Stephanie Hsu has a whole heap of challenges to deal with in the Daniels’ hit Everything Everwhere All at Once. Not least of which is the infinite versions of her character she has to hold from scene to scene, from Joy, the disenfranchised daughter of Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn, through to Jobu Tupaki, an all-seeing, all-knowing supervillain who’s as hellbent on destroying the world as she is completely disinterested in bothering. Released in the Spring, the film has become that rarest of hits: firing up mainstream and indie audiences alike, and perhaps becoming the most likely “popular movie” to take down Oscar’s biggest prizes.
DEADLINE: Everything Everywhere All at Once seems to be at the forefront of a new kind of mainstream filmmaking. How has it felt to see it connect like this?
STEPHANIE HSU: Absolutely — I feel like our movie was a launching pad for everybody to say, “Wait, movies are back. OK, here we go. Let’s get back into editing and let’s keep pushing each other further and further.” I feel it is defining something new, and I think I’ve been waiting for mainstream cinema to change people again, to make people eager to get back to the theaters. The fact that I’m getting to experience that renaissance with a project I love so deeply is mind-blowing to me, and I feel it’s been really encouraging.
One of the things about the movie is that it has this great spirit of togetherness and of being with the ones you love. Knowing how hard it is to even get out of the door to a theater, sharing the movie has felt like holding someone’s hand and saying, “I want to show you a little piece of something that reached me, and I want you to get it too.”
I’ll tell you a story, which is that the Daniels and I were going to the Hamptons Film Festival together, and we were on the same flight. Daniel Scheinert was sitting next to a man who started watching the movie, but he didn’t say anything. Then that guy talked to another guy, and he started watching the movie. So, they finished the movie on the flight, and then came together in the cabin and hugged each other and were talking about it. And then Daniel said something to me, and I went into the aisle. The guys were like, “Wait. Are you… Is this… Is she…” It must be intense to watch this movie and then find yourself in a confined space with Jobu Tapaki. [laughs] But it was so special to get to see them witness it right next to us.
DEADLINE: Where does your journey begin?
HSU: I was born in the South Bay, and then I lived in New York for 11 years. That. I think, was the huge thing that shaped me. I always thought I’d be bicoastal, and I go all the time for work, but I don’t need to plant myself there as much anymore. But I worked on a farm when I was in college. I really love agriculture, and valuing something outside of what this industry is just keeps me sane and healthy.
I started in experimental theater and comedy. I never wanted an agent, never wanted to do commercial stuff. Truth be told, I think I was really afraid to sell out, because at that time there was no Crazy Rich Asians. I was one of two Asian people in my acting class, and then one of maybe less than 10 people of color in the whole department. We weren’t having the conversations we’re having now. So, I think the experimental theater scene was a lot more international, and it felt like we were pushing boundaries. Now I can see that it’s also limited in its scope and also elitist in some ways, but it was fun to make sh*t that you felt really passionate about.
I always say that people kept opening doors for me that I didn’t know existed. Someone was doing a table read of a SpongeBob musical, and they asked me to do some extra voices. I ended up being in that project for six years. Then I get a call one day, “Do you want to come to Broadway?” I mean, yes, I’ve never been before. And then another musical I’d done in New Jersey, that ended up being a weird internet cult sensation. We recorded an album and it became a sensation on the dark web of musical theater, so then five years later it came to Broadway totally driven by the power of the people.
The long story short is that right before this movie I was doing that show, Be More Chill, on Broadway, playing the female lead and shooting the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at the same time. Rachel Brosnahan and I went to college together, and though we didn’t know each other, we had mutual friends. I kept having friends tell me, “There’s this character on Maisel that everybody thinks should be you. Make sure you get in there.” I was in tech, doing eight shows a week, but they were like, “They want to make it work.” So, I ended up getting that job, and I was still doing eight shows a week, but on Mondays I would film for Maisel.
When that finished, Bowen Yang, before he was on SNL, called me because he was doing a show with Awkwafina that was an all-Asian cast. So, after my musical and Maisel wrapped, I did an episode of Nora from Queens, and my directors were the Daniels. We fell deeply in love with each other. The first day we worked together, they blew a leaf blower into my face, made me speed rap against a green screen and then Daniel Scheinert got up on a ladder to dump mud on me. I said, “These are my guys,” and followed them out to LA. Within a week of getting there, they called me to say, “Hey, we’re working on this movie. No pressure, but we think you’d be perfect for it.”
I think the biggest thing I feel grateful for, especially with the success of Everything Everywhere, is that I’ve managed to do this whole thing simply by following people that I love working with. Because I didn’t see many people like me, and didn’t see a path for myself, I’ve just been bushwhacking with the desire just to make things I’m really passionate about.
DEADLINE: You’re playing an infinite number of characters, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s decide it’s two: Joy and Jobu Tapaki, two sides of the same coin. You’re able to find the dark side of Joy and the vulnerable side of Jobu Tapaki; how much work went into figuring that out?
HSU: You’re right that Jobu is both everything else and also still Joy, and Joy has Jobu within her. The Daniels and I talked about the concept of that particular character track, because it’s so essential to the movie making sense, even through the chaos. We did try to weave that into the fabric of the film, and one of my favorite shorthands for it was “Joybu”. A combination of both Joy and Jobu. It wasn’t a real thing, but we knew what it meant, so when the seams start to pull apart a bit, sometimes we’d do something in a scene that was clearly Jobu, like the hallway scene, but then we’d say, “OK, let’s do it again, but this time let’s do it Joybu.” It made sense of the meta, because if someone can jump and be everywhere all at once, they can also still be the daughter.
I loved Joybu, because I feel that’s where we got the scene. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Jobu is describing the bagel, and it’s this ultra closeup and I think that’s a perfect Joybu moment, because you get to see that there’s something beneath the villain. It’s the window.
I’m such a nerd about craft, and you never get roles that ask this much of you as a thinker, so to be able to make space for that little window was so satisfying.
DEADLINE: It must have been intricately plotted, but was there still room for you to embellish?
HSU: I think a lot of that happened beforehand, while we were in pre-production. Once we were off to the races, the shoot was 30 days. We spent a lot of time, specifically with Jobu, wrapping our heads around the idea that she’s so all-knowing that it doesn’t even phase her. It was about creating a villain that also has a supreme philosophy, heart, and thinks it’s all stupid, actually.
The hallway scene was the first I shot with Michelle Yeoh, in the first week of the shoot. The Daniels and I, we’re good at throwing paint at the wall, and I trust them immensely. It’ll be like, “OK, the camera’s here, now go wild.” So, we’d worked on Jobu together and went really ham with her. But in that moment in front of Michelle, it was like, “Oh my God, wait, what?” I didn’t realize it would ever be public. All of a sudden it dawned on me: “I’m about to swing these nunchaku at Michelle Yeoh.” I was so nervous, because I was about to be a freak.
But the thing about Michelle is that she’s actually really silly as well. And while the Daniels can feel like silly guys who give everyone the rope to create, they’re also extraordinary craftsmen. I want the world for them, because I want more people in the industry to know that it’s possible to value the people you’re working with and give them that room, and that great art can come from trust and love, and from not taking ourselves too seriously, but always holding the craft with responsibility.