“Anyone can make something weird,” says “Everything Everywhere All At Once” actress Stephanie Hsu. “But to make something weird that also has heart and can take you into absolute chaos, and still make sense when you surrender to it, is a huge feat.”
Hsu stars as the antagonist of the A24 film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” directed by “Daniels,” Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s collective moniker. The film premiered at South by Southwest, where it opened the festival and was released theatrically this past weekend. The limited release was one of A24’s best and one of the strongest theatrical debuts overall since before the pandemic.
“I had gone to a screening with some suits and agents and had seen it once with my best friend, but I had no idea what strangers would feel,” says Hsu, describing the audience as the missing piece of the film. “That [SXSW] audience, I think, blew all of our minds. They were clapping and cheering and screaming and sobbing. It was really cathartic.”
The 31-year-old actress previously worked with the Daniels on an episode of “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” — and, as she describes it, followed the directing duo out to Los Angeles.
“They called me within a week of my getting to L.A. and were like, hey, we’re working on this movie, no pressure, but if you’re interested.…And before I knew Michelle [Yeoh] was attached, before I knew it was A24, ‘I was like, I will follow you two to the end of the earth.’”
The sci-fi film, difficult to summarize, explores the idea of infinite parallel universes through a Chinese immigrant family. Hsu stars as the daughter, Joy, who in the alternate universes has transformed into Jobu Tabaki, a powerful villain who threatens to suck all of reality into the black-hole of a giant bagel. Only her mother, played by Yeoh, has the power to stop her. The film also stars Ke Huy Quan, James Hong (who, at 93, is one of the industry’s most prolific actors) and Jamie Lee Curtis.
“I felt like I was walking into an intergenerational masterclass every day,” says Hsu.
As Jobu, her character appears in many over-the-top costumes. Rather than singling out one as a favorite, Hsu cycles through crowning the various looks with press. “I like treating it like a flavor of the day question,” she says. “Having seen it last night, I was captured by what we call the ‘Everything Everywhere Jobu,’ a big mash-up of 10 million costumes at the very end of the movie. I have very frizzy hair, and my makeup looks like ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ and it’s like a sad clown. It’s definitely not the most fabulous one,” she adds. “But there is something about that ‘Clockwork Orange’ Jobu that is heartbreaking.”
Hsu notes that the film’s power is grounded close to home despite its complex metaphysical elements.
“What I was impressed by was the heartbeat of the story and this mother-daughter relationship,” says Hsu. “I am the daughter of an immigrant. It was almost like that dynamic was no explanation or discussion necessary. There was just something about it that I knew deeply in my bones.”
Although she’s seen the movie several times, Hsu watched it the night before with her mother in the audience for the first time.
“My mom is an immigrant from Taiwan, and it was mostly just me and her growing up,” Hsu says, adding that she didn’t know if the film would hit home for her mother (or if she’d be scared away by some of the film’s more racy props). After the film, Hsu asked if she liked it.
“And she was like,’ I cried.’ She just pointed at the screen, and she’s like, ‘that’s me.'”
Hsu adds that the film has gotten similar feedback from other Asian mothers: the story feels familiar. “The mother-daughter relationship is forever complex and complicated, and people really relate to it.”
Later this year Hsu will appear in the currently untitled Adele Lim project, produced by Lionsgate and Seth Rogen’s Point Grey Pictures. Hsu describes the film as a “raunchy comedy”; the actress is one of four Asian leads.
Hsu, who started in experimental theater after graduating from NYU’s Tisch program for drama, is still processing her status as a leading lady on-screen and describes her career progression as “crazy synchronicities.” Before the pandemic, the actress was starring in the Broadway production of “Be More Chill,” which followed her six-year run from table read to stage with the “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical. While performing in “Be More Chill,” Hsu was cast in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“I was doing eight shows a week and doing press for the musical, and on my days off, I would film for ‘Maisel.’ It was crazy; it was hard. And it was also really fun, I was focused and worked my ass off. And I don’t know that I felt like an actor at that moment,” she says. “I was just like, wow, I can’t believe that this is happening.”
Early in the pandemic, Hsu faced a reckoning with her chosen career path. “The wall I always hit with acting is I want to do things that make a difference in this world. Sometimes it’s hard to know, and it’s very intangible if acting or the art of storytelling is actually making an impact. And during the pandemic, I was like, should I be a doctor? Should I be a nurse? What can I do to immediately save people’s lives?” she says.
A turning point came several months later, when Hsu found herself standing in front of a wall-to-wall bookcase. “Out of nowhere, as I was looking through these books, I started weeping,” she says. “I was like, oh my God: all these people, all these authors, took the time to collect their thoughts, organize their ideas, and finish these stories and publish these books to keep me company in this time and to protect us,” she continues.
“And it was just this very profound moment, where I was like — good storytelling has the immense power to heal. Which I’ve always known, but it was this a-ha moment. Like, wait — I get to do this. I don’t know why I get to do this, but I am most definitely one of the lucky ones. So I can’t fight it.”
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