Five years ago, Stephanie Hsu hadn’t considered herself an actor. She hadn’t imagined gussying up for critically relevant award ceremonies or being eternally referred to as an Oscar nominee. Well, present-day on our Zoom call, she sits across a sea of bouquets in her hotel room—freshly delivered since news broke of her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Joy in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Hsu, fresh-faced in a messy bun, innocently beams: “If you get an Oscar nomination, people like to give you flowers. That’s kind of awesome.”
Masterminded by prodigious duo the Daniels—Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—and carried by an ensemble cast with the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once has risen to catastrophic fame since its release last year. It was simultaneously praised for being a critical piece of work that explored multiverses, existential philosophy and immigrant culture while being rooted in a heart-tugging narrative. While one could wax lyrical about the profound expositions of the A24 film, the breakout star simply describes it as a “scrappy labour of love”. Neither big-budget nor backed up by an outpouring of resources, the mind-bending film was a result of sheer hard work and raw talent from the cast and crew.
Upon reading the script, Hsu felt instantly drawn to the story and specifically, the role of Joy. “I immediately had that feeling of: I know this person, I know this character, not only as a daughter but as a queer daughter.” At the same time, she was struck with a certainty that the enigmatic role—which came with an alternate-universe villainous side, Jobu—was in her wheelhouse. A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Hsu was well-versed in theatrical prose from Shakespeare and Chekhov, while having had experience in experimental theatre and comedy. She was confident that she could nail the part. She recalls that exact moment, citing it as rare. “Not only as an actor but as any actor who’s been marginalised in any way, it’s just 10 times harder for that to happen.”
That inkling in her would then transpire into a now-viral audition tape for the film, where Hsu captivates, with an off-kilter delivery and bewildering facial expressions. Looking back on that tape now, she concludes: “I guess I really understood the movie. It encapsulates so much of what I want to do and offer as an artist. I want to tell stories that provide healing and I want to tell stories that are wild and weird, but can still be very intimate.”
“When I first got out of school, there was no Crazy Rich Asians. Of course, we had Michelle, we had Lucy (Liu), we had Sandra (Oh), but the landscape was not like what it is now. I didn’t want to shrink myself for some of the stereotypical roles that were out there.”
The topic of representation is a recurring mention in light of the film’s release, with Ke’s emotional industry comeback and Yeoh being the first Asian woman since 1987 to score an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Hsu maintains, however, that that is just a part of the movie’s fabric and not its defining feature. “The thing I always say I love the most about our movie is that it’s so innovative, heartfelt and that it somehow transcends identity politics. Our identity doesn’t need to be the centre point. It’s just a very critical detail that helps make the world more specific and to provide an honest portrayal of our story.”
The film’s global acclaim was a surprising bonus. For Hsu, commercial success was never on her agenda when she chose to go to acting school. “What I wanted more than anything was to make art with people that I really believe in. And that’s what matters to me.” Cognisant of the obstacles posed to an Asian-American woman, Hsu initially made the conscious effort to avoid commercial and blockbuster projects at the start of her career. “When I first got out of school, there was no Crazy Rich Asians. Of course, we had Michelle, we had Lucy (Liu), we had Sandra (Oh), but the landscape was not like what it is now. I didn’t want to shrink myself for some of the stereotypical roles that were out there.”
So Hsu dived headfirst into the real world, clutching onto her credence with reckless bravado, taking up as many jobs as she could to make do; from working in downtown theatres to doing shifts in a West Village bar to working in a wood shop. Between all that, she debuted on Broadway before proceeding to snag a couple of roles on the small screen, including The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. This sustained Hsu over the course of six to seven years before she landed the role of Joy.
I ask out of curiosity how her eclectic career choices in New York had fared with her family and she smiles, bringing up a love language internalised in Asian families. “My mum thought it was a hobby and wasn’t emotionally supportive, yet she would drive me to practice for plays. I guess it was a form of protection. For many first-generation immigrants, English was not their first language so their survival tactic was to keep their head low, work very hard and do the best they can. That’s how you surpass everyone that way. Even when I was a lead on Broadway, my mum was still very sceptical.”
“The thing that’s wild about Michelle is that she’s so powerful and so magnificent. And then you meet her and she’s loving and generous. You feel like you’re in the room with an old friend or a family member.”
It was only until the Los Angeles screening of Everything Everywhere All At Once when Hsu’s mother emerged in tears. “The first thing she said while crying was, ‘that’s me’, pointing to Michelle’s character Evelyn. I think it was the first time she saw herself represented and hence able to connect to our moment of joy and success.”
Her family’s long-standing adoration for Yeoh might also have had something to do with the poignant moment, which Hsu fondly resonates with as a young child growing up with her films. “The thing that’s wild about Michelle is that she’s so powerful and so magnificent. And then you meet her and she’s loving and generous. You feel like you’re in the room with an old friend or a family member.”
Oddly enough, as Hsu currently basks in the glory of her arrival into the Hollywood maelstrom, with an upcoming action blockbuster, The Fall Guy, alongside Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, she feels like the same person that she was as a burgeoning Broadway actor—cooking on her off-days and dissociated with the idea of being recognised in public. Perhaps only now, accoutred with more strength and space in a room to fully step into her greatness.
Photographer Vanessa Zican Feng, represented by Adrian Rae at Art Department
Styling Rafael Linares for Art Department
Set designer Carolina Benitez
Hair Brian Fisher using Leonor Greyl & Hidden Crown
Manicure Misha Melonbun Nails
Lighting Technician Milan Dileo
Cinematography Mufeng Han
Producer Lindsay Sipe
Stylist’s assistant Carlos Gomez
Order your copy of the March ‘Roots’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands today.