Stephanie Hsu (‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’): ‘I never expected to be in a hit film centered around an Asian family’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu recently chatted with Gold Derby’s Sam Eckmann about her role of Joy Wang in the hilarious yet big-hearted sci-fi action adventure film “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Hsu shares, “I never expected to be in a hit film centered around an Asian family, where I get to just be a person and not, like, an Asian person the whole time.”

A24’s movie earned 11 Oscar nominations, more than any other contender this year. Three of Hsu’s cast mates also earned bids: Michelle Yeoh (Best Actress), Ke Huy Quan (Best Supporting Actor) and Jamie Lee Curtis (Best Supporting Actress). “Michelle is so incredible,” Hsu reveals about her leading lady. “I think that we all really slipped into this family dynamic quite seamlessly, and chemistry is very real, and I think it’s just this sort of unspeakable magic that you can’t quite know why.”

Watch the full video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Sam Eckmann: Hello, everyone. I’m Sam Eckmann of Gold Derby. Here with me is the wonderful Stephanie Hsu of “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” And, yeah, when I think of … Every time I try to describe this movie to someone, when I tell them they need to see it, it has so much going on in it, um, and I, I think the Daniels don’t do any kind of by the book storytelling. So when you first get this script, what was it that really locked in with you? Did you get it at first?

Stephanie Hsu: Well, you know, I did. I really understood this film. Um, the Daniels recently showed my audition tape at the Hamptons Film Festival. I was receiving an award, and they showed my audition tape, and the first thing I said was, “I guess I really understood this movie.” (laughs)

I don’t really know what that says about me, but, um, no, I mean, the Daniels and I met, filming a show right before, “Everything Everywhere,” and when we met, it really felt like meeting artistic soulmates. Not only in our ability to be playful with one another. We really like experimenting and surprising ourselves on set, and improvising. But also, I think beneath all that, we have deep intention to hopefully offer some goodness in the art that we make. And so I think there’s something about the coalescing of all, all of our weird superpowers, that when I got the script for “Everything Everywhere,” I really understood the heart of the film, both as the family and also these existential questions of the meaning of life, and whether or not anything has meaning at all.

SE: Yeah, your character is very interesting ’cause you essentially, you play Joy and Jobu, which is kind of dual roles, and yet they’re really the flip sides of the same coin, in a way. So I would love to know. What was your approach to that in sort of differentiating them, but also having some sort of core there?

SH: Yeah. So I’ve been talking a lot about how, um, this concept of hyper empathy was a really important starting point for me. That’s a term that was coined in, um, an Octavia Butler book, “Parable of the Sower.” Um, but it was also this, this thing that I think I have as an artist or as a squishy-hearted human being, have, uh, just proximity to. I remember when I lived in New York. When I first moved there, I would … I remember this time, like the first week I was in New York, I sat on the subway. I saw this stranger cry on the end of the subway car, and I was completely just beside myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I could not stop absorbing what I saw in her, the sadness I saw in her.

And that was, uh, a starting point for Joy and Jobu, right, was, like, if someone feels everything, then that can often lead to hyper absorption. It can lead to depression, overwhelm, anxiety, just being completely over sensitized. And that same availability to everybody’s feelings and the news and every universe can also be … launch a villain to be able to access chaos at any moment. And so, for me, that heartbeat of aliveness, I guess, was kind of rooted in both of them. And, also, the, the philosophy that nothing matters. I always say that when Joy experiences nothing matters, it’s a feeling of hopelessness, helplessness, supreme depression, and feeling like at your wit’s end, and on the precipice of being, having no way out. And for Jobu, this ultra villain, if nothing matters, then I can take this computer, close it, flip it, turn it into a cupcake, and then like punch it, and then eat the confetti. That comes out of it.

SE: (laughs)

SH: You know what I mean? It’s like anything is possible. Um, yeah. So, you know, it was a really complicated, um, concept to kind of wrap my own head around, but also, to make sure that we were communicating. And I loved this role because you, you wanna be able to communicate very complicated ideas, um, through art, you know, and, and you hope that it works. And the fact that it did has been really, um, just awesome.

SE: Yeah. I was, you know, that, going off that concept of nothing matters, I was really struck by how much empathy I got as an audience member for Jobu, even though she’s the villain, because she does just feel like, “God, she needs a hug,” and she, like, she feels so lost. What was it like, operating in that head space?

SH: Well, I would say that three … Okay. Three sort of touchstone films and characters that, um, were very inspiring for this film were “The Joker,” “Eternal Sunshine,” and “Dumb and Dumber.” (laughs)

SE: (laughs)

SH: Those are–

SE: That’s a great trio. (laughs)

SH: That was the trio. And I have to say, you know, I really understand … I’m not a method actor, but I really understand why there are so many stories of people who’ve played villains, or the Jokers in history who kind of … Yeah, that it kind of does something to you, because to be honest, even though “Everything Everywhere” was the most fun I have ever had on set and the … one of the juiciest projects I’ve ever worked on, I knew that I had to root both Joy and Jobu in this proximity to darkness, and I knew that all of that had to exist throughout that whole movie in order for the parking lot scene to feel cathartic and unleash. And so the whole time we were filming, I was just holding on to that energy and holding on to that availability towards sadness and, um, being completely at a loss, or wanting to explode anything at any moment the whole time. And so it was heavy, actually.

I was rereading a journal, um, that I was writing in at the time of filming, and I think, in order to kind of protect that energy of those characters, I had to really be in the depths of that, um, world, that underbelly, for the duration of filming. And even when she’s funny, you know, even when she’s chaotic and playful, we wanted to make sure that it was still coming from that place. And so, you know, actors, artists, we’re very porous. Even if you’re not a method actor, sometimes things stick on you. Um-

SE: Yeah. Well, you say you’re not a method actor. Would you describe yourself as a very physical actor? Because I know, like, sometimes when Jobu walks on screen, like, even just with an entrance, it’s like a completely different woman than you’ve seen with Joy. W-, w-, was there like a physical transformation you went through?

SH: Absolutely. I think physicality is a very helpful entry point for me. I was just telling someone right before this that I, um, was doing a show. I was doing a workshop of a play at MASS MoCA at the time when I found out I … when I started to, you know … I had already knew I got the movie, and I was starting to talk to the Daniels about where we wanted to take Jobu. And there was an installation at MASS MoCA with bubbles, and it reminded me of, like, the cosmos and everythingness, and I did this … We, we talked a lot about Jobu being so powerful that she doesn’t even have to walk straight (laughs), you know, because it’s like to walk straight would be to prove a point, you know, that she doesn’t care to prove. And so I did, I filmed myself doing this video of me kind of beginning to explore a, a physicality for Jobu that was that could shift at any moment. But yeah, that’s a very, important entry point for me and, and helpful, and fun, especially to really pull the characters far, far away from each other.

SE: Yeah. It feels like there would need to be, or at least I feel, I would need so much time to explore, and I know, like, you’re used to a rehearsal process with, uh, your stage work. But film doesn’t always allow for that. Was there any kind of rehearsal? What kind of … What did the preparation for this look like?

SH: We … The Daniels and I, when it came to Jobu, we had maybe like one rehearsal together where we, um, specifically walked through the hallway scene. But even when I was auditioning, we, we had a lot of playtime, and so, and because we’re, we became really good friends, there were a lot of conversations, you know, kiking over nihilism and letting that sort of infuse the, the state of making. Um, and I also did train with a wushu trainer, who, um, she actually, in the movie, she plays the martial arts trainer to Michelle. Her name is Li Jing, and she’s kind of a wushu legend. And we did a lot of, uh … We did about like one month of wushu training as well, which was very helpful. Even though we didn’t end up using a lot of the martial arts, there’s something about the philosophy of martial arts and the rigor with complete ease that actually feels very embedded into not only the film, but Jobu as well.

SE: Yeah. that’s great that she got to be in the film. (laughs)

SH: Yeah. (laughs) It’s funny.

SE: Yeah. And I think I would say you get maybe the best costumes out of this whole film. Um, every scene, it feels like you get to just play around in something different. How did that sort of help you? Did that influence each, each time you appeared?

SH: You know, for the majority of the movie, I think what I was actually trying to do was make sure I wasn’t giving in to the costumes, because on a conceptual level, that Jobu is so all-powerful, that it doesn’t even phase her if she’s Elvis or in a green spiky suit or, like, has nunchucks that happen to be sex toys. There’s something about her, also, feeling of nihilism that, for her to acknowledge how cool she was would be a very uncool thing to do. And so part of the tension was actually to wear them and pull them off without giving into them.

But I think there was one costume in particular that, you know, coming from a theater background, being a dramaturgical nerd, was one of my favorite storytelling costumes, and that was at the very end of the movie. We started playing, throughout the film and we played with this concept of Joybu as well, which was we would combine Joy and Jobu and sometimes we would redo a scene that maybe was written as Jobu, but we would … the Daniels would say, “Okay. Let’s do a Joybu run.” And I would sort of let it kind of release and sort of let myself float in and out of both Joy and Jobu, because their heartbeat is the same. And towards the movie, we see that these characters are kind of fraying and colliding, and it’s when we really are starting to see that underneath this façade of the almighty Jobu is this daughter. And there’s this costume that we call the Jumble Jobu costume, and it’s when my bangs are, like, two different lengths. I have, you know, kind of clown makeup on my face, and I’m wearing a bunch of costumes all on my body.

But what I love is that it looks like a mess, but what we actually did, um, was we took parts of a bunch of the costumes that I wear throughout the movie as Jobu to create the mess. So there’s the, you know, kind of fighter. I, I wear these kneepads, and I wore them on my elbows. Her sneakers are Joy’s sneakers, and I love that because that is when everything is starting to collide, and the chaos is actually rooted in the same material that built the entire film, and you see that it is the same person. Um, so that’s just like a nerdy thing that I, I … that really did help. It made us feel that we were all on the same page of where we are in the story and, and that it’s not … You know, nothing that we did in that film was weird just to be weird, right? Like, there actually was deep intention in every look and every choice. Um, so that was kinda one of my favorite, favorite costume pieces for that reason.

SE: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because there is, there is a lot of things that are outlandish in the film. There’s a lot going on. And yet, when I walked away from it, the things that really, like, get you and really stay with you, are, like, you and Michelle Yeoh, when you give up the, the everything bagel (laughs) and she pulls you from the darkness, or the parking lot scene. What is it like being in those really tender moments with her? The two of you have just really great chemistry.

SH: Yeah. I mean, Michelle is so incredible. I think that we all really slipped into this family dynamic quite seamlessly, and chemistry is very real, and I think it’s just this sort of unspeakable magic that you can’t quite know why. But also, Michelle has this uncanny ability to welcome people into her family in, in a generous way. Um, but I’ll never forget the parking lot scene because that was … Uh, the Daniels just told me this recently. We were doing a Q&A at the MoMA, and that was the only night that we got to go home early. Um, that everyone was worried, like, “Oh, my gosh. If this scene doesn’t work, then, you know, we’re really gonna have to … It’s not good if this scene doesn’t work, (laughs) first of all. And we’re really gonna have to make sure we stay here until we get it.”

But apparently, we just, you know, did a few takes, and it was so full each time. Everybody was hovered around the monitors and could really feel it. That was the only night throughout the whole production that we, we got to go home early. But I’ll never forget it because, you know, we play adversaries throughout the whole film, and we never get to have that moment of connection, and it felt very cathartic to get to share that moment together because we had gone through the process of filming this film, had developed this family rapport, and finally get to just be there and spill open to each other. And it was so big and yet so intimate. It’s kind of the first time where we got to just do a scene throughout everyone, throughout the whole film. There’s no, like, there’s no crazy costumes, no nothing. It’s just us. And yeah, Michelle was just so generous with me. I think we were just really in it together, you know. Um, yeah, it was really, really special.

SE: Yeah. Well, the last time I spoke with you, you were telling me about these really awesome stagedoor experiences you had at “Be More Chill,” I remember, with a lot of Asian audience members who came specifically, like, because of that representation that was there. And now, what does it feel like to now be at this place where you have this massively successful film, commercially and, you know, artistically, that does feature an Asian family at the core of its story?

SH: It’s wild. (laughs) I was saying someone to recently that a lot of those fans from “Be More Chill” are now kind of at that age where this film also really resonates with them. I feel happy to have touched the weirdos in the world. (laughs) I love it. And yeah, you know, I think what’s really wild, and even with “Maisel” as well, right, like, I have been working for a really long time, and I think what people don’t realize is that the conversations we’re having around visibility or diversity, especially around the Asian community, have really only really taken off in the last, like, five years or so. And so, so much of what my career is and has been, especially in the last few years, is something I never imagined for myself because I never saw it.

So I never expected to be on Broadway. Never expected to be in a period TV show. Never expected to be in a hit film centered around an Asian family, where I get to just be a person and not, like, an Asian person the whole time. I just got to be a human. So it feels very humbling and overwhelming to … and beautiful to get to be a person who’s making space for the people that are coming after me, and even space for myself, that I didn’t see. And I am now, like, one of the people who get to be the first, or make more space so that other people never have to say, “Well, I can’t do that ’cause I’ve never seen anyone like me do that.” But it is very surreal to be the person that I didn’t get to see, is now just me, is the same person I wake up to every morning. (laughs)

SE: Well, it’s a great job. I think you’re, you’ll be inspiring many people around you. Um, so great work in, in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” If anyone’s out there watching at home, subscribe to GoldDerby, and make sure you subscribe and stay with us this entire season. There’s plenty more conversations just like this. Stephanie, thank you so much. It was great to talk to you.

SH: Thank you.

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