"Everything" star Stephanie Hsu on playing all-powerful: "We would just unleash ultimate chaos"

The actor spoke to Salon about learning to punch Michelle Yeoh, and the wisdom of Jamie Lee Curtis and rocks

Published April 23, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Stephanie Hsu in "Everything Everywhere All at Once"  (Allyson Riggs/A24)
Stephanie Hsu in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)

The following contains spoilers for "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

"The less sense it makes the better," is one of the many quotable lines from The Daniels'  "Everything Everywhere All at Once," the eye-popping, head-spinning, metaphysical action comedy about laundry and taxes (among other things and everything.) 

While the hit film — it had the highest-per-screen average box office last weekend — is a dynamic showcase for star and producer Michelle Yeoh who plays Evelyn Wang, a harried business owner facing divorce and an audit, Stephanie Hsu provides scene-stealing support as both her frustrated daughter Joy and as the wild Jobu Tupaki, whom Evelyn does battle with in the infinite multiverse. (It makes more sense in the film). 

Hsu's characters provide a nice twist on her insecure tough cookie in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," and her fabulously outrageous costumes, hair, and makeup in "Everything Everywhere" are among some of the more memorable images in a film full of dizzying, dazzling, and inventive imagery.

RELATED: The Daniels on the ADHD theory of "Everything Everywhere All at Once," paper cuts and butts

The actress chatted with Salon about making this cult film and what it was like to wield dildo nunchucks and battle with Michelle Yeoh.

"There has always been suffering, and light and joy are a part of the healing process."

Are you living up to your potential right now, or are you, like Evelyn, just being the worst you possible?

Oh my God, wow! It's a good thing I went to therapy today! [Laughs] I think I am living at the level of my potential. Before SXSW, I happen to be on the same airplane as Jamie Lee Curtis, and we got to catch up. I was telling her, I'm so excited for our movie, and I hope people like it, but I am feeling so much heaviness from the world and I am having a hard time holding both of those realities in the palms of my hands. And she gave me an important pep talk. "There has always been suffering, and light and joy are a part of the healing process as humanity continues to suffer." So yes, I am not shirking from potential. I am celebrating. I am in the moment.

The film gives you a double role. How did you identify with and approach each character, since Jobu takes on many guises and is pretty much pure evil who sees all and knows all, and Joy, in contrast, is sullen daughter grappling with her fraught relationship with her mother?

It was important for us that the two characters held onto the same emotional core or thread, but they exhibited it in very different ways. I did some deep diving into world of Jim Carrey before this film because I felt our movie held both "Dumb and Dumber" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and just trying to understand the scope of those films to how to fuse them into two characters that ultimately are kind of one character. 

I hadn't been able to play a role as intimate as Joy before. Something that is not big, or incredibly disparaged and unassuming in many ways. It felt good to live in that very vulnerable and quiet space knowing that with Jobu, we would unleash the dragon. She was a creator of chaos. Often, we would improvise. The Daniels would say, "Now, blow it up!" And that would mean I'd do the scene and stop and do something else, or take a prop and throw it on the floor. We would just unleash ultimate chaos — which was really fun, but it was important that the chaos came from the same philosophy and same heartbeat of Joy. 

Tallie Medel and Stephanie Hsu in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)

"I love that people are letting their freak flags fly high."

As Jobu, you get to wear some incredible costumes and take on various personas. Can you talk about jumping into multiple characters and outfits?

I have to uplift [costume designer] Shirley Kurata forever and ever and ever. In so many ways, she is the perfect match for The Daniels, because she is also, in her own way, a maximalist, but does so with supreme aesthetic. It was really important that we stretched all the costumes and looks as far as we could but that they still looked glamorous and fabulous and high fashion. And that was thanks to the excellent brain of Shirley Kurata. It was crazy. 

I'm not someone who can think about what might happen after a film comes out. At the time, I thought these costumes are amazing. And the moment the movie came out, everybody was like, "Are you ready to be a Halloween costume over and over again in all different forms of Jobu?" It's cool that people are so excited and inspired by the looks we put together. They took work and imagination. I love that people are letting their freak flags fly high.

Did you have a favorite costume or keep any of the clothes from the shoot? 

I have a pair of Joy's jeans, but I don't have any of Jobu's costumes. My favorite changes daily, but I will say that the Elvis costume is just so amazing because it's so silly and dumb. My favorite Easter Egg is that I have gemstones on my face, and one of the gemstones is a teardrop. 

"It is meant to exhaust you and give you a sense of peace as well.

Jobu has incredible powers. Without saying too much, it involves opening up one's mind and letting go of pain and guilt and finding truth and sesame seeds and other ingredients. But life is also stupid. What can you say about the imaginative world-building of the Daniels. Is this a place you could live? 

In some ways, this is just an exaggerated version of what our lives are like. It's just more extreme — taking one thought you might have during a fight with your partner, and it takes that seed of doubt and stretches that it to nth degree and explores it and puts hot dog fingers on it. I think that's really cathartic. It takes everything to the extreme, which lets you experience every possibility only to arrive at the peace that this universe may just be enough.

I think that it is meant to exhaust you and give you a sense of peace as well. It is immense, and small, and stupid, and that is why the rock universe is my favorite. I love nature, and rocks have been here since the very beginning of time — even before the dinosaurs. And we are stardust, and completely insignificant. A rock is probably the wisest most ancient thing on this earth next to mycelium and moss, and yet, we are trampling over them constantly, so holding both of those realities side by side is kinds of delightful.

Michelle Yeoh and Li Jing in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)You also get a handful of fight scenes, including several with the formidable Michelle Yeoh, whom you get to slap around. Did you do your own stunts, and what can you say about the film's action scenes?

I did my own stunts, and I had an amazing double Gemma [Nguyen], who covered me at times when I had to do changes. She is a nunchuck queen. We kept most of the stuff I did because The Daniel's like to honor what is in our own wheelhouses. I also trained with Li Jing, who is the Kung Fu Master in the movie, who trains Michelle Yeoh. She trained me before film started in Wushu, nunchucks, and different types of choreography. It was amazing!

Specifically, the fight scene at end, I was learning so much from Michelle. Stunts are different than fight scenes. Fight scenes are a dance, but you are still afraid you are going to hurt someone. [Laughs] A crucial part in the storyline is the fight between [Michelle and me] and there was one punch in particular where we are in a kung fu forest, and I felt so scared to punch her because she had to fall back into a tree. And she was like, "No, just punch me! Do it here! See, I'm catching it!" She would lead me through it with a lot of gravitas, which was helpful. She has been doing it for forever. I was grateful I got to learn from the best! 

"Killing someone with dildo nunchucks ... that was probably the weirdest thing in the movie."

How was it to square up against Michelle as both her daughter and her enemy? Did you work with her on the dynamics between your characters and the tension between you? 

It was kind of wild, we threw ourselves into it. We shot in 38 days in six to eight weeks. There was not a lot of prep time. Luckily, Michelle enlisted all her trust in me and surrendered to the process alongside me. I, of course, felt moments of being nervous because I didn't want to freak her out because I knew how weird Jobu would get. But she was so open to everything I threw her way and that hallway scene of her meeting Jobu was one of the first scenes that we shot, and that was crazy, but that was probably the best thing do together first. It set us up for the rest of the film. 

"Everything Everywhere All at Once" is full of weirdness. What is the weirdest thing you did — or could ever dream of?

I'm pretty sure that it is killing someone with dildo nunchucks. I couldn't have dreamed that at all. That just wins. That was probably the weirdest thing in the movie. There's also . . . no, that's the weirdest thing.

Why do you think this film is connecting with audiences right now?  

I don't know that we could have possibly imagined what's happening with this film. Of course, we wanted people to like it, but for cinephiles it feels like it is becoming its own cultural moment. It's hard to make new stories that are not a part of huge franchises. It's a difficult feat to get studios and producers to believe in them, and get them greenlit and financed, etc., etc. And for those barriers to be in place and for this movie to explode them all, with every imagination thread possible thrown onto a screen in one cohesive film that also has so much heart, I feel is proving so many people wrong.

"This project encapsulates my art heart, which is weird, existentialist, and soulful."

And giving the industry space and permission to be excited about so many new kinds of projects but also giving audience members a catharsis that they have not had in a really long time. Viewers have been fed the same food for so long that it feels good to have a dish or a flavor or a spice you have never in your wildest dreams have imagined. What's profound for me is that a movie without an audience is just a thing you made, but audiences and strangers around the world are completing the circle, or the bagel, per se. It helps me to know that there are people out there who believe in this project as much as I did when I first read it. It makes me feel that audience and strangers want to be moved and challenged and be stretched in a way that is exciting. 

Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)The role is a bit different from what you have done — or is it?

I studied experimental theater and I came up in the downtown experimental theatre scene. I never wanted to pursue commercial Hollywood; I landed in this project in a very a backdoor kind of way. This was my first studio feature, but in so many ways, this project encapsulates my art heart, which is weird, existentialist, and soulful at the same time and deeply wanting to provide healing for people. I feel really lucky because while I could never have imagined this project or this role, it feels like we – somehow through the chaos and the noise of all things – found each other, and I'm happy to present myself to the world of film with this film because it is a very tried and true depiction of what I stand for as a human being and as an artist. And I'm excited for whatever it brings. 

The message of the film is finding something or someone that gives your life meaning. What gives your life meaning?

I was listening to this podcast last night, an episode of "On Being" with Mary Oliver before she passed away. The title of this episode is "I Got Saved by the Beauty of the World." That is what keeps me going, the beauty of the world. That is the beauty of collaborators and making art, and nature and the wildness of things, and the unknowables beside the knowables. Yeah, I just piggybacked off of Mary Oliver, so that was a total cheat, but I was eating dinner listening to this podcast and sobbing.

"Everything Everywhere All at Once" is in theaters now.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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