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Starring in Everything Everywhere All at Once has caused Stephanie Hsu to think about the turning points and crossroads that led her to where she is right now, and one of the most significant moments in her career was when she guest-starred on a season one episode of Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens. She not only met her future Shang-Chi co-stars, Awkwafina and Simu Liu, during the proceeding, but she also hit it off with the episode’s directing duo, Dan Kwan and Daniel Schienert, who are known collectively as Daniels. Not long after, the pair, who were most recognized at the time for helming 2016’s Swiss Army Man, called Hsu to discuss their sci-fi action comedy Everything Everywhere, which could also be described in umpteen other ways.
Besides meeting her Shang-Chi and Everything Everywhere collaborators on Nora from Queens, Hsu’s first two feature films share another unique connection.
“Shang-Chi decided to do reshoots in Los Angeles, and they called me again. They were like, ‘Hey, if you’re available this time around, we would still really love you to play this role. Could you come back in and play it?’” Hsu tells The Hollywood Reporter, as she was initially unavailable for Shang-Chi. “So I said yes, of course, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so crazy. All of this time passed and they’re reshooting the scene, so I get to still do it.’ And then I came back to L.A., walked onto set, and the place where we shot my scene in Shang-Chi was the exact same place where we wrapped Everything Everywhere.”
In Everything Everywhere, Hsu plays a dual role, first as Joy Wang, who is currently at odds with her mother Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh). She also portrays Jobu Tapaki, the story’s big bad who threatens the entirety of the multiverse. One of the more memorable scenes in the film is Jobu’s first encounter with Evelyn as Hsu wears an Elvis costume and weaponizes sex toys. This turned out to be her first scene with Yeoh, so Hsu put measures in place to ensure that Yeoh knew when to expect her craziest moments as Jobu.
“The first scene I shot with Michelle was the hallway scene or otherwise known as the introduction of Jobu or the Elvis scene or the swinging ding-dong scene. And I knew that the boys [Daniels] would want me to get weird, but I was so nervous that I would scare Michelle,” Hsu recalls. “So I made [Daniels] announce to the room when I was going to get weird so that Michelle would be warned that Jobu was about to be unleashed. And I still freaked her out a little bit.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Hsu (pronounced Shoo) also discusses the mother-daughter story at the center of the film and how it relates to her own life. She then shares her own mother’s reaction to Jobu’s unforgettable introduction.
So I tend to start with my worst question in order to break the ice. Are you ready?
Let’s do it!
After making this movie, are you more or less likely to order an everything bagel?
(Laughs.) Well, I am gluten free. That is an honest truth. And nowadays, there are so many gluten-free bagels or gluten-free bread products, but I love everything bagels. I’ve always loved everything bagels. (Laughs.) They’re always my favorite. So I would say just as much as beforehand, which is all the time.
Casting. What were the circumstances at the time?
So it was 2019 and I was playing the female lead in this Broadway show called Be More Chill. And simultaneously, I was shooting season three of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. So it was a really crazy year for me. I was doing eight shows a week, and on Mondays, I was filming for Maisel, while on top of that, doing press. And then Maisel wrapped and Be More Chill closed around the same time. I had lived in New York for 11 years and I was starting to feel like, “Oh, I think I’m ready for some change.” But first, I knew that my friend Bowen Yang was doing a show called Nora from Queens, and this was before Bowen was announced on SNL. I don’t think he even got it yet, but he was doing Nora from Queens. And I was like, “Well, Bowen and I used to do comedy together in college. I’m sure there’s a dumb role available for me on that show…” So I did episode 108 and played a character named Shu Shu. And episode 108 just so happened to be directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert [Daniels]. Daniel Scheinert tells this story of when I walked into the audition room for that role, we all kept giggling as if we had been friends forever, and he was thinking in his head, “Stop embarrassing us, this is a work setting!” So even though we had only known each other for five minutes, we immediately had this very art-soulmate connection. And we had so much fun filming that episode. Simu Liu is in it. Jamie Chung, Harry Shum Jr.. We all had so much fun, so I was like, “I have to go to L.A. because I know that there are other young creatives who are just as weird as them and just as weird as me and are making cool things…” So I went to L.A. and within a week of me being there, the boys called me and said, “Hey, we’re working on [Everything Everywhere All at Once]. No pressure, but we think you’d be really great for it. Are you interested?” And without knowing Michelle Yeoh was attached, without knowing it was A24, I immediately was like, “Anything you guys do, I’m there.” I have always understood their sense of humor, but when I read the script, what really captured me was the depth and the soul of the family story, and also the very profound question of “What if?” or “Is the life that I’m living enough?” or “Could I have chosen a different path?”. So I’ve always believed in it, but I could’ve never imagined the response that we’re getting right now. It’s completely beyond any of our wildest dreams.
And I presume you read for both Joy and Jobu?
Yes, because they’re not the same, but they come from the same place. Our callback was actually pretty crazy. They would always make me blow it up or they would just say, “Try anything you want, be crazy!” Because Jobu is an agent of chaos. So I remember slamming my butt against the wall in the audition room, which shook the paintings, and we all just kept giggling. (Laughs.) But then they would laugh while we were recording and I would laugh with them, and then all of a sudden, I would stop and then go in a completely different direction. So it was actually kind of scary. The first scene I shot with Michelle was the hallway scene or otherwise known as the introduction of Jobu or the Elvis scene or the swinging ding-dong scene. And I knew that the boys would want me to get weird, but I was so nervous that I would scare Michelle. So I made [Daniels] announce to the room when I was going to get weird so that Michelle would be warned that Jobu was about to be unleashed. (Laughs.) And I still freaked her out a little bit. (Laughs.) It was pretty intense, but Michelle’s the most generous scene partner and also supremely wild and funny, herself. And she’s seen everything, so I don’t think it really fazed her as much as we thought it would, though I do think a lot of things in this movie pushed her over the edge of like, “How is it possible that I’m doing a buttplug fight? In all my years of working, how have I never seen this before?”
How did you react when you first learned that you were cast as both Michelle Yeoh’s character’s daughter and her archenemy in Everything Everywhere?
I was at my friend’s house, lying in a hammock, and I think I was about to get my astrology read. (Laughs.) And then the boys FaceTimed me, so I was really excited. I was excited not only because I was going to be working with Michelle Yeoh … How could I not be excited and humbled and nervous? But really, I also just loved the story so much. I truly love the Daniels so much that I was just excited to be working with my friends on a project that I cared about and knew was going to be artistically satisfying. When I moved to New York, I studied at NYU, and I quickly became involved with the experimental theater scene downtown with international artists. So the fact that I had somehow found my way through the backdoor of Hollywood and was about to make an experimental piece of film for my first feature, I think that’s what was so exciting. I felt so affirmed that I can keep making art every step of the way with people that I love. There are so many narratives in Hollywood that try to act like there’s a ladder or a hierarchy or, “You have to gain stardom,” but I feel very lucky that I get to just keep doing what I love with people that I love.
The Daniels said they rewrote the part based on how weird you are. Those are their words, not mine!
What do you think they’re referring to here?
It’s just so funny because they are so weird. (Laughs.) They’re self-proclaimed maximalists, and I think we play the same way. We’re not afraid to get weird. We’re not afraid to try every idea and be completely surprised by what happens, and then we fine-tune from there. When I walk around, I do know that I’m a weirdo, but I think I have always been a very socially accepted weirdo, which I think they are, too. (Laughs.) Our weird is kind of cool and endearing, but we’re just not afraid to push the envelope and we’re excited by what is on the other side of the envelope/the envelope’s not even real. Time is a construct. Everything everywhere all at once. (Laughs.)
The Daniels have said that this movie is partially about the ADHD experience, and I know that your Be More Chill character, Christine Canigula, also had ADHD. Did that connection come in handy at all?
That’s really interesting. I had not made that connection. Something I am good at doing or am able to do or have fun doing is just switching immediately on the spot. And Christine Canigula had a lot of that to her, and Jobu certainly has a lot of that to them/her/it. Whatever Jobu is. But when we were working on the characters, Joy and Jobu don’t actually have ADHD. So much of that comes from the editing and the switching and splintering of verses. The characters really just live every reality as fully as possible. But the fun thing about Jobu was that she switches on a dime, and because she’s an agent of chaos, you never know what’s going to happen next and she doesn’t even know what’s going to happen next. Obviously, I was also given a lot of permission from the Daniels to follow my impulses, as strange as they are. Sometimes, I don’t even know what’s going to happen and then something just happens.
As I watched the movie, I started thinking about themes such as reconnection, generation gaps, familial expectations and crossroads. Did any of these themes hit close to home for you? Or was there another theme that grabbed you instead?
I think the story between the mother and daughter is something that I and a lot of mothers and daughters who have seen the movie really relate to in this sort of in-your-bones way. It’s so complicated and messy that you can only make art about it because in life, it’s just a whole process. It’s a whole life’s journey to heal or to build. So I would definitely say the mother-daughter story. I’m a daughter of an immigrant and the amount of sacrifice that a mother does for her child is immense. And yet at the end of the day, we have such a hard time sometimes expressing our love for one another and being able to cross that bridge of vulnerability to just love each other in the most honest and tender ways. There’s a narrative that strong women have to be certain ways in order to stay strong, and I think our movie shows that it can be both-and. You can be strong and kind and loving all at once, and imperfect. But the other theme that I really glommed onto when we were filming … I used to say that nihilism saved my life, jokingly and truthfully. Because I think that our movie has a very optimistic nihilist story, which is that if nothing matters, then you can do anything. You can do anything you want. Evelyn says that at the end. So I just think that I want to do good in the world, but I do think a lot of things have meaning. Nihilism sort of freed me of any expectation to be excellent or to make a difference because I realized that all of us are just here to try our very best, to make this world or make our communities better and help our communities as best as we are able. But there’s actually no clear path forward. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Nobody knows what the world is going to look like ten years from now. Nobody knows where art wants to go. The only thing that you can do is truthfully and honestly try and throw some paint at the wall. Maybe it won’t stick, but who cares? Because we’re all small and stupid, you know? That is a rock quote [from the movie]. (Laughs.) So we’re just trying our best, and that is a theme that really sticks with me still.
Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) crossroads in the movie revolve around the decision to leave China with Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and not obey her father’s wishes. Has this movie made you think about your own turning points or crossroads?
Absolutely. I think what drew me to this movie to begin with is that my brain and my spirit very much work that way. I have always been drawn to existentialist questions and ponderings. I have a lot of faith in synchronicity and trust in the way life continues to pull me. And I really do believe that every rejection is the universe protecting me or trying to keep me close to something else. I believe in choice and free will, but even the way that I landed on this project, to me, is just affirming that you are supposed to be exactly where you are every moment that you are there. And one of my favorite stories, actually, was that I got the role for Shang-Chi while we were filming Everything Everywhere, but I wasn’t able to go to Australia because we were on our last few days of filming. And lo and behold, I could’ve never gone because Covid happened. We wrapped Everything Everywhere the morning of March 14, which was a Saturday, the weekend that everything in Hollywood shut down. So we got so lucky that we got to finish all of principal photography except one green screen day. I was really bummed about Shang-Chi because I wanted to be a part of it. I just cared about the story. My role isn’t very big in it, but I just cared about the project and wanted to be a part of the first Asian Marvel superhero story. Fast forward to a year and a half later, Shang-Chi decided to do reshoots in Los Angeles, and they called me again. They were like, “Hey, if you’re available this time around, we would still really love you to play this role. Could you come back in and play it?” So I said yes, of course, and I was like, “Wow, that’s so crazy. All of this time passed and they’re reshooting the scene, so I get to still do it.” And then I came back to L.A., walked onto set, and the place where we shot my scene in Shang-Chi was the exact same place where we wrapped Everything Everywhere.
I know! It was crazy! I was just like, “What are the odds of this being exactly in the same location that we literally wrapped that movie?” I felt so protected in that moment because I could’ve never known that that would happen, but the synchronicity of it made me feel like, “Wow, this was really meant to be at this moment in time. And for whatever reason, a year and a half had to go by, but what’s meant to be will be.” So I don’t know that I necessarily believe in God, but I do believe in magic. (Laughs.)
When it originally looked like you weren’t going to be able to do Shang-Chi, did you and Michelle talk about it at all? She probably knew at that point that she was on board.
Yeah, we were bummed, but I try not to bring too much of my own stuff. I try not to be that actor who’s constantly talking about acting. So I was really bummed, but I also was so in the thick of filming our movie, which is a behemoth, that I just had to let it go. Because if I had stressed out about the fact that it couldn’t work out scheduling wise, it would’ve affected the project I was already doing and booked on. So there are some things you have to fight for and then other things you can’t grip too tightly. Michelle and I were bummed, but we always knew that our characters wouldn’t overlap anyway. So it wasn’t a bummer because we couldn’t work together, but I also just really wanted to go to Australia. (Laughs.)
You touched on this already, but the readers will probably want a bit more detail. So what are the challenges of weaponizing sex toys in a hallway fight against Michelle Yeoh? You’re the only person on the planet who will ever have this experience.
(Laughs.) Well, I did do some training before we started filming. I did some wushu training with Li Jing, who actually plays the kung-fu master in the movie and trains Michelle and her pinkies. (Laughs.) So Li Jing trained me in that particular style of wushu, and those are nunchucks, basically. Those are sex-toy nunchucks. So we worked with wushu nunchucks just to get familiar with it, and then the Le brothers, Andy and Brian Le, who are so incredible and so talented and are in the film as well, they choreographed that hallway scene. So, honestly, once you’re in it, you can’t think about that. We did play it as if they were sex toys, but we also were trying to make sure we were nailing the moves of the wushu choreography. It’s so funny because I trust the Daniels so immensely. I’m weird. They’re weird. And for some reason, I didn’t even bat an eye when I saw that in the script. I was just like, “Oh my god, that sounds so fun!” And the first time I saw it on a big screen, I could not believe that I agreed to that without ever questioning it. (Laughs.) I just didn’t realize how big it would look. (Laughs.) My mom saw it recently, and I don’t think she understands what those are. So I think it went over her head. (Laughs.) She didn’t even bring it up. (Laughs.)
I have to admit that I didn’t recognize Ke Huy Quan until after the fact. Did you have a moment where you said to yourself, “Wait, he’s been retired for two decades, and he’s still able to give this good of a performance?”
Yeah, it was 20 years, which is crazy. I mean, I watched The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom growing up. And obviously, when we were all on board, I had already known that it was going to be him. He’s so fucking amazing in the movie, and he’s just so impressive. He worked so hard. But interestingly, the moment of revelation for me was actually recently. I was flying from New York to L.A., and it was before our premiere at South By. So I decided to watch The Goonies on the plane. They were playing it, and I hadn’t seen it in a really, really long time. And while watching young Ke, I just thought, “Oh my gosh, he loves acting.” Even if you watch The Goonies now, even though that was his first film, you can see how much he loves it and how much fun he’s having. And now knowing Ke, the same holds true. He has been really open about the fact that the 20 years needed to happen in some sort of spiritual way for him to be ready to play this role. But I’m just really excited for him because I can tell how much he loves this industry and how much he loves acting and filmmaking. So it’s nice to see that fire and that spark of little Ke is still in him to this day. I want all the best things for him.
You’ve done plenty of work on stage, and to me, the opening sequence that depicts the family’s dysfunction at the laundromat felt almost like a stage play. Did it have that vibe to you at all?
I can totally see why it feels like that because there is a lot of camera movement and blocking, and you’re really moving through the space. But to me, it feels a little bit more messy, like real life. In theater, everything is crafted to a T. So you block the whole scene, and people speak clearly because you can’t afford for any mumbo jumbo to pass because you have to make sure that the people in the back of the house can hear you. So I think it’s actually a brilliant opening sequence because it prepares you for the rhythm of the rest of the movie. The dialogue is kind of disjointed. It’s kind of fractured. There’s a lot of interrupting. It’s just a little stop-start-y. And I think it also prepares you for the jumpings that are about to happen, ten minutes later. I love it so much because it really shows this very normal, imperfect immigrant family. Everyone is just trying to land with one another or just reach one another, but everyone keeps getting interrupted by something else. So that is just so very much what life is. All we want is to love our partners or love our family members in the best way possible, but we seem to constantly be failing to do so. And that opening sequence captures that so well.
Random question. Last year at the Shang-Chi junket, Simu Liu sang a cappella for me. Have you seen him serenade people on the spot as well? How common is this?
Oh my gosh. Simu does love singing. Yes, I’ve seen Simu sing. He loves it. And he really loves Michael Bublé. (Laughs.) Yeah, I love Simu. When we worked with him on Nora from Queens, he had just found out that he was going to be Shang-Chi and so he started to prep for the role. And so to be able to see the final product and how far he’s come from that little moment of time that we shared a few years ago, it’s just so awesome and I’m really excited for him. And that episode is also how the Daniels met Harry Shum Jr. I recently saw the movie again for the fifth time, and Harry is so funny. He’s so funny in that little role.
(Laughs.) Harry is the person who told me to watch Swiss Army Man. He was like, “These guys [Daniels] are everything.” And I think Harry had a very similar experience as me, where he was like, “Anything you guys do, I’m there.”
Any final thoughts?
Honestly, I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed with gratitude lately. I just never could’ve possibly imagined that I’d get to do what I do with my life. With Maisel and definitely with Everything Everywhere, and Christine Canigula, I feel like I’m playing all of these roles that I never knew would be possible for me. I never thought that I would get to be in a period piece on television that wasn’t racist. I never thought I would get to be both a daughter and a villain to Michelle in my first feature that is singular and mind-blowing and one of people’s favorite movies that they’ve ever seen in their whole life. So I just want to say that I feel so lucky and that I want to continue to make art and play roles that we’ve never seen before. That way, the younger versions of me don’t have to have all of the questions or voices in their head that make it feel like they can’t do it. They’ll see that it is possible, and for me to be able to be part of carving that path that so many carved for me just feels really exciting and awesome. And I think it’s great that Joy is queer. I can’t believe the conflict that’s happening in our country right now. I think I take it for granted because I live in New York or L.A., which are really progressive places, but there are places that will cut out that love story in our movie because homosexuality isn’t freely allowed in their country. And not even just other countries, we have what’s happening in Florida and Texas right now. So I think it’s hugely significant that there’s also this queer love story that is embedded into the fabric of our movie, in a way that doesn’t hinge upon identity politics. It’s just a natural part of the story. So I’m just proud to be able to represent that community and share that with people.
Everything Everywhere All at Once expands to movie theaters nationwide on April 8.
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