jules' somewhat neurotic coworker Izzy) formed the tight bond that mirrors their onscreen quartet.
"I just related so much to the show," said Song, who easily slipped into the role of ambitious publicist Madison Maxwell. "I am of these girls' age, I live in Los Angeles—this was like me reading the adventures of me and my girlfriends. Of course, very dramatized, fantastical. And I felt like it had been awhile since this kind of female friendship had been represented on TV and in media. Not just properly, but at all."
And her faith in the show has been reinforced each time she reads through a new script and "was like, 'Oh my God, I've done this.' Or, 'I've been through a situation like this,'" or was encouraged to truly flex her acting muscles by reaching for the not-obvious choice. But mostly she loves that they're marking a sort of quirkier, Los Angeles-based Sex and the City for the oft-maligned millennial generation.
"We're just trying to take you out of reality for half an hour and just let you laugh a little bit," she explained. While each of the four characters experiences their share of growth, "at the end there's no, like, crazy happy ending. It's a real representation of [what] girls are going through in their life and realizing that these friendships are things that need to be celebrated."
Song has grown quite the eye for choosing winners across two decades in the industry.
There was her initial start on the Disney Channel, the mouse house remarkably ahead of the curve when it came to colorblind casting. Even though Song is Hmong-Thai American, she speaks of being able to represent different Asian cultures in various projects."I was able to represent and talk about Chinese heritage," she said of the slew of TV movies she booked beginning with 2000's The Ultimate Christmas Present. "And being able to just let kids know that it's okay to talk about your heritage and eat different foods. It's okay to be proud of who you are. It's okay to celebrate the Lunar New Year, even if you're not Chinese."
There were some pitfalls along the way. In a 2019 interview with Teen Vogue, she detailed the heartbreak she felt when she couldn't even book an audition for Crazy Rich Asians, despite portraying what some saw as the original crazily rich Asian: Suite Life of Zack and Cody's London Tipton.
"What they said was that my image was basically not Asian enough," she explained to the magazine. "'I've auditioned for Caucasian roles my entire career, but this specific role, you're not going to let me do it? You're going to fault me for having worked my whole life?'" (Director Jon M. Chu later responded he didn't need her to read "because I already knew who she was!")
Still, she remains steadfast in her strategy not to focus on the ethnicity of a character, but whether they challenge her.
Because, if she's being honest, she knows she's not likely to come across too many parts written specifically for a half-Thai, half-Hmong actress with a penchant for nailing comedic lines.
"A lot of the roles that I play aren't specific to a certain ethnicity or nationality," she explained. "That's simply because I personally haven't read a lot of stories that are written for my nationality or ethnicity. And that's completely fine." As for looking for racially ambiguous parts, "I definitely don't seek it out or don't not seek it out. It's just, you know, the way that the cards have unfolded."
Besides, she'd rather dig deep into who a character is than what they look like.
"I've tried to figure out what makes me unique: When I walk into a room, what can I bring to a character?" she explained of the approach she takes when choosing auditions. "Because people always ask, 'What is your dream project?' Of course, I have a list of people that I would love to work with. I mean, who doesn't want to work with David Fincher or Meryl Streep? But for me, what my goals are as an actor is to always just find roles that intrigue me."
Approaching her career like a staircase of growth and opportunities to go beyond what's comfortable, when she reads scripts now, she always asks herself the same thing: "'Can I do something with this?'"
Of course, the past few years have brought a series of new hurdles to the process as she learned to work a ring light and embrace the flying-blind-feeling that is the dreaded self-tape.
"I love working with a director or a filmmaker and seeing where we can take this character," she said of her "old-school" audition mentality. "But trying to find a character is really hard when you don't have any direction at all. It's been bizarre for me. And it's had to make me really confident in my choices, which is a good thing."
That sort of self-assuredness has permeated every corner of her world as she's learned to navigate the fourth (and fifth, and sixth, really) trimesters of motherhood. "To be perfectly honest," she admitted. "I didn't really start feeling like myself until just a few months ago."
But as a byproduct of this new life-changing role, "I feel live I've learned so much about myself. I've really learned to let go of a lot of things. I've learned to loosen up. Because I'm a little bit like Madison in the way that I'm very Type-A. And it's like really taught me to be like, 'You know what? Things are just going to happen the way that they're going to happen and I have to let go of that control, or I'm just going to drive myself crazy and never sleep again.'"
That's meant learning to accept help from a robust support system that includes her live-in mother. "I remember, like, three days into having my son," she detailed, "I looked at my mom and was like, 'Mom, I am so sorry for anything that I have ever done to upset you or to anything. You are incredible. I don't know how you do it.'"
Though after some 10 months of bonding with her little man, it is admittedly a bit hard to share him with the world.
"I'm used to being like, 'I can do everything on my own. Don't worry about it,'" she said. "I just had to learn to step back and know that it's okay to not know everything. And to not have to do everything. Because I think that was one of the things that made my fourth trimester probably worse, was the anxiety of, 'Oh my God, am I doing enough? Am I a good mom?'"
It helped to constantly remind herself, "'Hon, your body just went through a whole lot. You just grew an entire human. You just delivered a baby," and to see all the outstretched arms on set of those eager to love on her little man. ‘"He has a group of aunties," she raves of her cast and crew. "I'm so lucky to have such a great group of friends where literally this child has never had to sit down because everybody wants to hold him."
Having a sounding board has also been nice as she's navigated all of motherhood's little-discussed hardships.
She was prepared for the possibility of postpartum depression ("That was something I was very worried about"), but she hadn't expected the postpartum edema that left it hard for her to even walk ("I'm like, 'I don't understand. I'm having more issues after I have the baby than before'") or the rollercoaster of hormones that came with breastfeeding and, eventually, weaning.
And, of course, there's the ever-present anxiety.
"One of my best friends is pregnant right now and she was like, 'You know at every turn, you worry about every appointment. I cannot wait to just stop worrying,'" Song described. "I was like, 'Oh, girl. The worrying never stops.' If my son just coughs or rolls around in the middle of the night, I'm awake. And I'm like, 'Oh my God. Is he breathing?'"
No wonder she ends each day by pumping herself up. "I literally sit in bed and I'm like, 'Brenda, you did it. You made it through the day. It's okay.'"
It's not all that dissimilar to the message she tells herself each time she collects a new script. Asked at what point she'll feel that she's quote-unquote "made it" in the industry she's been dominating since she was a teen, Song acknowledged that, in a way, she gets that rush of pride every time she walks on set.
"I look around and it's like, 'I get to do this every day,'" she said of continually living out her childhood dream. While of course she'd love to one day hold an Emmy or an Oscar, "I don't ever think there's going to be that tip-top of the career that you're like, 'Yes! This is it. This is the top of the mountain,'" Song explained. "Because there's life after that and there are more goals after that and there are more challenges after that."
She can't imagine that sort of "I've done it all" sensation washing over her. "I feel like I'll never have that moment," she said, "but, also, I sort of have it every day."