Stephanie Hsu keeps calling herself weird. She thanks that personality quirk for drawing her to The Daniels—Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking duo behind Everything Everywhere All At Once—but sitting across from me at Maman on the Upper West Side in a long, black dress and heels, drinking an oat milk cappuccino, she looks anything but strange. Her character in the film, on the other hand, is a whole different story. “When we were filming, I would go up to The Daniels and say, This movie is going to bring people back to the theaters,” Hsu says. “I knew nothing about cinema releases, but I just knew it was so special.” Her theory, based on a personal love for the film and a rumor swirling on set that she was a witch, quickly turned out to be right: Everything Everywhere All At Once premiered at South by Southwest earlier this year, and just became A24’s highest-grossing movie of all time.
The film is a family drama that follows a mother, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), who cannot seem to connect with her depressed daughter Joy (Hsu) and her husband (Key Huy Quan). The family owns a laundromat and during a visit to the IRS, Evelyn is called into action across the multiverse to save the world from a villain named Jobu Tupaki. It is soon revealed that this antagonist is actually a million other versions of Joy. The multiverse concept has been having a moment, thanks to other big-budget blockbusters like Marvel’s Spiderman: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but Everything Everywhere All At Once’s take on it is so much more than anything you’ve ever seen before. While it is a whirlwind of a film to watch, it is also an emotionally moving one, because at its core it is about a mother’s relationship with her family. “While filming, The Daniels told us to never let go of that thread and that core,” Hsu explains.
Hsu had already worked with The Daniels on an episode of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens in 2019, and she fell so deeply in love with their creative energy, that after living in New York for over 10 years, she packed her bags and followed the filmmakers to Los Angeles. Within a week of arriving in California, they called her about the role of Joy/Jobu Tupaki. “Just knowing it was The Daniels, a hundred percent I was there. We like to stretch art in the same way and we also deeply care about humanity in the same way. We want to make art that makes the world a better place,” Hsu explains. As a self-described philosophy nerd, the script stuck with Hsu, and left her “deeply surprised because it transcended all of my expectations,” she says. We continue drinking our coffee, watching as people stroll by and two tiny dogs get into a little fight. “Don’t you miss New York?” I ask her. “It’s a magical place until a rat shits on you,” she answers, laughing.
While Hsu grew up knowing she wanted to be an actor, she never thought there’d be adequate space for her as an Asian-American woman. “My mom thought I was bat-shit crazy when I told her I wanted to act,” she says. Hsu believed in herself, but she also could understand where her mother was coming from, and when she graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2012, she thought she would live a life of performing in downtown theater and bartending on the side forever. She did not actively seek an agent, and now describes her acting career as the result of “guardian angels opening the doors for me.” For as long as she could remember, the push to take on roles and opportunities came from others. But once she did get her foot in the door on a project, she was fearless about it.
In college, Hsu was part of the comedy sketch group started by Donald Glover. She wrote sketches there, while her friend Bowen Yang was part of the college improv group. She quickly realized the comedy scene was not for her since comedians tend to be night owls, and she preferred to be in bed by midnight. But soon after graduation, Hsu was called to read an early version of Spongebob Squarepants, the Broadway musical, and ended up in the show for six years. An off-Broadway play called Be More Chill went to Broadway shortly after that, and she was cast as the lead. This led to Hsu nabbing a role in the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which she filmed on Mondays during her run on Be More Chill, her only day off from appearing onstage. She laughs when I tell her that sounds crazy, nodding along. “I know, but I’m thankful for it,” she replies, adding, though, that she would never do it again.
Hsu says she had never envisioned herself being a part of a period piece, especially in one that wouldn’t place her within a racist caricature. Thankfully, she was cast as Mei, a Chinese-American woman who is studying to be a doctor and becomes a love interest for Joel, the leading man on Maisel. “It was an incredible character that I had never seen before. My character is fierce and she’s sassy, but she’s strong. Amy [Sherman-Palladino] does such a great job of writing strong but flawed women,” Hsu says. Taking on that particular role also taught her to stop taking herself out of the game before even playing: “When I catch myself thinking they’d never cast an Asian person who does x, y, or z, I immediately stop myself now.”
Everything Everywhere All At Once brought Hsu to the big screen for the first time, and taking on the role of Joy led to a big moment of self-discovery. Instead of not knowing where a television character might end up after a few episodes, she says she loves that she knows exactly where she’s going when she’s in a film. Joy wasn’t an easy part to play, considering it involved the combination of a nihilistic villain and a depressed daughter, but coming from an experimental background allowed Hsu to really flourish in the role, especially for the scenes in which she got to play with her self-ascribed “weirdness,” like fighting a man with dildos and walking a pig while dressed like Elvis.
Working on Everything Everywhere All At Once was a collaborative experience. Hsu tells me stories about the set, like how she sat down on costume designer Shirley Kurata’s floor to wrap an Internet wire through a hooped earring for one of Jobu’s costumes, or how they had a daily warm-up led by a different crew member each day. She describes the movie and the cast as “feeling one and the same.” Even from my limited time with Hsu, she made it clear that she cares deeply for her craft, and that she is ready for the level of stardom that Everything Everywhere All At Once is bound to bring.
“I wanna make more movies. I feel very clear about that,” Hsu says at the end of our conversation, leaning in for a farewell hug. “For the first time, I’m taking the reins and driving.”