Thousands of films come and go each year, some lucky enough to leave a lasting impression. But every once in a while, a film comes along that does so much more than that, that taps into what art is capable of. It can capture an experience rarely seen on screen, portray a life that feels so truthful, and most of all, offer a chance to heal and recover from the darkness. I have made no secret that Everything Everywhere All At Once is that film for me this year.
Though the legendary Michelle Yeoh carries the film from start to finish, as we embark on a multi-dimensional journey with Evelyn, it is Joy – Evelyn’s daughter – who holds the film’s center of gravity. In another life, she’s known as Jobu Tupaki, the all-powerful nihilist and greatest threat the multiverse has ever seen… despite no one knowing what she wants.
Beautifully acted and realized by Stephanie Hsu, Joy/Jobu was one of the most profound representations I’ve ever seen on screen, a character that spoke to every corner of my identity – the part of me that’s Asian-American, millennial, enthusiastic, chaotic, confused etc. After gushing about the film and this performance ever since its premiere, I felt I must meet with Hsu. I had to tell her how much her character and contribution to the film meant to me.
Within the first few moments of speaking with Hsu, I was already taken aback by how down-to-earth and kind she is. She arrived at the Zoom and immediately commented on my Zoom background, which consisted of the Chinese characters “天馬行空,” the official translation of the film’s title. She was, pun intended, an absolute joy to talk to. It felt as if we were already friends. In the interview below, we talked about her seeing herself in Joy and Jobu, being an Asian-American millennial, nihilism, how the film spoke to her, rocks, and bagels!
Kevin L. Lee: Stephanie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s an honor. I want to congratulate you on the film and I want to personally thank you for being a part of this too, because I’ve seen the film twice and I’ve sobbed both times. So it means a lot to me. So thank you.
Stephanie Hsu: Thank you. Thank you for saying that. You just made me almost start sobbing because I can really feel your appreciation. I think the most special thing about this film is not just that it’s doing really well in the box office, but that everyone’s first thing they want to say is thank you and everyone just exudes so much gratitude and that feels… just… wild. And I feel grateful that you all are grateful. And I am grateful too! [Laughs]
KL: I want to start by saying that I saw so much of myself in both Joy and Jobu Tupaki and it was sort of like… the strangest but most profound representation I’ve seen. When you were playing this character, was there a moment where you felt, “This is me”?
SH: Mmmm. You know, it’s so funny because I think Joy was so close to home. I feel like I have felt her presence in my life before. I have felt that strained relationship with family. I have felt despair. Maybe not to the extent that she has, but I felt like she was very close to home, like a good friend almost.
SH: But Jobu weirdly, it’s been two years since we’ve made the movie and I feel like right before the movie came out, I was really unleashing some Jobu to the fact where my friends call it, “my Jobu Tupaki.” Because I just became… I think I was really trying to… I had no idea how the movie was going to play and how it was going to be received. And this is a project that is so close to my heart. In fact, it feels like it’s a piece of my heart. It was a true collaboration and I got in through the back door of Hollywood and somehow landed this feature.
And we’ve been sitting on it for two years, so I think I was like, “Maybe it’s going to be a great thing, maybe it’s going to be a terrible thing.” So my inner Jobu Tupaki was preparing me for the worst case scenario. So I feel like I was unleashing chaotic nihilistic thoughts in my brain and I felt like I was being Jobu Tupaki. It was so weird. Daniel Scheinert and I talk about it sometimes, we’re like, “Are we reliving our movie or are we living out the plot of our movie? Or has this been in our subconscious all along?”
KL: I’ve been trying to figure out which part of Joy and Jobu I really relate to. And part of it’s like, is it the Asian American in me or is it the millennial in me? And I think it might be both?
SH: Totally! I think it is both. And I think that there is… I think to be a millennial… it’s a very confusing time. I think that we’ve been hit with the 2008 recession. There’s so much. September 11th happened when we were younger and the version of America that people speak about just doesn’t feel exactly like our version of America. It’s not an abundance of opportunity. It’s instead like crazy student loans, a burning planet, war and then war again, and rising prices of absolutely everything, right?
SH: It’s a very confusing time and I think when things are confusing, it’s easy to fall into the sentiment of “nothing matters” and it’s really easy to feel despair and I think that there are ways to sink into the despair. And then the other side is self-sabotage, which I think millennials are also really great at. [Laughs]
SH: Jobu is the queen of that!
KL: Yes. Absolutely. What was it like jumping back and forth between Joy and Jobu because they really are the same person as you’ve described. So what was that like in terms of taking that script and coming to work every day and finding that balance?
SH: Yeah, I mean, it was really important for us to create a villain or an anti-hero that wasn’t cliche. Wasn’t just like a big bad guy who was mean for no reason and that the threat of nihilism came from a very deep and soulful, real philosophical place and also personal place. So it felt important that she wasn’t just being chaotic to be chaotic, but that it was rooted in this mission statement that, “If it is true that nothing matters, then I can create chaos because everything is meaningless.” And Joy has the same exact thoughts. Everything is meaningless… like what’s the point? But she just gets pulled into the darkness of it, whereas Jobu sort of gets pulled into the darkness and resurrects and then creates more darkness.
KL: Right. It sort of frees her in a way.
SH: Totally! Yeah, absolutely. I did a lot of research specifically. I haven’t really talked to anyone about this, but I deep dived into some Jim Carrey because I think that the movie encapsulates both the Dumb and Dumber side of things, as well as Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind].
KL: Mmm yeah! Absolutely!
SH: So I just was really fascinated by his breadth of work which felt very appropriate to bring the spirit of that into this movie.
KL: Yeah. There were just so many images that stuck with me in the film, but a particular one was where you played a rock.
KL: And I remember seeing that and I thought, “Holy shit, I’d like to be a rock for a few days if I could!”
SH: Oh my God! Totally!
KL: So I was wondering, was there any particular image or universe in the film that really stuck with you?
SH: I love the rock verse, too. The rock verse is my favorite and when people ask me during the press, “Which universe would you want to be in?” I always say the rock verse.
SH: Because the rocks are infinitely wise as much as they are small and stupid, which I feel like encapsulates the full breadth of existence.
SH: Because it is both so meaningful and we are made of stardust and also we’re so insignificant.
KL: Yeah. But there’s like an inner peace to that insignificance. To me, there’s something relaxing about not having to function as a human being just for a few days, just the thought of it.
SH: For sure! And I always used to joke with Quan that nihilism saved my life in the sense of, if nothing matters, we really can do anything we want and none of us know anything. None of us know what the answer is to any of the problems that are happening in the world right now. We’re all just trying our very best to make it a little bit better. And it somehow takes the weight off of everything.
KL: Yeah, it does.
KL: Which is why, when Waymond says, “Please be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on,” that line spoke to me very much.
KL: There’s a very real sense of pain and despair, but also healing in this film. And for me, not just as a moviegoer, but just as a person, I felt like I needed that, you know?
KL: So can you talk a little bit about just, what was this like for you personally? Because you get to live in this interesting middle ground where you contributed to making it, but then once the film is finished, you also get to be an audience member to see it. I think there’s something very beautiful about that. Can you talk a little bit about how the film impacted you when you finally got to see it?
SH: Yeah. Well it’s funny, I’ve now seen it seven times and…
KL: Yeah baby!
SH: Yeah baby! But I’m sure there are people out there who’ve seen it more times than that!
KL: More times, yeah! [Laughs]
SH: Which is crazy to think about! But the thing that I finally was able to see in the seventh time because the first time you’re like, “How is it going to be?” And you’re judging yourself, you’re judging different things and it’s hard for you to be a real audience member. I think it was around the third time where I really got to enjoy it just as a movie outside of myself.
SH: But it was the seventh time where I really realized, I was like, “This movie literally would have been so different with anybody else in it.”
KL: Mmm, yeah.
SH: And I felt that my soul and my desire to heal people and offer healing as an artist, I felt that spirit was in the movie because also I was a part of it. And that was a really huge revelation for me of just being like, “Wow, people’s collaborative efforts go so far and it is a collaboration.”
But what’s interesting is that I think that when I was making the movie, obviously I was in the Joy/Jobu brain, so the questions I was asking were very different from what I’m asking now in my life, two years later.
SH: And… I feel the message that I really I’m receiving now… it’s just about not giving up on the people that you love. That’s the thing that I think I’m really receiving now as an audience member of this sort of more existentialist and spiritual cosmic story, which is that for the people who are in your soul family, no matter where you go, no matter which universe you try to jump to, which existence, which life, they’re always going to show up in one form or another. And that is a very beautiful sentiment and has been very healing, and just like grounding for me, even though it’s a super high concept. It’s nice to know that your family is a version of your family in every reality.
KL: Yeah. Were you able to show your family the film?
SH: Yeah. So my mom saw it and she came to the LA premiere and I think that was really healing too. She had an emotional response to the film and she pointed to the screen and she said, “That’s me.” Not, “That’s you, Stephanie” but she was like, “That’s me, your mom.” And it just was really special. You know, the LA premiere now feels like a million years ago.
SH: But I feel that was my first inkling that this movie was not only creating healing for our generation, but for our parents’ generation as well.
SH: Because art is that thing. That intangible thing that is able to offer healing and fill in the gaps of those conversations that we forget to have or we don’t have in our lives. It sort of touches on the vulnerable empathic heartstrings that help us be courageous for one another.
So that’s just, I would say your other question of how this has healed me or provided healing for me. Hearing how people are responding to this movie is very much affirming and healing my relationship to my industry and what I do. To be reminded that art is so powerful and when we take big risks and we handle them with care and love, they can make huge ripple effects.
And now I feel like we’re a part – you and I – we have different jobs in terms of the release of this movie, but you are just as important as I am in terms of… you are what completes the circle. And it is because of audience members that we are now in a circle of a cultural moment. This is like a moment in time that we’re all part of, and that feels so crazy.
KL: Right. Not just a circle, a bagel!
SH: A bagel!
KL: So even though the Daniels wrote the script, of course, I felt like so much of the story just had your voice in it? So I’m just curious, as an artist, have you ever written anything, have you thought about writing? Have you thought about telling your own stories?
SH: Definitely. When I first started, even in high school, I was always writing my own things. And then in college I studied acting but went to an experimental program and the whole point of that program was making your own work. So that is a huge part of where I come from and how I came to be. And in a weird way, since I’ve become a full-time actor, it’s hard for me to wear multiple hats at once at this juncture in time, so I’ve really been focusing my energy towards acting.
But I very much know that in the long run or in the next chapter of my life, which feels like it’s just around the corner, I’m much more interested in creating my own work and building teams together and starting from the ground up. It’s actually… I’m sort of not pivoting, but as I’m starting to walk that path, it really makes me respect writers and directors and producers so much more. To make a story from nothing to something is a grueling task.
KL: It is.
SH: It is so hard. There are so many moments where you want to give up and you have to just not give up ever. You have to believe in it that much.
KL: Right. Which is why you want to hold onto the people who believe in you.
SH: For sure. Yeah.
KL: Yeah. So I’m here in New York right now and my family is back in California and I recommend films all the time to my mom. But this particular one is, not only do I want to recommend it to her, I want to be there when she sees it.
KL: Like when Evelyn sees Jobu for the first time and Michelle Yeoh says, “Joy, why do you look so stupid?”
SH: “So stupid”! Yeah!
KL: I thought, “Oh my gosh, my mom says the exact same thing.” So that leads me to costume design! Do you have a favorite Jobu Tupaki outfit?
SH: Yeah! So I like to answer this question as like a Flavor of the Day question, because obviously I get asked a lot and there’s so many that they deserve a lot of love. So I would say that today, my favorite… Oh, you know, it’s funny! Today, my favorite is what we call “Spider-Woman Jobu” and it’s when I’m wearing like black and I have these buns and I have little hearts on my cheeks and I’m wearing this big black floral puffy thing and there’s a leather skirt and I have a gun, which I don’t believe in guns, but I’m carrying a huge gun. And there’s also glitter in my scalp! [Laughs]
SH: That one is my favorite today. That’s my mood today, because yeah, every day is different.
KL: Were any of them particularly difficult to wear?
SH: I would say the Goddess Jobu, the all-white Jobu.
KL: Oh, uh-huh.
SH: Goddess Jobu was hard because… Someone asked me if the hair took a long time and it’s been a while, so I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t think it took too long,” but I just saw someone sent me a behind-the-scenes photo and I’m like, “Oh yeah, that took a LONG time.” There were three people working on my hair. But also that costume was really elaborate. There were leggings, a leather bodysuit, and a skirt. There were huge sleeves with shoulder pads and we would drape crystal jewels on my arms. And then I had a huge pearl necklace with also like a ruffle cuff.
SH: That was probably the hardest costume. Very epic.
KL: You looked great! And it paired really well with the set design.
SH: Oh, for sure. Totally.
KL: So I guess my last question is just when it comes to picking future projects, what do you look for? And if you could have ANY kind role you want right now, what is that role?
SH: Ooh, interesting! I’m working on a show right now. It’s funny. I’m always impressed by creatives and the roles that I don’t even know exist yet. So I feel like my dream next role isn’t even in my dreams yet.
SH: Do you know what I mean? I don’t even know what freaky things people are imagining. And I feel excited to be an actor who is always playing very singular roles. Even with [The Marvelous Mrs.] Maisel in Mei, that’s a character before I even was a part of it. Like I don’t know when I ever saw a Chinese woman in the 1960s in a contemporary TV show. So I feel excited for all the characters that are cooking in people’s brains.
But for me, when it comes to projects, I really care about who the filmmakers are. I want to really be inspired by their work or trust their vision. I feel like it has to start from there because it just matters so much. And I have to know that it is putting some goodness into the world. I have to believe in the heart of it and know that at the end of it, I’ll be proud that we’re putting goodness out there. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it just has to offer something in a time where there’s so much content. It has to offer something that people can really hold onto.
KL: Right. Something sincere.
SH: Yeah, sincere and healing in whatever way that means. It could just be a really funny raunchy comedy, but maybe it’s about friendship or whatever.
KL: Or maybe it can be all of those things!
SH: All of those things! Everything Everywhere All At Once! Get your bagels now!
KL: I had a bagel immediately the day after seeing the film, and I was like, “I am never looking at this thing the same way ever again.”
SH: I know! It’s so funny. I was at an airport just a few days ago and I saw a huge tray of bagels. And I was like, just giggling to myself. I was like, “Wow, so many people must be having the feeling that I’m feeling, which is, wow. Never will look at that again.”
KL: Well, there are many things I won’t look at the same way again. I was taking a walk the other day at a park and the rocks look different to me now.
SH: Aww, I love that. That’s really beautiful.
KL: The whole idea of putting googly eyes on the rocks. I was like, “I am crying like a total loser right now.” [Laughs]
SH: [Laughs] I love that!
KL: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I absolutely cannot wait to see what you do next and… I cannot begin to describe how happy I am for you and how excited I am for you. I’m rooting for you.
SH: Thank you. Thank you so much. That’s so meaningful and kind of you to say, and I appreciate it. Thank you.
KL: You take care, okay?
SH: You too, and I hope your mom sees it!
Everything Everywhere All At Once is currently playing in theaters from A24.
Photo: Allyson Riggs