Our money’s on Stephanie Hsu this awards season
The ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ star speaks to Soho House from LA, where she has a penchant for taro chips and a Dirty Martini (all at once, of course)
Wednesday 11 January 2023 By Piya Sinha-Roy
It’s safe to assume that most actors probably wouldn’t jump at a script that charts the life of a launderette owner spiraling across the multiverse with hot dog fingers, sentient rocks and a culinary racoon. But for actor Stephanie Hsu, the trippy, absurdist and complex Everything Everywhere All At Once made sense right off the bat.
‘I don’t know what that says about the insanity of my own brain, but I guess I’ve always been really drawn to large philosophical questions and stories that are centered around big ideas and small intimate relationships,’ Hsu tells me.
The film, written and directed by Swiss Army Man filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the ‘Daniels’), follows Chinese-American launderette owner Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) as her business is being audited by the IRS and she’s being served divorce papers by her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). At the same time, Evelyn finds herself launched into the multiverse to stop a powerful being, Jobu Tupaki, from destroying everything, and she soon realises that the flamboyant villain she must destroy is an alter-ego of her own daughter, Joy (Hsu).
The Daniels, known for their surreal and taboo-defying black comedies (Swiss Army Man featured Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse that a marooned man rides to safety), take Everything Everywhere All At Once to absolute extremes, but the film is smartly anchored by Evelyn and Joy’s tense mother-daughter relationship. Hsu says that while they weren’t specifically talking about intergenerational trauma of immigrant children when preparing to shoot the movie, it became naturally woven into her and Yeoh’s characters and performances.
‘I think we all just carried into the project the body of experience that we have being immigrants or children of immigrants. We never talked about specifically being Asian or a mother or a daughter, we just kind of fell right into it,’ Hsu explains. ‘Since the movie has come out, I feel like it has unearthed a bunch of Asian daughters and mothers who get it. People are always like, “How did you know?” I didn’t know that my own body of experiences was hitting on a central vein of other people’s experiences.’
Born in California, Hsu, 31, moved to New York a decade ago to explore the world of theatre, with roles in Broadway’s The SpongeBob Musical and Be More Chill, as well as experimental theatre. She quickly moved into independent film and TV with roles in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and The Path, but it was Everything Everywhere All At Once, her first studio film, that became her breakthrough performance.
As Joy and Jobu, Hsu was able to create two characters that were ‘two very different extremes of the same central heartbeat’. Joy is angst-ridden and struggling with Evelyn’s inability to accept her queerness, whereas the Machiavellian Jobu, whose trajectory across the multiverse has made her experience everything, everywhere, all at once and is hellbent on annihilating all the universes, is an all-powerful, confident and extravagant being.
‘I wanted to start the movie as unassuming and as small, so you can almost forget about Joy in the beginning, so that I could really go as far as I wanted to, and really stretch in terms of range, but also be a true surprise,’ says Hsu. ‘I wanted to play with that experience of when you first meet Joy, you can never possibly imagine that she would become what she does become. And once you meet Jobu, you can never imagine that she would then end up being just the daughter again.’
The performance is earning Hsu and the rest of the cast and creators critical praise, as the film continues to rack up nominations and win key awards. It’s also put Hsu on the map for more projects, kicking off with the Rian Johnson Peacock series Poker Face, alongside Natasha Lyonne this month, as well as currently filming David Leitch’s The Fall Guy in Australia with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt.
‘The types of projects I want to work on will probably not float to my proverbial table and I’ll have to create a lot of those opportunities myself,’ says Hsu. ‘The biggest gift that this time has given me is that more people are either coming to me at an earlier point in their process with their scripts, or they’re saying, “What do you want to make?”’
For Hsu, Everything Everywhere All At Once is part of a growing movement of stories that explores Asian and Asian-American identities beyond stereotypes and tropes. ‘It’s very important that Joy is a lesbian and that this family is an immigrant family, a Chinese-American family. But that’s not what the story is about,’ she explains.
She adds: ‘I want to get to a point in our industry, all creative industries, where we’re more integrated in a way that we don’t have to overemphasise our identity in order to tell a story that is marketable. I want us to get to make mistakes, create art, and just tell stories without being hyperconscious of the weight it holds for whatever body of people you are responsible for.’
Awards season is new for Hsu and she’s enjoying the ride, whether that’s on the red carpet or hanging out at parties (at the Los Angeles and New York Soho Houses, Hsu has a penchant for the taro chips and a Dirty Martini), meeting film heroes such as Brendan Fraser, and playing with style.
‘I like pendulum swinging. I like to surprise myself, one up myself,’ says Hsu about her red-carpet fashion choices, expressing a desire to wear brands and designers innovating in the space, and uplifting those who are lesser known.
‘I feel I am navigating the push and pull of moments where I want to stand tall, and moments I want to hide away. And the thing that keeps pushing me forward is I know I am inherently just making so much space for people that I didn’t have when I was growing up,’ she adds.
Stephanie Hsu will be speaking at Holloway House on Friday night. Click here for more information.