CULTURE

Zoë Chao Takes It Easy

The star of the genre-bending whodunit, The Afterparty, is just as affable as the characters she plays on screen.

Photography by Huy Luong
Styled by Laura Jackson

Zoe wears jacket and shorts by Chanel; boots by MNZ; Stylist's own turtleneck.

When the actress Zoë Chao greets me at her Brooklyn home, I immediately feel the warmth of her nature. Displaying a huge grin, she brings me in for a hug and offers me some tea while beckoning me through the doorway. Earlier that morning, I didn’t know an afternoon of arts and crafts inside her apartment was in store; our initial plan to meet up for a walk in the park was thwarted by freezing-cold January temperatures. But Chao quickly displayed dexterity—and a unique openness when it comes to being interviewed for a story—and led me right through her front door instead. Before we even sit down at her kitchen table, she enthusiastically pulls out a bin of jewelry-making materials, temporary tattoos, and other beading accoutrements from an organizational tower in the kitchen and shows me what’s inside. “I have all kinds of supplies!” she exclaims.

As we begin threading beads onto elastic cord—Chao decides to make a necklace as a gift for her friend—the actress’ choice for a mid-afternoon activity becomes obvious once she reveals that she grew up in a family of visual artists (both parents and her sister are in the profession), and had initially planned to work in an art gallery after graduating from college. “I was a Getty intern one summer for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions,” she explains, describing her position as the tour manager for a refurbished ice cream truck “emceed by a mute squirrel cub who would wear an Avatar-esque helmet and tail” while driving around the city and blasting karaoke versions of Missy Elliott songs. “By the end of it, I thought, there’s a lot of admin in the art world, and I want to be the mute squirrel cub,” Chao says.

Zoe wears coat, zip-up and trousers by Marni; shoes by The Row.

Chao then moved out of her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island to attend U.C. San Diego for grad school, where she studied in what she describes as a “very intense” theater program. “I didn’t actually know if I was going to like doing theater 12 hours a day for six days a week. It felt like a big leap of faith, but I ended up loving it,” she tells me, while delicately weaving together more beads onto the necklace. “The dimensions of theater just kept opening up to me in this way that was really surprising and fun,” she went on, adding that her voice lessons she took in grad school have been more instrumental to her career than she could have ever expected.

It clearly turned out to be the right choice for the then-budding performer. She’s made a name for herself inhabiting a lot of the supporting “best friend” roles in dramedies such as The High Note; Where'd You Go, Bernadette?; and HBO Max’s Love Life. But since 2017, when she starred in the career-changing web series Strangers, it’s been clear that she has what it takes to be the star. In the show, Chao played a young woman who rents out her spare bedroom to strangers for some extra rent money, while discovering her sexuality. “I learned so much from that show, and I got to be a lead,” she remembers. “The gifts were invaluable.”

This year, Chao will star in Apple TV+’s genre-bending whodunit comedy, The Afterparty, make a cameo in a rom-com with Alison Brie and Amy Sedaris called Somebody I Used to Know, and also star in a Netflix comedy called Your Place or Mine with Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher. (“I didn’t foresee being so starstruck around Reese because I have worked with very famous people before, but there’s something about working with America’s sweetheart that was totally mind-blowing for the first couple of days,” Chao admits. “Then she became a very real person to me. I ride for Reese! She’s really fired up.”) She’ll also get the chance to play someone far less likable in another one of her upcoming projects, a film called Senior Year, in which she stars alongside her Afterparty cast mate Sam Richardson and Rebel Wilson. “I got to play the villain!” she exclaims. “I got to play bitch this summer, which was really good for me, personally.”

Zoe wears jacket and skirt by Louis Vuitton.

But in The Afterparty, which is available to stream weekly on Apple TV+ starting January 28, Chao plays a lovable art teacher who attends her high school reunion’s after party at the home of the class’ most successful graduate, a Bieber-like pop star named Xavier (Dave Franco), when the douchey musician mysteriously dies. Each of the series’ eight episodes follows the events of night from the perspective of one of the party attendees, and is told in the style of a different genre—from film noir to musical to animation.

There was so much overlap between Chao—the actress—and Zoe—the character—that even costar Tiffany Haddish, who plays one of the two cops working on the murder investigation, couldn’t believe Chao’s actual first name is also Zoë: “On the last day of shooting, she was like, wait, your real name is Zoë? But you’re like this, you’re like her...is this you?”

Zoe is an artist, Chao is also artistically inclined—as evidenced by her gallery girl intern years and the delicately beaded necklace crafted from her bin of supplies. Zoe goes to RISD, the real Chao graduated from Brown and her dad taught at RISD for many years. “Zoe doesn’t really know what she wants,” Chao adds, “Which sometimes really resonates with me.” The series creator, Christopher Miller, even asked Chao to fill in some background details on the character. Where would a college student in Providence go in between exams and partying? “Louie’s!” Chao exclaims excitedly, gesturing to the famed diner’s mug, out of which she is drinking while we bead.

According to Chao, filming the series felt a little bit like living inside of Groundhog Day for the actors. They wore the same costumes, saw the same people, and acted out the same story over and over again. The production was also shot at the height of the Covid pandemic, so everyone would go back to their bubbles and do the same thing every night at home. “It was a really wild experiment,” Chao says, “But it couldn’t have been with better people.”

With Knives Out currently filming its sequel, the new installment of the Scream franchise beating Spider-Man at the box office, and the final season of Search Party premiering to thunderous applause, it’s safe to say that whodunits are trending. “I just think our love for a murder mystery knows no bounds,” Chao says of The Afterparty’s placement in the new whodunit canon, adding that right now, she’s in the middle of reading a novel by Raymond Chandler, the godfather of American detective dramas and L.A. noir.

Zoe wears blouse, sweaters and jeans by Miu Miu; earrings by Agmes.

Her next few projects will fall under the romantic comedy umbrella, a genre in which Chao holds years of experience. Even in The Afterparty, while the main narrative may be about the sudden death of a classmate, there’s also the fact that Zoe’s romantic life is a central component of the story. But Chao is looking forward to the day when she gets to do something a little different. “I just love genre, I love style, I love period pieces—anything where having a face like mine could be in spaces where faces like mine haven’t been before.” What sort of role would she want to try getting into next? She answers the question the next day in a text message: “A spaghetti western directed by Luca Guadagnino.”

Chao would say she is the type to collect all possible data before making any major life decision, so when she first moved to Los Angeles, she experienced the classic twentysomething crisis in which she realized she didn’t exactly know who she was just yet. But one thing became very clear to her: “I was not trying to do this job for the wrong reasons,” she says. “I realized I really must love acting to endure the murk and the mud, because I kept showing up, even when it was really depressing. If you don’t really love it, I don’t know why you’d stick around.”

She was about five years into her career, working part-time at the famed Bar Marmont in Los Angeles and auditioning for roles, when she totaled her third PT Cruiser and knew it was time for a change. “It was such an unglamorous time,” she remembers, laughing. “I had to take myself off the road.”

Where does this easygoing charm and adaptiveness come from? If you ask Chao, she gives credit to her family for offering moral (and occasionally financial, in the case of the totaled PT Cruisers) support. The actress lights up when discussing her parents and sister, brimming with delight at the chance to describe the contents of a “stuffed quahog,” a Providence delicacy she defines as a microwaved, buttered-up “mound of bread and clams” winter snack that her dad stocked the fridge with on a recent trip back to Rhode Island. “I get more nostalgic for home the older I get,” Chao tells me, adding that she returns to Providence whenever she can for a break from New York and Los Angeles. Her grandfather, too, is an avid moviegoer—he is a well-known figure at his local theater in Arizona—and a huge supporter of her work. “He was like, ‘Zoë, I’m so glad I got to finally see you in a movie!’” she says, referring to Long Weekend, the 2021 indie flick she starred in opposite Finn Wittrock. “I just feel really lucky, honestly, because you don’t choose your family as a kid.”

Zoe wears dress by Commission; rings by Alexander McQueen; earrings by Jennifer Fisher; Adidas sneakers, Stylist’s own socks.

Chao speaks highly of the collaborators she has worked with on many high-profile projects, but she holds Strangers, the webseries that she credits with starting her career, in an especially high regard. In the era of Broad City, Awkward Black Girl, and High Maintenance, Strangers marked a turning point for web series that could be adapted for television, and brought to wider audiences. “It was uncharted territory and it felt like unknowns could really get in there,” Chao says. “That show meant a lot to the people who found it, but a lot of people in the industry did not know that show existed, so that allowed me to create a team who could introduce me to an industry who had no idea that existed. I was like, ‘We did this show, it’s very meaningful and really cool people like it! The coolest of fans—queer women of color—love this show!’ but I was really starting at the bottom,” she explains with a laugh. “Anytime someone says, ‘You’re going to pop off!’ I’m like, you know, probably not, and who cares? I got that sort of thinking out of my system a while ago.”

We’re in the middle of discussing more existential topics when Chao interrupts herself, flashing a genuine, big smile. Looking down at our beaded creations on the kitchen table, her work is much more elegant than mine, but she is quick to compliment me on my technique nonetheless. “It’s like you’re in your ‘blue period!’” she jokes, as she gestures toward the blue-and-black chunky bracelet I’ve cobbled together for myself. “You really brought it.”