Is Stephanie Hsu the ‘Dark Horse’ of Award Season?

The “Everything Everywhere All at Once” actress may not be as well-known as her co-stars, but her role is crucial enough to deserve consideration.

“This industry is weird,” Stephanie Hsu said. There are moments when a famous actor congratulates you and “moments where you walk on a carpet and people are like, ‘Lana Condor, Lana Condor!’”Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

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By Kyle Buchanan

Every time Stephanie Hsu thinks she has gotten used to the reactions to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” something new manages to throw her for a loop.

And on Friday night at a West Hollywood hotel bar, it was Steve Buscemi.

“I’m sorry to be so rude,” said the 65-year-old actor, who sidled up to our table during an interview to say hello to Hsu. It turned out that Buscemi was a major fan of “Everything Everywhere,” the sci-fi hit in which Hsu plays the unhappy daughter of Michelle Yeoh’s multiverse-skipping savior: He’d seen the movie multiple times, including at an actors guild screening earlier that evening.

Hsu, 32, is often stopped by people who love “Everything Everywhere,” but this was a pinch-me moment that she met with a big grin. Buscemi asked for a picture, and the buoyant Hsu leaped out of our booth to pose with him, then returned to her dirty martini. “That was crazy,” she told me after he left. “It’s all crazy!”

Though the film came out nearly a year ago, its award-season afterlife has proved so potent that “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has begun to sound less like a title and more like the organizing principle of Hsu’s day planner. On the day we met, she had just completed several interviews and a pit stop at the Palm Springs International Film Festival; a few days later, she’d attend the Golden Globes, where her co-stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan and Yeoh were all nominated and where the latter two won major awards.

Hsu was not nominated for a Globe, and as the ensemble’s least-known member, she has sometimes been left out of the awards conversation, though she did receive a Screen Actors Guild nomination on Wednesday morning. Funny and refreshingly honest, Hsu understands that nothing is guaranteed this awards season, and many may see her as an underdog. “The elephant in the room,” she said, “is the dark horse of me.”

Still, even if Hsu isn’t as famous as her veteran co-stars, her presence is no less pivotal. In “Everything Everywhere,” Hsu plays Joy, who is crestfallen that her mother, a Chinese American laundromat owner named Evelyn (Yeoh), makes so little effort to understand her. It’s crucial that we feel for Joy because we soon learn that in every other universe but ours, she’s a flashy, universe-collapsing supervillain named Jobu whom our Evelyn is charged with defeating. Hsu drew a map to track how fed-up Joy became the nihilistic Jobu, and tried to imbue her baddie with a strong emotional core: Underneath it all, this is a supervillain who wants nothing more than to be embraced by her mother.

The result is a big-screen breakthrough for Hsu, who had been best known for playing Mei Lin on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and for Broadway roles in “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical” and “Be More Chill.” She likens her awards-season stint to film school on steroids. “There are moments where it’s so fun, so joyous, so inspiring,” Hsu said. “And then there are moments where maybe you feel a little bit icky, because you realize that something’s happening behind the curtain that perhaps you were always suspicious about, but you just didn’t know how political it gets.”

Still, whenever she gets too caught up in award shows and industry attention, Hsu endeavors to remember the often-tearful reactions of the fans who have flagged her down to talk about how much “Everything Everywhere” moved them.

“I’m witnessing other people’s humanity in a way that is very alive,” she said, “and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we did that. We did something that made people start crying even when they think about it.’ And that’s crazy. That came from our labor of love.”

Inside the World of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

In this mind-expanding, idiosyncratic take on the superhero film, a laundromat owner is the focus of a grand, multiversal showdown.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

It’s been almost a year since “Everything Everywhere” came out, and you’re still going. How does it feel at this late date?

A whole pandemic happened between when we filmed and now, so it’s kind of surreal. Obviously, it’s my first time on a press run like this, and it’s been wild, but so many people haven’t actually seen the movie yet, and it’s been really delightful to still bring it into people’s lives. I think its superpower is to somehow be able to make you feel a part of the mess of humanity again. To feel those roller-coaster feelings beside a stranger is a special thing.

This script came to you shortly after you wrapped the third season of “Mrs. Maisel,” which you shot alongside “Be More Chill.” Did you feel ready for it?

That was the first year where I finally admitted to myself that I was an actor. I’ve always been a little bit punk rock — probably in an impostor syndrome way — where everything always felt like an accident: How did I stumble onto Broadway? How did I stumble onto this TV show? And to do a show on top of that, it asked so much of my discipline and rigor that I was like, “OK, this is what I do.” And with that came a lot of responsibility and weight.

It’s not fun to talk about identity or race because you want to talk about art and the craft, but the reality was that I’d never seen myself as a lead on Broadway because I was like, “I’m not a ‘Miss Saigon’ person, so there’s no path for me there.” And I never thought I could be in a period piece on television because every version I’ve ever seen of that is incredibly offensive. And so that year, I was breaking down all these barriers that had been placed around me, carving my own path in a really real way.

Before you had those stage and screen roles, you spent a lot of time doing experimental theater. Do you think you were rejecting the mainstream because you thought it might reject you?

At the time when I was finishing school and living in New York, those roles were not available in the mainstream. And I had no interest in selling myself or just shrinking myself to an inappropriate cameo just so that I could say I added one more thing to my résumé. I remember in 2012, I went into a commercial audition and they were like, “OK, could you do it again, but with a more Asian accent?” And I said, “I’m so sorry, but this role is not for me. I don’t do that and I’m not interested in this part.”

I walked out and I was fuming. I sat next to this actor and asked him, “Did they ask you to do an accent?” He was Asian and spoke perfect English, and he was like, “Well, yeah.” And I’m like, “Did you do it?” And he said, “I have no other choice.” I understand that people want to make it and they only see one path and have to bend and fold to have a life in the arts, but I always thought if that’s how it’s going to go for me, then I’m going to work at a bar or in a wood shop. I have to make things that matter to me. Life is too short to completely dehumanize yourself.

When you came on board “Everything Everywhere,” did you think about how the movie would resonate for people who also don’t tend to see themselves onscreen?

I knew the movie was going to be special, but I had no idea it was going to do what it has done. And it’s been really healing for me to hear how many people have been affected by it. So many daughters and mothers have been coming to me crying, saying, “I saw myself in the movie,” or “My relationship with my mother is just like that.”

When you say that it’s been healing, what was it healing in you?

I don’t know if I could ever make this film again because at that point in my life, I had nothing to lose. There really were no eyes on me, so I got to bring everything I value as an artist into that role, and the affirmation I have received has validated that the wildness and imagination inside of me is really resonating with a large mass of people.

Your directors, Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, said this awards season has been emotional for the cast and crew. How have you experienced it?

At the Gotham Awards, [the “Tár” director] Todd Field said we have to eradicate the word “best” when we talk about how we value art, and I felt that so deeply. But also on the same evening, when Ke won best supporting actor, I stood up so fast and screamed so loud that I almost passed out. And then when we won best picture, I couldn’t believe it. I’m not sentimental about this kind of stuff and yet I could not stop crying onstage.

Why do you think you reacted that way?

Even as a kid with ideas, I just never thought it could be me up there with my friends, making something I believe in that is being celebrated. I remember sitting in front of a TV when Halle Berry won at the Oscars — the only woman of color who’s ever won best actress — and I don’t remember anyone else who won that night, but I remember that moment. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot, because I didn’t realize how much I had deleted the possibility from my mind that I could actually ever be a part of this industry in a real way, doing something that I value and love. So to get to be there and feel this big hug from our peers felt completely surreal.

I’m still processing all of it. I’m trying to allow myself to also feel vulnerable in this ride, because there are highs and there are definitely a lot of lows. I think the biggest thing I’ve been trying to balance is how to genuinely receive the goodness while not protecting myself too much that I can’t enjoy the ride. It’s a sweet, sweet moment that may never come again. But also, you can’t get attached to the sweetness, because then you start chasing something that’s not real.

Tell me more about those highs and lows.

After Jamie Lee Curtis saw the movie at South by Southwest, she took me aside and said, “This year is going to be a total roller coaster for you. Center yourself.” And I remember thinking, “Jamie, listen, I’m a grown-ass woman and I’ve been around the block. I know how to stay centered.” But as the year has unfolded, I’ve realized how little I knew about anything.

You have to hold onto your self-worth in such a profound way, and it’s hard, because it feels like other people’s opinions of you are going to affirm whether or not you get to keep making movies, which is such a crazy trap and also very real, right? But I’ve had to continue to remind myself that I got to this moment without anyone ever knowing anything about me, so it really is just all about the work.

And it’s work that people are responding to with a lot of passion.

Yeah, but this industry is weird. You have moments like the one we just had with Steve Buscemi, and then you also have moments where you walk on a carpet and people are like, “Lana Condor, Lana Condor!”

No! Did that happen?

It was just once, but it was very pronounced. In everybody’s defense, my mom also thinks I look like Lana Condor: She sent me a picture of Lana Condor a year ago and was like, “You look like this woman.” But after the Lana Condor thing happened, we were at a screening in New York, and a bunch of people kept going up to my publicist and the Daniels’ publicist, who are both Asian, and they were like, “Congratulations, your performance is incredible.” And they were like, “Huh?”

So listen, this ride is amazing, but that is real. We have not transcended this moment, right? James Hong [who plays Yeoh’s father] started acting at a time when people wouldn’t even say his name, they would literally just call him “Chinaman” and say “Get on your mark.” Michelle waited almost 40 years for her first chance of being No. 1 on the call sheet, and Ke left acting for [nearly] 20 years. As successful as this film has been, the biggest fear on the other side is “What if this is my last chance?”

How different are you now than you were a year ago?

The biggest thing I’ve learned from this past year is how to continue to show up for myself. This is not something I ever thought I would be in the conversation for, but I know I brought something to this project that is completely singular. Sometimes, things have made me want to just completely disappear into the background, but there are people who felt something in this character, people who are rooting for roles like this to exist, people who are rooting, also, for me to elbow more space or even just to stand here.

And so it really is the masses that have been continuing to push me forward to show up for myself. Because as confusing as all of this is, I am so proud of our movie and what I was able to bring to it, and proud for it to be my big introduction to what I believe art can or should be. Whether that is clean enough for people to digest, that’s a whole other story.

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