Stephanie Hsu: Humor, humanity and a pig on a leash

Growing up as the only child of a single Taiwanese-American mother in South Bay, Stephanie Hsu wanted to be an actress. Her sensible mother questioned that dream. “I remember when I was very young when I told my mother I wanted to be an actress,” Hsu recalls. “She pointed to the TV screen and said, ‘How can you be an actress? Nobody looks like you!’”

Undeterred, Hsu was belting out Spice Girls tunes on the playground at eight, wowing classmates with her singing and dancing in a high school production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and starred in her senior year acting teacher, “Noises Off,” which she handpicked for his award student. “People kept opening doors for me that I didn’t know existed,” says Hsu. “One of my teachers said I should consider going to college to do acting, and I figured I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

Hsu attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and was educated at the Atlantic Theater Company. Through 2019, she was playing eight shows a week in the Broadway musical Be More Chill while squeezing in time to steal scenes in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “The image I get is a horse kicking down a door,” says Hsu, alluding to her focus. “My mother is not so much like me, but she is very strong and persistent and smart. And when you come in [the factor of] As an immigrant family, it’s all about, “You have to be excellent to survive in this world that wasn’t built for you.” That was a huge narrative growing up for me.”

This intensity of spirit is expressed in Hsu’s groundbreaking film role opposite Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the sci-fi action comedy has grossed $102 million worldwide since its release last spring and has received rave reviews. Hsu starts out as Joy, the depressed, queer, tattooed daughter of the disapproving Evelyn (Yeoh). Hsu says, “I channeled the idea that Joy is a ‘hyper-empath.’ It’s a term Octavia Butler uses in one of her books, and it means someone feels so much that every message they read, every homeless person on the street, it swallows them whole. I wanted Joy to feel overwhelmed by the chaos of the world.”

Stephanie Hsu wears pink hair and a "Elvis suit" as Jobu Tupaki in "Everything everywhere at once."

“This person is so powerful that they don’t care what they look like,” says Stephanie Hsu of her nihilistic, mayhem-making villain Jobu Tupaki in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

(Allyson Riggs/A24)

As Evelyn begins sawing her way through the “multiverse” occupied by alternate versions of herself, Hsu materializes as Chaosbringer Jobu Tupaki. She makes her parallel universe entry by walking a pet pig, dangling a cigarette from her mouth, wearing a pink wig and a dazzling “Elvis suit.” At her publicist’s office in North Hollywood, Hsu, who lives in a small town outside of Los Angeles, says, “When I came out in this costume, I wanted to make Jobu as stupid as possible, and I say “stupid” as a loving term,” explains Hsu. “How ridiculous can it be? This person is so powerful they don’t care what they look like.”

Despite all their differences, Hsu has given Joy and Jobu the same worldview. “Both characters share the same basic spirit of nihilism. For Joy, when nothing matters, it sends her to a place of hopelessness. When nothing matters, anything is possible for Jobu. So here’s a pig; So here is a Nunchuk sex toy. They are two different expressions of the same thought.”

Hsu landed her dual role after Kwan and Scheinert (who go by the name Daniels) directed an episode of Awkafina Is Nora From Queens. Inspired by the filmmakers, whom she describes as “soul mates,” Hsu decided to move back to Los Angeles after eleven years in New York. “I basically followed the Daniels to LA,” says Hsu. “Within a week of getting here, they sent me the script for ‘Everything Everywhere at Once’ and said we think you’d be great for it.”

For all of its crazy special effects, warped timelines, extreme personalities, and frantic plot twists, the Daniels’ script struck a chord with Hsu. “I’ve always had a penchant for the weird and perverse,” she says. “In New York I was part of the experimental downtown theater scene and I’m such a philosophy nerd – ‘Eternal Sunshine’ [of the Spotless Mind]’ was one of my favorite movies growing up. The script actually made a lot of sense to me.”

Filmed primarily in a Simi Valley warehouse-turned-soundstage, Everything Everywhere All at Once culminates in a tender reconciliation in a parking lot between mother and daughter. Hsu recalls, “When we shot that scene at the end of production, it felt so cathartic because we’d all been waiting to articulate the heart of the film: that despite all this heartbreak, love, and pain, we just be want to be right here, looking into each other’s hearts and finding the humanity that the cameras can capture.”

Moviegoers of all stripes have responded to the film’s humor and humanity, notes Hsu. “Just seeing how this film moved people, it’s like a touchstone of togetherness in the way it brings together cinephiles, Asians and queer people. People come up to us and say, ‘I used this film to come out to my parents.’ Parents tell us how this film helped them reconnect with their children. The wildest dream of every artist is to create such an effect.”

Closer to home, “Everything” impressed even Hsu’s skeptical mother. “For a long time,” says Hsu, “my mother didn’t support me.” Then she overheard strangers on a bus excited about Hsu’s “banger” performance in “Mrs. Maisel” and started to get around. But elder Hsu first experienced full immersion in her daughter’s work when she saw an LA screening of Everything Everywhere.

“After the film ended, my mother pointed to the screen. She didn’t talk about my performance. She spoke about Michelle Yeoh, Evelyn. She pointed to the cinema screen and said, ‘That’s me.'” Stephanie Hsu: Humor, humanity and a pig on a leash

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