Stephanie Hsu on Her Favorite Dual Roles, Being a Theater Geek & Protecting Her Art
Released on 07/12/2023
[chill upbeat music]
I'm Franklin Leonard, and this is Alist.
Today we're joined by Stephanie Hsu.
[bright upbeat music]
Okay. All right.
Here we go. Stephanie Hsu.
[Stephanie] Yes, Franklin Leonard.
We all know you were nominated for an Academy Award
for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.
Do we all know that though? I hope so.
At this point- Sometimes I don't
even know that.
A dual role, Joy and Jobu Tupaki.
So I asked you to make a list
of your favorite dual-role performances.
Okay, well, first of all, you know,
that was a hard homework assignment
'cause you have to really- I know.
You have to dig through the crevices of your brain
It was very, like, on brand for, I feel like,
the wealth of knowledge that you hold.
I was like, Oh my gosh- This is-
I'm really being asked a question.
Very kind. But you gotta give it, just give us the answer.
Okay, so Mike Myers. Okay.
Mike Myers in- In.
All of the Austin Powers,
all the roles that he-
[Leonard] It'd be full, the three, the trilogy?
Yes, the trilogy.
I haven't seen the movies in a while.
I do wonder how they would play now.
You know what I mean?
I just, like, have questions
about how they would play. I mean,
there is a character called Fat Bastard.
Yeah. I don't think
it would play well now.
I don't think so either.
However, I do think that the balls-to-the-wall,
like, unabashed comedy, is something that I feel like
was really popular in that time that-
Yeah. We don't see-
For sure. Very much anymore.
Like, even like, The Nutty Professor, you know.
There's not a lot of silliness anymore,
it feels like. Yeah.
Just unabashed silliness.
Do you remember when you first saw the,
because you would've been quite young
when they first came out.
I think I was probably in middle school.
And were you like, This is my thing immediately.
Were you, like, quoting lines?
I think it's just so nasty
that when you're younger you're, like-
You're like, He, he, you know?
Talk to me about your childhood.
Who were you in middle school?
Well, I loved basketball.
I was a diehard Kobe fan.
I wore my number eight jersey every day to school,
and had little space buns,
and I played with all the boys.
And I liked performing, but I really,
I think I was pretty class clowny.
Okay. Like, I think
that was my first stage, was in mathematics class.
So, you were the clown, the class clown of mathematics,
but were not- Specific.
Like a drama kid yet?
No, not in middle school.
High school was
drama kid time. Yeah.
Someone in my class,
someone I had known since kindergarten was like,
You should audition for Drama I Advanced.
And I was scared to be a drama geek.
Specifically the geek part, or like?
Well, 'cause I was a baller, you know?
I was playing basketball. You're like,
I'm a cool kid. Yeah.
I don't wanna sacrifice that as I go into high school.
Yeah, I was like, I'm 4'11,
Muggsy Bogues is 5'1, here we go.
This is my future, I love 'Space Jam.'
Like, I see my path.
But yeah, he convinced me to audition,
and then that's sort of when I really started to do theater.
And did you know, in high school, were you like,
This is the thing that I'm probably gonna do?
No, absolutely not.
I don't think it was even until, honestly, like 2019,
I was doing eight shows a week on Broadway,
and filming Maisel on the Mondays off.
Yep. That was like
the first year that I actually finally was like,
I think this is what I'm doing.
Like, do you remember a moment, like, in high school even?
'Cause I mean, you studied theater in college,
where you were like, This is the thing
I'm gonna try to pursue.
I think when I got to college I was taken
under the wing of this woman, Liz Swados,
who is kind of an experimental theater downtown artist
who was adjacent to commercial theater.
But she was pretty downtown. Yeah.
And the moment I met her I was like,
This is what it's about, and, This is home for me.
I don't think I ever had that moment of, like,
This is what I wanna pursue.
It just has always felt very
one step in front of the other for me.
But would you say you were a funny child?
I've always been a little silly.
I think I, I don't know where I get it from.
I mean, it's continued, I've seen Joy Ride.
[Stephanie] Yes, yes, yes.
Haven't really seen Asian-American women on screen
in this way before. Yes.
I think the tagline is, what? We will bring dishonor-
[Both] To us all. Yes.
How does it feel to be doing that now?
Well, that's the thing, is like,
when I was in middle school, high school,
probably high school, you know,
when we were in the heyday of hangover,
Et cetera, et cetera,
I started to get really more publicly silly.
And people were like, Oh, you should, you know,
Do comedy when you move to New York city.
And they were like, Oh, you should work with Seth Rogan,
or, You should work with Jenna Patel.
And I never thought that I would be able to work with Seth
in the setting that is Joy Ride,
which is that the four of us are front and center.
And so it's amazing, it's really cathartic,
and, like, just unhinged, and fun, and disgusting,
and fun to be disgusting.
I guess that's, I mean, it is kind of interesting
to think about, you know, the Austin Powers of it all.
I'm just saying. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Like, it is satisfying
to be like, This is nasty and we love it, you know?
Well, and it's also weird that like, you know,
somewhere there's gonna be a sixth-grade Stephanie Hsu
who maybe shouldn't be watching Joy Ride.
Totally. Who's going
to be quoting it in class. Totally.
In math class. Yes.
[chill upbeat music]
Let's jump to the second performance, which is.
Teddy Perkins. That's a great,
such a great answer.
Ye ol' Old Teddy Perkins, Donald Glover in Atlanta.
I thought this might be a cheat when I first read it,
and then I rewatched the episode.
And Donald does appear in the episode as Earn.
Yes. So it qualifies.
Why this one?
I mean, I just think on, purely on craft alone,
He just completely disappears.
Teddy Perkins is a different human being.
What is this place, man?
It's a gift shop.
I designed it myself to feel like a trophy room,
more in the motif of the museum.
Sometimes I, like, don't even believe
that it was ever Donald.
Like, what if that was-
There were theories at the time that it was not.
I know. You never know.
Do you know that I heard about Atlanta
that they pitched the show to FX.
Yeah. And they pitched
a completely different show. I believe it.
Just so that they said yes,
and then they just made Atlanta.
Well, I believe it if only
because I don't know how you pitch Atlanta to a network
and have them be like, Yeah, Donald.
Yeah, like- Do it.
But you almost, you gotta trick somebody
at some point. Yeah, yeah.
But I just, I love that episode so much,
and with all of Donald's work,
I think that there's such an incredible towing the line
of complete hilarity, horror, and also, like,
social, political take
and impact. Yeah.
Well, I remember when that Teddy Perkins episode hit,
'cause it was really the first time
that they broke aggressively.
First of all, it's a bottle episode.
Yes. And they broke
aggressively away from it being a comedy
with that episode. Yes.
And I just remember people being like, What was that?
Yeah. And then the conversation,
it's unavoidable, it's about the ways in which,
if you are not sort of
part of what is supposedly mainstream.
Yeah. As an artist of any sort.
Like, the ways in which this country and the industry
sort of wears you down- Yeah.
And changes everything.
I was just curious the extent
to which that resonated for you.
I mean, you've said, basically,
that you'd rather not be talking about race all the time,
but you also can't stop talking about it.
I mean, Teddy Perkins is a prime example of, like,
how nuanced and how difficult it is even
to talk about that episode amongst us.
Yeah. It's delicate,
and you have to handle it with a lot of care.
And also I think why I love Teddy Perkins as a character,
why I love that episode, is because it sort of kind of turns
a lot of tropes on its head, right?
And, like, what Donald does in just doing that with Teddy
is so startling, uncomfortable, feels important,
feels like a certain kind of reclaiming,
but also not in a way that's empowering and, like,
seeing someone who was so in the limelight
and clearly that started to create harm to him,
and how race is a part of that,
but maybe not really talked about.
I'm just curious how you've thought, as you now
are sort of in this industry full time,
where does the weight come from that you have to navigate?
Like, 'cause it's there, it's inescapable for everybody.
And I'm just curious how it manifests for you.
Something I've been thinking a lot about
is the age-old tale of like, If you wanna change the world,
you have to change yourself, right?
And I'm trying to practice getting my mind right,
that's what I call it.
Like, everything that I've ever been taught by my parents,
by school, by society, that tells me that I am lesser than
even if I believe otherwise.
Yeah. Inside of me
I still have cobwebs of that memory.
I feel that- And I'm like, woo.
And when I catch it, I have to clean house.
I feel like in some ways the deeper and deeper I go
in this industry,
the more and more I witness in myself these, like,
little moments of harm that we're created
that need tending to, you know,
and that's like something that we have to do together.
You talked a lot about, like, permission
in the context of sort of doing any of this.
I think that's true.
Like, you know, I grew up in West Central Georgia.
The idea of working in Hollywood
had literally never occurred to me.
Yeah. Loved movies,
would've been easier for me to go to the moon with NASA-
Yeah. 'Cause I was like,
decent at math and played a sport,
than it would've been for me to go work in Hollywood.
And you know, you talked also a lot about, like,
experimental theater, and how you felt at home there.
And you could sort of do a lot of different things
that you couldn't do in Hollywood.
And I'm curious, to what extent do you think part of that
was that that felt like the ceiling for someone like you?
Mm. Like, if you had known
that you could do Everything, Everywhere,
would you have focused on experimental theater?
Would've been like, Oh, you can make movies
like that in Hollywood, let's go do that.
I probably would've been like,
I wanna go to film school.
You know what I mean? Oh, interesting.
I think that this house was not built by us-
Or for us.
Yeah. So I'll leave it at that.
And so- Fair enough.
You know, like I think I'm like, I'll leave it at that.
Lemme keep going.
So I think there's a certain kind of dysphoria
that can often happen in those spaces.
And as you continue to rise in this industry,
and as we're, like, actively trying to dismantle it
as we go, there's also this very real presence
that the center norm that everyone is magnetizing towards
is perhaps not you.
And maybe also bad for business.
[chill upbeat music]
So let's talk about that
in the context of your last choice.
Okay, so, Naomi Watts.
Yeah. In Mulholland Drive.
I just re-watched this last night
because I was doing some homework and being like,
I remember I watched that movie in high school,
and I loved it. I was was gonna ask
when you saw it.
I watched it in an English class, and I remember loving it,
and then when I was reflecting
on what I would wanna talk about with the dual roles,
I was like, What was that movie even about?
You know, I was like, I don't remember.
So, but also this is the thing,
David Lynch won't even answer
that question. No.
So, for you, what's it about?
Oh, well, watching it now after the year I just had,
This is what I- It's a very-
This is the conversation
I was excited for. Whoa.
Yes. To me, the movie,
I mean, the movie's about a lot of things,
but I think a central theme is the distortion in Hollywood,
that exists, and how people really go off the wrong path,
or like, come in with big, big dreams,
and find themselves not where they thought
they were going to be, and how damaging that can be.
And create psychosis too.
I mean, this is actually really tied to Teddy Perkins
in a way too. Yeah.
Of, like, the image that you wanna present.
I was gonna say those two felt very close to each other.
And I think that there's also, in a weird way,
I feel like her performance is also very Joy/Jobu in a way.
It is two different people,
but actually it could very much be the same person
and one person is a projection
of what one person wished they were.
I'm fascinated by, like, the story of Mulholland Drive,
'cause it was originally a network pilot.
That's what I heard.
Which is mind...
I guess it was like Twin Peaks was a hit.
Sure. Let's get David Lynch back.
Yeah. Back at ABC.
But it was a network pilot that they ended up, you know,
not picking up. Yeah.
He put the shot and ending for it.
Won best director at Cannes.
Yeah. Was nominated
for best director as an Oscar.
And I guess he was like number eight
on the Sight & Sound list of best films ever.
Yeah. But it makes me think
a lot about this tension between, like, art and commerce,
like selling out and not, network versus indie.
You have talked, you've used the term that I love
and will be stealing, your art heart.
Tell me about your art heart.
Squishy. But what does it mean?
[Stephanie laughs] 'Cause you talked
about protecting your art heart,
you talked about being guided by your art heart.
Yeah, I think what it means is, like,
following the work and following the people that call to you
as opposed to getting too much into the space of, like,
This will leverage me this way.
At least for me, if my brain goes there, I feel soul sucked.
I feel very Mulholland Drive, right?
Like I start to feel really who's who,
who's talking to me because of why,
And you know, it starts to spiral away from you.
And I think that's why rewatching that movie,
it felt like such a protective balm,
'cause I was like, Oh, I feel like David Lynch
also sees this.
There's this whole bit of where the director in the movie,
you know, wants to cast his feature,
and these, like, crooks and, slash producers,
or executives are like,
This is the girl and you gotta cast her, or else.
What's the photo for?
It's a recommendation.
It's not a recommendation.
This is the girl.
Things do happen behind closed doors
that are not far from that.
And so if you allow yourself
to get too swept up into climbing that,
like, I just feel like it's an impossible climb.
It's such a high, high, low, low, low, low, low, low, low,
low, low, low, you know?
So I think for me, my art heart is just, like,
the things that feel inspiring,
that feel challenging for the right reasons.
And my thing is always, if I'm gonna do it,
at least if it goes badly,
I need to know that I've done it for the right reasons.
A hundred percent. 'Cause like,
you never know for sure,
but I'd rather go out trying
to do something good than, like,
go out trying to make a lot of money.
Well, that's the thing, yeah.
Maybe I'm bad at making money, but-
And also, no, you know, things are, no shade on.
Like, if that is so- Yeah, like, get your money.
Yeah. That's your thing.
Like, but you might not make it the money
and you might not make something good either.
And you might, like, get money and then lose it all,
and then what happens?
You know? [giggles]
[Leonard] Ask Benny Hope and Teddy Perkins.
Okay, so I asked you about, like,
was there like a moment when you realized, like,
This is what I'm gonna pursue.
Was there a moment when you realized, like,
Oh, this is what I'm gonna be doing forever?
Have you had that moment? I think I have.
I think I have gotten to this point
where I don't think I'm always gonna be acting necessarily,
but I do feel fully invested in this industry,
in this industry of making.
So when did it happen?
We had just wrapped Everything, Everywhere.
I feel like I gave my whole heart, and then it was like,
Who knows if anyone's ever gonna see it?
Who knows anything?
Right, 'cause that was the south by,
that was, like, blighted by COVID.
And we wrapped before, like,
the day that everything shut down.
So, I was actually staying at Jenny Slate's house.
We had become good friends through filming the movie.
And I was at her house, you know, month three of COVID,
like, wanted to read a new something.
And I was scanning this wall of books and I,
all of a sudden, just burst into tears
'cause I had this profound realization
that all these people on these shelves had taken the time
and taken the care to organize their stories,
to protect me in this time and us in this time
that they couldn't even possibly know was coming.
And like, art is something that is big
if it's big and splashy,
but also big in its duration of time.
Like, in its permanence.
Yeah. In its permanence.
And so what we do is actually so critical.
I feel like it's a form of artistic journalism.
It's actually like making movies,
or writing articles, or books.
It's collecting a moment in time.
So, I'm not gonna be a doctor or lawyer. [giggling]
Sorry, mom. [laughs]
So the indelible image,
or the indelible notion for me, of this year's Oscars,
is that James Hong was born on February 22nd, 1929.
And the first Oscar ceremony was held three months later,
[Stephanie gasps] on May 16th, 1929.
It, like, put me in my feelings, like, during the ceremony
and watching y'all accept Best Picture.
You're an experimental theater geek,
so you're just gonna have to go with me on.
Okay, I'm ready. All right.
So 2084 will be your James Hong year, your 94th year.
We're gonna assume that you're back at the Oscars.
Okay, sure. Accepting
a Best Picture Academy Award.
Maybe as producer, maybe as a director, maybe as an actor.
I don't know. Ah.
I'm not gonna ask you what movie it's for.
What kinds of films do you hope to be nominated against?
[gasps] Against? Yeah.
Like if you look at it, and you look out into the room.
Mm. 94-year-old Stephanie, 2084.
Like, what does Hollywood
look like to you? I hope it's still people
and not just bots. I mean, fair.
Fair. So step one.
Step one. Okay.
Humans still responsible for creating the movies.
And I also hope that there are new forms of seeing movies,
not in the way of like,
and then I scan my barcode on the screen
and I can play the game.
But like, maybe there's different kinds
of immersive experiences, part theatrical,
part screen, orchestras with the film.
Like, I wonder if we're gonna find ways
to break from that barrier.
I love this answer.
I think that would be really cool.
Once a theater geek,
always a theater geek. I know.
Once an experimental theater geek-
Like, Can we do something
experimental with the form?
Yeah yeah. [laughs]
Okay, so you mentioned that you really resonated
or liked this word art heart. I do.
And I wanted to ask you ways
in which you feel like you protect your art heart.
Weirdly, I think I protect my art heart
by believing that there is the potential for great art.
Mm. And even
if I'm not the one making it,
doing some work to contribute
to the increasing the likelihood that it might exist
feels like I am protecting that part of me
that needs it to exist.
So that's one.
And then I think just think this is a weird one,
but just rest. Mm.
Like, I just think fundamentally that stuff is exhausting.
So I think just being able to like, you know, chill.
Yeah. Like, watch TV.
For me it's like watching soccer, playing with my dog,
but like literally just resting and not doing anything.
I love that.
And I feel like what you do too
is such a wellspring of hope.
Just like this deep belief
and this deep desire to push the medium forward.
And that is a physical and, like, literal act of labor.
Yeah, like, making art is an act of hope fundamentally.
And I think also, like, being a hype man for art
is an act of hope. Yeah.
Like, Hey everybody, this is really good,
you should see it too. Yeah.
Like, that is a act of optimism
in that more people will see it,
which will mean that more things like it get made,
et cetera, et cetera.
So, yeah. Thanks for sharing.
That wasn't that bad. I loved those answers.
I'm so happy I asked.
Like, okay, so Austin Powers comedy,
Teddy Perkins, comedy horror, unclear, both, all.
And then Mulholland Drive, which I actually,
I mean, probably not a comedy, but like,
but very much like a horror in the same way
that Teddy Perkins is a horror, as I think about it.
Yeah, I think I have a,
there's like a certain theme that I feel gravitated towards.
I think what I love about dual roles-
Yeah. And specifically ones
that are so far in a genre space.
Yeah. Is that there is
such a deep commitment, like, you can tell
in every single one of those actors' performance
that they know the choice that they're making.
Yeah. And they're taking it there,
and they're not afraid to go as far as they need to go
in order to make it happen. Yeah.
And that to me is like, wow, so astounding.
And like such a, you can see an artist
really committing to a vision that they have,
and that feels really exciting to me.
Well, Stephanie, thank you for being on Alist.
Thanks for having me. And also thank you
for wearing, like, an amazing, like, vest,
jacket, dress thing. What is it? Who am I?
It's very asymmetrical and awesome.
Thank you, thank you. I'm a big fan.
Dig your sneakers-
Thank you. Deeply.
Thank you very much.
[chill upbeat music]
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