I usually don’t gawk about how much I love a film with an actor who is in the film. But with Everything Everywhere All at Once, A24’s surrealist comedy from directing duo Daniels, it was impossible not to. “This movie is perfect,” I told Stephanie Hsu, who plays Joy, along with her interdimensional alter ego Jobu Tupaki, in the film. “I love it too,” Hsu says with an exaggerated, stagelike voice. “But I will say that everyone loving it gives you a lot more permission to love it, too.”
Everything Everywhere All at Once follows the story of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a financially distressed laundromat owner given the chance to enter the multiverse by another version of her husband (Ke Huy Quan), where she explores different dimensions that represent alternate life paths. In one, she’s a kung fu movie star who never immigrated to America. In another, she’s the lover of her tax auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) in a universe where everyone has hot dogs for fingers. Evelyn must defeat an interdimensional supervillain force of chaos that is actually another version of her daughter Joy, called Jobu, who Hsu describes as “deeply wounded and beautifully explosive” – much like a mother-daughter relationship, which is what’s at the heart of the story.
“When you have your soul family, no matter where you go, no matter which dimension you go, no matter which lifetime, they’ll always be there in one form or another,” Hsu told NYLON. “Maybe in one universe, they’re your tax auditor and in another one they’re your lover, but we’re all swirling in the same cosmic chaos.”
The film marks the second feature from Daniels, the duo comprised of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are known for their uncategorizable debut Swiss Army Man, and for creating maximalist, beautiful mayhem music videos — including the mind-bending music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” video that I still remember crowding around someone’s laptop in a dorm room to watch. Their ability to create maximalist, beautiful mayhem, like eye candy that’s been split into a million glistening pieces is at its finest in Everything Everywhere All at Once is no exception. In one scene, Hsu is dressed like Elvis while walking a pig, the next moment she’s throwing around nunchucks, all with technicolor makeup and sequin-lined eyes.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is as touching as it is visually expansive. You’re sitting and watching two rocks communicate through typed text on the screen in one scene and you feel like you could burst into tears. Later, you’re watching Jamie Lee Curtis play piano with her toes or watching a raccoon manipulate the hands of a chef, Ratatouille-style, or an intricate martial arts scene that’s as stunning as it is silly, and for some reason, you feel deeply invested in everyone, wherever or whoever they are.
If you can’t tell already, this film is deeply weird – a weirdness that Hsu was drawn to the first time she worked with Daniels. She had acted in an episode of Norah From Queens where they blew a leaf blower into her face in order to get a shot where her cheeks wobbled in slow motion, and later that day poured an entire bucket of mud on her head. From that day on, she wanted to work with them no matter what the project was. So when she got on set, acting for the first time in front of masters like Yeoh and Curtis, she had the Daniels announce to the room that she was about to get weird – and it worked, culminating in a performance that is daring, absurdist and ultimately really touching.
“I really gave it my all because I feel like I got through the back door of Hollywood and ended up in this movie,” Hsu says. “The story of course between the mother and daughter felt close to home, so I wanted to surrender to the process and commit to the most honest, messy version of these characters and this relationship.”
How did you get involved in the film? What were your first impressions of this wild script?
It is one of my favorite stories to tell because it’s a love story. I met the Daniels while working on an episode of Norah From Queens. I was on a Broadway show show called Be More Chill and was shooting Season 3 of [The Marvelous Mrs.] Maisel at that same time and when both those things ended, I thought to myself: You know, before I leave New York, I think I have one more thing in me. Bowen Yang and I did comedy together in college and this was before he was on SNL and I was like, “I know Bowen is doing that show, I should probably do something stupid and silly on that show and so I got to do an episode.” It was Episode 108 and I met the Daniels and on the very first day, Dan Kwan had someone point a leaf blower at my face so that my cheeks would wobble in slow motion, and then at the end of the day, Daniel Scheinert got up on a ladder and dumped mud on me as part of the episode. It was written that way, but they did it their Daniel way, you know? I left and I was like, “I love these people so much, we are artistic soulmates and I’m going to follow them to LA because I know there are other creatives and weirdos like them who I have never met before who I just want to work with and make things with.”
Within a week of me getting to LA they called me and were like, “Hey this is really random, but we’re actually working on this movie, no pressure,” and before they even finished the sentence, I was like, “I will do anything with you guys, forever.” I had no idea Michelle Yeoh was attached; I had no idea it was A24. When I read the script, it was just, it still is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read in my life. It not only is so funny, but it manages to also hold the weight of this very tender family drama, while also having these big existentialist philosophical thoughts and those are all the things that I love in storytelling. It was crazy and it was nice because I'd already worked with them, so I could hear their voice and their sensibility on the page. I think it helped me understand their brain.
I’m curious about the process of pushing yourself as an actor in this role. How did you figure out how far to push it, or how weird to make it? How did the Daniels help with that?
They knew I was weird and I knew they were weird, so when we started rehearsing just a little bit, we worked on the hallway scene together or the introduction of Jobu and they would often give me the direction, “Okay just explode it. Do anything you want.” I would improvise a lot and all of a sudden I’d just throw something or start to sing or all this crazy stuff, so we really threw all the paint on the wall, because if she was an agent of chaos and nothing matters and anything is possible, then we have to know what anything and everything is. We really played with the maximalist version of Jobu, but then when we got to set, that was one of the first scenes we shot and that was one of the first scenes I shot with Michelle and I was like, “Oh my god, I'm about to unleash my freak and she's never seen me act before.”
Literally, the first thing I’m doing is walking out as Elvis exploding someone’s head and swinging nunchucks, so I made the Daniels announce to the room that I was about to get weird, so that I wouldn’t feel embarrassed at how crazy it was. It was also really important to us that Jobu, as crazy as she was, remain really grounded and that we weren't just doing weird stuff to do weird stuff, that it was coming from a place of profound nihilism and underneath all of that, a really big heart of joy. It was nice to continue to sort of, as we were filming, develop a shorthand and a texture of what these characters were. That is something that is not on the page, that is something that we brought to it together, and I brought to it, too.
It is that balance that feels really essential to why it’s so profound – and fun. It’s maximalist chaos, but there's a motivation for it.
For sure, and I feel like people, the more that I watch it, the more that I’m able to remove myself from the experience, so I kind of just get to start to see it. I think one of the film's greatest achievements is it's so unexpected; it takes you to so many places, to so many different universes, yet in every universe you’re invested in these characters and you don’t even quite know why, and that’s crazy.
“It was also really important to us that Jobu, as crazy as she was, remain really grounded and that we weren't just doing weird stuff to do weird stuff, that it was coming from a place of profound nihilism and underneath all of that, a really big heart of joy.”
What is for you at the heart of the film, underneath all the chaos and inter-dimensional exploration?
I feel like this movie helps us love our loved ones even harder, you know? Like that’s my favorite thing about the film. When you have your soul family, no matter where you go, no matter which dimension you go, no matter which lifetime, they’ll always be there in one form or another. Maybe in one universe, they’re your tax auditor and in another one they’re your lover, but we’re all swirling in the same cosmic chaos. I think we all could use a little help loving better right now and that’s why I want people to see it in theaters, because that communal catharsis with strangers is healing and we haven’t had that for a really long time. We haven’t had it with a movie as special as this one. Only art can touch us in the crevices and dark caverns of our soul, and we don’t know why, but it just happens. To be able to share that with a stranger, to be closer to some sort of pulse of humanity together is really transcendent, I think.
I read an interview where you were talking about ugly crying in the last scene and how you were surprised at how ugly the cry was. What was it like for you to tap into these emotions?
I think, for lack of a better term, that I was really in it during this process. I really gave it my all because I feel like I got through the back door of Hollywood and ended up in this movie, and beyond that, I couldn’t believe I was getting to work with friends on a story I love so much with a character who was so deeply wounded and also explosive at the same time. The story, of course, between the mother and daughter felt close to home, so I wanted to surrender to the process and commit to the most honest, messy version of these characters and this relationship. When I joke about the ugly crying, it’s because there was a lot of homework that was done. I understood the heartbeat of the story; there was a lot of crafting of the lead up to that scene, but once you get to to set, you just throw all that way and open your portals up and you just go. I think I was just shocked that I just let myself go like that. My only task was to give my all and I couldn’t possibly know how it was going to turn out at the end, so to see it now it feels sort of wild because I can see how much love is not only present for the character and the story, but also for this project and this film.
This cast is legendary. What was it like to work with everyone?
I feel like I walked onto set to a masterclass every single day, and not even just a masterclass of craft, but everyone led with such kindness and collaboration and play. I’ve been really reflecting on that recently, just remembering how much fun we all had, but how much fun these legends were having. It really taught me how lucky we are to get to do what we do. To get to tell stories, be joyful, work our asses off, and play. It’s meant to be play. To see Jamie like that, her character still just cracks me up beyond measure. I also learned funny tricks, like the first day Ke kept breaking and laughing at Jamie because she was so funny, so Jamie offered this tip: Anytime she finds herself laughing too much in a scene she’s not supposed to be laughing in, she takes her fingernail, or a staple or paperclip, and pushes it into her skin to stay focused. I’m a huge giggler, so I've really taken that with me. Everyone truly is a legend and I think they carry their legend-ness with immense grace and power and that is certainly something to aspire to.
This interview has been edited for clarity.