City on Fire begins with enigmatic college student Samantha Yeung getting shot in Central Park on the Fourth of July. With no witnesses and minimal evidence, the new Apple TV+ series quickly reels audiences in with its gripping premise. As the show shifts between the anarchic underground music scene of ’00s New York and the wealthy echelons of the city’s upper class, a mysterious series of fires plague the streets.
At the centre of the series is the thread that connects it all—the victim of the initial crime. Played by Chase Sui Wonders, Samantha Yeung is an unfettered free spirit. “The interesting part about Sam is that she is like a chameleon. She can fit into any environment,” muses Sui Wonders. “She’s a thrill seeker and a go-getter. But under the surface, she’s looking for somewhere to belong, just like everybody else.”
Based on the best-selling novel by Garth Risk Hallberg, the series is created by showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage—best known as the minds behind The O.C. and Gossip Girl.
“Samantha has that Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality about her, but she transcends the trope completely,” shares Sui Wonders. “I wanted to make sure that she did not fit into a stereotype, and Josh and Stephanie already do that with their writing. They take these known archetypes and give them depth to make them feel complex and human and lived-in.”
Below, the actress opens up on the process of bringing her confident character to life—and her favourite memories made along the way.
What drew you to City on Fire?
I first saw Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage tied to the project, and I think those names really speak for themselves. I grew up consuming endless hours of The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Seth Cohen from The O.C. was like my boyfriend, and Summer Cohen was my best friend [laughs]. All of these characters come from Josh and Stephanie, and right off the bat, I trusted them.
On top of that, the story of City on Fire is so intricately woven. It combines elements from so many genres. You have crime and drama plus an element of horror. There are moments that make you laugh, and there are moments where you cry. Every character has an incredible coming-of-age story, and Sam is just the dream girl. She’s cool, she’s confident, she’s a free spirit. To me, she was a gift.
How did you approach playing the character of Samantha?
I love using costumes as a way to get into character, and one of my entry points with Sam was through her wardrobe. Her costumes say so much about just how comfortable she is in her own skin. I also gained a lot of inspiration through watching different movies and picking up references. Penny Lane from Almost Famous was a huge reference for me. And I would just go on walks around the East Village and blast music from the show’s time period to think about what it would be like to walk in Sam’s shoes.
“Samantha’s cool, she’s confident, she’s a free spirit. To me, she was a gift”
What was your preparation process for the role?
I remember getting the call from Josh and Stephanie saying that I had booked the role. It was right before Christmas and I was screaming, and I remember being like, ‘Alright, I guess I’ll be reading this 900-page brick of a book over Christmas’. And they said, ‘No, you don’t have to, it’s not the bible’. But I did, and it definitely helped.
Do you see any similarities between yourself and Samantha?
When I was Sam’s age, I was not nearly as confident as she is. I was super shy and did not at all have her social prowess. Now, I would say I like having my squad of people around me in the same way she does. But she’s the life of the party and the centre of attention in a way that I’m not exactly comfortable being all the time.
What has the experience of making the series been like for you?
It’s been great. The people that were on set—from the creatives to the cast to the crew—all believed in the project so much that it felt really seamless. You can tell on a set when the vibes are good and everyone’s passionate about the project. And even though the subject matter is huge and hard to tackle at times, every step of the process felt fun and supportive and loving. We also got to film in New York City, and that’s the dream.
Was there a particularly memorable moment you had while working on the series?
There is a scene where Sam and her best friend Charlie are tripping on mushrooms and wandering through the East Village on New Year’s Eve. When we filmed that, Wyatt—who plays Charlie—and I were just meandering down the streets while the extras were all partying in crazy outfits, and we couldn’t really see the cameras. Of course, we were completely sober, but it just felt like such a transcendent experience. We had so much fun.
What are you most excited for audiences to see?
To me, the sweetest dynamic is between Sam and Charlie. At the start, Sam is like the confident mentor, and she has the power in the relationship. But as we move through the series, you can tell that Sam needs Charlie just as much as he needs Sam. There’s a scene where Sam has been puking all night, and as she’s laying in Charlie’s lap, she says that she’s never really had someone take care of her like that before. That’s the first time we see a hint of her vulnerability. It makes me cry every time. It’s usually hard for me to watch myself on screen, but for that one scene, I suspend my disbelief, and I’m like—’It’s pretty good TV [laughs].’
Watch City on Fire on Apple TV+ now.