The untold truth of Brenda Song

Brenda Song is fondly remembered for playing London Tipton in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody by anyone who watched Disney Channel in the 2000s. She reprised the role (and her "Yay me!" catchphrase) in a Suite Life standalone movie and the spinoff The Suite Life on Deck"She's a huge part of me now," Song said of the character in a Disney Channel YouTube video. "I played her for almost eight years."

And while the half-Thai, half-Hmong actress' association with Disney runs deep, she's also amassed an impressive body of onscreen work since then, ranging from guest spots in such series as Scandal and New Girl to a recurring role in Grey's Anatomy spinoff Station 19 and a dramatic turn in a Netflix thriller. Having booked her first professional acting gig as a kid, Song is that rare child star who successfully made the often-fraught transition to adult actor — and she did it with aplomb.

Fans might think they know Brenda Song, given how long she's been in the public eye, but even her most ardent admirers may be surprised by what they don't know about this multitalented young woman.

Brenda Song's grandmother is responsible for the star's start in acting

Brenda Song's acting ambitions date back to when she was just 3 years old living in Sacramento, Calif., when she learned of an acting school for youngsters during a visit to a local mall. Attending the school became a dream and then an obsession, and she begged and pleaded with her parents to enroll her. 

"We were very, very poor," Song told W magazine. "We had no money. My mom was still in school, my dad was in college to be a schoolteacher." Song recalled, "I got really, really sick and I wouldn't take my Robitussin. My mom was like, OK, fine if you take your Robitussin, we'll take you to this acting school.' I took it, and my grandma was like, 'We have to take her,' but my mom was like, 'No, we don't. She's a child, she's not going to remember this.'" But Song apparently wouldn't drop the subject and so her grandmother "took everything out of her savings, which was $523," and brought her to the school, which Song described as "not legit at all." Fortunately, by enrolling in the school, Song was able to snag an agent and start going on auditions.

Brenda Song booked her first acting gig at 6 years old

Once she got an agent, young Brenda Song began vying for roles. She eventually booked her first television commercial on her sixth birthday when her parents agreed to drive her to an audition in Los Angeles. "My parents had no idea what this industry was," she told W magazine. "They were immigrants, refugees, they didn't understand."

In 1999, Song starred as a series regular in Nickelodeon's 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd, a wacky sitcom about a school bully who's transformed into a dog and won't be changed back until he does 100 good deeds. That role led her to the Disney Channel, and she was cast in 2000's The Ultimate Christmas Present, a movie about a pair of girls who steal Santa's snow-making machine to create a blizzard so they can enjoy a snow day. Eventually contracted to Disney, Song went on to star in more than a dozen Disney Channel projects. 

"I grew up on Disney, like literally," said Song in a 2019 Disney Channel interview, adding, "I've never looked back. It's almost been 20 years." 

The Suite Life of Zack and Cody was Brenda Song's big break

Brenda Song was just 15 when she was cast as spoiled London Tipton in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, but the new role came at a complicated time. "My mom got breast cancer for the first time, I booked Suite Life, and I was accepted into the college I'd always wanted to go to," Song told W magazine. "My dad, who's a schoolteacher, sat me down and said, 'Here's the thing. You have an amazing opportunity, if acting is what you want to do. Education is the most important thing. You go to college to figure out what you want to do, but if this is what you want to do, you have an opportunity to do it."

Looking back, Song now realizes just how fearless she was. "When you're that age, the sky's the limit," she told Refinery29. "You can still fly. I never looked at the big picture as a kid. I just loved acting so much. I loved the day to day. I loved getting a script. I loved auditioning. It was never about winning an Oscar or being a movie star."

Brenda Song says Disney Channel broke new ground in "colorblind" casting

As an actor of Asian heritage, Brenda Song quickly realized that Disney offered the kind of opportunities she hadn't been receiving anywhere else. "I don't think people realize how ahead of the curve Disney Channel was," she said in an interview with Teen Vogue. "They were colorblind casting way before anybody else. They were giving me TV movies since I was 15 that people would never even think about. They were just telling stories and wanting kids to be able to see themselves on TV at a young age."

In fact, Song admitted that it wasn't until she came to Disney Channel that doors really began to open for her. "I didn't get a lot of auditions. It wasn't until I got into the Disney family that they were so very open," she told W magazine. "So I feel really proud of that because for me, growing up I didn't see a lot of girls who looked like me on TV and it was a little disheartening because I was like, 'I'm not Jackie Chan. I'm not Jet Li. How am I going to do this?'"

Brenda Song is still proud to be a Disney Channel star

While some former child stars try to distance themselves from their Disney roots, Brenda Song still treasures the experiences the network gave her. "I'm grateful to Disney because without them I wouldn't be here," she told Refinery29. "But it's a double-edged sword. When you're on a successful show when you're that age for so long, you build your own stereotype." Explaining that she acted on Suite Life when she was 15 until she was 23, alongside actors Dylan and Cole Sprouse, she noted that afterwards "everyone was like, 'Let me give you these crazy adult roles!'" She shared, "I was young, naive and not ready. I feel fortunate to have been slowly pushed in the right direction. I've progressed as a human, but I didn't feel a rush to grow up. It was organic." 

Song can now reflect on her Disney Channel years with pride. "I feel like I've been very lucky and can look back and say I haven't done a project that I haven't been proud of one way or another," Song told W magazine. "I'm proud of them for different reasons."

Why Disney didn't want Brenda Song to take a role in The Social Network

As Brenda Song's work caught the attention of Hollywood, she landed a part in an Oscar-winning film — but she almost wasn't allowed to take it. Chatting with W magazine, she recalled being offered a role in the 2010 David Fincher-directed film The Social Network, which chronicled the origins of Facebook. "Disney originally didn't let me do it because of the bathroom scene," she explained, referring to a brief scene in which her character, a Harvard student named Christy, hooks up with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield) in a restroom stall. While the PG-13 movie was hardly scandalous, Disney Channel execs feared that the racy scene could tarnish the wholesome image she'd cultivated on The Suite Life.

But the tenacious actress ultimately wore the execs down until they relented. "It was one of those things where I just said, 'This is an opportunity that I don't think will ever come around again,'" she added. "The Social Network was not only career-changing, but life-changing. I learned so much on that project. I could talk about David Fincher all day because he changed my life."

Brenda Song is dating Macaulay Culkin, who wants to "make some babies" with her

Brenda Song and boyfriend Macaulay Culkin (of the famous Culkin family) keep their relationship so private and low-key that many people don't even realize they've been an item since 2017. 

In fact, the main star of the Home Alone cast joked about his ambitions to have babies with Song during an appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. "I'm gonna make some babies, that kind of stuff," Culkin told Rogan. "This one's a good one, so I'm probably gonna put some babies in her in a little bit. I mean, we've definitely been practicing." He noted, "But yeah, I'm gonna have some pretty babies."

Song told Refinery29 that while "we don't really talk about our personal life," she and Culkin definitely share a bond due to their respective experiences as former child stars. "When you find other actors who've been in the industry for a long time and still love it, you have a bond forever," she added.

This is why Brenda Song loves to audition

Numerous actors have admitted that they dread going to auditions, but not Brenda Song. "People thought I was crazy because I said I loved to audition," she told W magazine, "but I said I loved to audition because every audition was like a job to me."

In fact, Song recalled that when she got into trouble as a child, her parents would punish her by refusing to let her go to an audition. "If I was bad, I didn't get to go to auditions. It wasn't the opposite, getting gifts to go to auditions. I was by the door with my portfolio ready to go, like a crazy person," she told Refinery29.

"I had a great experience," Song said of being a child actor. "If my kids ever wanted to be a part of it, I would want them to be at an age where they can make their own decisions. It's hard for me to tell someone at 10 they don't know what they want, because I did. It's all I wanted."

Brenda Song's movie Secret Obsession is one of Netflix's most-streamed projects

October 2019 saw the release of Secret Obsession, a psychological thriller that showed a very different side of Brenda Song than what viewers had become accustomed to in all her Disney Channel projects.

In the Netflix movie, Song plays a woman named Jennifer who is the victim of a traumatic attack that leaves her unconscious. When she comes to, she has amnesia, with no memory of her past or her attacker. Thankfully, her attentive husband (played by Mike Vogel) is there to take care of her every need while she recovers. When a police detective (Dennis Haysbert) notices some similarities between her attack and the evidence he's been compiling while searching for his daughter's kidnapper, Jennifer is led to a terrifying discovery. "The way that I've described the movie, without giving anything away, is that it's kind of like a new twist to Misery, a version of Misery, which I think is really fun," Song said in an interview with BriefTake.

According to Netflix, Secret Obsession quickly became one of its most-watched movies ever, with 40 million households streaming the flick within its first four weeks of release (via Time). 

Brenda Song returned to the Disney Channel for a surprising role

After Brenda Song successfully made the transition from regularly starring in Disney Channel projects to appearing in more adult fare, she felt comfortable enough to revisit her Disney past by starring in a new project for the channel. In the animated series Amphibia, she provides the voice of a character named Anne Boonchuy, who, like Song, is half Thai. 

"It's taken me almost 10 years from Disney to really feel like I found a niche for myself," Song told Teen Vogue. "At 31 I finally feel like I know what my strengths are, and I'm trying to steer into that. The thing is, people are like, 'Well, we know you from comedy, so you have to do something to change everyone's minds.' I was like, 'Why? This is what I love to do.'"

The character has also been a way for her to connect to her Thai heritage. "Something I really love about what we're doing with the show is that we're introducing our audience to a very specific culture, but she's not defined by it. It's just who she is," Song told NBC News.

Brenda Song connected with Hulu's Dollface

Brenda Song returned to her comedy roots in Dollface, which debuted on streaming service Hulu in November 2019. Kat Dennings of Two Broke Girls fame stars as a Jules, who has just been dumped by her longtime boyfriend and realizes she's let all her female friendships fall by the wayside. As a result, she reconnects with her best friends from college, played by Song and Pretty Little LiarsShay Mitchell.

"I just found it so relatable," Song said of Dollface in an interview with W magazine. "It felt like I was reading about the misadventures of me and my girlfriends." Not only can she identify with the characters in the show, she went even further to gush that Dollface was her "dream job," adding, "With this cast, shooting in L.A., and with this character, I've never had a character that felt more me."

She elaborated to Refinery29, "I've definitely been in Jules' position before, and done the faux pas of leaving my girlfriends behind, living my boyfriend's life, and forgetting my own."

Brenda Song and her Dollface co-stars are besties on and off the screen

Not only did Brenda Song and her Dollface co-stars play best friends on the show, but they came to be BFFs in real life as well.

"I've always been a part of male-driven projects and it was amazing [to be] literally going to work every day and hanging out with my girlfriends," Song explained to Teen Vogue. "It flew by so quickly because we literally just hung out for four months. We became so close because we all got along and we were so surprised that none of us had ever met each other before. It was meant to be."

Song revealed that she and co-star Kat Dennings had become particularly close. "Kat and I look at each other and say, 'Where have you been my entire life?' She's my knitting buddy. We go yarn shopping together," Song told Refinery29. Who knew these celebs are best friends?

What Brenda Song hopes fans will take away from Dollface

While Brenda Song has portrayed numerous characters over the years, she feels Dollface was the ideal showcase for her well-honed comedic skills. Song told W magazine, "I hope that my comedy continues to evolve and stays modern and relevant. With every job, you learn a little bit more about yourself, you push yourself a little bit more. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds. I'm so open to so many things, but I'm really hoping there's a season two of Dollface in that future." 

Speaking with PopSugar, she shared her hopes for what viewers take away from the show. "Hopefully you can watch it, giggle, laugh at our misadventures, look at our mistakes and learn from them, please, and hopefully just have a good time," she explained. "That's the whole point of our show. Just sit down with your friends and laugh and hopefully you can look at some of this and [it will bring you] back to some of those misadventures that you guys have had."

Brenda Song was told she wasn't "Asian enough" for Crazy Rich Asians

As a high-profile Asian-Amercian actress, it would have seemed likely that Brenda Song would have been a part of the groundbreaking comedy Crazy Rich Asians, which starred Constance Wu. But when speaking with Teen Vogue, Song offered some surprising information. "A lot of people don't know this, but I never got to read for Crazy Rich Asians ever," she revealed. "Their reasoning behind that, what they said was that my image was basically not Asian enough, in not so many words."

She found that baffling. "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?'" said Song. "I was like, 'Where do I fit?'"

After taking some time away, Song realized changing others' perceptions isn't something that will happen overnight. "I got myself together and said, 'Brenda, there is only one you, and you can't change who you are. You can't change your past.' I am so grateful for every job that I've done," she added. "All I can do is continue to put good auditions out there, do the best that I can — that's all I can ask for."