The Power of Stephanie Hsu
In honor of her 2023 Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for Everything Everywhere All At Once, Theatrely is revisiting Dan Meyer's interview with Stephanie Hsu. Their meeting took place on April 4, 2022, at A24 Studios in New York City. All photos below are by Jessie Hirschhorn.
Stephanie Hsu is very cold—literally, the office we’re sitting in is freezing. Her bubbly charm is as warm as ever, though, as we sat down to discuss her latest project, the A24 film Everything, Everywhere All at Once from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka The Daniels).
The star plays two characters: Joy, the depressed daughter of Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh, already earning Oscar buzz for 2023), and Jobu Tupaki, the main foil to Evelyn as she travels across the multiverse to save all of humanity from falling into nothingness. It’s not as confusing as it sounds once you see the movie (which you absolutely should, it’s incredible), now playing cinemas across the country.
Jobu is particularly fascinating—requiring Hsu to wear a different costume, affectation, and personality in nearly every scene as each world contains a different version of her character: serial killer, pink Elvis, golfer, and so on. It’s a performance so outrageous, heartbreaking, and wondrous that only a stage alum could do it.
Below, Theatrely chats with Stephanie about the duality of these characters, late night hang outs on set, and how Broadway needs to change before she returns. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel that your theatre experience helped you with this role?
First of all, I think that Broadway kicked my ass. [laughs] There’s truly nothing harder in the whole universe than doing eight shows a week. The type of stamina and discipline and commitment is paramount. Right before I worked on this movie, I was doing Be More Chill and filming season three of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at the same time. It was amazing, but it was also really exhausting, and it primed me perfectly for getting to do my first feature film. In the movie, one version of [my] character is very theatrical in many ways. So being able to play with those extremes and switching on a dime and being unafraid of improvising, I think really helped in making that character sort of singular.
It’s interesting that you talk about switching on a dime. One of the things I was thinking during the movie was this idea of duality within a person. Is that something that you explored while developing the character?
So, [the Daniels and I] talked a lot about nihilism and the philosophy behind this concept that if nothing matters, then what does? I think Joy and Jobu are both nihilists, but they just execute it in very different ways. Joy is weighed down by this nothingness and is deeply in despair. And Jobu is a great creator of chaos, but she’s not just weird for weird’s sake. It comes from this same core question of “What is?” They’re different and also the same because they share this emotional core. They just treat it very differently and that’s something that we developed and held onto throughout the process because we didn’t want to create a cliché villain. We wanted to create one that was complex and confusing and that audiences felt emotionally invested in, but didn’t quite know why.
It seems like it was quite the collaborative environment. What more can you share about that?
I think we all entered a hive mind. In some ways, I realized working on this project, film is maybe my favorite medium. It is like theatre, or like developing a play, where you know the beginning, middle, and end…It’s like you’re crafting one story all together, the same way as when you’re doing a rehearsal process. You start to discover new things that are part of the same soup that you’re all cooking together. Those become little secrets that you get to continue to draw out of your metaphorical fanny pack and put into the creative process. It really feels like you’re sculpting something together.
How did that affect the vibe on set day-to-day?
We had a lot of fun! Everyone worked their asses off. We started every morning with a warm-up with the whole cast, the whole crew, everybody. It’s not as profound as that might sound. It’s like tickle fights, or sometimes it’s a game, or sometimes it’s a dance party, and it’s just a moment; it’s a communal ritual to have us all land together. And I think that is one of the things that the Daniels do best. They create an environment where everyone feels like they’re valued. And so, inevitably, in any process of making, things get stressful. You run out of time, you’re behind schedule, your prop dildo doesn’t work. [laughs.] When people feel like they’re valued, they will show up for one another and take care of each other. I think the reason why the film works is because the way we made it is also the same lesson that is at the heart of the film.
Have you picked up on any audience reactions so far?
We wanted to make this for people; it wasn’t for just ourselves…and it just feels so nice that everyone is really receiving it. I think people can be really jaded these days, right? We all want to hate on or find something to poke a hole in. So, I’ve been really humbled and proud of audiences and humanity and strangers who just surrender to this movie, and even people who are like, "Maybe it’s not perfect, but life is not perfect,” and they get it. That, to me, is a huge accomplishment of this piece. Somehow, it has broken down our barriers, transcended viewing something under the context of like or dislike, and given people an experience that is memorable.
It absolutely does that—there’ve been so many different reactions and all of them seem to end with “we need more movies like this.” It doesn’t seem like this was an easy role, though. What was it like carrying both Joy and Jobu?
This was one of the most artistically satisfying processes I’ve ever done in my life…and yet, I was telling the Daniels the other day, when I think back on that time or when I look back through some journals, it was also very heavy to carry this role. I am not a method actor, but I’m a human being and I’m porous. And so I’m always careful what I say “yes” to, because I know that not only will I give myself, but that every character takes a little something from me. And I think it’s a mutual exchange, but you have to be careful sometimes, and I get why people who’ve played the Joker—it really starts to get into your body and in your mind. In order to get to both Joy and Jobu’s place and philosophy, I had to really hold despair and this [feeling] of giving up or meaninglessness that is heavy to hold. But, I did it in service of the story, and I really wanted to make sure that the characters were as flawed and messy as possible. And so I feel like I just kind of surrendered to whatever was going to come out. You know, of course, there was a lot of homework that was done and there is a technicality that’s happening. But there was also a lot of surrender to the sort of gods-that-be where you just let it... I don’t know…you open up the portals and you just let things start to come through. And it sounds so actor-y and silly, but it’s really real.
Was it easy to step out of the role? How did you let go of the characters?
Well, when we wrapped, we went straight into the pandemic, so I just slept…for a long time. [laughs] When you’re in it, you’re kind of in the thick of it. And so, you know, yes, I would like to say that maybe a more advanced version of myself would have had more specific rituals to kind of leave my shoes on the film set, per se. I had the ability to let the workday go, but when you’re in the thick of making, even if you’re a director, your whole body and mind are consumed by the project because it’s that hive mind thing where you’re like, “OK, what are we going to do next? What did I learn today? Oh my gosh, remember that moment and that new texture that we found? Don’t forget that because we’re going to bring that back.” I don’t think that I was as capable of dropping it on a dime because, even, I remember on Fridays we always hung out. We would have a glass of wine or something together. And I remember just leaving the set at like 2 AM, and then me and Dan Kwan would still be talking about the movie, and we couldn't stop because we were so passionate about it. Which I think, you know, I value a work-life balance, but what I’m learning about myself is that I’m also kind of an extremist. I’m like all-in. And again, that’s why I’m really picky about what I say “yes” to, because I know if I say “yes” to something I’m all-in, one hundred and fifty percent. I’m not going to be able to audition for other things, I’m not going to be able to think about other things…it’s all-consuming. I think it’s neither perfect nor imperfect. It’s just how I work, you know? And that’s the beauty of getting older is being like, "Well, I guess that’s how I am."
Yeah, I completely understand that. It’s the same for me—once I’m in a project, I have to give it my all, otherwise I worry something will go wrong.
That was what was really hard about Broadway: learning how to find variations of 100 percent when you’re doing eight shows a week. There might be one morning, where for a matinee, your voice is not where it was last night, and you’re tired. And that’s not because you’re lazy; it’s not because you’re not trained. It’s just because you’re a human and bodies change—weather changes! So, you have to find a way to still be fully committed while working with what you’ve got. But it’s also hard because you want to give people all of you all the time, but that’s not sustainable in the long run.
Would you go back to Broadway?
I would love to do a play. [Laughs.] You know, my honest truth is that I’m working on a TV show with a friend of mine about Broadway. I would like Broadway to be more accessible to more people. And I do think that there’s anything more powerful than live performance. And it’s such a sacred exchange. But I think that the way the machine runs is not sustainable, and there are so many people with lifelong injuries from giving their all. And when a show closes, they’re left with nothing and it’s hard. And then on top of that, the amount that it costs to see a Broadway show is a huge barrier for a lot of people that I would like to serve. You know what I mean? And that was the hardest thing for me. I just couldn’t understand: why, when there is an empty seat in the house, doesn’t [it] immediately go to a person in need or a New York City school kid? I just could not wrap my head around that. I’m getting emotional talking about it because it was so frustrating. And I know that it’s so interconnected and complicated, but I believe that there are enough intelligent people who can figure out a way to reach more people. And if Broadway still wants to be this thriving art space, then it needs to figure out some ways to reach more people and also to protect the actors. There’s just too many horror stories. I mean, I feel so lucky to have ever been able to be on Broadway. I feel it’s not something I ever saw for myself growing up. It’s not a stage I ever imagined myself on. I didn’t think that there was room for me there. So I feel immensely lucky that I not only got to be there, but be there twice two seasons in a row. It taught me so much and I would love to one day go back. But I would love to also go back at a time when I have more clout in their eyes so that I can make a bigger impact. Because, sometimes, yeah, it feels like you’re beating down doors to try to make it more accessible, and that was really painful, to be honest.
Thank you so much for sharing your truth. I think our readers will be happy to see frank discussions about the state of the industry. Let’s take a hard left turn to wrap up: What was your favorite costume that you got to wear?
So I treat that question like a flavor of the day. [laughs] Earlier, I said it was the Amoeba Jobu costume, which is the green, fuzzy, spiky thing. In this moment, I love this...there’s a serial killer Jobu, well, we call it ax murderer Jobu. And there’s like flashing lights, I’m covered in blood, I have an ax, and I swing it at a corpse, which is so crazy. But yeah, that’s my baby right now. But, also, I do love Elvis. I just love Elvis so much. I love her little teardrop gemstone, her pink hair, I just think it’s so crazy.
Was there a scene that you most enjoyed filming?
I mean, all of it was truly just so fun. But I really like the scene where Jobu is explaining to Evelyn what “the Bagel” is and this whole nihilistic concept that nothing matters. I just remember filming that, and I remember Dan Kwan being like, “I think that’s my favorite scene.” The camera’s really close and super intimate, and we played with it so much, and it was erotic and devastating and strange. And to be able to play with those ruminations in such a super close-up was just really fun. And then there was also another scene where this was kind of the pinnacle of what I felt was collaborative making. It’s in part 2, “Everywhere,” where Evelyn starts to understand verse-jumping. She starts to see everything, feel everything. And Jobu’s like, “You’re everywhere, just like me,” and we’re at the Chinese New Year party scene. And I ran up to Dan and I was like, “Oh my gosh, OK, if Jobu is everywhere, what if in this laundromat scene, I’m like in the background of every single frame?” And he was like, “That makes complete sense and is so weird. Let’s do it.” And so if you go back and see, like, it’s weird because if you definitely if you watch it more than once, I’m sure you pick up on it. That’s not something that was on a page. That was just a moment where we all understood what we were making and we believed in one another and said, “Yes, let’s go with that.” And it really adds such a weird texture to that feeling of omnipresence that I just love so much.
This article was originally published April 14, 2022.