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Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Stephanie Hsu on Singing ‘Barbie Girl’ With Michelle Yeoh

Photo: Jerod Harris/FilmMagic

Spoilers follow for the film Everything Everywhere All at Once

No one in Everything Everywhere All at Once is only who they seem to be. If the multiverse is infinite and limitless, argues the movie from co-directors and co-writers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as the Daniels), then we, as products of that multiverse, are capable of anything and everything, too. The film’s leads embody that idea. Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang realizes the myriad other paths her life could have taken. Her husband, Ke Huy Quan’s seemingly passive Waymond, steps easily into action-hero mode to protect her. And Stephanie Hsu brings life to both Joy, Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter, and Jobu Tupaki, a nihilist whose despair threatens the entire multiverse.

Everything Everywhere All at Once finds the Wang family pulled in a million directions: by the demands of their laundromat customers, by an IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis), by the gap growing between the ever-working Evelyn and Waymond, and by the generational disconnect between Evelyn and Joy.

The friction between mother and daughter affects the multiverse once Evelyn learns that a version of Joy named Jobu is threatening to destroy all realities with a gigantic floating everything bagel that is actually a portal into listlessness and despair. (You have to just go with it.) In Hsu’s dual performance, she’s downtrodden, frustrated, and yearns for Evelyn’s acceptance and approval as Joy, and all-knowing, deliriously fashionable, and surprisingly good at using sex toys as weapons as Jobu. Whether Evelyn, Joy, Jobu, and the rest of the Wang family save the world depends on how they communicate with each other.

Hsu spoke with me about how she mapped Joy and Jobu’s diverging and converging arcs, the art and music that shaped her performances, the Jenny Slate–voiced character (named Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy) who ended up on the cutting-room floor, and the “Barbie Girl” performance by Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy that didn’t make the final film, but serves as a Wang family portrait.

Can you talk to me about the binder you made to keep track of Joy, Jobu, and Joybu, the third character you and the Daniels created to capture when Joy and Jobu combine? I want to know everything about it. 
It’s nothing compared to Michelle Yeoh’s binder. She just posted a photo of it and it’s insane, it has hundreds of Post-Its all along the sides. For me, it was mostly about tracking, scene to scene, where Joy was in her journey, and also where Jobu enters, and when the two become one — or become a million, depending on how you look at it. I’m a really visual person and so I had to draw images, or draw a map, because on a script you’re seeing everything one page after the other, but you’re not seeing a whole linear or horizontal story. Really, the binder was analyzing every single scene and making sure that I knew what it was about, and then also drawing the map of a straight line — if the straight line is the story — then drawing the waves of Joy, and the waves of Jobu, and then when they braid together.

It almost sounds like a seismic map. 

Did you color-code it? How in-depth are we talking? 
I don’t remember if I color-coded it. It’s somewhere in a storage unit right now. But I think you’re totally right, it did feel very seismic, like a seismograph — which now in hindsight, feels very apropos.

I read that there were some scenes in which you performed as Joy, then you would do it again as Jobu, and then finally as Joybu. What process did you use to transition between those three characters for one scene?
For me, the body is kind of where I enter: mannerisms, physique. Joy is very downtrodden and in such despair, and honestly kind of like a rock in so many ways. And the physicality and the permission that we gave Jobu was that she can do anything. Even when we were rehearsing, we would be doing this scene and I would just all of a sudden throw a pencil. That was the vocabulary. They were on two polar extremes.

Toward the middle of the movie, Jobu is more present than Joy is, so we would go into a scene doing the Jobu version, which is kind of chaotic and also very nihilistic. And when we introduced Joybu, I don’t know how to say it other than, it’s a wave. I would ride it starting as Jobu, and sometimes suddenly a wind would catch, and then I would just turn into Joy. It was never, Okay, and then on this line, I’m going to be Joy, and then on this line, I’m going to be Joybu. It was kind of this melting pot of information. If a noise happens in the other room because a prop master dropped a prop, that might pull you into a completely different version of the character. And I think because Jobu is sort of omnipresent, it was really fun to be hyperaware and hyper-present, so much so that you could explode into, or back to, Joy.

I was doing a workshop of a show at MASS MoCA, and there was this light installation that was bubbles, and I did an experimental walk or dance through the hallway of bubbles. [Laughs.] I videotaped it and I sent it to Daniels, and I was like, “This is kind of what I’m thinking.” And they sent me a playlist, and that was very helpful for me. What I love about movies is I want to know the vocabulary that we’re all playing with, the images that we’re pulling from, the quotes from books. That is how I like to build. So I’m grateful that the Daniels gave me that and shared that with me.

Was there one song on the playlist that you could share?
Absolutely. It’s my fucking favorite. Let me just pull it up right now. [Opens phone.] The song still makes me cry, I can’t listen to it right now. It’s Youth Lagoon, and the song is called “Doll’s Estate.” Listen to it, because you’ll feel the heart in that song. That is the song that I think is the spirit of Joy and also the third act of the film, I would say from the bagel leading up to the parking-lot scene. Oh my God, I can’t wait for you to listen because you’re going to cry, you’re going to like it.

You mentioned throwing the pencil. Can you talk about the decision-making that went into improvised moments? Did any of them make the final cut? 
I like to do things the first few times as they’re written on the page, especially when it’s a good script, so that we all know what framework we’re following, and what the core of the scene is. Once we have the hang of it, the Daniels would say, “Okay, now, explode it,” or “Do whatever you want,” and I would understand that meant unleashing the dragon of Jobu. What was really fun about that character was giving myself permission to yo-yo between extreme impulsivity and then being super-controlled and contained.

I watched the movie in IMAX recently and I just noticed this for the first time. There was this thing that didn’t end up in the movie, where I would be doing a scene as Jobu and because Jobu is omnipresent, all of a sudden I would hear a falcon flying overhead. And I’d be talking to you, and then I’d [looks overhead and points upward], “Falcon.” [Laughs.] That’s something that just happened when we were playing, but then the boys would always be like, “Okay, now do ‘Falcon.’” In the hallway scene there’s a moment after the sex-toy swinging where Jobu stands in her golf-girl outfit and raises her hand and the lights flicker, and there’s all these crazy noises. It sounds like someone is screaming upstairs, and there’s also the sound of a falcon. I heard that recently.

My point being, for the improvisation of Jobu specifically, it’s not about saying the funniest joke; it’s not that kind of improv. It’s about being so alive that anything that you touch or hear or even just think becomes an impulse that you either choose to follow or you reject. With Jobu, more times than not, we would follow it. When I’m introducing the bagel and I start singing, that was an improvised line — the sung melody of “sucked into a bagel.” We started riffing on that musical line. That could have been a Joybu moment, but she suddenly starts crying. Maybe we didn’t even say it, but I just knew that Jobu was also Joy, and the bagel was also an infinite well of sadness and helplessness.

We know that Joy dropped out of college and has been dating Becky (Tallie Medel) for three years. Did you have any other backstory details about her — what she studied in college, what she might like to do for a career, how she and Becky met? 
It’s not something that we talked about a lot. It was kind of the bare bones of information: college dropout, has a really difficult relationship with her mom, and loves Becky. I had little secrets that I planted for myself: What is a date that Becky and Joy had? What does it look like when they’re lying in bed and talking about her relationship with her mother? I picked trigger words from Evelyn. So every time she brings up Dad, that is triggering because in this long imaginative history of their family relationship, Evelyn always throws Dad under the bus. It was less about, And I think she was an econ major, and more about, What is the architecture of their family and their interpersonal relationships? How do you plant history and time in a set script?

I love the opening of the film, which is Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy singing together in that circular mirror. That image disappears, and we switch back to our current reality. Can you talk about filming that scene? You three look so bonded already. 
That opening scene is so beautiful. It is really funny. Our movie could have been ten times longer; there’s a lot of stuff that ended up on the floor but will be in the director’s cut for the superfans — which I am one of. There used to be a scene at the end, after the parking-lot scene. It’s still the Chinese New Year’s party, but there is a moment where you’re in the laundromat and there’s these three men singing a capella, or they’re about to harmonize, and then Waymond says, “Shh, don’t ruin the surprise.” But what it used to be was that at the end, we all end up singing “Barbie Girl” by Aqua together. “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world / Life is plastic, so fantastic.” It was something, “Imagination …”

“Life is your creation.”
Exactly. Do you see the meaning there? It used to be that in the first shot, we’re singing “Barbie Girl” in karaoke, but we took that out. So it’s just this family-portrait moment of us singing and being a family together. That’s a fun nugget.

This family really loves each other, but they’re just going through some shit. Memories like that can really crystalize those dynamics. 
There’s this one scene where Evelyn ties Joy to a chair and they start laughing about Raccaccoonie, and that’s a weird scene that I kind of love from an outsider-in point of view. That felt like a family moment too, where they’re able to laugh together. It’s not that they are so broken that they hate each other and don’t talk to one another. There is love there, and that feels so important in terms of the thread of the film.

The scene where Waymond is singing to himself and cleaning up the laundromat after Evelyn breaks the window really resonated for me. I’m the child of immigrants, and I thought, “Oh yeah, that’s my dad.” You’ve talked about how your mom came to the Los Angeles premiere and saw herself in the movie. I’m wondering if there was a specific scene that made you think, “This is my experience.”
That’s a really good question. I want to say that the opening scene, as Joy is chasing her mother through the laundromat, really encapsulated the ships-passing-in-the-night experience of being in your early 20s or late teens and trying to deeply connect. You’re making the supreme effort to try to cross the generational divide, and you just can’t. There are so many moments that really resonate, but that one in particular. Maybe my favorite is when they’re making sesame noodles together and Evelyn is like, “He didn’t have to come,” and Joy’s like, “Who’s he?”, and Evelyn’s like, “He, she, they, it’s all the same in Chinese, , but the way you guys dress …” That moment while they’re making food and also having this conversation right in the same room as Becky, the girlfriend. The way we’re talking about this is not even on the same page.

You’ve described Michelle as a “generous scene partner.” Which scene are you proudest of acting in with her?
I asked A24 if we could do a tastemaker screening for the theater community because I have a background in Broadway and experimental theater. A24 threw all their weight behind it and we hosted this screening and had a talkback after. And Mary H.K. Choi, the writer, she asked me in front of so many of my friends if I was proud of myself, and I got really emotional because it’s so hard to say that. [Mimics tears.] And I was like, “Yeah, I guess I am proud of myself.” Your question reminded me of that.

I think that parking-lot scene, I’m really proud of that scene. I was so nervous because I just thought that was such a beautiful scene, and it really meant a lot to me, but we never rehearsed it or anything. We shot it on maybe the second-to-last day, and just right away, Michelle and I were right there with each other. I remember we started with my coverage, and then went to hers. Sometimes when you turn the camera around, people will give less. But I feel like Michelle only gave more and more and more, and somehow still had left to give on her turnaround. I think that’s what I mean by “generous scene partner.” It’s always better when everyone is in it together, even when the camera is not pointed at you, because that’s where you make that weird, mystical thing that somehow translates to a camera and an audience. It’s not something that you can carve out in an edit, right? What I love about that scene, and what felt so good, is that Evelyn and Joy spend the entire movie missing each other. They’re on completely different wavelengths, and it’s really not until the end where they get to really connect.

What about a scene you shared with her that was challenging?
There’s one scene in the section “Everywhere,” in our living room, before we sit on a coach and get swung, where Evelyn starts to understand what it means to be everywhere. It’s really hard to be kind of mean to your scene partner. [Laughs.] It was really hard for me to trust in the chaos and the strength and fuck-all-ness of Jobu while I was with so many people that I really respect, and trying to make sure that didn’t ever come across as cruel with no warrant to it.

There seems to be this guiding ideology in your work about living with darkness but finding joy. I’m thinking of this film, of course, but also the HBO film you did, My Depression, and your theater work. You’ve said “the point of theater” is “an act of service.” What do you think the point of cinema is? 
I think the point of cinema is the same. I think art is service. It’s why Picasso painted Guernica. We’re living in crazy times. I think there is validity to fluff, but if you are able to make fluff-stance, substance with fluff, or just make something that can reach people, you provide something to hang your hat on in a time where it all feels so constantly crazy. Art is constantly teetering on the cliff of selling out. It’s the same in theater, film, TV, music. It is an industry, and it’s sometimes really hard to get things made. If you can somehow do it and hold true to the desire to make the world a better place, I think that is such a win. Dan Kwan and I were talking in San Francisco, and I asked him, “So, what do you think you want to do next, man?” And he was like, “I want to save the world.” And I was like, “Yeah, me too.” I know Daniel Scheinert feels the same way, and we’re all trying to figure out how to do it with the vocabulary that we have been given, which happens to be storytelling.

Okay, now I’d like you to rank some food from the film in terms of how much you would like to eat it: Gong Gong’s noodles, hot-dog fingers, Waymond’s cookies, and the everything bagel.
I think Gong Gong’s noodles would be first. There’s a scene that was cut, with a little macaroni voiced by Jenny Slate, Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy, so I’ll give you that little nugget. Gong Gong’s noodles, Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy — I think I would then say almond cookie. And then my last one would be Gong Gong’s pudding. I’m throwing curveballs to be fun.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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Stephanie Hsu on Singing ‘Barbie Girl’ With Michelle Yeoh