David Remnick: The new film Everything everywhere all at once, a great title is one of the first real surprise hits since we started going back to the theaters. The film is fun, it's heartfelt and complicated. It's in genre all its own. You could call it a sci-fi martial arts family drama. It's about a Chinese American woman named Evelyn and she might be the only person who can save the universe from an omnipotent interdimensional supervillain.
Speaker 2: I'm here because we need your help.
Speaker 3: Very busy today. No time to help you.
Speaker 2: Shh, there is great evil that has taken root in my world.
Speaker 3: I cannot help out. Unless you can help me with my taxes. What is gross necrosis?
Speaker 2: I know you have a lot of things on your mind and nothing could possibly matter more than this conversation we're having right now concerning the fate of every single world of our infinite multiverse. Might deal with Everlyn. I know you with every passing moment you feel you might have missed your chance make something of your life. I'm here to tell you, every rejection, every disappointment has led you here to this moment. Don't let anything distract you from it.
David: It turns out that the supervillain threatening everything is in an alternate universe Evelyn's teenage daughter Joy and Joy's concerns are not exactly science fiction.
Stephanie Hsu: The relationship between Evelyn and joy, in its simplest terms is very fraught. It is a story of a relationship of a daughter who's a lesbian, who is deeply longing for her mother's acceptance but they keep chasing each other around in the universe, and they can just never find one another until of course, they launch into the multiverse and become nemeses.
David: Actress Stephanie Hsu plays both the angst-ridden teenager joy and the interdimensional supervillain named Jobu. She's a veteran of the stage and TV but this is her first lead role in a film. Stephanie Hsu spoke last week with Jia Tolentino. Jia writes about culture for the New Yorker and she's the author of the best-selling essay collection Trick Mirror.
Jia Tolentino: So much about the world seems just extremely overwhelming and bad and broken. Every time you look at your phone, you're reminded by nightmare social media of the nightmare situation in Ukraine and the housing crisis and the unending pandemic and just sort of injustice wherever you look, and we all feel this all the time, but one of the things that people have responded to so strongly in Everything everywhere, is that the movie seems to sketch out some sort of standpoint about how to live in a world that is overwhelming and bad and broken, how to value that world and love that world despite and even because it's that way. I wonder, how would you describe the movies perspective on all of that?
Stephanie: Wow, Jia, that was such a beautiful articulation of this moment in time as well as how it relates to our movie. Honestly, in some ways, it's been really surreal because we shot this film before the pandemic. Our last day of filming was always set to be either March 13 or March 16th, whatever that Friday was that Hollywood shut down. That was always our intended wrap date and we could not have possibly known what the last two years, what it was going to be like, and how much the world was going to need our little offering.
But I have to say, my biggest conflict with being an actor or being a part of this industry is sometimes I fear that what we do is not enough, or that how is it possible when there's a war, when there's climate disaster, and I mean crisis, constant climate disaster, everything it feels like it's crumbling, how is art going to help it? And I feel like the release of this film and witnessing how people are responding to it is giving me some sort of full circle healing because I think the movie's stance is like, "Yes, there are a million other universes that we could be in, there are a lot of possibilities if we went right instead of left that one time."
But there's a lot that we don't know. In some ways, I think I am someone who's constantly searching for meaning but when I was working on this project, I would say that nihilism, in some ways saved my life because if nothing matters, then it's true that we're all just trying to figure it out together.
Jia: And that's in a way, that's your character Joy, that's her journey, right? It's from starting off at a point where it feels like nothing matters, from nothing matters to it all matters.
Stephanie: I think what I love about Joy, this sort of despondent, clear daughter, and Jobu, a nihilistic creator of chaos goddess, and maniac is that actually something that was really important for all of us, was to make sure that the center of their beings, these two characters, were actually from the same heartbeat so that spirit of nihilism can either pull you off the deep end and make you feel like there's no reason to continue, or it can slingshot you into the other direction which is, "I will just create as much chaos as possible because none of this matters."
Jia: For you playing these two very different characters, was there anything you reached for physically or in terms of your inner process when you were switching back and forth? What did you reach for when you needed to feel that continuity between them?
Stephanie: I started to think of both Joy and Jobu as hyper, hyper empaths. I think the most important thing that I felt like I needed to share with the two characters was this really real feeling from my own life of just overwhelm of-- it's feeling the world like the absolute weight of not only this universe, but all the universes that come before and then imagining what future lies ahead, just really tapping into that.
Then, for Joy, obviously, she's a much more intimate character, and getting to play in that sort of physical manifestation of sadness, or ugliness or just wanting to be small versus Jobu, we did a lot of improvisation and because she's kind of an omniscient being, and not quite human, I was really channeling a lot of like amoeba/noodle energy of like, yes if Jobu was a cartoon, she'd be able to like [unintelligible 00:07:27] and explode into a particle or then explode into a basketball player and trying to embody that availability in her physicality.
Jia: It's funny, I was going to say, it's like very telling that at first when joy comes on screen, I had no idea that she was depressed, I was like, "That's on me." I was like, "Oh, this is just a realistic depiction of what it's like to be a daughter living in a different world than our parents," and then it like happened, I was like, "Oh, she's not well," and I was like, "I am not well."
Jia: I think I had read other interviews with you when you were saying that knowing that you would get to be this amoeba bursting with chaos allows you to just root into that weight, and the mire that joy is so stuck in.
Stephanie: Absolutely. To this day, it's one of the best scripts that I've ever read but it's so rare that you get to see a character that just is asking you to show much range, and not even show range from an egotistical standpoint, but that one person who is so sad, and one world suddenly is wearing these extraordinary costumes and is so powerful in every other world so I really want to stretch both realities as far as I could.
Jia: This movie really felt like a landmark for me because of the exact way that it foregrounded and centered an Asian immigrant story because the movie not just mirrors but really actively explores the way that the particularities of identity feel to me, and then you've talked in another interview about how you thought the film in a way transcended identity politics and I wondered if you had any more thoughts on that subject?
Stephanie: Yes, I think that there's such amazing movement that's happening in terms of visibility. I just watched Turning Red the new Pixar movie and just cried the whole time. If I had seen that when I was a kid, my entire life, my own inner red panda of this thing that I now do with my career, I think I would have unleashed it much sooner, but it's also what I love about that movie and our movie is that it's reaching so many people outside of just the AAPI community. I just think that beyond, it is so crucial to have conversations and specific conversations about how individuals or different cultures grow up or grow in society. I find that sometimes, our conversations that we're having right now are both incredibly helpful and at its worst really alienating.
Jia: Like re-centralizing identity where the whole point is to-- [crosstalk]
Stephanie: Exactly. Re-centralizing is totally the perfect word for that. That is not the ideal society that I'm looking for. So many conversations need to be had in order for us to move through into this next version that is more nuanced and complex. I'm definitely not negating where we are at, but I agree. I think I'm looking forward to continue to broaden our horizons so much that 5, 10 years from now, identity isn't something that we're using as a flex, and more of just a part of a texture of a story that is crucial and critical, but also not the only fruit that that piece bears.
Jia: Yes. For all of the complexity in the million universes, the movie really centers on something very intimate, which is this intergenerational conveyance or non-conveyance of care and love and specifically the relationship between a mother and a daughter, Michelle Yeoh is my mom's age. I was so moved by the centering of a suburban Asian mom and her sneakers and bootcut weekday pants as this universe-saving hero. That felt so wonderful to me. I guess I wanted to ask you, can I ask you about your mom's reaction to the movie? Have you watched it with her?
Stephanie: Yes, totally. My mom, she came to the LA premiere, and she definitely wasn't like a huge advocate for me when I was growing up to be an actor. She was very puzzled by that choice or that pursuit. She saw the movie, she was quiet and I asked her, "Did you like it?" She just nodded behind her mouth, and she's like, "Yes." Then she pointed to the movie screen. She goes, "I cried. That's me." It's really wild, of course, because I was playing Joy and Jobu.
So much of my entry point was from the point of view of a daughter, but hearing her say that, not even her saying that's you, but her saying that's me, made me feel that the movie also offered her healing too of not only her relationship with me, but also her relationship with her parents because, yes, we have Gong Gong in the picture, we have the grandfather in the picture.
It was really special. I still reflect, I'm still chewing over that interaction with her because I've been hearing a lot of people saying that they watched the movie or they send their parents to watch the movie, and then their parents call them and apologize. I just think that this movie, I'm proud of it for so many reasons, but the biggest gift has been that I very palpably feel that it is offering people healing. That is all I could ever wish for, for any piece of art that I put out into the world. It's helpful to remember that art is capable of doing that, to moving us into action.
Jia: Just a couple more questions for you.
Stephanie: I heard that I was allowed to ask you a question.
Jia: Ask me whatever you want.
Stephanie: Well, I want to say that, actually, I'm just such a huge fan of yours-
Jia: Oh, my God.
Stephanie: -but I have never known that you were Filipina, and I had never known that you're AAPI until this interview was set up. I looked up a photo of you, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is so crazy."
Jia: It's that colonizer last name I've got.
Stephanie: It's Tolentino. You're like, "Oh, she's an Italian mobster writing for The New Yorker." [chuckles] I was curious in all our conversations around race and how it's presented in popular culture. I'm curious as to how your experience of it as a journalist is and how that plays into the stories you tell or the walls that you feel like you have to push through or walk past?
Jia: I wasn't expecting to answer a question. I was thinking about this when we were talking about wanting to avoid the trap of re-centralizing identity because I feel like the whole point of valuing the particularities of anyone's identity is not to enshrine them in stone, but to move towards a world where everyone's identity is crucially important, but also, you understand identity is fundamentally fluid and fundamentally incidental.
When I was writing my book, I think one of the things I thought about was the way that let's say like white male culture writers had always written criticism or whatever, and is assumed their perspective to be the universal default. I was like, "I want to do that, too. I want to write a mainstream book about culture from the implicit point of view of me as a Filipino woman that grew up in Texas," and have that be as naturally a default perspective for cultural criticism, the way that we've been presented with like the white perspective is the natural default for any perspective and anything else.
I just feel really conscious of the moment that we're in, we have just more freedom than anyone ever did, anyone in our identity position ever has had maybe historically. It feels like a complicated thrill to be able to see how we're all going to use it and see how we're all going to be able to work to whatever vision of freedom that we're looking for.
Stephanie: Totally. I love that. I think part of what made me so excited to know that I had loved your work before I even knew what you looked like was that it was your voice, your writing, your implicit, the implicit normalcy and expansiveness of your thoughts articulated and not the color of your skin that made me drawn to you.
I think what you were saying earlier about, "I feel like I'm in this moment where I'm able to be here because of so much of the space that other people have made for me, and simultaneously, I'm also co-creating for those who come after me." I really feel like straddling that line because when I first started, there was no Crazy Rich Asians, there was no Parasite, there was no Turning Red or Everything Everywhere.
I think that this movie and how it's been received is giving me permission, like really deep permission for the first time in my life to really love this thing that I do because I'm not a doctor, I don't have the skill sets or the gifts that I've been given, are in this little corner of the world. It is immense actually, there's great responsibility in being a person who shifts culture. If that is the toolbox I've been given, then I better use it wisely and hold it with grace and enjoy it and celebrate it.
David: Stephanie Hsu is one of the stars of Everything Everywhere All At Once. It's in theaters now. You can read Jia Tolentino at newyorker.com.
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