It started, of course, with a love story.
When Stephanie Hsu signed on to appear in an episode of fledgling Comedy Central series “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens” in 2019, she had just wrapped season three of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and was nearing the end of the Broadway run of “Be More Chill.” She was mostly looking for “something dumb” to do alongside Awkwafina and Hsu’s old college comedy pal Bowen Yang.
But on set, something else happened.
That “Awkwafina” episode was directed by “Swiss Army Man” filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Sheinert, known collectively as Daniels. “We fell, artistically, in love,” Hsu told IndieWire during a recent Zoom interview — so much so, the actress said, that she “followed them to LA. They called me within a week of me getting there and they were like, ‘Hey, we’re working on this movie, no pressure, but we think you’d be great for it,’” Hsu said.
That film became smash hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which Hsu herself gamely describes as “a multi-genre, wild, never-before-seen ride of a family who has lost one another and can’t seem to find one another in their daily lives, so they have to launch into many, many universes in order to find one another again, all the while with hot dog fingers and dildo batons and bagels as thrones. Bagels as holy entities.” It’s a love story, too.
Hsu stars as Joy Wang, the disaffected and disconnected daughter of Evelyn (Yeoh) and Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan); she is also the universe-destroying monster known as Jobu Tupaki. While the film focuses on Evelyn’s own multiverse-spanning journey, it’s Joy’s pain that sets much of the action in motion, and it’s ultimately Joy (or really, Jobu) who Evelyn needs to make peace with before the colorful, totally original, and wonderfully satisfying film can conclude.
The film is a box-office juggernaut (notching over $103 million worldwide, it is A24’s highest-grossing hit ever), a mighty awards contender (including accolades from the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, the Gothams, and various critics organizations, plus multiple nominations across the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards, with Oscars heavily tipped to come). It’s the kind of film that, even 10 months after release, inspires crying fans to approach Hsu.
Daniel Scheinert, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Jonathan Wang, and Daniel Kwan attend the 2022 Gotham Awards at Cipriani Wall Street
Getty Images for The Gotham Film
Back in early 2020, the actress had “zero concept” of what A24 was and didn’t know that the iconic Michelle Yeoh was attached to the project; she just wanted to “continue to make art with these weirdos.” When her mom learned that Yeoh was in the film, that’s when her family started paying attention.
“I told my mom like, ‘Oh, I’m working on this movie,’ and she’s like, ‘Sure, sure, cool, cool,’ very kind of slightly dismissive, and then I was like, ‘Michelle Yeoh’s playing my mom,’” Hsu said. “And she was like, “What? Oh, my God, I love Michelle. Michelle’s amazing.’ I grew up watching her movies with my family, a family that does not care about cinema, just a bunch of immigrants who happen to love Michelle because she is the legend that she is.”
Going into production with Kwan and Sheinert might have been easy enough, but Yeoh was something else.
“It’s very wild to work with these legends, because you’re like, I spent my whole upbringing witnessing you on a tiny screen and now you’re in person and we’re building something together,” she said. “I was really intimidated, but Michelle is so kind and honestly just so ego-less. She just makes everybody feel so welcome that somehow it felt like we all really slipped into this family dynamic seamlessly. We fell right into it, right away, in a very deep way.”
While Hsu couldn’t possibly have known they would make a monster hit, she said it always felt special.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once”
“I don’t think we all knew it was going to be successful, I think we knew it was going to be special,” she said. “The experience of filming it was special. It was crazy and we had no idea what we were doing, and I don’t know how else to describe it other than we knew that the core of the story was about this family trying desperately to find one another, and that is something we really resonated with.”
So, maybe she did have some kind of inkling that the film was going to be a hit. Some other sense told her so. Something kind of cosmic, like Jobu or that holy bagel.
“I do remember pulling Dan Kwan aside during filming — and they like to joke that I’m a witch, it’s the truth — and it’s pre-pandemic, I didn’t understand anything about the film industry whatsoever, I still have zero concept of what box-office numbers mean, but I pulled Dan aside and I was like, ‘This movie is going to bring people back into the movie theaters,’” she said. “There was just something in me that could feel the scale of it, and that we were doing something that no one has ever seen before.”
Kwan and Scheinert’s collaborative nature was only magnified during the “Everything Everywhere” production. Asked about her favorite day of filming, Hsu pointed to a sequence in which Joy isn’t even the focal point.
“There’s a scene in the movie where the character of Evelyn is starting to feel it all and really understand the chaos of everything,” she said. “It’s in part two, which is titled ‘Everywhere.’ It’s the Chinese New Year celebration at the laundromat, and she’s like, ‘I’ve always hated this place,’ and she takes a baseball bat and she smashes the window. She just completely decides to blow it all up.”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Allyson Riggs, Courtesy of A24
Hsu had an idea. “I knew, dramaturgically, that this was this point where Jobu starts to become omnipresent and the Joy character and the Jobu character are starting to meld together and become interwoven. We started shooting this scene that is about Evelyn releasing chaos, and I went to Dan and Daniel, and I was like, ‘I have a crazy idea,’” she said. “At this point, Jobu is everywhere, so what if in this scene, I’m just in the background, Jobu is just in the background, and she is able to jump cut and hop around? And they were like, ‘We love it.’”
Her instinct meshes perfectly with the feeling of the scene: the sense that Jobu is everywhere, all at once. “I’m sure people who’ve seen it 10 millions of times notice it, but it does add this really creepy texture where I’m completely not in focus, but Jobu’s voiceover is happening and you can feel that there is another physical presence witnessing Evelyn,” Hsu said. “That’s one of my favorite days, because it felt like one of those magical moments of filmmaking where everyone understands the story that they’re making and everybody’s goal is to make it clearer and more rich.”
Hsu also took to the scrappiness of the production, an eye-popping extravaganza built on practical props. Consider that holy everything bagel, a black hole that Jobu crafts to (maybe) destroy the entire universe.
“In the movie, there are visual effects that sort of amplify the bagel, but when we were actually filming it, you peel back the curtain, and the bagel is behind it, and the bagel really was a life-sized bagel, and that was the joke of it,” she said. “We knew it was going to sort of toss up dirt and air and dust, but it was actually just a beautifully sculpted tiny bagel.”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Her favorite outfit sparks that same sensibility. While Joy/Jobu gets to wear a ton of excellent pieces from costume designer Shirley Kurata, from an Elvis send-up to an imperial outfit that’s equal parts Marie Antoinette and Bagel Queen, Hsu has a particular favorite. Well, today at least.
“My favorite changes every day, because we’ve got to keep it spicy and there’s so many that deserve some love, but today my favorite outfit is what we call Jumbo Jobu, which is almost like she has a clown face and she’s wearing 1,000 outfits wrapped around her body,” she said. “What I love about that outfit is that it’s at the end of the movie where Jobu is starting to disintegrate and Jobu and Joy are really colliding, and so we took pieces from every single other costume that I wear throughout the movie and we assembled it into one piece. I loved that.”
It’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” distilled into a single garment. “What Dan and Daniel are really good at, and what we all love to do, is get scrappy. So instead of creating a whole new costume that might do the same thing just with new materials, why don’t we take the same materials that we have and piece something new together and deconstruct it and reconstruct it?” she said. “Instead of covering something in visual effects, let’s take an actual small bagel and then expand it in post.”
Like Joy, Hsu can hold many different thoughts, experiences, and desires all at once. Even though she knew the film was special, she was definitely freaked out when it came to the film’s SXSW 2022 premiere. They shot the film before the pandemic, “sitting on it” for months and months, and now it was about to go out into the world.
“I had seen the movie, I loved it, of course, but I had some fear,” Hsu said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if people are going to like it or not, or if people are going to understand it or have the patience for it.’ But it’s been so rewarding and affirming, both in the industry and also as an artist, to realize that people are still willing to be surprised and are still capable of being surprised and want to be challenged. People will show up for a new experience. And that as artists and as an industry, we still have the opportunity to do magnificent things and should strive to do so.”
“Everything Everywhere All At Once”
The response to the film has been profound. Not just the box office or the awards and accolades, but the response from people who, like Hsu, simply love the film. The people it brought back to theaters.
“A lot of people come up to me and they’ll start crying just as they start talking about the movie,” she said. “As someone who is hyper-empathetic, it’s overwhelming. You realize that the depth of what you were doing is really reaching people, but also that a lot of people are hurting and very much struggling or still in the process of unpacking so much in their life. It’s both healing to know that the art that you make can have that capacity, and also you’re like, ‘Man, wow, we have a great responsibility to continue to take care of each other because we’re going through it.’ People are going through it myself, included. It’s a lot.”
Then again, she brought a lot to the film itself. It shows both in her performance and when she gets to tout its wonder again and again, years after making it.
“We brought our complete surrender, our trust, and all of our art hearts to make this little thing,” she said. “This one is such a freak of nature that I think I’m trying to savor every moment, even when it feels like we’re talking about a movie over and over, just because it is so special. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now available on various VOD and streaming platforms.
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