As a former co-host of the podcast Who Charted?, Kulap Vilaysack was regularly putting herself out there. Maybe it wasn’t often personal, but like anybody you listen to regularly, it was easy to feel like you “knew” Kulap — including a stretch of years when she was often talking about the search for answers to where she came from and the Indiegogo campaign that raised over $100,000 for her debut documentary, Origin Story. And now that Origin Story is available on Amazon, you’ll see a more personal side of her than ever.
In the film’s animated opening segment, Vilaysack details how she was 14 when she found out that the man who had raised her for her entire life up to that point was not her birth father. For two decades she decided not to track down her biological dad … until Origin Story. In the documentary, Vilaysack goes through birth certificate records to track down her birth father in Laos, confronts her mother about what happened (including revealing some very nasty texts between the two and not shying away from confrontation for the cameras), and then travels to find and meet the person who she never knew raised her in the early years of her life. But would he be the person she wanted him to be or the dad she feared he could be?
Though she left Who Charted? last year to focus on Origin Story and a busy film-festival schedule, Vilaysack hasn’t necessarily put the podcast game to bed yet. She’s also searching for a home to distribute the already-completed fourth season of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, the show she created on the now-defunct Seeso, and is working on the next phase of her career — which must be a little easier now that she’s begun to settle where she came from. Vulture recently caught up with Vilaysack to talk about the journey of making Origin Story, her fears of how it could affect those she loves, the support of friends and husband Scott Aukerman along the way, and what she’s doing next.
When you’re both making and starring as the subject of your own documentary, that alone can take years, but then there’s also a matter of getting distribution and a release day. How does it feel to finally have it come out for everyone to see after years of talking about this very personal story you’re telling?
It feels like a long time coming. It’s exciting, but frankly I’m a little nervous about it. I think doing the festival run really prepared me for being with the production and postproduction team, which is really small. A lot of the time it was just me and my editor. That was the goal — so that people could see it. But it’s like you said; it’s only personal. [Laughs.] I’m putting myself out there. I’m looking forward to it while also [thinking], What’s it going to be like? I don’t know.
You bared personal arguments and texts with your mother and showed a side of that relationship that I think is quite relatable. How nervous were you to see it at that first screening with your mother in the audience?
The nervousness didn’t really hit me until right when the movie started. I was in the midst of working on Legendary Christmas with John [Legend] and Chrissy [Teigen], and these trips that I go out on for the film festivals, they’re always like a three-day thing: come in the day before, come to the screening, leave the next day. But because we were in the midst of this job, I was in a lot of places until settling down. Also the screening was at 10 a.m.
My mom sat down and my sister was a buffer in between us. I said to her, “How do you feel?” and she said, “I’m nervous.” I said, “I totally understand. All I ask is that you stay through to the end.” As you know, I go hard at my mom, especially in the beginning, so I was just pushing my back into the chair, not looking, just pushing it back. There were moments when my mom was laughing, and I would look at her and she said she was enjoying the film. But you know, it’s a lot.
Are you worried at all about family or people close to you seeing the documentary and relationships changing at all after they see it?
What I was afraid of was that [sisters] Anita, Alyssa, mom, and the dad I grew up with, I think maybe mostly their feelings about it, right? Because it’s one thing to talk about myself and to hang my dirty laundry. To tell my story, I have to tell theirs, in part. So if they hated it, if they felt that I did them wrong, that would be not good, right? But everybody else, all I could do was just be honest and vulnerable. It’s not neat. Yeah, there are parts in it I still, when I watch it, I’m uncomfortable with. Or I judge myself. I don’t like how I look when I yell at my mom. I don’t like how I am when I’m in that place.
There are definitely moments in the documentary that if you wanted to make yourself look better …
I could have taken them out, right? Somebody asked me what were the things that I had trouble leaving out. You’ve seen it — where I’m having an adult tantrum in the first act — which is not a great look, and I attribute it to my DP who walked away to give me and Scott privacy but didn’t turn the camera off. I was like, “Well, I have to put it in.” Goddamn it, I have to put it in the film! If I’m gonna share this, I have to be as honest as I can.
You spent a year editing the film before taking a break to do season four of Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, which you’ve said gave you a good lesson in filmmaking. I think the assumption is that the production phase is the hard part, but what’s the reality?
For both Bajillion and Origin Story, the work was postproduction. And being able to pause to go to the film school for me that was Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ was so important and valuable because I learned how to edit and how to tell a story and how to finish. That’s the most important thing: I learned how to finish. I was able to gain perspective. When I was in the midst of coming back from Laos, starting this Indiegogo campaign, jumping into editing, I was still processing everything that was happening, and things were still happening. It’s tough. It was really difficult to navigate that first year of editing and then less so when I came back to it.
Making appearances in the film are fellow comedians like your husband, Scott Aukerman; Sarah Silverman; Casey Wilson; and June Diane-Raphael. Comedians tend to come off as guarded publicly because part of their job is to be “on,” but this is not that. There’s no punch line in those scenes, just normal people talking about heavy subject matter.
Well, Scott and I have been together for 21 years in May — married for less, but started dating 21 years ago. I’ve known Sarah for almost that long, and June and Casey have been my best friends. I’ve known them for about ten years, and they’ve really helped me navigate all this stuff with my family. They were there for me when stuff would go down with my mom and my parents. So I think it really is just a look into how we talk.
You’ve talked in the documentary and in interviews about how this situation particularly affects an Asian family, such as privacy concerns and parents wanting money from their children. How has the reception been in the Asian community, and what do you expect to hear following the premiere?
Not to super-generalize here, but I don’t think these conversations are put on camera ever in the Asian-American community, which is such a huge umbrella. And furthermore, to go to Southeast Asia and then down to Laos, I would add an addendum to my earlier answer about being worried how people would see me or their judgment: I was worried about how other Lao people and Lao elders would react to this. You don’t talk bad about your parents; you don’t tell these things. It’s like Fight Club: You don’t talk about it. We also don’t have conversations about mental health and addiction. This is a community that many didn’t have a choice to come here; they are war refugees. We’ve been in this country for 40 years, 45 coming up, I think.
This is a group of people that largely feel invisible and are minorities within a minority. And growing up, I felt outside of a lot of groups, including the Lao community. I was worried that people would hate it for that reason, you know? But the film has been successful on the [festival] circuit. I almost forgot to tell you before you brought it up that I have let go of that fear. It’s not even inside of me anymore. Like, Oh, yeah, that’s right, you were freaking out about that.
You went back on Who Charted? recently. Do you plan to ever get back into podcasting?
That’s home to me. Howard [Kremer], that’s my family. I went back to support him because our friend Brody Stevens, he passed. But that’s what family does — you show up. He asked me to come and I showed up for him, and I continue to show up for him like he does for me. And I’m certainly going to be back to talk about the Origin Story release. And it’s funny you should bring this up because I haven’t thought about doing a podcast in a while, but I’ve been kicking around an idea. So maybe!
You’ve said that you’re just hoping to find a home for Bajillion season four and it’s still up in the air for now. Are there any updates?
So there was this whole thing where unlike every other Seeso show — they were essentially owned outright by NBC — we had a studio in Paramount, so NBC only had the license. Every other show has been able to go to Starz or VRV or all that, but we weren’t able to because of that question of how NBC has the rights. At the end of last year we had confirmation for sure that Paramount had it back, so we’ve been trying to place it, and I really want it out! I am so proud of season four, and everyone in the cast has blown up, and I want it to be seen.
How quickly would you like to get back into writing and production on the next project?
I’m developing an idea right now. Two awesome producers approached me with this project idea and I’ve been clearing the cobwebs. It’s a narrative show with an Asian-American lead. I’m really excited about it. These are early stages where we’re putting the pitch together, but it’s something we’re really excited about. So, there’s a preview!