'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Star Stephanie Hsu Vows to Stop 'Deleting Myself' as an Asian Actress (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Leon Bennett/Getty Images
If quarantine has proven to have a silver lining, Stephanie Hsu has found it, using the past four months to get her creative juices flowing again. The Marvelous Mrs. Maiselstar had just wrapped the upcoming film Everything Everywhere All at Once, where she plays Michelle Yeoh's daughter, on March 13, the day everything changed in Hollywood when productions across the world shut down.
"I had been working nonstop since the beginning of the year and when quarantine first happened, I was quite exhausted and trying to take some time to rest. But then it became a really beautiful time to be creating work again," Hsu told ET with a laugh. "This time has been a lot more about that. Believe it or not, it's not as 'free time-y' as you might think."
While the Los Angeles native has been staying productive, Hsu hopped on the phone to discuss Asking for It, an indie she filmed at the end of 2018, right before she landed her breakthrough role as Mei on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In the movie, Hsu plays "nice girl" Jenny Heitz, an aspiring journalist who's been relegated to writing fluffy celebrity clickbait when her dream is to be an investigative reporter. But everything begins to unravel when an anonymous internet stalker becomes obsessed with her work and, with the help of her hacker roommate, Jenny seeks her own style of revenge.
As Hsu confessed, the project came into her orbit after she finished a Broadway run on SpongeBob: The Musical, and she wasn't planning on taking another job -- instead, setting her sights on working on a farm in South America. The more she dug into Asking for It, however, the more Hsu became intrigued. "I saw that it was written by women, and it was about a young woman with an internet stalker, and I immediately was like, 'I think I need to sniff this out a little bit more,'" she recalled. "I just thought it was so timely, and it was so funny. It was really well-written... and I was swayed."
Ahead of the film's American TV premiere on Fuse this weekend, Hsu discussed the film's topical premise, how Mrs. Maisel came into her world ("I just deleted it from my realm of possibility," she confessed) and her character of Mei.
ET: Many people, like myself, know you from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But in Asking for It, you're playing a very different character from Mei. What about the story did you immediately engage with?
Stephanie Hsu: What I really loved was this contemporary revenge story. I definitely had never played a woman who takes matters into her own hands in that thriller kind of way, and certainly not a thriller comedy. I was excited about that character and the range of that character, from someone who is a little bit more insecure and doesn't know how to stand up for herself to this woman who goes out and seeks vengeance against her stalker. That journey and arc of a character was something I had never been able to do before, and certainly not on camera.
That movie was my first principal role in a film. There was also that aspect that I was excited about. In hindsight, I feel so grateful for that film because it really taught me a lot about the endurance to shoot a movie, especially in such a quick amount of time. And I think it really prepared me, in a weird way, for the movie that I just shot. It's also funny when things come out because when I shot it, I didn't even know that Maisel was going to happen, or certainly a pandemic.
You said you learned a lot during the process of making this movie. What specifically did you learn about yourself that you discovered along the way that you were really surprised by or didn't know you could actually accomplish?
The first thing I learned through that movie is that I love filmmaking; I love making movies. It really feels like you're sculpting something and you know the beginning, middle and end. It feels like live sculpting in a way. And I also learned that it's long hours; it's really, really, really long hours. You really have to figure out ways to keep steady and keep calm and keep peaceful. Especially with that film, being No. 1 on the call sheet, there were a lot of people who would come in for a day or then leave for a week and then come back. And it was interesting to experience the ebb and flow of energy based on who was working that day, which was refreshing and also further emphasized the importance of needing to keep balance for yourself and also for the people you're working with.
Asking for It is set in a bit of a heightened reality. How did you get into Jenny's headspace? Did you listen to playlists for the duration of filming?
Amanda [Lundquist] and Becky [Scott], the directors and writers, sent me a playlist that they were using as inspiration for Jenny and the movie, which really included the spirit of punk femme, punk rock that you hear throughout the film, so that was very helpful. And also, to be quite honest, [the film] is not that far from reality, you know? I have received many weird messages before. I think the turnaround between when the script was written and when we shot it was also very fast, and it was so potent.
The thing that I really clicked into was that this film and this character gave me permission to click into a very real kind of rage that I was feeling for women in general, and that I still feel. But that particular time... it just felt so real. And I remember that there was someone in my life at that time, who was an authority figure. He wasn't an authority figure that I worked close with, but we ran in the same circles, and I remember always feeling slightly uncomfortable. There were a lot of sources to draw from, to be completely honest.
If I can switch gears to Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, your character, Mei, was a scene-stealer when she was onscreen in season 3. Before she was introduced, it hadn't crossed my mind that there could be an Asian character on a show set in New York City in the 1950s. What are your thoughts on your experience on the show so far?
It's funny because this time in quarantine with everything that is happening -- not only with COVID, but with Black Lives Matter and the way that the entertainment industry is responding -- I've been really reckoning on an even deeper level with my relationship to race. And I think that for so long, I never really intended to be on Broadway. A lot of that had to do with the fact that no one looked like me, so I kind of deleted it from my realm of possibility. And I've never really let race get in my way because if I thought about it for too long, I think I would just be sad and feel like it would be impossible. I mean, growing up, my mom told me that there was no way I could be an actor because no one looks like me, and she wasn't wrong, you know what I mean?
And so my way of coping was always like, "If this is something you want to [do]... Don't even ask that silly question. Just do it, just go. Just find people that you love working with and make things that you're passionate about." But I'm realizing how lucky I've been. When Maisel came in, I hadn't seen the show and I was also getting ready to open a new Broadway show at the time. I was in tech... I just had no brain space because I was playing the female lead in that show. But then this audition came in, I knew what the show was about, but I immediately thought to myself, "What kind of Asian character could possibly exist in the late 1950s?" And then I read the script, and I was just floored. My jaw dropped to the floor because I had never, ever, ever, ever read a character like that, who was a strong Chinese American, historical in terms of her relationship to Chinatown, and bilingual but not in a way that was stereotyping her.
It's funny because I have heard some people really see Mei as this really radical female character that's never been seen before. And I've also heard that some people are like, "Oh, what a stereotype, a Chinese woman in Chinatown in a gambling parlor." And the thing is, that is historically true. That happened. It's really not a stereotype at all. It is comical, the types of things I have read before that are so beyond inappropriate. But all that is to say that Maisel was one of the largest, and continues to be one of the biggest gifts of my life. And Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino]... did so much research. They really, really, really did so much research, including some of the music that played in the show was research of 1950s/1960s Chinese pop music. And they were so intentional. I think it really shows, and I feel very grateful that people like us and younger versions of us get to see that now and know that there's one more possibility for them, especially when it comes to period pieces.
We've been conditioned to see certain images and visuals in the media, especially when it's set in a certain time -- often not contemporary, modern -- and have gone with that narrative for so long.
It's kind of crazy that before I read the script that I said to myself, "What kind of Chinese character could exist in the 1950s?" That was an example of me deleting myself and not even realizing it. I just assumed that it couldn't be possible. And that type of deletion of self runs so deep in a way that I forget sometimes. And I'm really aware. Like, damn, wow. I didn't think that that could be possible. So I'm so grateful that someone was able to push the envelope so that I could step in.
Even though Mrs. Maisel is set decades ago, Mei still felt like a modern woman who could walk among us today. Was that important in your approach to her or was that just all in the scripts?
Yeah. A lot of it is a testament to Amy and Dan's writing; a lot of it was in the script. But of course, they also talked to me about it. When we were deciding on her look, for example, it was Breakfast at Tiffany's,Audrey Hepburn [as the inspiration]. They really wanted her to be a modern woman for her time and that is something that they directly told me. For example, she's going to school to be a doctor, which for a woman at that time, it's a huge deal. Even for the hairstyle that we decided on, I wanted it to feel contemporary even for that time, which I really loved. That was something that Amy and Dan gave a lot of direction towards and really helped to carve that out.
Mei and Joel's romance really blossomed over the course of season 3. Was that an element of Mei's story you enjoyed playing and seeing progress?
When I went in for the audition, I had been told that it was possible that Mei and Joel might have a romantic arc, but it was not for sure. And I knew that they wanted to see how Michael [Zegen] and I worked together first before they sealed the deal on anything. Luckily, Michael is so wonderful and we had so much fun in our first episode, and we got to continue. But it is really fun to have a crush onscreen, as it is to have a crush in real life. Amy is so good at writing strong female characters that it is awesome to be in control in the way that Mei is. She's totally dangling a carrot in front of the horse. (Laughs.) But she has so much power in that dynamic, which people who watch the show say Joel really needed that after Midge. In a lot of ways, Midge and Mei have so many parallels and it had been a long time since he met another woman who was able to challenge him in the right kinds of ways.
Do you know anything about season 4? Will you have a bigger presence?
I know that I will be there and also know that everybody wants to start. We're all really excited to come back together.
What else can we look forward to from you?
Hopefully, this will come out either at the end of this year or maybe early next year, this movie called Everything Everywhere All at Once. It's an A24 film, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, also known as The Daniels. It's a family drama that turns into a sci-fi action comedy -- and Michelle Yeohis in it. I play her daughter and Ke Quan, who was in The Goonies and Indiana Jones, is also in it, and Jamie Lee Curtis. It's going to be a weird, really awesome movie. I'm obviously biased because I love all those people so much. But yeah, that was the movie that we shot at the beginning of this year.