Tribeca: Hong Chau, Lola Kirke Talk Representation in 'American Woman'

American Woman-Publicity Still 1-H 2019
Greg Middleton

The film marks the directorial debut of writer-director Semi Chellas, who is known for her work on 'Mad Men' and 'The Romanoffs.'

Semi Chellas almost didn’t make it to the world premiere of her own movie. The writer-director was hit by a car last week, and she showed up to the premiere of her film American Woman at the Tribeca Film Festival with a scarf around her head, covering a head injury. 

“I feel really lucky to be here,” Chellas told The Hollywood Reporter. Chellas, whose other credits include Mad Men and The Romanoffs, adapted her friend Susan Choi’s book American Woman for the screen, and she has been working on putting the project together for more than a decade.

“When I read it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, Susan, this is a movie, this is gonna be [a] huge movie.’ She was like, 'Why don’t you do it?'” Chellas remembers. “I actually optioned it and spec'd it more than 10 years ago. She was so great to let me hang onto this option all this time.”

Set in the 1970s, the story takes inspiration from Patricia Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, who was arrested with Hearst. In the fictional telling, Jenny (Hong Chau) is a pacifist who has gone underground after bombing a draft office, and she connects with Pauline (Sarah Gadon) and the two radicals who kidnapped her.

“History completely ignored her. I had never heard of her before, even though she’s so interesting,” Chau said of Wendy, adding that she dropped all the research she was doing when Chellas said she didn’t want to make a biopic. “I also hope that once people see this movie, it will remind them that Asian people existed in the '70s. Whenever you hear period movie, you don’t ever think that it could be about something other than a white person.”

Chellas raved about working with Chau, calling it “the greatest experience.” “Alexander Payne actually emailed me and said, ‘I heard you’re considering Hong, you’ve got to see Hong,’ so I got to see a cut of Downsizing and she blew me away. And then I met her and she knew more about that character than I even knew from reading my script.”

Chellas also knew Gadon, as they’re both Canadian, but the two had never worked together before.

“When she sent me the script, I thought, 'This is such a fresh take on a story that is so well known,'” Gadon told THR, though she admitted that she was not that familiar with Hearst’s story. “That’s one of the things that I love so much about historical fiction is that we’re so often taught history from a certain perspective, and it allows us to consider it from a completely different, often overlooked perspective.”

Lola Kirke, who plays one of the radicals, Yvonne, in the film, says she hopes the complicated depictions of characters and women in the film and behind the camera become more of the norm.

“I think it’s important that we see women making mistakes onscreen and being questionable in their actions because I think that it’s important that we see women being human,” Kirke told THR. “It’s important that we have more women directing films because that’s just not what we’ve seen. I do believe that the more representation that we have of women in media the better world we’ll have for women because we don’t need men talking for us all the time.”