Sumalee Montano holds a breadth of perspectives within the industry, originating her career as an investment banker, now an actress-producer.Onscreen she has worked extensively in film and television as a series regular and recurring guest star. Past projects include Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, This Is Us, VEEP, Star Trek Picard, S.W.A.T., Scandal, E.R. and more. ​

“I see all of LinLay’s films as relevant to the AAPI community, but what makes them unique is that the stories are told through a diversity of perspectives, which is something I credit Sumalee with because she came to the table intent on building multiracial stories that are relevant to so many people,” offers Grace Lay, Co-founder at LinLay Productions.

A prolific voice actor, Montano has lent her voice to over 200 animated roles to date across film, television and triple-A video games, including Sony’s landmark success Ghost of Tsushima and multiple Star Wars and World of Warcraft games.Offscreen Sumalee is an advocate for telling intergenerational stories that uplift multicultural talent in front of and behind the camera.

“Knowing Sumalee was on our Executive Producing team was a genuine comfort. It meant we had a woman of color on that side of the table, fully understanding the nuance of our creative vision – it was priceless,” says Nikkia Moulterie, Producer of Nanny, which won the 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Award.

As co-founder of LinLay Productions, Sumalee has produced or executive produced multiple award-winning films, including Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, the first horror film to win the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the second film directed by a Black woman to win that honor (Blumhouse/Amazon). Riotsville, U.S.A. examines the history of police militarization in America and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards (Magnolia/Hulu). She also produced The Deal, a sci-fi adventure that she based on her real-life relationship with her Filipina mom (Electric Entertainment/The Roku Channel).

Sumalee Montano is Filipina and Thai and was born and raised in Ohio. She graduated from Harvard College as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. She currently resides with her family in Los Angeles and has previously lived in New York, San Francisco, Manila, Bangkok, and Hong Kong.

Goldie Chan: What has been your favorite project to work on?

Sumalee Montano: It’s tough to say one favorite. Can I give you two?

Critical Role is special because it encapsulates so much of what I strive for creatively: collaborating with incredibly talented people on a project that’s widely known. That’s such a creative high. I was also a complete newbie to Dungeons & Dragons. So playing D&D in front of the biggest audience I’ve ever performed for was wild. And to feel how the audience was so moved by the story and how much the community embraced my character Nila and me, was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

That was about five years ago and since then I’ve put on my producer hat, looking to recreate environments that are stimulating, affirming, and necessary. The slate of films I developed as a co-founder of LinLay Productions has challenged me in all of the best ways and allowed me to see the storytelling process in a new light. So much blood, sweat and tears goes into making a film. And when I look at what our films say, how they say it, and what they stand for, the slate has become my career’s pride and joy.

Chan: What has your career path been?

Montano: Right after college, I was a Fulbright Scholar. I lived and studied in the Philippines, working with women, all single mothers, living in a squatters community. I wrote about their struggles and how they reflected larger systemic issues.

After that experience I didn’t want to leave the Philippines, but I had previously accepted a job on Wall Street. So I did a total 180 and found myself working for one of the largest investment banks in the world. I went from living with people experiencing homelessness and poverty to taking clients out in New York to fancy dinners and box seats at Madison Square Garden. It was cultural whiplash, to say the least.

But I was able to save up enough money from investment banking that I could pursue acting professionally, which was my real passion. In between those two careers were several day jobs. I was an assistant project manager for a high-end graphic design company. Then I was a copywriter and then a copy editor.

I was building my acting career through all of it. And as my acting work would increase, I would decrease the hours at my day job until I could finally quit and act full-time. That whole transition process took like eight or nine years. I acted full time for the next 10 years before I started to produce too.

I used to think my career path was pretty odd. But now I look back and can see how it all makes sense. Advocating for women first, then gaining a foundation in business and finance, which supported my passion for acting and storytelling. It all led to becoming the actor-producer I am now.

Chan: Who would you love to work or partner with?

Montano: There are so many people and companies that I love and want to continue working with in new ways – with people like Nina Yang Bongiovi at Significant Productions and Shonda Rhimes at Shondaland. These are two women of color who are smart, edgy and pioneering things in the industry that really haven’t been done.

I also have new projects I’m developing that I’d love to collaborate on with progressive creatives who share a passion for centering women and multiculturalism. I’d especially love to adapt one of the films I produced, The Deal, into a sci-fi series for television. Getting to apply what I’ve learned as a film producer into television producing feels like the next frontier for me.

Chan: Describe your personal brand.

Montano: I’m laughing because I feel like you caught me right when I’m in the process of rebranding myself. For a long time, I’ve had a more public-facing persona that I developed to survive in American society and business. Then I had my more private persona that only my inner circle saw. Now I’m older and tired of switching and managing that. So I’m doing my darndest to fuse them into one.

I think I lead with kindness and a smile. But I’m a fighter underneath, which is probably why I get cast a lot as strong, warrior women. I can’t remember who I follow online who said this, but she used the term “underdog energy,” and I think that describes me too.

When I was a kid, people assumed I was shy and not so smart. So I enjoyed going to Harvard because I felt it proved them wrong. I worked my ass off to succeed in investment banking because there were so few women of color in that space. A huge part of my identity has been wrapped up in succeeding in places where the odds are stacked against me.

And now, as I’ve gotten older, I’m interested in shifting that mindset, not having to prove myself, but really coming from a place of being authentically me, as a person and creative. It’s a process. But I trust I’ll figure it out.

Chan: Who is an Asian or an Asian American that has inspired you and your career?

Montano: I never got to meet him in person, but growing up hearing stories about my famous granduncle, Severino Montano, was a big influence in my career. He was a distinguished playwright and director, named a National Artist of the Philippines. They even issued a postage stamp in his honor. He and my grandmother, his sister and a stage actress in the Philippines, collaborated a lot. Hearing about their accomplishments made me feel like I have creativity and acting in my DNA. It gave me a lot of courage to pursue my dreams.

And I have to credit my mom, Linda Montano. She did so much to give me the life I have today, but I didn’t comprehend all that she sacrificed for me while she was alive. So I came up with The Deal, a film where we get to tell a story about a mother’s love, which is universal. But it’s based on my own Filipina mother in a genre, sci-fi, where we are rarely centered.

Chan: What is a failure in your career that you learned from?

Montano: I’m in the process now of learning from one of my biggest failures, needing to say “no” more often and honor my physical limits. In the past five years I was co-running a production company that had, at one point, nine or ten projects on our slate. I was also acting full-time with a series regular role in front of the camera and multiple ongoing jobs in voice-over, all at the same time, while being a wife and a mom.

I was happy to live out my career dreams, but it was also too much all at the same time. And it dawned on me that I didn’t choose to quit the grind of Wall Street only to find myself drowning in work in Hollywood, from the moment I woke up until late into the night, month after month. Sustaining that can take a toll after several years.

So this year I decided to take a sabbatical of sorts from LinLay. I’m still working as a producer on projects I started out with or brought in. But I’m keeping a more pared down slate so I can get some rest and process everything from the last five years. It’s also allowing me to enjoy my acting more. And I feel healthier and more balanced, which makes me a better parent and partner.

Chan: What are you working on now?

Montano: I’m so excited about joining the cast of Shonda Rhimes’ new screwball whodunnit, called The Residence. I play the White House Chief of Staff, a character named Dana Hammond.

On the voice-over front, I’m always bound by NDAs so I can never say what I’m working on now. But my most recent game releases are EA’s reboot of Dead Space, which I did performance capture on, and World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. You can hear me on multiple animated shows too, like Disney’s The Ghost and Molly McGee, The Casagrandes on Nickelodeon, and Dragon Age: Absolution on Netflix.

On the producing front, LinLay has two documentaries that are having amazing festival runs right now. I’m in love with both these films.

Black Barbie: A Documentary, directed by Lagueria Davis, delves into the cross section of merchandise and representation as Black women strive to elevate their own voices and stories. Variety calls it a “witty and weighty doc,” which is such a perfect description. And we know that without Black Barbie paving the way, we wouldn’t have an Asian Barbie, Latina Barbie or Down syndrome Barbie today.

LinLay also executive produced Razing Liberty Square, a documentary directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Katja Esson. It tells the story of a historically Black neighborhood in Miami that’s fighting against climate gentrification. The people you meet in this film and the journey they take you on is so poignant and moving. While it takes place in Miami, climate gentrification is an issue that is affecting and will continue to affect communities around the world.

Chan: Any career advice for this year?

Montano: This year is a wild time. It’s such an inflection point in the entertainment industry, where so many of us are fighting to keep our careers viable by earning a living wage. We are stronger together for sure.

The other side of that is hope. I’m not talking about toxic positivity, but hopefulness as a means to an end. Everyone needs to keep finding ways to stay hopeful because we creatives are inherently forward thinking. Make the time to take care of yourself and keep nourishing your creativity. Use your imaginations to dream up the better systems we want in place, imagine new solutions, and put it out there in the art we create.