The centre of gravity around which Expats—the new series from writer and director Lulu Wang, coming to Prime Video on 26 January—orbits is an earth-shattering family tragedy. Across multiple timelines and six episodes, a group of women living within the multicultural fabric of Hong Kong hurtle toward this seemingly inevitable moment and then grapple with its consequences in the aftermath. Yet where this might lend itself to the trappings of the kind of true-crime-inspired melodramas that have swept through television over the past decade, Wang very intentionally went down a different route. Here, it takes two full gripping episodes of getting to know these women in all their strengths and flaws—immersing the viewer in the city that surrounds them through elegant, lingering camerawork—before the devastating event around which the narrative revolves is revealed.
It’s a slow-burn approach that fans of Wang—whose major breakout, 2019’s comedy-drama The Farewell, tackled similar themes of displacement and grief—will be familiar with. So it comes as a surprise to learn she initially hesitated to take the project on. “I mean, Hong Kong means so much to so many people,” she says, noting that she first had to figure out her perspective on the story, especially given her own experiences of being born in Beijing and emigrating to the US at the age of six. “Am I an expat? Am I an immigrant? Which community do I really relate to more, and how would I tell the story of the intersection of all of these different communities? I think that my hesitation just came from a sense of responsibility, really—I didn’t know if I could be all things to all people.” Having mostly worked in independent film, Wang also shares she was at first intimated by the scale of the project, which unfolds over six and a half hours and came with a Prime Video-level budget. “But then I spoke with Nicole, and she said, ‘Just do what you do. I’ve done small films, I’ve done large films, but as long as you do you, that’s all that matters.’”
Nicole being Nicole Kidman, the show’s star and executive producer. It all began when Kidman’s sister (who herself was living in Singapore as an expat at the time) lent her a copy of Janice Y K Lee’s 2016 novel, The Expatriates; after inquiring about the rights and discovering the book hadn’t been optioned, Kidman quickly snapped it up via her production company, Blossom Films. It turns out Kidman had also recently seen Wang’s breakout hit, The Farewell. “I went, Okay, there she is—our visionary has appeared,” Kidman remembers, smiling. “Now I’ve just got to go and convince her to do it. I think there was a lot of begging involved.” Adds Wang: “Well, Nicole knew right away that the way to my heart is through food, so she said: ‘Shall we have dinner?’ I was like, ‘It was a no, and now it’s a yes.’”
For Wang and Kidman, it was immediately obvious that the driving force behind the show had to be the three women at its core (as opposed to the more sensational aspects of its plot). There’s Margaret, played by Kidman herself, whose picture-perfect family life is shattered as she navigates her way through inconceivable loss; her neighbour Hilary, played by the Indian American actor Sarayu Blue, who is attempting to regain control of her marriage in the face of infidelity and her struggles to have a child; and finally, the Korean American Columbia grad Mercy, played by newcomer Ji-young Yoo, whose free-spirited exterior masks a more turbulent inner world that leads her to become directly implicated in the show’s central tragedy. But an equally fundamental part of Wang’s initial pitch to Prime Video was to extend the length of the show’s fifth episode to 96 minutes—essentially that of a feature film—and to focus it almost entirely on the community of Filipino domestic workers (or helpers, as the well-to-do women euphemistically call them) that gathers in the parks and public spaces of the city on their days off to gossip and catch up with their families back home via FaceTime.
Where many TV executives might have baulked at the idea of placing the main characters (and in Kidman, its most recognisable star) as background players for a significant portion of the show, Wang—with Kidman’s full support—took the idea to the Prime Video team as something of a nonnegotiable. After a little hesitation, they bit. “It was just incredibly important to me because I felt like that was my way into the story,” Wang says. “I had made The Farewell about my grandmother, and so many of these women felt like my family and my grandmother, these women who spend their entire lives servicing other people. I felt like I knew these women so intimately. It was about bringing dignity to them. I wanted to show the story through their eyes and really understand who they are as people—not just in relationship to the expats.”
“It was the only way,” Kidman adds, firmly. “This show needed the heart and soul of Lulu, and if it didn’t have that, then it would have been empty.”
The next step was to assemble the writers’ room, which ended up being an all-women team that included the novel’s author. Wang describes Lee as an invaluable resource in helping to shed light on the imagined backstories of the handful of secondary characters she was planning to bring to the fore. “I kept joking and saying to Alice [Bell, cowriter and executive producer], ‘Should we get a man in this writers’ room just to have diversity?’ And then we’d look at each other and be like, ‘Nah, we know how to write them. I feel like we can handle it,’” Wang says, laughing. “But even though it was an all-female writers’ room, it was important to us to make sure we extended that empathy to all of the characters. We didn’t want to villainise anybody, and the men needed to be loving and sympathetic and well-rounded too.”
When it came to finding the actors who could tackle these complex, mercurial characters, Wang and Kidman worked with casting agents across both Los Angeles and Hong Kong—and decided to follow their instincts. “I think you asked what drew me to the project, but the real question is, what wouldn’t draw me to this project?” Yoo says of being cast as Mercy, a character that was written in part by drawing on Wang’s own feelings of visiting China while at college, feeling that strange tension of both belonging to a place while feeling somewhat apart from it. For Blue, meanwhile—previously best known for her work in sitcoms—the show presented an opportunity that makes her visibly emotional. “I just found it so meaningful, and it was such an enormous gift to play such a rich, multidimensional South Asian character,” she says. “It’s so exciting to go, Okay, it’s really not about whether the character is liked or not liked. It’s about the story. It was incredibly liberating.”